Trekking into ancient Laos

The city of Luang Prabang in central Laos is our location in this week’s story series.

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.

When Duke Hall and I stepped off the Mekong River boat, we entered the captivating, exotic and seductive city of Luang Prabang, the first stop on our trip to Laos. We had spent two relaxing and intriguing days slowly traveling down the Mekong, the longest river in Southeast Asia.

It was the latest leg on what I dubbed the Grand Journey to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Hong Kong.

Luang Prabang dates back to at least the seventh century. By the early 18th century it became the capital of the Kingdom of Luang Prabang.

In the late 1800s, Luang Prabang fell under French colonial rule. During World War II Japanese forces occupied Laos. After the war, France briefly regained control but when the French pulled out of Indochina in 1954 Laos again became independent under a constitutional monarchy with Luang Prabang as the royal capital. That ended when communist Pathet Lao forces gained total control in 1974.

Many homes and buildings built by the French now serve as guesthouses, hotels and businesses. Photos by Watt Miller and Duke Hall.
The French legacy shows in the local pastry shops.

The French legacy is still very evident in the historic part of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many homes and buildings built by the French now serve as guesthouses, hotels, eateries and bars. Enter the numerous cafes where you can get excellent Lao coffee, French pastries and wine and you feel like you’re in Paris.

Several of these establishments are found along the main broad Sisavangvong street. A long section is closed every evening for a vast night market selling everything from clothes, handicrafts, jewelry, scarves, T-shirts, handmade pocketbooks, toys, street food and much more.

Our quaint hotel – Café Toui – is located in the heart of the old city and an excellent base for exploring the area. Toui happens to be the name of the owner who also is the chef of the highly regarded downstairs eatery serving Lao food.

Right across the street is the Icon Klub. To our dismay this 10-year-old watering hole was closed and under renovation. However, a check of its web page reveals intriguing tidbits of the atmosphere and personality of the Hungarian owner. It reads…

“Don’t ask me how did I end up in Laos because I only answer to ‘good questions.’ There is a bell. Ring it if you have a deep intention to buy a round for the bar, otherwise we all might just get a heart attack from sudden and falsely inflicted hope, and nobody will like you. If you are already illuminated, you will not be served.”

Toui told us about a bamboo bridge spanning the Nam Khan River which empties into the Mekong about half block away. So, being intrepid explorers, we decided to check it out. An interesting thing about this bridge is that it gets washed away during the rainy season which usually starts in April and is rebuilt at the beginning of the dry season in November.

We paid about $2 each for a round trip crossing. A sign at the makeshift ticket office explained that the fee helps pay for rebuilding the bridge. From appearance the bridge didn’t inspire much confidence in its strength.

I glanced at Duke, crossed my fingers, tossed caution to the wind and stepped onto the bridge. It took only seconds to wonder if we’d made the right decision. Each step caused the bridge to sway and emit loud creaking sounds. The further we advanced the swaying and creaking intensified. Before we knew it we were at the halfway point. To go forward or turn back?

I looked at Duke. He gave me thumbs up so we forged ahead. He stayed right behind me, thinking, I assumed, that if the bridge collapsed we both would get wet.

It was the right move. The bridge held and we made it over. A short climb up the river bank brought us to a small market offering locally made handicrafts, embroidered shirts for men and women, as well as brightly colored aprons, jewelry and the ubiquitous fresh fruit stands.

Watt Miller, left, and Duke Hall traverse the shakey bridge rebuilt year after
year when the annual rainy season floods wash it away.

I spotted a young woman selling her handmade bracelets and other jewelry. One in particular caught my eye. “Is this for men?” I asked.

It was made with several strands of brown fabric with tiny brass beads. I tried it on. “Very nice looking,” she said. “It’ll bring you good luck.”

I was sold. I’m always in need of good luck. I paid the equivalent of a couple of dollars and I’ve been wearing it ever since.

By the time we got back to our guesthouse, it was mid-day and hot. Along the way we noticed several storefronts advertising massages.

“I’m going to get a foot and leg massage,” Duke declared.

