LUANG PRABANG, Laos (AP) — Aiming to cement closer ties to Laos and its people, President Barack Obama toured a Buddhist temple Wednesday and paid tribute to Lao culture after pledging the U.S. would fulfill its “profound moral and humanitarian obligation” to clean up millions of unexploded bombs.
Obama’s visit to Luang Prabang in mountainous northern Laos showcased a rich cultural and religious heritage that many in the West know little about. A UNESCO World Heritage List site along the Mekong River, the city was a hub for Buddhist faith during the Lan Xang kingdom starting in the 14th century.
Obama received a low-key reception after stepping off of Air Force One and as his motorcade snaked along a dusty, paved road through town. A small cluster of people waved from shops and open air cafes, recording the spectacle on their cellphones.
His first stop was Wat Xieng Thong, a 16th century complex of ornate gold buildings known as the “Temple of the Golden City.” In shirt sleeves and black socks, Obama looked in awe at a large golden ship adorned at the bow with dragons, staring straight at the dragon’s mouth.
“It’s gorgeous,” he said as he examined a line of golden statues.
Greeting the temple monks, Obama tried to shake hands with about 20 boys in bright orange robes, but was informed by his guide they weren’t supposed to. Instead, he posed for a photo before buying gifts for daughters Sasha and Malia at an open-air shop and sipping from a coconut.
Shining a spotlight on foreign cultures has become a signature element of Obama’s diplomacy. Taking questions later from young Southeast Asians at a town hall-style event, Obama said the U.S. could be a great force for good but has been constrained by the fact that many Americans know too little about other countries.
“If you are the United States, sometimes you can feel lazy and think, you know, we’re so big, we don’t really have to know anything about other people,” Obama said. “That’s part of what I’m trying to change.”
For Obama, the visit served as a capstone to his yearslong effort to bolster relations with Southeast Asian countries long overlooked by the United States. The outreach is a core element of his attempt to shift U.S. diplomatic and military resources away from the Middle East and to Asia in order to counter China in the region and ensure a U.S. foothold in growing markets.
On this first visit by a sitting American president, Obama has placed a particular emphasis on trying to heal wounds inflicted by the secret war the U.S. waged here as part of the broader Vietnam War.
Acknowledging the dark aftershocks of the U.S. aerial bombardment, Obama paid tribute Wednesday to survivors maimed by some 80 million unexploded bombs America dropped, and said the U.S. will do more to help to finally clean them up.
Touring a rehabilitation center in Vientiane, the capital, Obama touted his administration’s move to double spending on ordinance cleanup to roughly $90 million over three years.
“For the last four decades, Laotians have continued to live under the shadow of war,” Obama said. “The war did not end when the bombs stopped falling.”
Some 20,000 people have been killed or wounded since the war ended, Obama said after viewing displays of small rusted grenades and photos of a child missing his foot. He insisted those were “not just statistics,” but reminders of the heavy toll inflicted by war – “some of them unintended.”
“I’m inspired by you,” he told one survivor, Thoummy Silamphan, who uses a prosthetic after losing a hand to one of the bombs.
The president did not come to apologize. Instead, he said he hoped the strengthened partnership on clearing the bombs could mark a “decisive step forward” between the U.S. and this landlocked communist nation.
Thanks to global cleanup efforts, casualties from tennis ball-sized “bombies” that still litter the Laotian countryside have plummeted from hundreds to dozens per year. But aid groups say far more help is needed. Of all the provinces in landlocked Laos, only one has a comprehensive system to care for bomb survivors.
The punishing air campaign on Laos was an effort to cut off communist forces in neighboring Vietnam. American warplanes dropped more explosives on this Southeast Asian nation than on Germany and Japan combined in World War II, a stunning statistic that Obama noted during his first day in Vientiane.
Lederman reported from Vientiane, Laos. Daniel Malloy in Luang Prabang contributed to this report.