Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Remains of Russian built PT-76 tank sits on old battlefield site in northern Laos
I’m at the base of an old battleground in the Laotian village of Nako. This hill has been left to the elements, covered with brush and young trees. No farmers will plant crops atop this knoll, because it’s still too dangerous to walk up there even today. The brush still hides landmines and unexploded ordinance from the battle that took place here. 

There are no ancient relics here like I saw at the nearby 'Plain of Jars', but right on the hillside is other evidence. An abandoned PT-76 tank has been left behind by the North Vietnamese Army! My guide Phin says this part of the hill has been cleared of explosives, so we walk towards the old wreck, without fear of losing a leg to a landmine. 

As tanks go, it’s not very large at all. It’s a lighter Russian built tank, brought by the Vietnamese deep into Laos as they fought to take over the Plain of Jars during the 1964 - 1973 war. Back then there were no paved roads in northern Laos. It was so rugged, that only a light tank could have made that difficult journey. Even then, it appears that this tank traveled all that way, only to get stuck here. It now rests on an angle against a tree, as though it got stranded in a muddy ditch long ago. 

Opposite view of the abandoned tank. Even the treads have been stripped away for scrap.
But Phin tells a different story. “This tank hit the anti-tank mine,” he says. If that’s true, it’s hard to tell by looking at it now. Both of the tank’s treads are gone. Like other abandoned American built tanks that I saw earlier in Vietnam, it has been stripped of everything that could be cut away, and sold for scrap or other uses. Even the hatches are gone. The gunless steel turret is lying upright on the ground just steps away, right under a fence. Strangely, the locals are using the tank’s small turret as a step, in order to climb over the barbed wire. 

As a light tank the armor isn’t very thick. Looking closer, I find a small hole in the side, with shrapnel scars around it. Apparently some kind of armor piercing round struck the front corner. The deadly round was well placed, because it hit right next to where the tank’s driver was seated. I doubt he survived. 

“All the tank drivers were Vietnamese,” Phin informs me. I imagine that most of the North Vietnamese troops that fought here, never imagined that they’d be fighting in Laos. Instead of fighting Americans over in South Vietnam, they were sent across the border into Laos. The only Americans they faced here were pilots in the air. On the ground they fought the Hmong, the Royal Laotian Army, and a 'special' army from Thailand.

The tank's detached turret is now used by locals to step over a farm's fence!
As the war dragged on in Laos, the Hmong troops that fought here on the Plain of Jars suffered heavy losses against the well armed NVA. With few adult men left among the Hmong to replace their losses, Hmong boys joined the fight as child soldiers. This wasn’t enough, and to fill the gap to stop the advancing communists, the Thai military joined the fight. It’s often forgotten that thousands of Thai troops fought not only in Vietnam, but also here in Laos. Back then, (and continuing today,) Thailand and Vietnam were the main powers in Southeast Asia. 

Since the Thai and Lao languages are so similar, Thai soldiers fit in well with the Royal Laotian Army. These Thai troops were tasked with defending many bases and hilltop outposts like this one, leaving the Hmong to conduct combat operations in the field. The fact that Thai troops were fighting within Laos was a closely guarded secret at the time.

We return to our tiny van, and head back towards Phonsavan. Cruising across the rolling hills, we pass more farming villages, green with the growing season. As we drive, Phin recalls what life was like in these villages after the war. “1975 to 1990 was the hungry period,” he says. “Not enough food.” Agricultural collectivization brought shortages to the farmers, and it also brought the Russian advisors. 

Parked chopper above, for MIA search teams
“This was Russian farm,” Phin says as we pass a vacant facility. Pointing the other direction, he says. “over there, was Russian cattle farm.”

The arrival of Russian advisers also meant a revolution in foreign language study in Laos. “At that time, there was no more French in schools. No more English,” he tells me. “Everyone learned Russian.” Phin speaks English better than most Laotian translators I’ve met, but he still wishes he had begun studying it earlier. Remembering his student days, Phin made fun of one of his former language instructors. 

“My teacher tell me, 'Learn Russian. Later, go to university in Soviet Union. In 20 to 30 years, whole world will be communist'.” Then Phin laughs aloud at how wrong she was, given the outcome of the Cold War. “I think, where is she now?” He chuckles. 

As the van rounds a corner, I look up to the sky, and spot a red and white helicopter high ahead of us. It looks like the small chopper that I had taken a photo of earlier. I had seen it parked in Phonsavan, the town where I'm staying.

“That for the US government,” Phin says. “They looking for missing body.” 

Apparently there is nothing secret about the mission of the two US soldiers that I met in Phonsavan in Craters Restaurant recently. Even Phin knows that there are Americans here looking for remains of servicemen still 'Missing in Action' (MIA) from the war.   

Watching the helicopter head for the horizon, I reflect on the past. Years ago, the skies over Laos were criss-crossed by so many US aircraft. There were US Air Force jet fighters, bombers and rescue choppers. There were CIA spotter planes and cargo planes. Now the only aircraft flying over northern Laos under the control of the Americans, is a small helicopter, and it's not even American owned. It's rented from New Zealand!

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