Laos and Vietnam: A Revision of the Revision
I recently came across a review of the book "A Great Place to Have a War," that really got me thinking about how we have treated our history. (FYI I also read and can say the book is excellent if you want to learn about the development of the CIA as a paramilitary force in Laos.) While reading the review I was reminded that there has come to be an unequivocal acceptance of one of the political beliefs of those who opposed the war in the 1960's. As someone who has studied that time and era, and has lived much of his life in Southeast Asia, the acquiescence to some of these 1960's ideals as absolute truths is bothersome. One of those beliefs is that the Second Indochina War, what we in the USA commonly call the Vietnam War, was a complete waste of lives and resources because it accomplished nothing. I have a particular problem with this mode of thinking.
Before we dive into that specific point, let me make something clear: I'm not saying the Vietnam War was a good thing. War in general can be argued as a complete waste of lives and resources, and I would like to see a world without it. The deaths associated with that war, the social upheaval in the aftermath, and the unexploded ordinance that kills and maims to this day, is nothing but bad. It is absolutely horrible. However, sometimes you fight one war so you don't have to fight another, perhaps even bigger, war.
One of the goals of the Second Indochina War was to keep South Vietnam from falling into a communist-totalitarian form of government, and judging with that as the only criteria, the war was a failure for the United States. However, the author of the review, and many of his peers, has taken this argument to another level, and that is what I have a disagreement with. The greater aims of the war were to stop the advance of communist-totalitarian governments in the region and the world. The author upholds the argument that the war did nothing, in any capacity, with two sentences:
But history would prove the “domino theory” in Southeast Asia was a misconception of tragic proportions. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines would all confidently resist communist influence and would have surely have done so without the bloodbath of millions of deaths across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
"Surely done so," he writes. How can one be sure of that given the historical facts? The author is claiming that we never needed to go to war because the spreading of this ideology was never going to happen. He says that the Domino Theory, first coined by Winston Churchill in 1947, was a "misconception" (the Domino Theory postulates that once one state falls, it will provide troops and supplies for the next state to fall, and soon that will provide energy for the next until the entire region has gone through revolutions and been forced into the authoritarian rule). This author seems to be saying 'the first domino fell and it did not cause the next domino to fall, thus the Domino Theory was complete hogwash.' He's leaving out the historical facts.
First, the domino's in fact did fall, and we can show they fell specifically because of the change in government in Vietnam and the removal of American troops. The Prime Minister of Laos, who was an ally of the United states, wanted his country to be neutral. In the 50's he accepted non-military aid from the U.S. for poorest people of Laos. However, as the war in South Vietnam ramped up, Laos became the supply route for equipment going from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. Laos was occupied at times by as many as 100,000 North Vietnamese troops who maintained the Ho Chi Minh Trail. With the North Vietnamese occupying Laos, the United States began supporting the Hmong in their efforts to stop the occupation. The US also put together a bombing campaign of the supply routes that made Laos the most heavily bombed country in history. In the early 1970's, when the United States began to pull back from the war, Laos was overtaken by communist troops and became a puppet of North Vietnam.
Cambodia suffered even worse as the next domino. It fell to the Khmer Rouge who aligned more with China than Vietnam. The Cambodian dictator, Pol Pot, killed over a million of his own people in an effort to prove a pure agrarian society could exist by destroying everything that was "modern." Pol Pots Cambodia became the poster child for genocidal insanity. Meanwhile Burma went through a socialist revolution that led the world in civil rights violations for decades. Cambodia, Burma, and Laos all suffered greatly because of these revolutions. Clearly a few of the dominos fell.
But not all of the dominos fell, and much of the reason why has less to do with the USA putting troops on their shores, and more to do with the use of military resources. One of the biggest misperceptions about the Vietnam War is that the "anti communist force" was purely the Americans and their South Vietnamese "puppets." This simply wasn't the case. Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, as well as New Zealand and Australia, all sent thousands of troops to the war because they all believed North Vietnam and the USSR's version of authoritarian (and in this case communist) government would spread. Those countries had good reason to think the revolutions would spread because throughout the 1950's and 1960's, Soviet sponsored militant communist movements popped up all over Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and the Philippines.
