To LS 20A, 21-23 Feb 2008 (writeup by Bill Tilton, photos by Mac Thompson added)
At Thakkek, across from NKP City we were met by a rental Land Cruiser and driver, needing a rugged vehicle for the trip into Central Laos. On the morning of February 21st we rode up Route 13 along the Mekong to our turn North, at Thabok, about 50 miles East of Vientiane. Immediately we were on good dirt road. We passed through a wildlife preserve where we were stopped at the toll station. The driver told the soldiers there that he was “carrying the bosses to the gold mine.” Immediately the pole went up—we must have looked the part. After several hours of fairly good dirt roads and some paved ones, we came to Longxane for lunch and mailed some cards (the post office provided glue for the stamps). At the post office we met an older woman who spoke excellent English. She told us she had lived in Australia for nine years. Her reason for coming back to Longxane to live: “because I’m crazy!”
We picked our guest house for the next night and reserved our rooms, then headed for Xaysamboune for our night’s stay, as sort of our “base camp” for next day’s visit to Long Tieng. Going north from Longxane we first came to the “gold mine junction” for a pit stop, and then turned East to get to Xaysamboune. This part of the road was the worst so far, causing our excellent driver to slow down to a crawl over the billiard-ball road bed at times. It was a relief to get to the town, but we also realized we would have to ride over that section back to the gold mine junction again in the morning.
After picking a guest house (which had a colorful entryway of carved logs) we ate across from the market, which was still thriving as the sun set, and a few dim bulbs providing spots of light and ghostly shadows. Next morning, the 22nd, we came back to the market for breakfast and to shop for some items to hand out. We did find some Chinese sport equipment that was remarkably cheap, and no doubt not very good. Then we left Xaysamboune (which Bill called “C’est si bon”) crunching and bumping our way back to the gold mine junction, where we turned North toward Long Tieng.
The Australian gold mine is along this stretch of road, and the activity around it, as with Oxiana down near Xepon, is booming. We noticed a sign about blasting activity scheduled for that afternoon, but none of us gave it any thought. After we passed the mine the road immediately got narrower and more windy, but was not rough. In fact there was some evidence (short stretches and patches) that it had once been a paved road, and Mac confirmed that it was originally built by USAID. The scenery along here was particularly beautiful, including our winding mountain road, as we passed over karst ridges and down through jungled valleys. And every little village was a delight—we saw their little rice houses and people out doing their chores, and of course children playing. At the village water pump there was often someone bathing. If it was a child there would be mama with a firm grip on one arm to make sure some of that cold water actually got splashed on her child.
For some miles we saw the famous Skyline Ridge when we were passing over a high mountain, and then around ten o’clock we arrived at the gate of Long Tieng. On one modern map we were using there is a note in a yellow box, “Warning: Restricted Area Entry Not Always Permitted.” In fact we did not know if we would be able to see Long Tieng at all, even though Mac and Sunee are fluent in Lao, and had been here four and three times before, respectively, since 2006. But the official who had been helpful in the past, possibly the commanding officer there, had been transferred, and Mac was not certain that he would be able to wangle another entry this time.
There was a young officer at the gate, which Mac said was a first for him. Mac advised us to stay in the car and not to take photos (too late; I had already taken one). But before Mac could even get out of the car the elementary schoolteacher rode up to the gate from the other direction on his motorsai. This was a fortuitous coincidence because he said just a few words to the officer and the gate went up. Then we were in, driving alongside that storied runway, with Skyline Ridge high to our right.
Our big concern and main purpose for this arduous trip was the “crapper,” as Mac inelegantly calls it, that TLCB Assistance had funded for the elementary school. This is the only instance where the Assistance committee waives the in-kind policy and allows us to hand cash out to responsible officials on site, there being little practical alternative. Mac said he was worried and even offered to pay the whole thing ($900) himself if the money had been misused. Seeing the teacher on a shiny motorbike at the gate did not give Mac any encouragement, and then the teacher told him that the crapper “is not finished yet.” Mac half expected to find, in fact, that it was not even begun.
So it was with great delight and relief that we found on the school ground a fine, four-room toilet building made of concrete, on a concrete slab, and with a good corrugated roof. There were solid wooden doors, and the squatter-type china fixtures were in place. In fact, just about the only thing not yet done is the completion of the septic system. The hole is dug behind the building and the pipes lead to it, but the tank needs to be installed. This was very good indeed. Prior to this there was no toilet and the situation was not sanitary. We all posed proudly for photos by the wonderful new Long Tieng crapper.
