By Watt Miller
Editor’s Note: We are happy to present an exciting series of six stories of two Johnson City natives who traveled to Southeast Asia this past January returning safe and healthy before the pandemic struck. Each week make the journey with them through four countries and off the beaten path as Watt researches Asian customs and history for his next novel.
After spending a few relaxing days in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos, Duke Hall and I were ready to head to the remote northeastern mountain country in search of former CIA sites used during the U.S. “secret war.”
Once on the road we weren’t sure what we’d encounter. I had read reports from a few years ago that all of the former CIA sites were closed to foreigners. More alarming were unconfirmed reports of anti-communist insurgents operating in those areas, including an ambush killing of a couple of foreigners. The question facing us was whether we’d be taking an unnecessary risk to go ahead with our plans.
We started our trip two weeks earlier in Bangkok, Thailand, traveled by train to Chiang Mai and then on to Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong. From there we took a memorable and exciting two-day journey down the Mekong River.
I decided to embark on this trip to do research for a sequel to my novel, Dreams of Cherry Blossoms, which will be set in Laos during the secret war.
Before heading out for areas few if any tourists ever see, we paid a visit to Emi Weir, an Australian who has lived in Laos the past 10 years. She has an outfit called Banana Boat which arranges small group tours on the Mekong. She’s also managing director of Ma Te Sai, which sells local jewelry, textiles and homemade utensils. The products are made by villagers across Laos and they receive part of the proceeds.
Emi checked with her sources and reported that the sites were open and we shouldn’t encounter any problems. That was good enough for us.
She helped us rent a double cab four-wheel-drive pickup truck for our trip and set us up with local driver, Seng Sengsavang. He did an outstanding job and proved to be a good companion and terrific interpreter. Most of the roads were in terrible condition, some nothing more than dirt tracks strewn with potholes, ditches and boulders.
We had one more stop to make – the visitor center of the nonprofit Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, or COPE. COPE provides free prosthetic and orthotic devices to those who have lost limbs from unexploded ordnance.
According to COPE, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973. The advocacy group Legacies of War says this amounted to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours per day, for nine years. When President Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Laos in 2006, he said that was more than all of the bombs dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II.
COPE says that of the 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos, 80 million did not detonate. Since the end of the war, 20,000 civilians have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance. Of those, 40 percent were children.
The COPE visitors center displays disarmed bombs and prostheses. It was a sobering prelude to our trip.
Emi told us it’d probably take seven to nine hours to reach our first destination, Long Tieng. It took every bit of nine hours to navigate the “new” two-lane “highway” that was mostly a gravel, dusty road.
Long Tieng lies in a valley surrounded on three sides by soaring, jagged mountains. A legacy of the secret war is a 4,100-foot runway built by the CIA. No planes use it today, only cars, motor scooters, and wandering cows.
Just days after he was sworn in as president in 1961, John F. Kennedy claimed Laos was in danger of falling to the communist Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese allies.
Kennedy gave the green light for the CIA to covertly recruit young men from a Lao mountain ethnic group known as Hmong. The CIA supplied the Hmong guerrillas with weapons, food and other supplies and established Long Tieng as the headquarters of Vang Pao, the Hmong military leader. He was revered by the Hmong and Americans as a charismatic leader and fearless fighter.
By the mid-60s, Long Tieng reportedly was the CIA’s most secret and busiest airfield in all of Southeast Asia. From here the CIA-owned Air America flew supply missions to Hmong fighters and Royal Lao troops all over Laos.
Our next stop was the town of Phonsovan, the base for exploring the prehistoric Plain of Jars, the most heavily bombed area during the secret war.
The Plain of Jars is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Rolling countryside contains thousands of large stone jars, some weighing several tons. Archaeologists believe the jars were carved during the Iron Age, around 500 BCE. Just what the jars were used for remains a mystery. One of the leading theories is the jars held human remains.
The Plain of Jars played a major role in the secret war. Hmong fighters achieved a significant victory by defeating the communists in the mid-1960’s and gaining control of the area, but later were overpowered by Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops.