The North Vietnamese utilized Russian military trainers and technicians for their air defenses, and Soviet and Chinese weaponry flowed into North Vietnam at the rate of 100,000 tons a month. Had those resources not been put to work in South Vietnam, in all likely hood they would have ended up in these other countries. In fact, without the war in Vietnam, those movements could have been supported by a communist block made stronger regionally by a united Vietnam. To sum it up, the United States and its allies in South Vietnam tied up the Soviet Union and Chinese aid destined for communist revolutions for nearly 20 years.
Reporters and anti-war activists from that era are not only arguing the Vietnam War was a waste of lives because the fall of South Vietnam was inevitable, but are also arguing we never needed to fight for the greater region or fight the Cold War because communisms success was impossible. In fact, history points us in the opposite direction. The Soviet Union wanted to see communist revolutions all over the world. Revolutions funded by them and their eastern block allies expanded in Africa, South America, Europe and Asia. The communist block countries were funding revolutions in half a dozen Southeast Asian nations, but they focused on Vietnam and Laos. The United States and its allies opposed them in South Vietnam and Laos, and in so doing forced the USSR to use up valuable material for one country. Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), went through a horrible communist revolution, but Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand were spared this bloody fate.
Now let's jump forward in time about 45 years to 2017. Right now we are fighting the same sort of war we began with in South Vietnam, that being a mostly proxy and air-war in another country to stop a rising tide before it reaches our shores. We are fighting in Afghanistan to break up the Taliban movement because it supports Al Quaida, an enemy whose recruits are sworn to destroy the United States. We are fighting in Iraq and Syria to break up the ISIL/DASH movement, a group of Islamist extremists who are willing to die to get the entire world living under their version of Sharia law. Most Americans are for these distant wars for the very same reason Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and McNamara were for the war in Vietnam. It's the very same reason Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines committed troops to that war. That reason being it is better to fight them over there now, than fight them over here later. This is the Domino Theory 2.0. If you believe it is better to fight them over there than let their forces grow strong so they can bring the war to our shores, then you are thinking just as Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and McNamara thought in the 1960's. Keeping that in mind, and knowing how many nations in southeast Asia did not suffer complete revolutions in the 1960's, it's pretty hard to say the Vietnam War was a "misconception," and even harder to call it a "complete waste."
Why Operation Heavy Green?
I'm often asked what my fascination with the American "secret war" in Laos stems from. It's a good question as my library contains dozens of books on the subject and the majority of my "favorite" webpages explain some component of the war. I suppose that to answer why I spend so much thought on Laos, I have to first answer for my fascination with the Second Indochina War, what we commonly refer to as the Vietnam War. I've tried, citing early memories of news reels about the war, having friends and relatives who served there, and just the beguilement of how one of the smallest, least developed countries in the world could defeat the most powerful country in the world. I've tried, and I've failed. That is, I've tried and failed to understand the captivation of our Vietnam War. However, I can explain why that allure has led me to Laos, and more to the point, why I have written a book about our war in Laos.
As you may have noticed from this website, much of my life has revolved around the sport of climbing. Actually, many of you reading this know me as a climber, and probably had no idea I had this other "thing," Laos, wandering around my head. Climbing and mountaineering have taken me all over the world, from big, frozen walls in Alaska to 20 ft. boulders in Zimbabwe. In fact, it is easy for me to say that every decision I have made since I left home at 18, from what I snack on in the afternoon to who I married, has somehow been influenced by this sport. The fact that I am a writer is a perfect example.
I never intended to be a writer. It happened out of inspiration. In the late 1980's my childhood friend and climbing partner, Mark Newcomb, was doing graduate work in China. We had seen pictures in National Geographic of these amazing rock formations in southern Thailand, and on a lark I flew to Asia and met Mark to explore them. We ended up finding a paradise for rock climbers that has gone on to be one of the most popular climbing areas in the world. That trip was filled with so many amazing moments that when I got on the Thai Airways DC-10 to fly home, I sat down with pen and paper and began writing. I have been doing it ever since.
