The Desk Trip to Long Tieng
By MacAlan Thompson
24 August, Sunday
It was Sunday, August 24th, in Thailand and my wife Sunee and I were off to Vientiane again. It’s about an 8-hour drive from our home north of Bangkok, all on 4-to-10 lane roads all the way. It sure is not like it was 30 or even 20 years ago, getting behind a line of 10-wheel trucks on the old 2-lane highway, or trying to pass the "Orange Crush" local buses. The trip is much nicer these days, with lots of gas stations along the way for pit stops, eateries, etc.
We left my Toyota HiAce van at the secure parking right near the international Mekong River bridge at Nong Khai, zipped through Thai Immigration and then went across the bridge through Lao Immigration. In a hired van we went on into Vientiane, which is another 30 minutes or so upstream. In Vientiane we stayed one night at the Maly Guest House near the Nam Phu (fountain square). We had been worried a bit about the flooding from the Mekong River but the water had receded a few days earlier and all that was left were lots of sandbags, and some mud and sand, and downtown was fine and dry. That evening we had dinner with friends at the Sticky Fingers restaurant.
25 August, Monday
We stayed in Vientiane on Monday to attend several meetings, and then on Tuesday we were off to upcountry! Roger Warner (author of Shooting at the Moon) was in town. Roger and I had "opened up" Long Tieng in March of 2006 for access. At least we sort of had; access still seems to be highly restricted for most people. The TLCB, however, is a special group. Roger asked if he could accompany us on this trip, and we were delighted to have him.
After seven hours of rough roads we pulled into Xaysomboun/Moung Cha/LS-113, the nearest "town" to Long Tieng. (Note, LS-113 is marked on Jim Henthorn's super "map scan" project, as are the other Lao airfield sites, at: http://www.nexus.net/~911gfx/sea-ao.html) The road up is largely either gravel or dirt, though portions have been improved by the Australian Phu Bia Mining Co. because of needed access for their large (up to 18-wheeler) trucks, which have also wrecked portions of the road. The Phu Bia mine folks are repairing some of the roads where it benefits them. Xaysomboun town is the closest town to Long Tieng that has a large market area, hardware stores, furniture makers, and a half way decent Phu Bia Hotel (at least two stars) with hot water, and satellite TV with Thai channels for Sunee! The gal at the hotel told us a couple trips ago that it'd been built by the government in 1995 "for the influx of tourists," that haven't come as yet, so the hotel is mostly shut down except when a few international officials show up, and call the cell phone number on the door for the lonely desk clerk/maid to come over and open up. Still, it's the only show in town, except for 2 or 3 "no star" guest houses, so it’s fine with us. And, this trip, the attached disco was open, which looked promising. But our Lao driver, the same guy we've hired for four trips, went over to check it out, and found it was quiet, and shut down by early evening.
When we got settled we were off to the market area and the restaurant for an early meal and meeting with Bounsouk, the Lao Government area development guy whom we first met in March 2006 when he was based at Long Tieng. Bounsouk was transferred to Xaysomboun in 2007, and has been very helpful to our program.
We informed Bounsouk of the purpose for this trip, which was primarily to fund 70 sets of school desks and benches/stools for the Long Tieng Primary School. They had requested these in February during our visit with John & Nancy Sweet and Bill Tilton, and the TLCB Assistance Committee had approved a budget of over $1,000 for this project.
With Bounsouk, we then visited two furniture makers in town and settled on one of them for the project. He gave a two week period for crafting and then a week or so more to arrange transport up to Long Tieng, some three hours distant.
In the early evening we went back to the hotel and went right to bed. We were surprised at about 0130 hours by a “knock knock” on the door. Was it Lao police, or military? We didn't know; they were not in uniform. But they politely asked for our passports, looked at them, said “fine,” and went on their way. I guess they'd heard that some “farangs” (foreigners) were in town and wanted to check on them. That’s the first time that's happened to us. I guess it must have been Roger, at 6 foot plus, because he's more noticeable than I am.
