Saturday, May 10, 2014

More (Mis-)Adventures in Laos...

After the last bus ride I wasn't so sure if I'd enjoy the next one from Vieng Xai to Phonsavan (the location of the famous Plain of Jars), approximately 242km in southern direction. But to my biggest surprise the minivan driver was really careful this time, and we only got one single road-sick passenger this time. Unfortunately this luckless individual was sitting next to me, and she was pretty productive of filling plastic bags with her bodily fluids. Oh, and I forgot to mention that we got a flat tyre as well. Huh, that's what you get for driving your minivan for ages without checking your tyre treads from time to time...

When I heard the distinctive «PSSSHH», I already knew we were going to wait for some time...

However, the minivan driver again demonstrated all his professional abilites, so after one hour of sweating faces, some hectical back and forth and exchanging some tools with other bus drivers, we were again ready to go. During the ride I noticed that we were leaving the mountaineous areas of northern Laos, as we descended to flat land, the so called Xieng Khouang plateau. Soon afterwards we arrived in Phonsavan, also known as Xieng Khouang.

And Beerlao, probably the best Lager I've ever tasted



Phonsavan, a regular town in South East Asia.

















Here I noticed that the Civil War of Laos still was omnipresent in town. The locals actually decorated their whole furniture with deactivated plane bombs, mortar shells, rusty machine gun barrels, RPG grenades and much more.Why's that? Read on.

A regular household decoration here in...
... Phonsavan, where the war is still omnipresent.


















Where else in the world you can eat a plate of «Laap» (the Laotian National dish) next to deactivated 1000lbs bombs?

If there are any tourists in Phonsavan, the probability is high that they only go to see the Plain of Jars and then head further to party towns like Vang Vieng or Vientiane. But not me. Let me first tell you some stuff about that Plain of Jars.

... of the mysterious Plain of Jars.


10km away from the town already lies one of three sites...



















The Plain of Jars is basically a huge archeological excavation site where over the flow of time huge stone jars were discovered. While these may first look boring to laypeople, they actually are still a huge mystery to many archeologists and historians, as nobody really knows which culture or ethnic group constructed those jars. It's not even quite clear what those jars' actual purpose was. Some archeologists came to the conclusion that they were used as cinerary urns, while other specialists think that the ancient locals would collect rain water with them. Many locals actually claim to hear strange noises coming from the Plain of Jars at night, allegedly caused by the spirits of their forefathers who still wander around next to all those jars. At least that's what a Laotian guy told me, almost trembling with fear. Anyway, I would best compare these Jars with the Moai heads of the Easter Island, mysterious and megalithic.

As peaceful as this place looks...


... it also bears a dark past.
















Note the thunderstorm coming in from the middle of the picture...

What many western tourists aren't aware of is that the exact same Plain of Jars was a tremendous battleground during the so called Secret War of Laos. You also may remember that I mentioned in my previous blog post that this place was also a main bombing target of the U.S. Air Force, where they systematically dropped shitloads of explosives on Pathet Lao and Vietnamese NVA positions, while the allied Hmong soldiers and Thai mercenaries were once more trying to conquer the Plain of Jars and...

Wait... what? Americans? Communist Laotians? Vietnamese? Hmong people? And now even Thais? I may understand your confusion, but the whole story isn't as complicated - it was just considered secret for quite a long time.


American and...

... communist military advisors on the Plain of Jars.
















Let's go back to the beginnings of the 1960s. In almost every country in South East Asia there's a proxy war raging on between East and West, Communists against Nationalists, forces supported either by the Warsaw Pact or the USA. Here in Laos the Royalist Nationalists were facing the Pathet Lao, who were politically and militarily supported by North Vietnam. As you already may know, the North Vietnamese smuggled soldiers, weapons and other supplies through the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the eastern part of the Laos, with the goal of arriving in South Vietnam and to equip there the National Liberation Front (better known as Vietcong). The communist Pathet Lao supported the North Vietnamese Army by offering them shelter and free transit through their occupied territory.

North Vietnamese carrying supplies on the trail

Even Siamese elephants were used as means of transportation





But because the U.S. couldn't officially engage in open combat in Laos due to the Neutrality Agreement of Laos, they first only supported the Nationalist Royalist forces (who had their headquarters and government in the capital Vientiane) by giving them arms and advice. Since then the Laotian Royalists would fly continuous air strikes against the Pathet Lao; the iconic T28 attack planes were of course supplied by the United States. But soon it was clear that the Royalists simply hadn't enough firepower against the Pathet Lao, who on the other side were directly instructed, supplied and trained by the experienced North Vietnamese. Therefore U.S. needed more to successfully engage the communists in Laos... Here's where the interesting part begins!