My obsession with the Vietnam War began much earlier, but it got a big bump from that trip. Because of the wonderful climbing trip to Thailand, I began researching the geology of southeast Asia. I learned that much of Vietnam and Laos, as well as southern China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, are geologically dominated by a karst formation known as Kanchanaburi Limestone. Formed from a 300 million year old barrier reef, these spires and sink holes of rock were used by the North Vietnamese as military bases, hospitals, and gun positions during the war.
Todd Skinner (seated) and Sam Lightner Jr. in Halong Bay, 1991. photo Jacob Valdez
Finding climbing information on Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, was impossible as my friends and I were seemingly the first to attempt it, and certainly the first to document it. However, I found that my studies of the war, including the bombing missions of the American Air Force and Navy, and the defensive positions of the North Vietnamese Army, had references to the same picturesque limestone towers I had fallen in love with in Thailand. Put simply, the rocks I wanted to climb were often the rocks a given battle revolved around.
In 1991, Todd Skinner, Jacob Valdez, and I traveled to the limestone spires of Halong Bay in North Vietnam. The first American pilot shot down in the war, Everett Alvarez, was picked up by the North Vietnamese in the waters of that bay. We actually used video of his capture to locate rock climbing objectives for that trip (times change, Everett). Our Vietnamese hosts were sure that our plan to rock climb, which came on a permit that took half a year to obtain, was nothing more than a ruse to gather information for the CIA. Meanwhile, our American government forbade us from traveling to, or at least forbade us from spending money in, Vietnam. We went anyway, and established some great rock climbs in Halong Bay. We also climbed around Ninh Binh, south of Hanoi, where B-52 and F-4 Phantom wreckage skirted the edges of the rice paddies and bases of spires. Our hosts there informed us the same rocks we were climbing continued into the closed-off country of Laos.
Sam climbing (Todd belaying) in Halong Bay. photo Jacob Valdez
I made another trip to Vietnam, and one in 1992 to Cambodia, but military references of the rocks of Laos were calling like a siren. Sometime in the early 90's I began to focus my research on the so called "secret war" in that mountainous country. Keep in mind this is all pre-internet, so getting information took doing things like writing to the Library of Congress. It was time consuming, but it did pay off. I discovered references to Long Tieng, the CIA's secret base in Laos, and that led me to Phou Pha Thi and Lima Site 85.
Laos was still, effectively, closed to travel. They really didn't have a tourist trade and most foreigners could get no further than the capital of Vientiane. However, the descriptions of Phou Pha Thi drew my friends and I to the country. What stood out were the depictions of the big wall on the west face, but the more I read about the mission, the more I wanted to learn about Lima Site 85 and Operation Heavy Green. The possibility of climbing the mountain and the military history were soon completely intertwined for me.
In 1996, with my friends Volker and Gerd Schoeffl, Shep Vail, and Florian Goldfinger, we crossed over the Mekong and made our way to Luang Prabang. Shep and I travelled as far as Vang Vieng, but insurgent attacks were still taking place between there and Sam Neua and we could get no further. I made a second trip to Laos, and then a third with two friends who intended to climb Phou Pha Thi with me, but we got no further than the Plain des Jars.
Plain des Jars in 2002. photo Sam Lightner, Jr.
By this point, the early 2000's, my writing career was going well and I had decided I wanted to write a book about our travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I wanted to tie our trips together with the history of the war, and in the greater context, the Cold War between the East and the West. Seemingly unrelated, I wrote a book called All Elevations Unknown, that tied an expedition we made to climb a mountain on the island of Borneo with a series of World War II battles. It made sense I could do the same thing with Phou Pha Thi, if only I could ascend the mountain.
My climbing and travel partner, Dr. Volker Schoeffl, by this time was doing volunteer medicine work for part of the year in Laos. He had a very good relationship with the Laotian government, as did his colleagues. Those folks made it clear I would not be able to reach Phou Pha Thi without government permission as anyone in the province would notify the government I was in the area. For undisclosed reasons, the Laotian government did not want foreigners around Phou Pha Thi. I would be arrested, deported (probably forever), and my travels in Laos would be over. I was also told it would be very unlikely I would be given permission to go anywhere near the mountain. I tried anyway, but the paper work never came through.