The Plain of Jars also was ground zero of the CIA’s massive bombing campaign. Of the tens of thousands of people killed, most were civilians. Today, the landscape is scared by bomb craters.
Our final stop was to the remote Phou Pha Thi mountain, the location of one of the CIA’s deadliest and possibly preventable defeats.
In 1967, CIA and Air Force personnel built a radar facility on the mountaintop at an elevation of fifty-five hundred feet. Lima Site 85 was only 20 miles from the border with North Vietnam.
The high-tech radar could guide U.S. bombers to targets in Laos and North Vietnam in any kind of weather.
In March 1968, North Vietnamese forces launched a predawn attack. Commandoes scaled sheer cliffs and overran the compound. An order to evacuate the Americans came later in the morning as the commandoes were mopping up. It was an order issued a day too late.
Only four of the 16 Air Force technicians were rescued. The others were presumed killed. It was the deadliest loss of Air Force personnel on the ground during the Vietnam War.
Today, a metal staircase apparently built by the government reaches to the summit of LS 85.
Before Duke and I began our climb we first paid a visit to a Lao military command post. The officer in charge looked over our passports and asked for a “donation.”
“How much,” I asked. “The amount is up to you,” he replied, smiling.
We gave the equivalent of five dollars.
As we climbed the steps, we encountered a group of young Lao girls and boys wearing traditional brightly embroidered clothing. They were quite shy and made it clear they didn’t want me to take their photograph.
Near the summit we met up with another group of men and women. I asked one of the men if he was Lao.
“No!” he said in a loud voice. “I’m Hmong!”
They were from California. That state and Minnesota are home to the largest number of Hmong refugees in the U.S.
At the summit is a small military guard post. As we started looking around we were joined by a soldier carrying an AK-47. He seemed very bored having to follow us, often stopping to check his phone.
There is little indication the area once contained one of the military’s most sophisticated radar installation. We did spot the rusted carcass of what Duke said was probably a small howitzer and the foundation of one of the buildings used by the Americans.
Our next stop was the nearby city of Sam Neua, a town controlled by and a base of operation by the Pathet Lao during the war. It’s reported to be one of the least visited provincial capitals in Laos.
We took local advice and took a room at the Xayphasouk Hotel. Bad choice. The hotel and its rooms were comfortable. But neither the hot water system or Wi-Fi worked. The staff didn’t seem to care despite our repeated pleas. Of all the places we stayed this was the only disappointment.
However, the city was pleasant, with broad avenues and an expansive park where we were treated to a dance routine by a group of women all wearing dark pants and yellow shirts.
Right next to the hotel we discovered one of the best coffee cafes of the journey. Yuni Coffee offers a wide selection of homemade baked goods and excellent locally grown coffee. The two American owners also sell their coffee throughout Laos, in part to assist the local economy of Sam Neua and coffee growers of the area.
From Sam Neua we headed back to Luang Pranbang, stopping along the way at the Vieng Xai Caves. This vast complex was the headquarters of the Pathet Lao at the height of the war and provided shelter from air raids. Carved out of the side of steep mountainside, numerous sections contained sleeping quarters, kitchen, conference room, hospital and even a jail.
Back in Luang Prabang we relaxed for a few days, enjoying the city’s captivating charm after four and a half days of traveling in that pickup truck over bone jarring, pothole strewn roads and dirt tracks.
We next took a 40-minute flight to the Lao capital of Vientiane. During the secret war, this sleepy capital was the center of CIA activity. Americans and other foreigners flocked to French restaurants and nightclubs.
Obviously, much has changed since those days but in many respects Vientiane remains slow and laid back. Many side streets near the Mekong are packed with bars, eateries, and nightclubs.
Vientiane marked the end to our remarkable stay in Laos.
Up next, Cambodia, the penultimate stop on our Grand Journey. Like Laos, it has an ancient history epitomized on the one hand by the majestic Ankor Wat Hindu-Buddhist temple complex and on the other by the infamous killing fields of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime.