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Published: June 16th 2007
Saturday June 16, 2007
Laos Motorbike Trip - Day 4 (Luang Prabang to Phonsavan) 266Km Covered
After some jet fuel-like Lao coffee and a baguette we were back on the bikes early. We had to backtrack south to the fork in the road where route 13 and route 7 meet. By 10:30am we were eating tuna sandwiches at the same place with the monkey. We bought a few extra sandwiches for the ride and strapped them onto the bikes. An hour later we turned west from route 13 onto route 7 at Muang Phu Khuon. We needed to stop and rest, but Muang Phu Khuon wasn’t the most inviting town. We pressed on and stopped a few Kms up the road. It was here we saw a horrific car accident. We passed in amazement as men were picking up the pieces of debris that could be salvaged. The girls jumped off the bike and Daragh and I went back to make sure they were alright. To our amazement they three men were actually pushing the totaled van down the road. It looked as if they had swerved into the embankment on the inside of the road and smashed
the whole front end. I couldn’t believe they were alright and moving on. If they had swerved the other way they would have dropped off the side of the mountain. No road barricades in Laos! They motioned that they were fine and we went back to where the girls were resting. The views were stunning. Rolling tree-covered hillsides shrouded in misty clouds. The road was tough through this section - increasingly more curvy and many more potholes and loose debris on the road. Our average speed suffered and Kelly and Jo began their fights with motion sickness. It was like a video game driving these mountain roads. Turn after turn - never knowing what we would find around the next corner. With the girls suffering with the increase in tight turns we stopped for another pit stop in the village of Nam Chat. Daragh and I negotiated the purchase of some bottles of Pepsi and some Pringles from the local “shop” and Kelly resorted to leaning over the bridge to “feed the fish”. We drank our Pepsi while a group of kids and adults stared at us for 15 minutes. The smaller children came over for a closer look. A
boy with no pants came and sat right by us. We gave him some Pringles, which he in turn shared with the other kids. Using hand signs we asked where we could find some gas for the bikes. Just around the corner was the local gas station - a barrel with a pump and a hose. As we were filling up the boy with no pants came up to us again. We gave him our leftover tuna sandwich. He was so happy he ran away towards his house, sandwich in tow. About 15 feet away I think he realized he had forgot to say thanks. He turned around and made a bowing motion and then bee-lined it back to his house. About halfway there he dropped the sandwich. The whole scene made us laugh.
Rain forced us to hang out with the gas attendant’s family for a while longer than we had planned. We had some roasted peanuts and some bottled water while his little girl flitted about the roadside shack. On the wall of the hut there was a poster showing illustrations of bombs and grenades. I guess this is a good time to explain that the province we
were now in, Xieng Khuang, holds the distinguished title of being one of the most heavily bombed areas in the world. Laos is one of the most bombed places on earth and this province, due to its close proximity to the Vietnam boarder, was where a lot of them fell in during the US carpet bombing campaigns during the war in Vietnam. The US Air Force dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos from 1964 to 1973, in daily raids. An equivalent of one plane load of bombs fell on Laos every 8 minutes, around the clock for 9 years. 580,944 sorties or 177 raids a day for 9 years. The movie Air America with Mel Gibson is about this secret war in Laos. (I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t say it’s good or not). No reference has ever been made to these bombings in official US Military records. Anyway…the statistics are astonishing. I was looking forward to seeing this area. When we were in Vietnam we traveled down the Ho Chi Minh trail and saw little evidence of any of the bombings. A few bombed out bridges here and there and some hillsides with no vegetation
due to the use of Agent Orange, but no real concrete signs of the reminders of war. Anyway, the poster on the wall in this man’s hut was there because approximately 30% of the bombs dropped in Laos failed to detonate, leaving a huge amount of UXO (unexploded ordinance) everywhere. As the guidebook pointed out, if you stray too far off the path you are almost certain to leave Laos with a serious limp at best. During the 9 years of bombing many locals fled their villages and lived in caves. When the bombing stopped they returned to the fields and many lost limbs or died when they came upon the UXO. Even more were injured while trying to dig up the bombs to sell as scrap metal. The selling of bombs as scrap metal is now illegal in Laos. Things are changing and there are now many organizations working in Laos to clear out this ordinance and inform the locals of the very real dangers they face. This poster was a product of one of these campaigns. It made me realize that we were entering the area where we couldn’t stray off the marked paths.