So there I was with a huge amount of travel time in southeast Asia, loads of information about Phou Pha Thi, Laos, and the Vietnam War, but without the specific ascent of the mountain I felt tied much of it together. Somehow, in the Fall of 2015, it clicked; I would write a fictionalized version of the Battle for Phou Pha Thi and Lima Site 85, and I would tie other aspects of the war and the cold war to that depiction. So in February of 2016, just as I had after my first trip to Thailand, I sat down and started with page one.
Over the last thirty years I have often found myself explaining misperceptions of the Indochina Wars and southeast Asia to many of my friends. As those friends have gotten younger, and we have gotten further from the wars, those misperceptions have gotten bigger. For instance, I've found if you ask the average 20 something (or at least the 20 somethings I know) how the Vietnam War started, they tell you something to the effect of "it was an American invasion or something." That in mind, I decided I would write a book that helped to explain the war in its greater context, hopefully making something that was both entertaining and educational.
That is a fairly abbreviated, by somehow still wordy, version of how I came to write Heavy Green. I hope you enjoy it.
Sam Lightner, Jr
Five Good Reads on the Second Indochina War
I'm often asked what the best sources of information are on the war in Vietnam and Laos (it would be easier if we just called it the Second Indochina War). This list is in order of how I would read them, but that is assuming you know the very basics of the War. If you don't who the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese are, and how they got to be separated as such, switch the positions of #2 and #1.
1.The Ravens by Christopher Robbins
Though it is about a very specific part of the greater Indochina War, I have very good reasons for putting The Ravens down as the first book to read. For one thing, it is incredibly entertaining. Robbins is a great writer, and the stories he relates of the CIA pilots often leave you crying and laughing at the same time. Robbins does an excellent job of putting you in Laos, which is where the book takes place. His descriptions of the people, the places, and the pilots the book is about are spot-on. On top of that, he does a great job of taking many different sources and telling their individual stories in a way that, when put together, tells the story of the war as a whole. Through the eyes of these men we can see how the lack of bureaucracy in Laos, when juxta positioned against Vietnam, and the love the pilots felt for the local Hmong, made this an honorable and seemingly winnable fight. The Ravens is so good it makes a person with little interest in the Vietnam War want to learn more.
2. A Bright and Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan
You can't learn about the war in Laos without learning about the war in Vietnam. By following the life of one man, Lieutenant Colonel John Vann, from his first days in Vietnam in 1962 to his last in 1972, Sheehan is able to describe the war and the politics of the decisions around the war. You come away from this book with a decent understanding of the life of a soldier, but a very good understanding of the political decisions that created the war and the inevitable American pull-out. Sheehan was an award-winning reporter for the New York Times, and his ability to get to the heart of a story is shown here with information from sources on both sides. As the winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, this is the one book you should read for an overview of the Vietnam War.
3. Tragic Mountains by Jane Hamilton-Merritt
Back to Laos we go with the heart-breaking saga of the Hmong and the CIA. Tragic Mountains tells the story of an American ally that didn't have a word for the wheel, but was able to take on and often repel the far better trained and better equipped North Vietnamese Army. CIA paramilitary advisors have an unfair and erroneous reputation for being heartless killers who will do anything for the American flag. Hamilton-Merrit does an excellent job of showing us that these men truly care for the people they work with. As the titles says, this book has to end in tragedy, in this case it is tragic for the hundreds of thousands of Hmong who found themselves fighting the war on the ground with no place else to go, and no ally for support. In the end they were left fighting for an ally that had to go home, leaving them without friend. This is a great read that gives one an understanding of a little-known bit of our history, and leaves you wondering now, in 2017, what it would be like to be a Kurd.
4. The 13th Valley by John Del Vecchio
Wait. That's a novel. Yes, and a very good one that describes in detail the life of the average American infantryman on the ground in South Vietnam. Del Vecchio was a combat correspondent with the 101st Airborne who won the Bronze Star for Valor in 1971, so he knows the details of the characters in his book. The beauty of The 13th Valley is not only in its descriptions, but in showing how combat changes an individual over time. If the book fails on any level, it is that it is a bit long at 600+ pages. However, The 13th Valley is never boring, and despite being a bit long to the climax, is an excellent read.
