LUANG PRABANG, Laos (AP) — Growing up in Wisconsin, Son Inthachith's classmates in school had no idea where his native Laos was. Thanks to President Barack Obama, not only is the little landlocked country on the world map but so is Inthachith's sleepy hometown of Luang Prabang.
The town of about 50,000 people, known to a relatively small number of international tourists for its stunning temples and quaint streets, welcomed Obama on Wednesday as he made a side trip from the capital, Vientiane, where he is attending a regional summit on Thursday.
"President Obama is giving Laos the highlight it needs," Inthachith, 42, said, choking up with emotion. "I think it's going to bring more investment, more people interested."
Inthachith left Laos as a boy and ended up in Madison, Wisconsin, part of a post-Vietnam War refugee exodus from the communist nation. But he returned to Luang Prabang in 2006 to start a company that connects visiting students with volunteer rural development projects.
During the war the U.S. secretly bombed Laos in an attempt to destroy communist trails from neighboring Vietnam. More bombs were dropped on the country than on Germany and Japan combined in World War II.
Obama visited Wat Xieng Thong, or Temple of the Golden City, a tourist destination because of its architecture, history and artwork. Construction of the temple began in the 16th century, when Luang Prabang was the seat of Lao royalty. It remained under royal patronage until 1975, when the monarchy was abolished.
Inside the temple grounds is a large golden barge, adorned with golden dragons at the bow. Obama looked in awe at the structure, staring straight at the dragon's mouth. Then he walked to the back wall of the temple to look at a line of large golden statues.
"It's gorgeous," he said.
Obama also held a town-hall meeting with 350 young leaders from the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which is hosting him at Thursday's summit.
The hour-long question and answer session that followed was remarkable for Laos, where top officials in the one-party state are inaccessible and not answerable to the common people. Even the open expression of opinions and free questioning of leaders is unheard of.
Chan Ti Da, 22, was excited at being in the same room as Obama, even though she didn't get called on to ask a question. The Vientiane resident said Obama's emphasis on youth was striking.
"I am so very proud that he is the president of the USA but he also cares about youth to be the priority to develop the country," she said.
Ret Thaung, 28, of Cambodia was inspired by hearing Obama address how to balance environmental and economic concerns — an ongoing fight for her and a conservation group she belongs to, Fauna & Flora International. Biodiversity conservation can be a tough slog, but Thaung said "the U.S. could influence my government to be way more eco-friendly."
Thaung's work involves protecting endangered Asian elephants. When she was told that Obama joked about riding an elephant — a practice some consider abusive — during his Vientiane speech Tuesday, she replied, "We're trying to (create) awareness (among) people not to ride elephants."