In Search of Laos’ Disappearing War.
Photo: A forward air controller directs two F-100s Super Sabres in a close air support mission over Laos (USAF)
Sometimes a day spent looking for war-related sites and sights in modern-day Laos can be a frustrating affair, given the Laotians seeming lack of interest in the war, and certainly their lack of knowledge or awareness about it, almost 50 years later.
This lack of interest is compounded by the Laotians having sold off as much war scrap as they could, years ago, probably believing there was no tourist value in keeping it. Try telling that to the Vietnamese who earn many millions of tourist dollars a year with trips to Cu Chi Tunnels, Khe Sanh, the DMZ, firebase tours and other war-related tourism offerings.
And of course my novel BACK is based on a group of American student backpackers embarking on a jungle trek to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in UXO-littered Attapeu Province, Laos.
We drove out of the dirty, dusty border town of Tha Khaek early in the morning, heading to Ban Nakay, not to be confused with the famous POW volleyball cave photo Ban Nakay (see here http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/pows-left-behind-in-laos-and-vietnam-what-happened-to-these-people/) but another one, heavily bombed in Khammouane Province during the war.
One of the first vehicles we saw on the road was a UXO Lao land cruiser, which was an appropriate reminder of the province’s still-unexploded dangers.
Driving along the town’s Promenade we looked across the Mekong River to Thailand, where the magnificent white and gold stupa of Nakon Phanom was beautifully lit by the early morning sun.
There was a huge American air base in Nakhon Phanom during the Vietnam War, with quick (but never easy) bombing access to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, across the well-defended mountains around Tha Khaek and Khammouane Province, where we would be travelling today.
Densely wooded Khammouane Province was infamous during the war as a place where many US pilots and planes were lost. After the war, the province was notorious for POW sightings, one of which the US took very seriously as late as 1981, in the town and district of Gnommarath – called Nhommarath in the US, so let’s stick with that. (See http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/pows-left-behind-in-laos-the-nhommarath-incident-what-did-the-us-know-in-1981/)
I had already established that nobody in Tha Khaek knew anything about the Vietnam War or the Secret War in Laos, so this was a speculative road trip really, and an excuse to travel through some rarely visited towns, villages and scenery well off any tourist map in Khammouane Province.
A very few km from town and the stunning karst scenery started, and it continued all the way to Nhommarath. I soon realized there were so many limestone caves in the area that you could hide a whole civilization, let alone a few POWs in all that karst.
On the way to Ban Nakay we passed a large dam over the Nam Theun river, then drove along a new road cut through still-densely-jungled mountains. Some of the views were breathtaking, looking out over jungle for as far as the eye could see, and then, at the top of the mountain, suddenly, we were in Ban Nakay.
Now what? Where do we find information on war sites in the area?
First we asked the local police for information, but they had none and instead directed us to the Nakay Administrative District office, where nobody had any information on war remains or sites in the area.
However we were rewarded with discovering a couple of bomb casings and a very interesting piece of machinery from a shot-down US aircraft, which was standing unlabeled and ignored in the grounds. I’ll post about this intriguing piece separately.
Nearby, we found an information office of sorts, but a man nearby said it wasn’t yet ready to dispense information.
“Is there anywhere else we can go for information on war-related sites in and around Ban Nakay?” I asked, through my Laotian interpreter.
“The Vietnam/Laos war against the Americans,” I replied.
“Oh, that one.” (Like they’ve had thousands) “Not really…”
“What about that engine over there? Where did you get that from?”
“The UXO people dumped it there. It’s from an American helicopter.”
“Where was it found?”
“I don’t know. A UXO team dug it up in the jungle and left it there.”
Knowing how useful and knowledgeable UXO people are in Laos, I brightened and asked: ‘Great. Where’s the UXO office?”
“Where to? It’s only a small village?”
“I don’t know.”
Thanks a lot.
We then drove around the village looking for a UXO office, to no avail, and then headed out of town to a small dam, and asked a guard about any nearby war sites, and he enthusiastically referred us to a pier, saying there were lots of sites around there.
“A pier? In Ban Nakay?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s down there,” he said, pointing to a dirt track, and minutes later we pulled up at a rudimentary pier on a large lake which had been made a few years ago when the Theun River was dammed.
By now I was excited. If the pier existed, then surely the war sites would as well. The guard’s intel was spot on so far, and we got out and asked some jungle rangers. As we sat under the shade of a tree looking out over the vast blueness of the lake, out of which bleached skeletons of jungle trees still reached skywards, the ranger replied:
“Sure. There are lots of war sites and remains, bomb craters, UXO, war scrap. The place was heavily bombed during the war.”
“Excellent. Can you direct me to them?” I asked.
He then pointed to the lake.
“They’re all under there. They were submerged when the dam was created a few years ago.”
Our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2:
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