Two Years In Laos

Larry Schwandes

© Copyright 2023 by Larry Schwandes

Baha'i World Center in Haifa..  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Baha'i World Center in Haifa..  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I graduated from college in 1965. The war in Vietnam was going on. I was fortunate. Two circumstances helped me avoid being drafted. The first one was industrial deferments given to Dow Chemical Company employees. This is the company I worked for from 1965 to 1967. Becoming a teacher in 1968 at the age of 25 was the second reason. When one reached the age of 24 a person was no longer “draftable”. So, it may seem strange to volunteer to go to a country involved in the war. But at the age of 29 and wanting to get away from my parents it was time for a new adventure.

I moved to Florida from Michigan in 1972 to be near relatives. My sister was married with two children living in Boca Raton. My parents were senior citizens living alone in Pompano Beach. After finding my own place it was time to look for a job. With two college degrees it was difficult to find a position. Over qualification was the reason. Eventually my applications listed only one degree. Therefore, jobs were found as a night clerk in a motel, as an exterminator in a pest control company and with an electrical and plumbing supply company as a salesman.

One day the American Baha’i magazine arrived. All my family are members the Baha’i Faith. It is a relatively new world religion that originated in Iran in 1863. Its main teachings are the oneness of mankind, the oneness of God and the oneness of religion. The magazine listed possible technical positions overseas. The challenge sounded interesting. The jobs were in different countries. My chemistry background seemed useful. A decision to get information was made. A few weeks later a large envelope arrived with information about the country of Laos. The senders said that they were glad that I had decided to go to Laos. The idea seemed premature and laughable. I told my parents and my friends. However, after a few weeks passed the trip to Laos seemed like a real adventure. I decided to go.

My parents were shocked. The war in Vietnam and Laos was still going on. It was a dangerous place. They did not try to change my mind, however. On the day I left, my mother and I drove to the airport. She cried. I reassured her that things would be alright.

I flew to Wisconsin which is my home State. I had a wish to visit Waukesha where I stayed while going to college. My residence had been with my mother’s cousin. The Baha’i community welcomed me with open arms and were impressed with my decision. They assured me of their sincere prayers for my adventure.

The trip to Laos began in December 1972. Training for this overseas assignment was given at an institute at the Baha’i Temple in snowy Wilmette, Illinois. The training only lasted two days. I had to manage the snow with no boots. The next two years no snow would be in sight.

The plan was to fly from Chicago to Vientiane, Laos in one long trip. I was not looking forward to that ride. However, bad weather in Chicago caused the plane to be late. I missed the connection in Los Angeles and an overnight stay was needed. The next day my flight was to Tokyo where I missed another plane. An overnight stay in a beautiful Japanese hotel resulted. My next leg was to fly to Hong Kong. The trip was safe and sound but the connecting flight to Laos was missed. In three days, there would be a flight to Laos. I was happy that the journey to Hong Kong had involved many shorter flights. There was less stress involved. Flying was not my favorite activity.

Being a former British colony Hong Kong had many people who spoke English. Help was needed. The location of the Baha’i Center was well known. A taxi ride resulted. A friendly Chinese Baha’i welcomed me. Happy to be of service he offered a room at no cost in the Baha’i Center.

Hong Kong is a beautiful and interesting city. I enjoyed my stay. The visited consisted of a walking tour. Finally, on the third day a plane was boarded for Laos.

Arriving in Vientiane, Laos no one was at the airport. Arrival was expected one week before. Fortunately, a taxi driver knew where the Baha’i Center was. It was not too far. Off we went. At the Center, a meeting was going on. An American with his bags showed up at the door much to everyone’s surprise. When they realized who I was, it was a happy occasion.

Vientiane is the largest city in Laos. It is on the Mekong River which runs along the western boundary. The river separates Laos from Thailand. The country on the east side is Vietnam. Most of the important Laotian cities are on the river.