27 August, Wednesday
We were up early, and were off to the morning market and breakfast at the restaurant. Bounsouk met us there and off we went to Houy Kham, the "Gold Mine Junction," as I call it, where you turn off north to Long Tieng. Getting there involved one long hour of rough-rough road with billiard-ball rocks on it (right, John, Nancy, Bill?). There is a good sized market here but we didn't stop to look around, having done that before. Gold Mine Junction is quite close to the one-time LS-207. Soon we were off to Long Tieng, which is situated two more hours north (over a less rough road, by comparison, but it still keeps your speed at about 20-30 kph, or 12-18 mph). On this old road they still have several of the old USAID 1973-installed “Bailey Bridges” along the road.
(Note: while Long Tieng is called "LS-20A" or "20 Alternate," it's not listed as such in the Air America site book for Laos. It's listed, with old information as "LS-30" and "LS-98." It was a secret place, remember?)
For our lunch on arrival at Long Tieng we had Vietnamese “pho” soup, of course, at the noodle shop with Bounsouk, Xayasith (principal of the Long Tieng primary schools), the #2 from the Ban Nam Ngoua secondary school, and the “nai ban” (village head). Over lunch we discussed the furniture procurement with Xayasith, since the furniture is for his school. Then we were off to visit the Ban Nam Ngoua site, about five minutes north. The TLCB Assistance Committee had also agreed to a budget of $400 to fund a water line for the school from an existing water source over to a 2-squatter crapper behind the school that wasn't being utilized because of lack of water.
Then we went back to Long Tieng to the primary school to see the 4-squatter crapper funded earlier this year by the TLCB, but not quite finished when we visited last February. It had been our first big project, and I had been so afraid we had given them that money and would see nothing to show for it. And now--it's working! But we do need to buy some paint for it on the next trip.
So then we went back to the noodle shop, which is by the road that parallels the old Long Tieng runway, for more talk. By this time it was getting on towards late afternoon, and if we were departing we would need to get going soon, as we've had to do in the past. Again I raised, the idea with Bounsouk of an RON (remain over night) right there at Long Tieng, which had not been allowed on our previous visits. He said, “Why not? But very difficult, as no place to stay.” I suggested (general) Vang Pao's old office/house, which still stands not far from the noodle shop. Bounsouk said we couldn't use that because it's been leased by the people who are going to build the large Nam Ngum 3 dam, nearby. OK, I pressed, how about the old SKY building where Bounsouk used to have a cubbyhole? That wouldn’t do either, having no other rooms--if we RONed, he'd use his old small room. Grasping at straws by this time, I asked about Xayasith's fairly large house (left over from the "old" days, pre-1975). That's when the noodle shop lady popped up and said we could stay at her place; all four of us: me, Sunee, Roger, and our Lao driver.
That was fine with me, and us, and Sunee went to check it out. She came back and said OK; there were roll-out mattresses on the floor, blankets and mosquito nets, and all that's necessary for our stay. Hey, I've stayed like this during my earlier nine years in Laos, and it’s not a problem, though to many folks these hooches would look rather primitive.
By the way, I had noticed a florescent light fixture in the dirt floored restaurant and a switch fuse box. I wondered, did they have electricity already? We had seen the fans and a large fuse panel at the SKY building earlier. The answer is: not yet. Long Tieng is wired up, but the power hasn't yet been turned on. Obviously it’s coming soon.
We enjoyed a big dinner as a group, featuring a fish that the owner had ordered up for her family from the market at the Gold Mine Junction, local rice, some really tough chicken, plenty of fresh veggies, and of course, BEER LAO with ice cubes. After dinner, folks scattered and we got ready for bed. Sunee was happy, as there was satellite TV run off a car battery and there were a few low wattage florescent lights. They had a COLD water dip bath just down the stairs to the outside for those brave souls who like such. (For Bill Tilton: it was much nicer on the floor than that "nasty," as you called it, guest house in Gnommarath, mentioned in the last MEM. By the way, I actually thought that Gnommarath guest house was quite OK, compared to a couple of the other places Sunee and I've stayed at while on these TLCB assistance runs in Laos!
