The first rattle of the machine guns , at 7:10 in the evening , roused around me the varied voices and faces of fear .
`` Sounds exactly like last time '' .
The young man spoke steadily enough , but all at once he looked grotesquely unshaven .
The middle-aged man said over and over , `` Why did I come here , why did I come here '' .
Then he was sick .
Amid the crackle of small arms and automatic weapons , I heard the thumping of mortars .
Then the lights went out .
This was my second day in Vientiane , the administrative capital of Laos , and my thoughts were none too brave .
Where was my flashlight ? ?
Where should I go ? ?
To my room ? ?
Better stay in the hotel lobby , where the walls looked good and thick .
Chinese and Indian merchants across the street were slamming their steel shutters .
Hotel attendants pulled parked bicycles into the lobby .
A woman with a small boy slipped in between them .
`` Please '' , she said , `` please '' .
She held out her hand to show that she had money .
The American newspaperman worried about getting to the cable office .
But what was the story ? ?
Had the Communist-led Pathet Lao finally come this far ? ?
Or was it another revolt inside Vientiane ? ?
`` Let's play hero '' , I said .
`` Let's go to the roof and see '' .
Gunfire saves the moon
By 7:50 the answer was plain .
There had been an eclipse of the moon .
A traditional Lao explanation is that the moon was being swallowed by a toad , and the remedy was to make all possible noise , ideally with firearms .
The din was successful , too , for just before the moon disappeared , the frightened toad had begun to spit it out again , which meant good luck all around .
How quaint it all seemed the next day .
A restaurant posted a reminder to patrons `` who became excited and left without paying their checks '' .
But everyone I met had sought cover first and asked questions later .
And no wonder , for Vientiane , the old City of Sandalwood , had become the City of Bullet Holes .
I saw holes in planes at the airport and in cars in the streets .
Along the main thoroughfares hardly a house had not been peppered .
In place of the police headquarters was a new square filled with rubble .
Mortars had demolished the defense ministry and set fire to the American Embassy next door .
What had been the ambassador's suite was now jagged walls of blackened brick .
This damage had been done in the battle of Vientiane , fought less than three months earlier when four successive governments had ruled here in three days ( December 9-11 , 1960 ) .
And now , in March , all Laos suffered a state of siege .
The Pathet Lao forces held two northern provinces and openly took the offensive in three more .
Throughout the land their hit-and-run terrorists spread fear of ambush and death .
`` And it's all the more tragic because it's so little deserved '' , said Mr. J. J. A. Frans , a Belgian official of the United Nations Educational , Scientific , and Cultural Organization .
We talked after I hailed his Jeep marked with the U.N. flag .
Practically all the people of Laos , he explained -- about two million of them -- are rice farmers , and the means and motives of modern war are as strange to them as clocks and steel plows .
They look after their fields and children and water buffaloes in ten or eleven thousand villages , with an average of 200 souls .
Nobody can tell more closely how many villages there are .
They spread over an area no larger than Oregon ; ;
yet they include peoples as different from one another as Oregonians are from Patagonians .
Life must be kept in harmony
What matters here is family loyalty ; ;
faith in the Buddha and staying at peace with the phis , the spirits ; ;
and to live in harmony with nature '' .
Harmony in Laos ? ?
`` Precisely '' , said Mr. Frans .
He spoke of the season of dryness and dust , brought by the monsoon from the northeast , in harmony with the season of rain and mud , brought by the monsoon from the southwest .
The slim pirogues in harmony with the majestically meandering Mekong River .
Shy , slender-waisted girls at the loom in harmony with the frangipani by the wayside .
Even life in harmony with death .
For so long as death was not violent , it was natural and to be welcomed , making a funeral a feast .
To many a Frenchman -- they came 95 years ago , colonized , and stayed until Laos became independent in 1953 -- the land had been even more delightfully tranquil than Tahiti .
Yet Laos was now one of the most explosive headaches of statesmen around the globe .
The Pathet Lao , stiffened by Communist Veterans from neighboring North Viet Nam , were supplied by Soviet aircraft .
The Royal Lao Army , on the other hand , was paid and equipped with American funds .
In six years , U.S. aid had amounted to more than $1.60 for each American -- a total of three hundred million dollars .
We were there at a moment when the situation in Laos threatened to ignite another war among the world's giants .
Even if it did not , how would this little world of gentle people cope with its new reality of grenades and submachine guns ? ?
To find out , we traveled throughout that part of Laos still nominally controlled , in the daytime at least , by the Royal Lao Army : from Attopeu , the City of Buffalo Dung in the southeast , to Muong Sing , the City of Lions in the northwest , close to Communist China ( map , page 250 ) .
We rode over roads so rough that our Jeep came to rest atop the soil between ruts , all four wheels spinning uselessly .
We flew in rickety planes so overloaded that we wondered why they didn't crash .
In the end we ran into Communist artillery fire .
`` We '' were Bill Garrett of the National Geographic Illustrations Staff , whose three cameras and eight lenses made him look as formidable as any fighting man we met ; ;
Boun My , our interpreter ; ;
and myself .
Boun My -- the name means one who has a boun , a celebration , and is therefore lucky -- was born in Savannakhet , the Border of Paradise .