The Baha’i Community in Vientiane was a mixture of people. There were at least three Iranian families. Some single people were from the Philipines. One young man was from Malaysia. Another young man was from Iran.

One of the Iranian families offered to have me stay with them for two weeks. They had been in Laos for a few years and knew the language and culture. They had three children. Some of the older ones could speak Persian, English and Lao. The family lived in the city. Life was comparatively easy. They had electricity and running water. There was a shower in the house but there was no hot water. It was quite a challenge to take a cold shower. It felt great when you got out.

After two weeks I was told that I would be living in Savannakhet, which means “heavenly city” in Lao. There was a Baha’i Center there and a Lao American Association where I could teach English. The city was south of Vientiane, and on the Mekong River. I flew there. When I arrived in the city, off to the Baha’i Center I went. It was a wooden building on stilts. It had a large meeting room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. There was no furniture in the meeting room, simple beds in the bedrooms, and nothing in the kitchen. The bathroom had a large water jar in the corner sitting on a cement floor. The toilet was a slit in the floor at one end. I did not like the toilet so it was replaced with a wooden box with a slit that one could sit on. In the kitchen I bought a simple one burner kerosene camp stove. It was the only stove used in two years. Under the center was a drum that held well water which came in a hose from a nearby well. The building had electricity with electric lights. The bedrooms had a simple bed with a two-inch thick cotton mattress. There was a mosquito net above the bed. One could catch malaria from mosquitoes.

When I looked out one window, I could see a rice field with a man plowing with a water buffalo. Next to the rice field was a road. In the morning at sunrise Buddhist monks in orange robes would walk down in a single file. On the side of the road women knelt, heads bowed, with rice in bowls. When the monks passed, they placed cooked rice and food in the bowls of the monks. Out the back window I could see a beautiful and ornate Buddhist temple. In the back of the temple bodies were sometimes burned. I reflected that I had made a drastic change in my life and wondered how things would turn out. It was all a little frightening.

For a few weeks Kanabran, a Baha’i from Malaysia, stayed with me. He was fluent in the Lao language. I started to learn to speak Lao and imitated the sounds. I had to make up my own phonetic system on paper. It was a slow process. The most important thing to learn first was the numbers because when you go to the market you need to know how much something costs. The skill to barter is needed. There was an open-air market every morning. It was excellent and had a good selection of vegetables, meat, and fruit. There also was tasty French bread. Laos was ruled by the French for a long time and the locals had learned how to make bread. Bread was often for breakfast. In the morning I would buy things for lunch and make enough for dinner as well. There was no refrigerator or cooler.

The latitude of Laos and Florida are similar. Therefore, the fruit trees of both places are also similar. In Laos, I discovered jack fruit, lychees, rambutan, and star apples. These fruits were all sold in the market. All these plants grow in South Florida.

After settling in at the Center I went to the Lao American Association. The wife of an American CIA person was in charge. I told her I was in Laos for probably two years and wanted to teach English. She offered me a job on the spot. They like to have native speakers. Teaching book1 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday would be my new job. Twenty five U.S. dollars was my salary per month paid in the local currency. For a local person this was a good salary. Fortunately, I had no rent to pay at the center. Food was the main expense. In addition, my mother sent a $25 check each month. For two years my income was $50 per month. In fact, the return flight to the U.S. was paid for by my parents.

The director of the Lao American Association told me about the American Club in Savannakhet. It was set up by the C.I.A. since there were many American military people in Laos. Since I was an American it was open to me and few days later, I went to visit.
It was a nice place with AC, with friendly people, and American food. I felt like I was back home in the U.S. One popular American man was most friendly, and he was married to a local Lao. We met and had an interesting conversation. I told him about the Baha’i Faith and its teachings about the oneness of mankind and eventual world peace. Sadly, he was not interested. Later in the day I met a true “ugly American”. He had been in Laos for years and worked for the C.I.A. He told me that he could count to ten in Lao and that is all he knew. The Faith was mentioned, and he was interested much to my surprise. He asked a lot of questions and seemed to be impressed. Unfortunately, I never saw him again. However, a few weeks later his son and I met. He mentioned that his father had met me and was really impressed with the Faith.