A royalist T28 on the airfield of...
... Long Cheng, one of the biggest CIA compounds in Laos














With John F. Kennedy's unofficial blessings the world's largest secret service, the Central Intelligence Agency (short CIA), began to erect secret training camps in Northern Laos, in the middle of nowhere and isolated from curious eyes. The secret plan was to recruit a shadow army consisting of local hilltribe people, most of all from the Hmong tribe. The CIA instructors offered those primitive people food, education and of course combat training, as long as the Hmong would fight the communists in the area. Responsible for the flow of supplies was the company Air America, a CIA-owned airline that secretly flew in CIA advisors, tons of weapons, medicaments, food and other everyday needs. On the other side Air America would fly out Opium, rescued prisoners of war or Hmong people who seeked exile in the USA. This whole camp setup was top secret, and the American public and even the congress were not aware of this huge CIA operation! Only shortly before the war's ending the whole story finally became public as several reporters and newspapers found out about it. Therefore this historical event became known as the so called Secret War in Laos.

CIA-owned Air America choppers...
... and planes flying in equipment to Laos.

Soon afterwards those small training compounds became huge towns with long airfields, barracks, hospitals and even entertainment facilites. While the CIA instructors were having fun with local girls, booze and western music (live bands!), just next to them the Hmong shadow army began to grow bigger and bigger.




One of the most iconic Hmong fighters was General Vang Pao, the selected leader of the Hmong shadow army. He was the very military leader who organized and planned the attacks on the communists on the Plain of Jars, back then a very important strategic plateau in the fight against the Pathet Lao, and perhaps the only gateway to stop efficiently the flow of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

... who was ordered to grab the strategically important Plain of Jars.
Vang Pao, the CIA-backed Hmong leader...




















Since then the War in Laos began to take a dramatic scale; both sides conquered multiple times the Plain of Jars and casualites began to rise. To back up their Hmong «friends», the U.S. began to fly in Thai mercenaries to support the shadow army. The idea behind this was that Thais pretty much looked and sounded like Laotians, so the presence of Thais in Laos would give the international community the impression that this was still a war fought between Laotians and without the direct intervention of the US. On the other side the North Vietnamese Army also directly interfered in the battle of the Plain of Jars by sending in combat troops, vehicles and equipment.

Allied forces (probably Hmong or Thai) attacking communist positions at Mount Phou Keng, near the Plain of Jars

Things got worse when the United States declared the Air War on North Vietnam in 1965 (read my previous blog post). Since then the U.S. Air Force (stationed in Northern Thailand) would also directly strike communist targets on the Plain of Jars «while they were on their way to North Vietnam». The result of all this? Until today the whole Xieng Khouang plateau is contaminated with unexploded ordnance of all different kinds. From 500lbs plane bombs, over to mortar shells, claymores and hand grenades you can find pretty much everything.


A MAG stone declares this area as «UXO-free»
The unseen part of the Plain of Jars - huge bomb craters



















... Pathet Lao and NVA troops took shelter from...
In this small cave next to the Plain of Jars...
















... massive U.S. bombardments. Note this 5 meters deep bomb crater here.

But even with the massive involvment of the CIA, the Royalists, Hmong soldiers and Thai mercenaries, the allied forces were not able to drive away the communists out of the Plain of Jars. The North Vietnamese even increased massively the flow of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and nothing (not even B52 carpet bombing) seemed to stop them. As we all know, the fighting in South East Asia ceased in the mid 1970s and the communists came to power in Vietnam, Laos and (sadly) in Cambodia. Finally the CIA escaped from Laos, took General Vang Pao with them along with some more Hmong people and left behind the sad rest of the shadow army in Long Cheng.

The ironic (and maybe sad) part of this story is that many Hmong fighters loyal to the CIA still hide in the forests around Long Cheng to this very day. For many years they have been making quite some trouble to the Laotian government and even the local population. A Laotian living in Phonsavan told me for example that 10 years ago a good friend of his was shot dead by Hmong rebels, about 30 kilometers west of the town. But nowadays things got much quieter, especially after General Vang Pao's death in 2011, who since lived in the USA in exile and always supported the rebels in Laos. Now it seems that the Lao goverment made some agreements with those lone, leaderless rebels and offered them amnesty if they would lay down their weapons and finally come out of the jungles...

