Southeast Asia 2023, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam
Written by Chet Yarbrough
Over Christmas 2022 and New Year’s 2023, America’s storied history in Southeast Asia is vivified in a 20-day trip to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
THAILAND BOAT TRIP
Chaopraya River in Bankok
Visting the Thompson house in Thailand is quite a treat. The mystery of Thompson’s disappearance remains unsolved but the tour through his custom home, built from sections of different houses, is a remarkable display of architectural ingenuity. As an architect, Thompson designed a unique house with tapered doors to each room. Every room is protected from evil spirits by traditional high wood partitions at the bottom of each entry door.
The mystery surrounding Thompson has to do with his background as a former CIA agent. Some suggest CIA association might have something to do with his disappearance. Others suggest he was kidnapped for ransom. Still others suggest he just got lost and was eaten by the jungle. His real story is about the beginning of the silk trade for which he became well known. In any case, his home is a monument to East Asian art and a fitting end to a well-lived life.
Recalling America’s war in Vietnam, one becomes reacquainted with America’s carpet bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trails. The trails extend through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Hearing of mid-20th century and Asia’s ancient history of Hinduism and Buddhism, some Southeastern Asia’ travelers will leave with a sense of guilt, shame, or sadness.
Feeling guilt comes from hubris in believing American Democracy is desired by all people of the world.
Sadness comes from the many Asian believers in non-violent Hindu’ and Buddhist’ teaching that are diminished by war.
The atrocity of war in Cambodia spits in the face of humanity. The Khmer Rouge gather together to enforce Pol Pot’s demented idea of forcing farmers to join communal farms under one leader’s bureaucratic control. Such an idea was tried and shown to be a failure by Mao in China. America supports Pol Pot’s genocidal attack on citizens who resisted Pol Pot’s forced indenture and relocation. 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians were murdered.
The Nixon/Kissinger administration supports Pol Pot in part because of their belief in the domino theory of communism (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand would become communist if one became communist).
The irony of America’s support of Pol Pot is that Vietnam’s communist army, not America, liberates Cambodia from Pol Pot’s atrocity.
The Nixon/Kissinger policy of Pol Pot support is compounded by America’s decision to carpet bomb the southern route of the Ho Chi Minh trail. America’s hope is to interrupt the communist takeover of Vietnam. Of course, this is taken out of the context of a sincere belief in the domino theory of one country falling to communism leading to more countries falling to the same fate.
To some Americans, the support of Pol Pot is justified because communism did gain some level of control of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. What seems clear is the southern part of Vietnam, and all of Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand have endorsed a form of communism. However, all four countries show a level of economic competition and prosperity that suggests capitalist influence exists in every sector of the economy.
No communist party in these four countries appear in complete control. All four governments seem more like a work in progress than an inevitable probability of either communism or democracy. Corruption is alleged in all four countries we visited but that is a refrain one hears in every form of government, including America.
A level of discontent is exhibited by a young college graduate in Thailand. He explains his ambition to become less controlled by government, with freedom of speech, and a right to pursue an independent career. Student protest is rising in Thailand.
The Hmong were recruited by the CIA during America’s Vietnam war. A few of the fighters were evacuated to American after the war, but many were left to fend for themselves. Laos is the least developed of the four countries visited on this trip. However, some small villages seem to have done well for their residents.
Our local guide suggests there is a threat to this rural life. An elevated train system has been built by China that crosses the river near this local community. China approached local residents with a proposal to relocate their village. China wishes to build a casino on their land for the entertainment of Chinese tourists.
On one of several village visits in Laos, we visit local artisans plying their trade.
Later, visiting the Cambodian “killing fields” one recognizes the atrocity citizens lived through. No thoughtful Cambodian would want to return to a Pol Pot authoritarian government. Cambodia’s monument to Pol Pot’s atrocity is a reminder of his misanthropic idea of an agricultural utopia.
The first two pictures are of a vertical tower filled with the skulls of the “killing field”, victims from Pol Pot’s reign of terror.
Southeast Asia is undoubtedly influenced by communism. However, resistance to authoritarianism is apparent in every nation we toured. What is striking in all four countries is the continued investment in ancient Hindu and new Buddhist temples. An equally surprising realization is that the younger generation places much less faith in these dominant religions than seems warranted by the investment.
In a dinner in Thailand with the son of our guide, the son explains he is 50/50 on belief in Buddhism. The inference one draws is that the value of investment in Hindu’ and Buddhist’ temples is for its tourism value more than belief in religious doctrine. On the other hand, one cannot discount a fundamental belief in these religions that have a “let be” attitude about life that offers a level of social stability beyond any government influence on life.
There is a sense of uneasiness in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia in regard to Vietnam encroachment. Vietnam seems the “big dog” in the kennel. Though our local guide in Vietnam believes there is no chance of war, there seems fear of invasion or dominance by a stronger, more experienced military in Vietnam than in the other peninsula countries we visited. However, the greater concern in all four countries seems to be the potential for domination by China. Though relations appear quiescent at the moment, the authoritarian character of China’s current leadership seems worthy of some concern. In Vietnam, our local guide, who is 30 years of age, explains neither he nor the older Vietnamese generation wish any war in Southeast Asia but express guarded concern about China’s intention.
The following pictures are of the seat of power in Ho Chi Minh city (formerly Saigon) Vietnam during the American war. It is now a museum showing the government offices and a bunker in the event of an attack.
All our guides in Southeast Asia were excellent. Our primary guide, Lucky, practiced for a short time as a novice monk. As a part of the tour, we were able to ask questions of a monk that exemplifies the resilience and strength of Buddhism and its teaching. Questions were answered with grace and intelligence that reinforce one’s un-schooled understanding of Buddhism and its place in world religions.
MONUMENTS TO THE HINDU AND BUDDHIST RELIGION THROUGHOUT SOUTHEAST ASIA.
And, of course, no one can leave Cambodia without a visit to Angkor Wat the largest religious monument in the world, built in the 12th century.
Many personal conversations with Lucky, our primary guide, gave insight to the strength of Buddhism and a way of life that eschews conflict and promotes peace. Lucky believes in the traditions of his Thailand upbringing with acceptance of things as they are with the hope that the traditions of his country will continue.
In a sense, Lucky is a royalist who believes in the importance of the blood line of royalty as a moral compass for the country. The many experiences we had on this brief trip suggest Lucky’s hope for a limited monarchy is possible but with reservation. History never repeats itself in the same way.