I only visited American Club two or three times in the two years in Laos.

My new job started at the Lao American Association on Monday. The class went well. The students were respectful and enthusiastic. Sometimes they would visit me at the center to practice their English. English teachers are tolerant of students making mistakes when they speak. Moreover, French teachers are not so tolerant, and students have more fear when they speak French. Laos was part of French Indo China for 10 years, so there were still French schools around.

I befriended a local policeman. His name was Boun Nhang Phouthavong. He knew English and wanted to learn more. His wife and children were introduced to me. His wife was from Thailand. He came to the center frequently. After a few months I learned how to make peanut butter using a mortar pestle and vegetable oil. Peanut butter was presented to Boun Nhang, and he loved it.

I learned to eat the local food. There was available Lao, Chinese and French food. The Lao people like to eat sticky rice. You eat it with your hands. You roll it in a ball and then dip the ball into meat sauces. To this day I still love to eat sticky rice. The French food was served in some expensive restaurants. There was Chinese street food. The street venders sold delicious roasted pork. You ate it with a dip made from soy sauce and sugar. It was so good and so cheap. My favorite Lao dish was pounded papaya. It is made with shredded green papaya, fish sauce, lemon juice, hot pepper, sugar and peanuts. It is made with a mortar and pestle and it is eaten with sticky rice.

As the months rolled passed, I learned to make American food. It was easy to make pancakes with flour and eggs. Syrup was made using brown sugar from the market. Roasted peanuts were sold in the market and peanut butter could be made with a mortar and pestle. Ground beef could be made by buying beef and adding a little pork meat. The meat was processed with a meat cleaver on a cutting board.

On the weekends I would visit local villages. Travel was by bus. A local Laotian Baha’i would travel with me. We would meet with the chief of the village and tell him about the Baha’i Faith. The first few weeks I could not understand a word and sat listening for hours. Often the chief was friendly and would offer food and lodging for the night. We would try to visit the same village on a regular basis, about once a month.

On the weekend my students from the Lao American Association would come and visit me. They liked to practice their English and we had a friendly relationship.

One Sunday three Buddhist monks came to the center. They could speak English and wanted to learn more. They wondered if I would teach them on Sunday afternoons. They were told that I was willing and would do it at no cost. So, every Sunday afternoon three robed monks would visit.

As the weeks passed, I slowly picked up new words and could manage a simple conversation. One day in the post office there was a line where people were buying stamps. I was in the line. Next to me was a man from Japan. Japan has an organization similar to the U.S. Peace Corps and he was part of that effort. We tried talking in English, but his vocabulary was limited. We next switched to Lao and we were able to carry on a simple conversation. We were a strange sight. Two foreigners were speaking Lao. It demonstrated the power of language.

My best Lao friend was a policeman. He asked me if I would teach English to the other policemen in his department. There would be a class at the police station. A class was offered, and no fee was charged. Little did I know that in a few weeks I would be back in the police station as a prisoner.

A camera was borrowed from a Chinese student, and I kept it for a week. Pictures were taken in the Baha’i Center and at the language institute. One photo included my students from the Lao American Association.
The camera was stored in my back bedroom. Next to that bedroom was another bedroom. Next to the second bedroom was the bathroom. There were locked doors on the bedrooms.

One day I came home and went into my bedroom. Someone had broken through the wooden walls to get in and had taken the camera. The thief had started in the bathroom and went through all the walls between the bathroom and my room.

I suspected that one of my students had taken the camera. He knew my schedule and I assumed planned to get the camera when I was gone. The possible thief was a student at the language institute. At the end of one class I decided to follow the suspected student home. At his home which was not locked I walked in and looked around to see if the camera was in sight. It was not. However, the student was home and saw me. I grabbed him by the shirt and suggested that he took my camera. He did not confess. However, in a few minutes the local police showed up and arrested me for assault. They took me to the police station.

