Thursday, December 19, 2013


The edge of the Plain of Jars. Some Hmong fighters still hide out in the remote northern mountains.
The last Lao passengers climb aboard our bus in Luang Prabang. I’m anxious to get started, as we have a 10 hour drive ahead to get to the remote province of Xieng Khuang. Like most bus stations, this is a drab place. At least it’s boring until the last rider gets on, as he carries very unexpected baggage! 

He's carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle! This Laotian teenager with a peach fuzz moustache has one of the world's deadliest weapons in his hands. I watch as he slowly walks down the aisle towards me, stopping right at my side. Then he casually puts the AK-47 on the shelf overhead, and sits down behind me. 

Across the aisle, a curly haired French backpacker listening to his MP3 player stares at this process, totally wide eyed. The look on his face is something between stunned and confused. Until this moment, he has probably only seen an AK-47 rifle in the movies. 

As it turns out, the heavily armed young traveler isn’t a guerilla, he happens to be an armed guard for the bus company. His presence isn’t really needed here in Luang Prabang though, since the town is safe enough. I recall seeing a few policemen relaxing outside a police station, and they carried no weapons at all. The reason for the armed guard’s presence, is due to trouble on the highways ahead of us. 

Traditional homes in the highlands
Back in 2003 a bus traveling on Route 13 was ambushed. 10 Laotians were killed, as well as two Swiss cyclists. An attack on another bus south of Luang Prabang later that year left 12 more dead and 31 injured. Both attacks were believed to be by Hmong rebels hiding out in the highlands. These were probably revenge attacks, after Hmong civilians were killed by security forces. Hoping to keep the existence of these rebels quiet, the Laotian government tends to write them off as ‘bandits’.

These highway attacks took place before the Laotian government began an amnesty program for the Hmong rebels. Many of them finally came down from the mountains and gave up their weapons, but not all of them joined the amnesty. There are still some Hmong fighters hiding out in the remote hills. As I had already heard explosions one night in Vang Vieng, its evident that the army is still pursuing the holdouts in the mountains. With fewer rebels around these days, the roads have been quiet recently. 

The driver starts up the old bus engine, and we head east into the highlands. The little guard behind me stretches out across two seats, and goes to sleep. He’s certainly not the type of security guard to be vigilant. If our bus ends up getting attacked today, he would have to wake up, stand up, grab his weapon off the shelf, and then load it with the the ammunition clip he carries in his pocket. Only then, could he return fire. With him snoozing behind me, I’m hoping this will be an uneventful trip. 

We make good time as we ascend into the highlands. Although only two lanes, the highway we're on is well paved. The surrounding hills may not be completely pacified, but road infrastructure in Laos has improved considerably since the war years. 

Stopover town on the highway from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, once a dangerous route
One reason for this improvement, has been road construction completed by their northern neighbors, the Chinese. Road construction by Chinese in Laos goes all the way back to the war, when Red Army road crews built roads in the far northern provinces. During all those years of bombing, by the US Air Force, American pilots were careful not to target Chinese road crews. Washington did not want to risk increased intervention from the China communists. 

These days its Chinese capitalists that are coming in droves. Today, many Chinese companies are running projects all over Laos, and they've returned to road building. Chinese road crews are completing a key trade route, a main artery running through northern Laos, that will connect China to Thailand. It’s real progress to have commerce as the driving force behind road construction, rather than war. 

Hours later, I awaken from a nap feeling familiar pressure in my ears. We are gaining altitude, and my ears are popping. Looking out the window, the mountains are giving way to rolling green hills. We have arrived on a high plateau. I’m getting my first view of the geographical place, known as as the 'Plain of Jars'. The temperature is thankfully cooler now, since we have climbed to an altitude of 3000 feet. At around 400 square miles, this highland plateau has always been strategic to northern Laos. For that reason, some of the worst fighting of the Secret War of the 1960's - 1970's took place in these rolling hills. 

Continuing across the highlands, we finally arrive outside Phonsavan, capital of Xieng Khuang Province. Fortunately there was no need for our armed guard to load his weapon on this trip. As we park he takes on another duty; unloading baggage. He hands me my suitcase, I grab a tuk-tuk, and head into the highland town. There's a great deal to be seen here on the Plain of Jars. 

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