5. In Retrospect by Robert McNamara
Finally, the man himself speaks and with the knowledge that 30 years of waking and questioning ones' self brings. Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, so no man in the world knows more about the decisions that led to Americans involvement in Vietnam. McNamara was said to be spurned into writing the book out of guilt for making the wrong choices, choices that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. In Retrospect is a well written memoir that shows how one or two men can affect millions. It does an excellent job of reminding us, the people who elect leaders, just how important our vote is in finding the right decision makers.
Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald
If you want to know the mindset of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, this is your book. By tying their history and society together in one Pulitzer Prize winning tome, Fitzgerald shows why it was nearly impossible for the United States to win a war in Vietnam. Its' one downside is Fire in the Lake is a bit dry, but if you want to know thy enemy, this is your book.
One Day Too Long by Timothy Castle
If you really want to know the details of the Battle for Lima Site 85, this is your source. One Day Too Long is a beautiful display of investigative history, showing how the decision making process led to the death of 11 Air Force ground personnel and an unknown number of Hmong and Thai's. This book would have made the list above if it hadn't been so focused on a specific subject, but that also makes it a great source to learn about the CIA in Laos.
Sam Lightner, Jr.
Five Good Looks at the Second Indochina War
Your eyes are tired and you just don't feel like reading. Or, you just want to be entertained. Ok, here are a few films set in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Film is rarely historically accurate, but it often doesn't stray that far from the truth, either.
The winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Best Picture at the Golden Globes, and nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (probably snubbed because The Deer Hunter won the year before), many film critics consider this the best movie ever made. Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrads book Heart of Darkness, but in my opinion does a better job of making that books point. How different are civilized people from so called savages, and do you have to be worse than your enemy to beat your enemy? Decide for yourself. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola over a four year period, this is the one film everyone should see that is set in the Vietnam War. If you like, watch Hearts of Darkness, the making of Apocalypse Now, which also won the Palme d'Or.
Academy Award winner for best picture, along with three other awards from the Academy, Platoon is based on director Oliver Stones real experiences in Vietnam. Like Apocalypse Now, Platoon was filmed in the Philippines, and the cast was required to spend two weeks in the jungle prior to filming. Platoon is an incredibly well made movie that shows the heartbreaking transformation of an innocent FU^%$# New Guy to a hardened soldier. The cast and crew deserved the awards.
Without question, and despite being over 30 years old, this is the best documentary ever made about the war in Vietnam. The series was made for PBS and is based on Stanley Karnows 1983 book Vietnam: A History. This documentary is broken into 13 episodes, each focusing on some particular part of the war. Episode 9 focuses on the war being fought in Laos and Cambodia, but perhaps because the information on Lima Site 85 and Operation Heavy Green had not yet been declassified (not until 1988), very little is actually on Laos. If you don't feel like reading but really want to learn about the war, this is what you should watch.
We need to add a little levity to this heavy subject. Air America is a comedy about the CIA and it's airline as they operated in Laos. Starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. it couldn't help but be fun. The movie was filmed in northern Thailand amid the same jungle-covered karst peaks just like Phou Pha Thi, so it gives you a good mental picture for Heavy Green. If nothing else, Air America does a good job of showing the dangers of being a CIA pilot in Laos. It was based (very loosely) on Christopher Robbins 1978 book of the same name.
This French film (subtitles) is set in the French colony of Indochina in the 1930s. As such, it is obviously not about the American War. However, plot the revolves around the nationalist movement of the Viet Minh and just how the French set themselves up to fail after WWII, so it is applicable to Americas history in the region. This is not an action film, but it does provide an insight into the seldom visited history of Indochina, and that history gave us the First and Second Indochina Wars, the latter being better known as The Vietnam War.