The police were very surprised to see me. They knew I would have to stay a few days. They let me stay in the guard house instead of the prison. Luckily, the stay was just one night.

The next day a court hearing was held. Probably the head of the Lao American Association heard of my situation and put pressure on the local authorities for a speedy trial. My Lao speaking ability was not good enough to follow the proceedings, but a friend translated. The fine was $70. The head of the Lao American Association paid it. I was free to leave. I didn’t have the money at the time and otherwise I would have had to stay locked up.

There were several teachers in Savannakhet. They taught in local high schools. Some schools were conducted in French since Laos was a former part of French Indo China. Some schools were taught in English sponsored by the U.S. There were American teachers, British teachers and French teachers. Sometimes all of them would get together socially. There were breaks in the school year for holidays when teachers would travel. Thailand was across the river and Bangkok was just a bus ride away. From Bangkok one could go south to Malaysia.

During my first vacation period I decided to go to Bangkok. One could take a boat across the Mekong River and catch a bus on the other side. Thailand had good buses and roads. Its economy was strong. There were one or two U.S. military bases in Thailand. This probably helped the economy. Thailand is also much bigger than Laos and its agriculture is more diverse. The Lao language and the Thai language are similar, so communication was not a problem.

One of the main attractions in Bangkok is the emerald Buddha which is housed a beautiful temple. It is a small statue about 26 inches tall. It came from Laos. Laos and Thailand had a war many decades ago and Thailand won. They took the emerald Buddha back to Thailand. Some Laotians believe the reason Laos is so poor is because the statue was stolen.

In Bangkok I found the Baha’i Center. There were Iranian Bahais there. It was fun to get to know each other.

During another vacation period I decided to go to Bangkok and then to Penang, Malaysia. It was by bus to Bangkok and by train to Penang. A couple of British teachers decided to do the same trip and we went together.

The ride to Penang was by train and was a 24-hour ride. There was a dining car on the train where one could meet other people. Since Malaysia had a previous relationship with England many people in Malaysia speak English. Conversations in the dining car were interesting.

I decided to get a bunk for sleeping since the ride was a long one. A top bunk was chosen. The train wobbled from side to side and sleep was not easy.

In the morning we arrived at the border of Thailand and Malaysia. I showed my passport. That was okay. However, they required people to have a minimum of $100 in U.S. dollars for entry. I only had $50 and so they would not allow me to enter. I would have to get back on the train and go back to Bangkok. Then I remembered one British friend. We had gotten separated, but I was able to find him. He was able to lend me $50. Back to the immigration officer I went, and entrance was granted.
In Penang I looked up the Baha’i Center and took a taxi there. They were not expecting me but welcomed me anyway. A stay of a few days was okay. A tour was taken of the city and the only thing I remember is a Buddhist temple that had snakes in it.

One Christmas vacation there was a Baha’i conference in Luang Prabang which is the capitol of Laos. The conference was primarily for young people. A decision was made to take one of our local students. We flew from Savannakhet to Vientiane. In Vientiane, the committee decided to rent a flat-bed truck and drive up to Luang Prabang with young people sitting on the flat bed. A few could also sit in the cab of the truck.

It was December and the capitol is in the north and in the mountains. The trip would take a few hours. Nevertheless, we confidently headed north. As we proceeded, it got colder and colder due to the winter season, and the fact we were getting into the mountains. In addition, the sun was setting. It was getting very cold on the flat bed of the truck. People began to suffer. People tried to huddle together. Songs were sung to help forget about the cold. I was with them wearing a sweater with a jacket over it. The cold was very penetrating, and it was bad. It got so bad I broke down and cried. Somehow the crying warmed me up. Somehow, we eventually made it to the capitol.

It was a weekend conference. It was a so-so event. When the sun was up the temperature was okay. When the sun went down it was very cold. I had brought a sleeping bag. It was so cold at night my young friend and I ended up sleeping in the same bag. After the conference we managed to go home on the same truck and did not suffer.