He had attended three universities in the United States .
But he had never seen the mountainous half of his native land north of Vientiane , including the royal capital , Luang Prabang .
Before the airplanes came , he said , travel in Laos was just about impossible .
Prime minister moves fast
Alas , so it almost proved for us , too .
To go outside the few cities required permits .
And getting them seemed a life's work .
Nobody wanted Americans to be hurt or captured , and few soldiers could be spared as escorts .
We were told that to the Pathet Lao , a kidnaped American was worth at least $750 , a fortune in Laos .
Everyone had heard of the American contractor who had spurned an escort .
Now Pathet Lao propagandists were reported marching him barefoot from village to village , as evidence of evil American intervention .
Although we enjoyed our rounds of the government offices in Vientiane , with officials offering tea and pleasing conversation in French , we were getting nowhere .
We had nearly decided that all the tales of Lao lethargy must be true , when we were invited to take a trip with the Prime Minister .
Could we be ready in 15 minutes ? ?
His Highness had decided only two hours ago to go out of town , and he was eager to be off .
Prince wears ten-gallon hat
And so , after a flight southeast to Savannakhet , we found ourselves bouncing along in a Jeep right behind the Land-Rover of Prince Boun Oum of Champassak , a tall man of Churchillian mien in a bush jacket and a ten-gallon hat from Texas .
From his shoulder bag peeked the seven-inch barrel of a Luger .
The temperature rose to 105-degrees .
With our company of soldiers , we made one long column of reddish dust .
In Keng Kok , the City of Silkworms , the Prime Minister bought fried chickens and fried cicadas , and two notebooks for me .
Then we drove on , until there was no more road and we traversed dry rice fields , bouncing across their squat earth walls .
It was a spleen-crushing day .
An hour of bouncing , a brief stop in a village to inspect a new school or dispensary .
More bouncing , another stop , a new house for teachers , a new well .
Then off again , rushing to keep up .
We were miserable .
But our two Jeep mates -- Keo Viphakone from Luang Prabang and John Cool from Beaver , Pennsylvania -- were beaming under their coatings of dust .
Together they had probably done more than any other men to help push Laos toward the 20th century -- constructively .
Mr. Keo , once a diplomat in Paris and Washington , was Commissioner of Rural Affairs .
John , an engineer and anthropologist with a doctorate from the London School of Economics , headed the rural development division of USOM , the United States Operations Mission administering U.S. aid .
`` What you see are self-help projects '' , John said .
`` We ask the people what they want , and they supply the labor .
We send shovels , cement , nails , and corrugated iron for roofs .
That way they have an infirmary for $400 .
We have 2,500 such projects , and they add up to a lot more than just roads and wells and schools .
Ask Mr. Keo '' .
Mr. Keo agreed .
`` Our people have been used to accepting things as they found them '' , he said .
`` Where there was no road , they lived without one .
Now they learn that men can change their surroundings , through their traditional village elders , without violence .
That's a big step toward a modern state .
You might say we are in the nation-building business '' .
In the villages people lined up to give us flowers .
Then came coconuts , eggs , and rice wine .
The Prime Minister paid his respects to the Buddhist monks , strode rapidly among the houses , joked with the local soldiery , and made a speech .
The soldiers are fighting and the Americans are helping , he said , but in the fight against the Pathet Lao the key factor is the villager himself .
Then we were off again .
We did it for three days .
But our stumping tour of the south wasn't all misery .
Crossing the 4,000-foot width of the Mekong at Champassak , on a raft with an outboard motor , we took off our dusty shirts and enjoyed a veritable ocean breeze .
Then we hung overboard in the water .
Briefly we rolled over a paved road up to Pak Song , on the cool Bolovens Plateau .
The Prince visited the hospital of Operation Brotherhood , supported by the Junior Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines , and fed rice to two pet elephants he kept at his residence at Pak Song .
Strings keep souls in place
In the village of Soukhouma , which means `` Peaceful '' , we had a baci .
This is the most endearing of Lao ceremonies .
It takes place in the household , a rite of well-wishing for myriad occasions -- for the traveler , a wedding , a newborn child , the sick , the New Year , for any good purpose .
The preparations were elaborate : flowers , candles , incense sticks , rice wine , dozens of delicacies , and pieces of white cotton string .
The strings were draped around flowers in tall silver bowls ( page 261 ) .
The candles were lighted , and we sat on split-bamboo mats among the village notables .
I was careful to keep my feet , the seat of the least worthy spirits , from pointing at anyone's head , where the worthiest spirits reside .
Now a distinguished old man called on nine divinities to come and join us .
Next he addressed himself to our souls .
A man has 32 souls , one for each part of the body .
Those souls like to wander off , and must be called back .
With the divinities present and our souls in place , we were wished health , happiness , and power .
Then , one after another , the villagers tied the waiting cotton strings around our wrists .
These were to be kept on , to hold in the 32 souls .
As we stepped out into the sunlight , a man came up to John Cool and silently showed him his hand .
It had a festering hole as big as a silver dollar .
We could see maggots moving .
John said : `` I have some antiseptic salve with me , but it's too late for that '' .