The whole story awakened my attention - this is quite a location of interest! After visiting the Plain of Jars I asked a local guide if he could take me to other places that still bear the scars of war. No problem, after a few kilometers we landed on a unsuspicious field with scenic hills and trees - even pines were growing here! Only a rascal could claim that there is any danger coming from this place. No chance, biatch!

This field here used to be a camp for Thai mercenaries. Some traces of former fortifications still can be seen.

Some farmers let their cows feed here...

... while neraby on the other side several minefields lay (encircled).

During our «Easter Egg hunt» we could find mortar shells,...

... cluster bomblets,...

... small artillery shells,...

... pistol bullets (9mm? .45 ACP?),...


... mostly 40mm.
... and quite a lot grenade launcher shells,...
We even found the rusty remains of a Russian PT-76 tank. The ironic thing about it was...
... that it actually belonged to Royalist Forces and NOT to communist forces. The Russians allegedly sold some dozens of those PT-76 to the Royalist government, just to sell enough RPGs to the communists on the other side...

It's needless to say that we were careful enough where to put our feets on. It wouldn't be a good idea either to pick up an unexploded cluster bomblet and to play with it. Dear Kids, NO!

Afterwards we went to visit a rural Laotian family, who invited me to their house for a small snack. The head of the hospitable family was a 85 years old grandpa, who has seen pretty much everything in his life. While offering us sour fruits and Lao Lao (the local, very strong rice whiskey) he told us that he's only weighing 35kg! But even then he made a solid impression and was still working around his humble house.

The hospitable grandpa in his house...
... which is built on bomb tails.

Beerlao and a M1 Carbine... Bundle of fun!


Most houses here were built with war scrap


















A traditional Hmong tomb. Note the crossbow on it!

Nearby some water buffalos were taking a bath






... heavy machine guns or...


How about some jet fuel tanks, more mortar shells, tank turrets,...


... a howitzer barrel as front garden decoration?

And I really like this poster, as I love cakes. Oh, and then there's this ugly propaganda poster next to it...
Enough Phonsavan for today. If you guys want to learn more about the whole topic I highly recommend the documentary Bombies, the before posted one 'The Most Secret Place on Earth' or Peter Alan Llyods excellent posts on his blog. It's worth to know more about it, as the locals still suffer from the UXO and the aftereffects of the war

After Phonsavan I head further south to the party destination Vang Vieng, which is famous for the tubing on the nearby river. While I wasn't particularily keen on that tubing (too many farangs, too shallow waters, too boring) I still had 2 enjoyable days there.

Vang Vieng, a small backpacker-infested village...

... south of Luang Prabang.
Over a shaky bridge...

... and a dusty and bumby road...

... where «harsh» laws were ruling.

... I went to relax at the so called «Blue Lagoon», ...

















But much more interesting was this huuuuge cave just next to the Lagoon, where I almost got lost in the dark.

Instead of tubing down the local river along with hundreds of other westerners I decided to participate on a hot air balloon ride, which was quite cheap by the way. Some impressions:



Unfortunately a massive thunderstorm surprised us and we quickly had to land our hot air balloon after 30 minutes of flying around. But still better than not flying at all.

Afterwards I head on to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I guess I'll never be on time with writing blog posts, and to make things worse my trusty HTC Desire HD, my smartphone since 2009, passed away yesterday. I even bought a new battery, tried to bring it to a repair service but it seems that there's no hope for it. I therefore just bought a new (cheap) Samsung Galaxy, so at least I'm equipped again...

2 Kommentare:

Peter Lloyd said...

That was a great read, excellent photos and thanks for mentioning my blog about the Secret War in Laos and modern-day backpackers in Asia! Where was the Thai camp in Phonsavan? Can you recall? Thanks.

Manuel «Muri» M. said...

Hey Peter, it's an honor to have you commenting here; thanks a lot!

I'm sure you have been to Muang Souy village too, north-west of Phonsavan when you follow National Road 7. It's the town with the small lake, near the former CIA/Air America airfield and also the Hospital cave which you visited too.

The former mercenary camp was somewhere along that National Road 7 in between, on the left side of the road if you're coming from the direction of Phonsavan. Where exactly, I really can't recall, sorry. It was kind of a agricultural field, even with some cows nearby. Kinda crazy if you consider again how contaminated this area is.

But next time just ask a guide in Phonsavan to take you to that "Thai Mercenary Camp" and knows where to take you to. I highly suggest to go there with a guide anyway, considering the contamination of UXO and even landmines (according to that guide). At some points in this field we even found some broken bottles of Thai origin.