When we arrived back in Vientiane there was a sad report. People who lived at the Baha’i Center were missing some personal items. They had been hidden by a thief and then they had been found. The stolen items had been taken by the young man that I had traveled with. We had a difficult discussion. He was embarrassed. He did not say much. The next day he disappeared. How he got back home I do not know. He may have taken a boat down the Mekong.

The war in Laos was on the eastern border. In the west life went on normally. In Vietnam, the communists were known as Vietcong and in Laos they were called Pathet Lao. Over the two years the Pathet Lao made progress in taking over the country. In January 1975 I had been in Laos two years which was my commitment. Accordingly, I decided to leave. Living on $50 per month for two years there was not enough money to buy a plane ticket home. My parents sent me a ticket. My mother had an idea. Maybe instead of flying east I should fly west and stop for a pilgrimage in Haifa, Israel. Haifa is the international center of the Baha’i Faith. Laos was halfway around the world from Florida. I would complete a trip around the world.
The Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel was contacted about permission to do a pilgrimage. Since I was living in Laos and few people come from there, they gave me permission.

One month after I left Laos the city of Savannakhet fell to the Pathet Lao. All the teachers from other parts of the world were informed that they should leave quickly since the Pathet Lao were nearby. They each were able to take just one suitcase and board a military plane supplied by the U.S. government. They all flew out together.

In Haifa I found myself feeling like a tourist and not a pilgrim. My ego was inflated due to my two-year service in Laos. This was mentioned to my pilgrim friends and it increased my ego. I enjoyed seeing the Baha’i sites, but my spirit was not affected.
One of the pilgrims was a young man from Canada. We became friends. He mentioned that he wanted to sneak off to see Jerusalem. There were buses we could take, and we decided to do it. It was a great adventure.

There is the old walled city and the new one that is not walled. The walled city has different gates to go through and it is divided into sections. They are the Jewish section, the Christian section, and the Muslim section. It is very enchanting walking through the streets. We got to see the Western Wall of the Jews, the Dome of the Rock of the Muslims and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher of the Christians. One could stand on a high point in the city and see all three holy places. It was a great day.
When I arrived in Israel and stayed for a few days I felt comfortable there. It did not seem like a foreign country. It is like the spiritual home of mankind.

After my pilgrimage I flew back to the U.S. My plane landed in West Palm Beach airport and my dad’s cousin and my mother had driven up to the airport. In two years, my only communications were by letters. We had not talked on the phone either. My mother saw me and gave a me a big hug.

When the Pathet Lao took over Savannakhet many of the local Lao people were put in prison. These prisoners were known to have worked with the CIA and the U.S. war effort. My friend Boun Nhang with his family ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand. He sent me a letter from there. We corresponded for a few months. One day I decided to send him a check to help with his family. It was a substantial amount.

He and his family eventually got sponsored by the Mormon Church and they were sent to Seattle, Washington. His wife was a serious Mormon. He never said much about religion.

After a few years, I decided to go and visit Boun Nhang, and his family in Seattle. I flew up from Florida. They gave me a very warm reception. It was great to see the family again.

The adventure in Laos was a very good experience for me. Now when I meet people from other countries who are in the U.S., I can identify with them.
There were many special experiences during those two years. The most meaningful took place after six months. By then I could carry on a simple conversation in the Lao language. I found the people friendly, and their culture fascinating. An epiphany occurred when I realized that people around the world are more alike than different. In fact, the earth really is one country and mankind one family.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on November 21, 1943.
 Bachelor of Chemistry 1965 University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee. Master of Science 1967 Delta State College, Cleveland Mississippi.
Scientific Publications
R. Subramanya and L. Schwandes, 1984, Invitro propagation of escarole from leaf explants. Hortscience
L. Schwandes and M. Collins, 1994 Distribution and significance of freshwater sponge spicules in selected Florida soils. Trans. Amer. Micro. Soc. 

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