28 August, Thursday
We were up early with the chickens (all Laos seems to have these two-legged alarm clocks), and I went downstairs for a cold shave. It took a while to locate a nail to hang my USAF signal mirror on for shaving. Do you remember those things, the ones with the hole in the middle for sighting an airplane, then flashing a signal? I’ve been carrying this mirror for many years as part of my shaving kit.
We had noodle shop breakfast, again with the guys from Long Tieng. Our topics were the two TLCB funded projects, a "contract/agreement" signing by me and the Long Tieng principals, and witnessed by Bounsouk representing the Xaysomboun District development office and the nai ban. Then there was the exaggerated handing over of the bundles of Lao kip (note, at $1 = kip 8630, one hundred dollars makes a good sized bundle). By mid-morning we were ready to move on.
First there was the two rugged two hours back to the Gold Mine Junction where Roger took some background video shots and Sunee and I walked around doing a survey of the existing guest houses. We found one real nice one, one pretty nice, and three real dumps, one of which we knew to be a dump because we'd stayed there in 2007 on a trip.
Since it was too late to get all the way back to Vientiane that day, we asked Roger where he'd like to RON: here, at Long San, where Roger and I had stayed in March 2006 and we'd also stayed with the Sweets and Bill Tilton last February? Or drive on four hours over the really rough east-west road out to highway 13N and up to Vang Vieng, which was once known as L-16. I was out-voted by Roger and Sunee, and off we went to Vang Vieng.
On the way, we stopped by Ban Xon, LS-272, the former USAID base after we got kicked out of Sam Thong, LS-20, in March 1970. We found the airfield, but there were no warehouses or other buildings left standing. We came upon 10 modern flat bed tractor-trailers parked by the side of the road. They were 20-wheelers. We asked the villagers what these were doing up in this backwoods spot, because they surely didn't look like they had any association with the Phu Bia Gold Mine company or the Nam Ngum 3 dam project. We were right about that: they were Vietnamese trucks, there to pick up some of the 3-4 foot diameter logs that have been lying by the side of the road for the last few years, drying out. They've been sold to Vietnam and would be heading on a long journey up to Hanoi via the Plain of Jars and Sam Nuea.
Then we went on to Vang Vieng, getting there about 1700 hrs. We checked into a nice guest house, and enjoyed dinner and suds at a nice restaurant. Vang Vieng is equipped to cater to Western tourists, including groups of American students during spring break.
29 August, Friday
As always, we were up early, and went out to the river on the west side of town to photograph the tall karsts there with the sun rise and morning ground fog lifting, which makes for some very nice views. Finally we headed south towards Vientiane, a four hours drive on Hwy 13N, stopping at the "Chao La Memorial" enroute. Chao La was the Yao/Iu Mien ethnic leader up in the Ban Houei Sai, L-25 and Nam Yu, LS-118A, area in northwest Laos for many years. He died in France. Now there are many from this ethnic group in the Portland, Oregon, and Oakland, California areas.
Upon arrival back in Vientiane we had a late lunch at the new restaurant adjoining the Asia Pavilion Hotel (the old Constellation) on Samsenthai Road. We enjoyed a change of menu: hamburger for Sunee and good ribs for me. And that evening we had our dinner again at the Sticky Fingers while reporting on the trip to several resident American friends who showed up.
30 August, Saturday
His business for this TLCB trip finished, Roger Warner chose to stay around Vientiane for a few more days, and Sunee and I were off to Nong Khai to pick up our van and make the eight hour drive home. We were tired, but it had been a particularly interesting trip, made especially notable by our RON at Long Tieng, which was a first for us.
Photos of this, and several earlier trips, are here: http://picasaweb.google.com/mactbkk/?pli=1
Now to get planning for the next trip....