Dives and Bombs 3

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, December 24, 2007

The road out of Hanoi began predictably loud and congested, but by the second day was becoming increasingly rural. It took three days to cut across northern Vietnam. The traffic dwindled to negligibility and the narrow road cut through gorgeous low hills, red earth and paddy fields. Occasional traditional villages consisting of wooden bungalows supported on stilts, which keeps out bugs, snakes and floodwater, as well as creating a shaded and useful open space at ground level. The weather was clear and warm, and I felt totally at ease, never worrying about where I'd stay the night, how far I'd come or how far to go, just enjoying the riding. I don't even recall having to bargain over any prices. Accomodation was sparse and basic, but seemed to keep cropping up at roughly the time I wanted to stop. One place couldn't be induced to provide any kind of food, which I found strange. There was no restaurant anywhere near, but a few houses, and I assumed the occupants must eat something. All they had to offer were plastic noodles, so I set up my stove.

Arriving at the Na Meo border crossing I saw a couple of white people with backpacks sitting in some shade. This was the first solid proof I'd had that the border was indeed open to tourists, so I was delighted. I spent a few minutes chatting with them before stopping for lunch in a shack. This transpired to be a strategic error, since it gave the border guards time to knock off for lunch. By the time I arrived at the pink flat-slab concrete gerbil-run which was the border control it was deserted. I contemplated cracking on anyway, but suspected it could cause trouble later on...

I sat behind the hutch killing time for two hours, mostly reading and trying to dodge the attentions of a camp and overfamiliar border guard, whose hospitable offer of a banana and glass of water I was beginning to regret accepting. It was 2pm before I was finally free in Laos, with 60 hilly kilometers still to cover. I arrived in Vieng Xai after dark, riding by the light of the full moon.

I could easily have ridden past the town, since there were none of the telltale signs- streetlights, pavements, houses- that I've come to associate with towns that merit a medium-sized dot on the map and inclusion in guidebooks. Vieng Xai was 1km off the main road, and the moonlight that was sufficient on the sealed 'highway' was not enough to navigate the potholed track into town. I pushed the last kilometer, asking each of the four people  I met in the town centre (all of whom looked ill at ease in the street after dark) for directions. I soon located an affordable hotel-cum-fishfarm, which was a reasonably comfortable first lodgings in Laos. Most cheap accomodation is normally a hotel-cum-something, be it 'cafe', 'home', or 'brothel', but this was the first fishfarm I've stayed in. 

The reason Vieng Xai merits a place in guidebooks is that the name means 'city of victory', and was the headquarters of the communist Pathet Lao freedom fighters/gueurilla rebels/soviet stooges during the civil war/revolution/clandestine Soviet incursion/American imperial aggression. The Pathet Lao now run the country, but from Vientien. When they first took control of Laos, they had wanted to build an actual city in Vieng Xai, but the Soviets weren't willing to fund a brand new capital. All that's there now is a small village, smaller even than when American cluster bombs were raining down, since there's no longer a small army hidden in the caves in need of supplies. The tourist draw is these caves.

Many people have never heard of the American war in Laos. I hadn't, for one. It came as a surprise to learn that more bombs were dropped on Laos than on all of Europe during WW2. The equivalent of a plane-load of bombs every 8 minutes, 24/7, for nine years, at a cost of over 2 million dollars a day. Two thousand US planes were shot down over Laos. The details of the campaign bugger belief. Laos was supposed to be a crucial south-east asian 'domino', which could not be allowed to fall to communism. However, the Americans were initially too busy fighting Vietnam, and later were supposed to be withdrawing from the region, so they couldn't use ground troops.

Hence the bombs. The trouble was, the Pathet Lao were all holed up in caves, natural and 'enhanced', in the limestone karst outcrops which characterise S.E. Asia, and were almost totally bombproof. So the Americans dropped planeload after planeload of anti-personel cluster-bombs. These are shells which split as they fall, releasing hundreds of tennis-ball sized 'bomblets', each designed to explode into a million pieces and shred any 'soft' targets within a large radius. These bomblets, or 'bombies' could have no effect on the caves, or anything armoured or otherwise protected. Which is to say they could not hurt the military. They were designed, and intended, to kill civilians. And, since up to 30% of the bombs dropped didn't explode on impact, that is what they still do, 30 years later. (The Americans, and probably the Brits, drop the same bombs, for the same reason and with the same long-term consequences, in Afghanistan.)

The tour of the caves was, as you can tell, informative. The Pathet Lao high command were able to remain more or less totally effective regardless of the bombardment outside, with accomodation (admittedly less salubrious than my fishfarm), food, communications and meeting rooms. The barracks caves were not open to the public, but the 'theatre' cavern was, which began to bring home the size of the population housed in what look from a distance like a couple of smallish karsts. 20,000 soldiers, at one point, were billeted there, with a sizeable town attempting to coaxe sufficient sustenance from the ground, tilling and harvesting at night and between raids.

I was fortunate to share the English-language tour with some Scandinavians who had their own jeep, so we shuttled efficiently and in comfort from site to site. Also mooching a free ride was a seven-foot tall heavily tattooed German nurse. The jeep meant we could finish the tour before midday, so I checked out of my fishfarm and rode to Sam Neua, the provincial capital 20km down the road. Unfortunately the 20km involved a merciless 12% climb, through a cloud and over a pass, corkscrewing up the mountain and struggling to keep the front wheel in contact with the asphalt.

Again I wasn't sure when I'd arrived, as Sam Neua is a 'provincial capital' with three guesthouses, and two streets. I found myself some accomodation, and treeted myself to a coffee. Usually I drink strong black coffee, but Lao coffee is exceptionally bitter, and even I couldn't stomach it. It is usually taken with a generous ooze of sweetened condensed milk, which I initially mistook for honey, which renders the undrinkable surprisingly tasty. Like a pudding. Since it was Christmas Eve I also treated myself to a steak and chips with a bottle of Lao Beer, and spent the evening chatting to yet another English cyclist called Peter and a couple of Dutch girls.
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