As we continued east
out of Nam Chat the landscape changed. The rolling mountains dissipated into rolling hills covered with dark-red mud and pine trees. At times there would be long flat plains of neon green rice fields. We stopped at one point to let some rain clouds pass and took photos of workers in a terraced rice paddy. From here it was a pretty straight shot into Phonsavan. The road was wet with rain, but straight enough to pick up the speed and blaze into town before the sun set. It had been a long day of riding and by the end we were ready to be off the bikes. Or map had suggested that it would be about 219kms. It ended up being more like 266km.
We would stay in Phonsavan for at least another full day. We weren’t there only to see the reminders of war, the real tourist draw for Phonsavan is the Plain of Jars - three archaeological sites scattered with the remains of huge stone jars estimated to be 2000 years old. Due to the large amount of UXO in the area of the jars, study has been slow going as the areas were cleared of bombs. Researchers
are not even sure of the origins or purpose of the jars. Phonsavan itself was completely destroyed during the 9 years of bombing - with over three and a half thousand buildings demolished. It has been totally rebuilt in the past 30 years. That night we walked down the main drag and came across a place with bomb shells lining the front of a restaurant. The food was pretty good. It turned out to be a stroke of luck that we chose this restaurant. After dinner I began looking at the photos on the walls and they were all of mines, bombs, and maps showing just how intense the bombing had actually been in this area. Red dots covered virtually the entire map of the region. Eventually, we found out the owner was an Australian who cleared bombs and mines for a living. He worked for an independent organization called MAG (Mine Action Group). He was more than willing to share his first hand knowledge of the area with us. He asked how we were getting around and when we told him we had our own bikes, he said, “ahhh, you guys are the ones that rolled in on the
250s this afternoon.” “Perfect,” he said as he drew out military style maps for us to visit bomb crater sites, houses that had been built on bomb casings, and a cave where nearly 400 civilians had been killed when three bombs went directly into the cave. “Most tourists don’t get a chance to explore this area if they don’t have their own transport,” he said.
When we were certain we understood his maps well enough to find the places he suggested, we turned our questioning to the other important matter at hand. Was the road to Paksen good enough to travel over this time of year? Our map had this road marked as “undetermined” and the guide book said it was impossible to pass in the rainy season. We really wanted to go this route in order to avoid doubling back to route 13. We wanted to see as much as we could on a full loop in Laos, rather than back track on roads we already knew. We also wanted to see what the bikes could really do. This was our opportunity to really get off the main tourist route and see something most travelers don’t see in Laos.
He told us it would be passable as long as we stayed away from the west route which runs too close to the Saisombun special zone. He insisted we would be arrested if we choose that route. This is a large area in the center of the country where the Hmong and CIA operated during the war and is still a no-travel zone. There was a CIA base inside a mountain there that few people have ever been able to visit. There is also a huge airstrip there that was used as a base for the B-52 carpet bombing missions in Laos and Vietnam. He told us that traveling the southern trail to Paksan “should” be possible with the 250s, but may involve a few river crossings and there could be landslides that would slow us up. He advised us if there was a landslide, to hold back and not insist on passing right away or the locals may charge us money for them to clear the road in a timely fashion. This was the best info we had been able to find on the road in question. Everyone else we had asked had different things to say. Some spoke of ferries to cross the river, some said the mud was too deep. We trusted Dave the Australian and figured his word was at least an honest assessment of the road and our means of transport. We debated over a few Beer Laos whether or not to take the “undetermined” road to Paksan. In the end we decided to go for it. But first we would spend a day in Phonsavan to explore the areas Dave had mapped out for us.
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