Unique Perspective on Obama's Luang Prabang Visit

It was November 1972 when two young Americans found their way to a then little-known cultural treasure in northern Laos that had been the center of a mighty kingdom centuries before. Following notes handwritten by an American Peace Corps volunteer, they discovered beautiful temples, a nearly abandoned royal palace, and a “secret” war underway in the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang.

On September 6, 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama’s Air Force One touched down at the same airport from which American gunships launched their clandestine nighttime attacks on soldiers of the Pathet Lao revolutionary group more than four decades before. Obama’s predecessors, Kennedy and Johnson, had consistently denied American involvement in this civil conflict. Obama was the first U.S. president to acknowledge what the two young Americans had seen in their three-day visit nearly 44 years earlier.

The JungleVine® Foundation, an Iowa, U.S.-based public charity, has a research retreat and the global headquarters for its mission in a teak wood forest less than 300 meters from where Obama stepped off his plane. What follows is a unique perspective of Obama’s historic visit in the context of what the two young Americans had experienced on their adventure years earlier. It is made possible because of the Foundation’s presence at the airport, which gave access to close-up views of the logistics involved in bringing the first visit of an American president.

Obama’s plan to meet with Asian leaders in the Lao capital Vientiane was widely known for months in advance. Today, Vientiane is a half-hour flight, an 8- to 12-hour car or bus ride, or a 2- to 3-day boat ride on the mighty Mekong River from Luang Prabang. Because there was no road in 1972 and the Pathet Lao controlled the river corridor, the young Americans used the daily Royal Air Lao flight of a seasoned Lockheed Electra to travel over the mountainous tree-covered terrain. They saw frequent small lakes in the flatter areas—bomb craters that had filled with water.

The first indications that Obama would make a journey to Luang Prabang were the appearance of unusual guests at the eco-friendly Luang Prabang View Hotel in late August. Muscular, English-speaking young men with short military-like haircuts frequently lounged around the sky pool and worked out in the gym. Although Luang Prabang attracts large numbers of diverse visitors, these guys stood out from ordinary tourists.

Shortly thereafter, locals began posting on Facebook, mentioning the possibility of a visit from the U.S. president. At a boat racing festival on the Nam River, local air traffic controllers said they had been told Obama would be coming to Luang Prabang and that they would be assisted on the job by an American.

Then, shortly after 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 27, the largest aircraft ever seen near the ground in northern Laos made a hard-to-miss, seemingly slow approach from the west, directly over the town, its four large engines roaring and landing lights blazing. It was a C-17, the second largest cargo carrier in the U.S. Air Force fleet. Several hours later, its take-off to the west over streets filled with students going home from school was even more striking. Although Laotians are not easily excited, the arrival and departure of that first C-17 brought lots of excitement all over Luang Prabang.


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