Based on the book of the same name, this film is about Americas first battle against the North Vietnamese in the Ia Drang valley. It is an action film, but perhaps the most poignant message it conveys is how the U.S. Army was not ready to have massive losses of troops in 1965. They literally got a trial by fire. Starring Mel Gibson (again), this is a great film, but not one for someone with a weak stomach.
An excellent documentary, The Fog of War is based on the conclusions made by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in his excellent book In Retrospect. The film was made in the lead-up to the Second Gulf War, and was essentially a warning to the Bush Administration that the war was a bad idea for the same reasons the Vietnam War was a bad idea. Hindsight is 20/20.
The Year of Living Dangerously
It isn't about Vietnam, but this film does an excellent job of putting the viewer in 1960-s revolutionary southeast Asia. A young Mel Gibson shows he has a lot of talent with this film, and the story line correctly follows the history of fighting between Sukarno and Suharto for Indonesia. This film is definitely worth a watch even if you aren't interested in the history.
Sam Lightner, Jr.
The Quest for Phou Pha Thi
My personal quest to reach Phou Pha Thi, the mountain where Operation Heavy Green was based, began in 1990. I was on a Thai Airways DC-10 over the South China Sea and was completing an exploratory climbing trip to southern Thailand. The adventure had gone so well that I felt compelled to put the previous three weeks down on paper (my writing career began then as well). I sat down in seat 14A, pulled out my journal, and began scribbling down how wonderful that climbing had been. I knew I would be coming back to southeast Asia and looking for even bigger mountains to climb.
It wasn't long after that before I discovered the biggest faces of limestone in southeast Asia were in Laos, and not long into the research of U.S. military records that I came across the story of Heavy Green and Phou Pha Thi. Laos was not yet open to that kind of adventure tourism, but when it did open up my friends and I began the quest in earnest. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since that first trip, but we finally reached the mountain this November. What follows is a photo pictorial of that the quest.
The first effort came just after Laos began to open up in 1996. We weren't sure if it would be possible to get to the bigger mountains, but we gave it an effort. To reach Luang Prabang, a point we thought we might be able to use as a base to get to Lima Site 85, we took boats down the Mekong from Chiang Khong, Thailand.
In 1996 Luang Prabang had just been listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO for its preserved architecture. It was a sleepy little town with only a few places to stay. Times would change, though the beauty of the city has not been lost. This shot, taken in 1996, is from Phou Si, the hill the city is built around. Luang Prabang remains a green city on the Mekong where the lives of Buddhist monks are the basis for its existence.
We didn't get much closer to the mountain than Luang Prabang on that first trip, but fast forward half a dozen years and Jason "Singer" Smith and I got to the Plain of Jars near Phonsavan. A motorcycle breakdown forced us to abandon that trip just north of the Plain.
In 2017 my friends Shep Vail and Josh Miller joined my wife (Liz) and I for another attempt to reach Phou Pha Thi. It was a perfect team with each of us having our own area of expertise to make the adventure happen. Here, Shep Vail makes a slight modification to one of the dirt bikes before we set off from Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Within two days of leaving Vientiane we were climbing out of the Mekong lowlands and through some of the most beautiful and rugged territory on the planet. This is Phou Khoun, a mountain half way between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang and enroute to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars.
Josh is a celebrity everywhere he goes, but especially among a people who generally don't grow much facial hair. Josh has won a world mustache growing contest in the past, and he is now working towards a victory in the beard competition. Everyone is a fan except his wife Pui.
My wife Liz and I on the Plain of Jars. This is Site 1. When I'd been here 14 years before, there were no trails or interpretive plaques; only a hand written sign that read "Be careful of Unexploded bombs." In 2017 there were trails and bus loads of Korean and Japanese tourists. We saw the Plain of Jars in the morning and then hit the road going northeast towards Sam Neau and Houaphan Province. Within five miles of leaving town the bus tours were a distant memory. Our objective was not on the package tour schedule.
This is what daycare looks like for the average Hmong in Laos. These people work hard all year to survive, much as they did before the Second Indochina War and 1000 years before that.
The Hmong are renowned for their fabric weaving, and it's all done on old fashion looms. This woman is working on a traditional skirt with a loom that may be 300 years old.