“Ok,” I said laughing. “I’m going to check out some other shops. Let me knows how it goes.”

We had been doing a lot of walking on the trip. My feet and legs were sore and I thought a massage might be just what the doctor ordered. When I met up with Duke, he raved about his relaxing massage.

“Ok,” I said, “I’ll give it a shot.”

As Duke headed back to the hotel, I strolled down a side street. The first massage joint I came to looked inviting enough so I opened the door.

“Would you like a massage?” a smiling young woman said.

“Yes, a foot and leg massage. How much?”

“No problem,” she said, all smiles.

The price for a one-hour massage was about eight dollars.

I was ushered to a lounge chair with the back slightly raised and long enough for me to stretch out. Another young woman appeared and explained she would be giving me the massage. “Just relax and enjoy,” she said, smiling.

She began rubbing some type of oil on my feet and legs. Her pressure was quite intense especially on the toes of my right foot where I had surgery several years ago. She took each toes in her fingers and sharply pulled. I gritted my teeth and forced a smile.

After massaging my feet for several minutes, she applied more oil to my legs and went to work. I’ve been a distance runner for years and by nature my leg muscles are tight, especially my calves. Hers wasn’t a deep massage, but certainly not soft either! At one point it was all I could do to muffle a yelp.

Soon she started massaging my shoulders and upper arms. This is bliss, I said to myself, and the best part of the experience.

When I walked outside, I felt like I was walking on clouds. I was totally relaxed.

Back at the guesthouse, after giving Duke a detailed description, he said his was very similar. Money well spent, we agreed.

By then it was supper time. For a change we opted to have our evening meal at an open air eatery overlooking the Mekong. It was one of several dining spots located above the river bank. It was basic Lao food, nothing fancy. Duke had fried rice with chicken and veggies. I had veggies with fried noodles. And we each had a bottle of tasty Beer Lao.

The next day, we hiked up steep steps to the summit of Mount Phu Si, a Buddhist site located in the heart of the old city. At the top is the impressive Wat Tham Phou Si Buddhist temple and stunning views of the city and the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.

However, the main purpose of our trip wasn’t to sightsee but to visit several sites used by the CIA during the U.S. “secret war” in Laos in the 1960s. I needed to do research for a sequel to my novel, Dreams of Cherry Blossoms, published last year. The sequel will be set in Laos during the secret war.

While this was my first visit to Laos, I had spent 11 years in Asia as a foreign correspondent. Because of political instability I was unable to get visas for Laos or Cambodia. Duke served in the Vietnam War as a member of the 1st Marine Division. This also was his first time in Laos.

American bombs stopped raining down on Laos 47 years ago, but men, women and children continue to be maimed and killed by unexploded ordnance, also known as UXOs.

The bombing was a major component of the CIA’s secret war.

We visited an old air strip used as one of the CIA’s top secret Lima Sites in Luang Prabang.

You may not have heard of the U.S. secret war in Laos. Well, you’re not alone. Few if any Americans, including members of Congress, knew about it either. It was a direct result of Cold War foreign policy bent on containing communism at every turn.

The nonprofit Lao organization COPE says at least 50,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed by the bombing.

When civil war erupted in Laos in 1960, its independence was fragile and beset by overwhelming problems, the most destabilizing being the insurgency by the communist Pathet Lao and their ally North Vietnam.

To get around an international agreement establishing Laos neutrality, President Kennedy authorized a CIA covert operation to assist the Lao government in fighting Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces.

Luang Prabang served as one of the numerous CIA top secret Lima Sites during the war. The town’s airfield played a significant role in operations by American pilots who conducted air strikes and reconnaissance. Of the four Lima Sites we visited, it was the easiest to see and least dangerous because today it’s the Luang Prabang airport.

But we weren’t sure what we might encounter at the other Lima Sites. I had read reports of foreigners being turned away from the sites and that some had been closed as recently as four years ago. Most disturbing was an unconfirmed report that in the early 2000s two westerners trying to reach Lima Site 85 were killed by anti-communist insurgents.

Dangerous or not we were determined to proceed with our plans to visit three other isolated sites which played strategic roles in the war.


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