May 5-13, 2008, Lao Trip Report
This trip was primarily in support of a new project suggested by an American friend of mine who lives in Vientiane and has worked and traveled extensively in Laos over the last few years working for IOs and NGOs on educational matters.
The project is to rehab a school building way up in NE Laos on Rt 7 east of the PDJ in Nong Het District, up there on the Vietnamese border. It's at the Ban Phak Khae primary school. The school itself has about 760 students and up to 55 kids per classroom. In addition, there is no room available to the teachers, or principal, for lesson preparation or meetings. The other buildings in the school are relatively new, funded by the Lao government itself and by Japanese aid. The remaining building which TLCB funding will rehab is two-room of wood, tin roofing, and a dirt floor. TLCB will fund new tin roofing and furniture for the two rooms.
This new project was of particular interest to me as I'd never been on the ground up in that area before. Had been on the very south end of the PDJ for a couple days in late May and early June 1969 when I was working "refugees" out of Sam Thong, LS-20. Sure flown over that whole area a lot in Air America and CASI planes but not too much on the ground except in the few airfields what the friendlies controlled.
On with the trip!
5 May, a variation on earlier trips, an old (well, only one year older than me) Thai friend from my days at Ban Houei Sai, L-25, offered to drive us up to Nong Khai and on the Lao side of the trip. Altho he'd spent 10 years working out of Ban Houei Sai, he'd never been to NE Laos at all, wanted to see the territory. Advantage here for TLCB, Sunee & I didn't rent a pickup in Vientiane for the several days of the school support portion of the trip.
Mr Piak picked us up at 0615 hrs at home, close to Bangkok, and we headed out. Bypassed Korat, Khon Kaen, Udorn, and arrived at Nong Khai by 1400 hrs. Border formalities for the pickup, us, and on to Vientiane, ATA 1600 hrs, not too bad and time for a Beer Lao.
Contacted an old Lao friend who's back there working as a consultant, he's actually an AmCit having been a refugee back in 1975. Had dinner at the Khop Chai Deu Restaurant, a popular hangout (www.khopchaideu.com/). Phoned up to Phon Savan on the PDJ to the Lao contact for the school project to confirm that we were on the way.
6 May, had a morning meeting with a Lao-Hmong guy who'd been deported from Thailand in April, working to get him back to his wife and kids in Fresno, long complicated story. Unfortunate timing, too, he was deported on 4 April and INS/CIS approved his I-130 Immigrant visa petition on 15 April, for processing in Bangkok.
Departed Vientiane and headed north on Rt 13N, bypassed Vang Vieng and decided to RON at Moung Kassy where I'd last been for lunch in April 1967. Very good guest house, hot water, sitter crapper, and Thai TV for Sunee. Moung Kassy, LS-249, is rather larger and nicer than it was way back when.
7 May, start the climbing road up to the junction of Rt 13N and Rt 7, east to the PDJ, elevation 4,395 ft at Sala Phou, LS-260. Very busy road junction, not at all like 1967 when all there was was a small Lao Army (FAR) detachment there, and the road's all nicely paved!! Several guest houses, busy market, lots of shops.
On east via the up and down twisty paved road, on through Moung Soui, L-108, site of some heavy fighting 1969 and later, rolling green hills, pine trees, nice country.
Early afternoon arrived the nice relatively new town of Phon Savan, the capital of Xieng Khouang Province, right in the middle of the PDJ. It's full of guest houses and restaurants because it's the starting point for tourists to visit the "jars" that give the Plain of Jars it's name. Too late to head out to the school site east towards the Vietnamese border so we made a short run down to the old capital of Xieng Khouang Ville, L-03, where I'd been in and out of over a few days in May 1969 when it was friendly. Really nothing left of the old town, what was rubble in 1969, after the bombing and shelling, had been pretty much cleared off and the material used for other construction. There were new buildings and schools there. Did find the old airport, L-03, not in use, looked for the "hospital cave" that I wandered through a bit in 1969 but the hillside was overgrown and didn't want to wander around, UXO worries.
8 May, out of Phon Savan with our contact, the Xieng Khouang Provincial Education Service, Deputy Chief of the Teacher In-Service Training Division. A very capable guy, well spoken (not English, Lao or Russian).
The Ban Phak Khae primary school is 540 km from Vientiane, 12 hour drive if pushing it right through. 14 rooms at the school, grades P1-P5. There is a secondary school in the village for grades M1-M3, equivalent to U.S. 6-8. For those kids who are able to go on in their education, they go to Nong Het, some 30 km east to a government boarding school, and home on the weekends. There's a small lightly forested area right above the school that we carefully walked through. After clearing of UXO, it's going to be used by the school and the students as an agriculture demonstration site. FYI on UXO program: http://www.maginternational.org/MAG/en/where-we-work/where-mag-works/lao-pdr/
We met with the principal of the school, chatted with some students, photos, of course, inspected the wood building which TLCB will fund the rehab of, then off to lunch at Moung Kham (aka Ban Ban, site of some heavy stuff in the old days).
Back to Phon Savan and afternoon meeting with the Provincial Education people over the school project, handing over the TLCB funds, some kip 10,650,000 ($1,220), signing of a contract between the Province and me, on behalf of the TLCB for the project. (That's a first, a contract agreement!)
Note: They will look for some further school assistance projects that might fit their needs and the TLCB mold.
Business completed, Sunee & I and Mr Piak took a short side trip to two of the jar sites, I'd not seen these that early June 1969, weren't far enough into the PDJ at the time, and I left for a couple months by mid-June so missed the work when the whole place was friendly, for a while. Near the turnoff to jar site 3 is the small town of Lat Khai, with an old airfield (not specifically found), LS-280. This is the beginning of the back route down to Sam Thong, Ls-20, and Long Tieng, LS-20A/30/98. (Several designations as "LS-20A" is not listed in the Air America issued site book for Laos.)
Supposed to be about 76 km to Long Tieng, about four hours, would like to try this route in the dry season, if permitted by the authorities. Have emailed with a guy who was turned back in 2007.
9 May, on to some non-TLCB travel. We departed Phon Savan at 0545 hrs to get a jump on the day heading back west on Rt 7 to Sala Phou Khon, the junction with Rt 13N, and headed north towards Luang Prabang. Lunch at Kieu Kacham, LS-04, a widening in the road and apparently a common stop for buses and trucks, three restaurants, two gas stations, shops, all up on a ridgeline at 4,400 ft elevation. RONed at the old USAID office building, now the Ban Lao Guest House. Had stayed here previously, 1967, 1969, and 2004, not much difference except there is a large add-on in the rear and a restaurant. Wandering around town with Mr Piak as he'd not been there before.
10 May, out again at 0545 hrs and north to where the Nam Ou joins the Mekong River. On north to Pak Mong junction, east 10 km to Nam Bac where I'd been for five months in 1967, didn't proceed further east but the road heads on to Sam Nuea. We turned west to Oudom Xai/Moung Sai/L-27, and old town that was always unfriendly way back when. Sure a lot of development there these days, new buildings, shopping, guest houses, need to RON there one trip and do some wandering. No idea why this new development is taking place? Proximity to China??
On west two hours to Botene on the Chinese border. A large Chinese shopping complex, hotels, casinos, partially open. This is the start of the new highway from Yunan Province that runs down to the border crossing to Thailand at Ban Houei Sai-Chiang Khong. A bridge across the Mekong River is scheduled to be built in a year or two.
On a short distance south on this new Rt 3 to the town of Nam Tha, L-100, and an RON. Saturday, quiet here, quite a few guest houses, eateries, a couple of internet shops.
11 May, out of Nam Tha on the new wide, very good (for the time being) highway on to Ban Houei Sai. Stopped briefly at the town of Ban Phong, the turnoff on the rocky road up through Nam Yu, LS-118A, the former SKY base for NW Laos. Didn't have enough time to make the run, about one hour one way; next trip perhaps. On to BHS, stopped at the airport, L-25, our old USAID warehouse still in use by the authorities. Downtown and found that since it's Sunday, couldn't get the car ferry across the river except for a "charter" of baht 5,000, decided to RON. Ran down one of our old USAID Lao employees for lunch, dinner and a bit of a chat.
12 May, checked out a possible TLCB project just south of town, a boarding school for orphans of various ethnic groups. Then on to the car ferry, across to C. Khong, on to C. Rai airport, and fly back to Swampyboom, Bangkok's new airport, taxi home. Tired.
Photos of this trip here: 2008-05 @ http://picasaweb.google.com/mactbkk/200805PDJAndWestToBanHoueiSai#
Photos of all trips here: All Trips @ http://picasaweb.google.com/mactbkk/?pli=1