Each morning began with breakfast and then saddling the dirt bikes for the days ride. Our bikes were rented from Green Discovery Tours and they held up very well. I recommend using that company if you are traveling to Asia. If their bikes are all rented you can get bikes from Moto Laos.
Some of the roads were pretty good. Don't let this pavement fool ya' though. Potholes are the norm. Also, this is the standard width of a Laotian highway, and trucks (mostly from China and Vietnam) can take up 3/4 of the pavement. Add in hairpin turns (roads are rarely this straight), and it makes for fairly dangerous riding. We were lucky to pull this trip off with no serious accidents.
Roads could be paved, but they didn't have to be, and landslides into the road were not uncommon. Here a construction crew that was destroying the bank above the road has taken time off for lunch, allowing 4 hours of trapped travelers to try and pass. Tipping to the downhill side was not an option as the slope falls away into a gorge for about 250 feet.
Liz finishing up a particularly difficult section of road.
You see unexploded ordnance all over Laos, and it can be used for anything from a cows feeding trough to house stilts. In this case, a Mark 82 500 pounder makes at a simple piece of modern American art to offset the fridge in the kitchen.
If you don't like noodles, don't go to eastern Laos. Noodles were the staple on most nights, and pork was the standard meat. However, meat could get exotic. We did see dog and chickens feet on the menu more than once. Also, careful with those raw veggies. Local fertilizer is very-much organic.
A day of stressful riding always ended with some toasts, and Beer Lao was the standard. It's actually a very good pilsner. Here Shep enjoys an evening of rehydrating!
On day-three we reached Sam Neua (aka Xam Neua) in Houaphan Province. Twenty kilometers east of town is the Vieng Xai cave complex, the base for Pathet Lao and NVA operations in Northern Laos during the War. This cave complex was featured in Heavy Green.
This is a carved-out passage that connects one natural cave to another in Vieng Xai. It was a pleasure to see the caves I'd written about in Heavy Green. I had seen caves that had been used as military bases in Vietnam, and also seen caves in southern Thailand that the Japanese made use of during World War II. I was glad to see that my research had helped to correctly describe their layout. It was from here that much of the planning for Road 602 and the Battle for Lima Site 85 took place in 1968.
The signs on the wall talked of occupation by the aggressive Americans in the war, but all the maps showed communist advances. As the United States never had its army holding territory in Laos, something was amiss. The fact is that the war in Laos, as well as in Vietnam and Cambodia, was a civil war. There were two sides to the fighting, and the Americans backed one side while the Soviets and Chinese backed the other. Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia don't like to talk about this because it reminds everyone that there were differing points of view and maybe, just maybe, those points of view might come up again. It's much easier to keep the peace when you make a foreign force the agitator than when you acknowledge that there were local, indigenous Laotians who did not want to see the current government in power.
On Day-4 we found our way onto Road 602, a road first carved from the jungle to allow North Vietnamese artillery and troops access to Phou Pha Thi and Lima Site 85. We ran into some delays and had a few crashes, but by midafternoon were in Ban Houay Ma, a Hmong Village just two miles from Phou Pha Thi. The mountain is behind and to my left with the TACAN and ATC site featured in Heavy Green as LS 85 at the high point. A military post stopped us here and said we could get no closer, but I was fine with that. It was a pleasure to see this place that I had been studying for nearly 30 years.
I played chase with a couple of kids in Ban Houay Ma, then we continued on a very rough road to the town of Vieng Thong. Vieng Thong was Lima Site 48 in the late 1960's and was one of many villages that got aid from the CIA and USAID before and during the war.
We then began the return trip and rode across Laos north of the Ou River to near its confluence with the Mekong. That is Luang Prabang, one of the worlds great Buddhist cities. There are lots of tourists in Luang Prabang now, but it still has its charm and beauty.
I could not have asked for a better team for this adventure. Josh Miller, Shep Vail, me, and Liz Lightner.
The Mekong at Sunset from Pak Lai the day before the adventure ended. Laos is a beautiful country and I recommend a visit to see its scenery and meet its people to everyone.