Inside the classrooms we saw the next serious need—desks. What they have now were made by local families and are an odd assortment of wooden tables and benches. They are designed for two students each, but in fact they have to put at least three and sometimes four to a table. Mac said he would investigate ways that we could help them acquire something more satisfactory.
We then crossed the road to a restaurant just opposite the ramp area and a few hundred feet from VP’s main house/office (which will now be headquarters for a dam building project). Our Vietnamese noodle “pho” was cooked over wood in this dirt-floor, open-sided place because electricity has not quite reached Long Tieng (expected by May or June; the poles are up). Somehow the Beer Lao was icy cold. After our meal Mac and John convened a meeting of China Post #1, Shanghai, in Exile, for the purpose of inducting Bill into the American Legion, making him the first member to join at LS 20A since 1975. There probably won’t be another for a while.
Then we asked the teacher if we could go out on the runway and take some pictures. There is an army engineer battalion stationed on the North side of the runway and he said it was OK but not to photograph that camp. Again it was already too late—it had been included in a photo of the old control tower base from the restaurant. We got photos down the runway and up toward the famous vertical wall of karst at the Northwest end, and the teacher snapped our cameras for some group shots in the middle of the runway, which appears unused but fully serviceable. But several of us noticed that the teacher did not really look comfortable during this part of our visit. Perhaps we looked just a little too gleeful and touristy at that point, but it was hard not to feel a certain thrill to be standing at such a famous, and long-forbidden, spot in the Lao PDR.
We then drove up the road to the upper grades school, which looks somewhat better and newer than the elementary school. Nevertheless, there is much need, particularly for desks, in that larger school. Mac discussed all the future needs with the teacher, but of course made no commitments.
At last we drove back along the runway and said farewell to this spectacular one-time secret base that was headquarters for the “Secret War” in Laos. Mac had the driver take a new route bypassing the gold mine junction and cutting off some of the slower and rougher parts of the old road, and after some more hours of bumping along the dusty winding mountain roads we arrived back at the gold mine and excellent dirt roads again. However, we had forgotten the warning that morning about blasting at 1600—and it was just short of that time as we arrived in a short line of cars, carts, trucks and motorsai. We watched from a hill for the blast, but first we had to watch a lazy herd of water buffalo trudging home through the cleared area of roadway. Finally there was a thump and the ground heaved a little, and after an interval we got the all-clear.
We then drove on to the guest house we had reserved in Longxane. For supper we had some fish and other excellent items that Sunee expertly ordered, but there was one dish that even Sunee could scarcely eat because it was so fiercely hot with peppers. She explained that there had been a misunderstanding. We sat in a sort of park area with round concrete tables that were painted to look like tree stumps. The family running the guest house assured us they would be there early to fix breakfast, as we were saying goodnight.
At first light on the 23rd of February we presented ourselves at the table we had left in the dark the night before. Roosters were crowing, as usual in these little villages, but there was not a soul in sight to fix breakfast. Finally someone sleepily showed up to light the wok fires and to start boiling rice and heating water for pho, and we asked for some fried eggs. (Eggs are sometimes hard to find right now because so many chickens have been killed during the bird flu epidemic). We were getting a little tired of this breakfast and asked if we could have some bread with it, and were assured we could. Some of us pictured a tasty Lao version of fresh crusty French baguettes being served, but when the child they sent got back from the market the bread looked somewhat like American bakery bread, which was a great disappointment. But there was an abundance of it!
From Longxane we had some more miles of relatively good dirt road to cover, and then
finally an excellent highway took us into the capital, Vientiane. It was a sharp contrast to arrive in this bustling city where the economics of Communism, at least, seem to have been abandoned in favor of free-for-all rampant entrepreneurism. As we entered town we called “Mekong Jim” Michener, the TLCB member who has lived there for over a decade now, and when we pulled up to the restaurant we had chosen for lunch, there he was, jumping out of a tuk-tuk to join us. At the restaurant we found many American items on the menu and some of us ordered and savored big greasy cheeseburgers and French fries with lots of ketchup! Later Mac and Bill climbed (slowly) the notorious “Vertical Runway,” which is an unfinished monument inspired by the Arc de Triomph in Paris, but constructed mainly of concrete that was given Laos for a runway.
Photos of this trip here: 2008-02 @ http://picasaweb.google.com/mactbkk/200802LongTieng#
Photos of all trips here: All Trips @ http://picasaweb.google.com/mactbkk/?pli=1