This adventure all started five fateful days before when I met a German and Swiss rider heading south. We passed each other in a small village, and since it’s pretty uncommon to see another overland rider, flipped around and met for a cold drink and chat session. The two of them planted the seed and it was on after that.
They had gone to Long Cheng (Long Tieng), the former CIA airbase during the Secret War. Located in Xiangkhouang Province in a valley at 3,100 feet, it was a town and air base operated by the Central Intelligence Agency. It maintained a population of 40,000 people, which was the second largest Laotian city at the time, but never appeared on any maps. First set up in 1962 for Major General Vang Pao, and a 1260 meter runway was installed in 1964. By 1966 it was one of the busiest airports in the world and one of the largest U.S. bases on foreign soil, which was kept very secret at the time.
In 1975 the final defense outpost was defeated by the north Vietnamese and evacuations began. Quoted from Wikipedia: “By May 1975, there were almost 50,000 guerrillas and refugees living in and around the city. However, by then, the U.S. had withdrawn all its civilian and military personnel from Indochina, except for a few Embassy personnel in Laos and Jerry Daniels in Long Tieng. There were few resources for an evacuation. Daniels had only a single transport aircraft and Hmong pilot in Long Tieng to take evacuees to Udon Thani, Thailand. Aderholt located three additional American transport aircraft and pilots in Thailand. He had the planes “sheep dipped” to remove all markings identifying them as American-owned and sent them to Long Tieng. On May 10, 1975, Vang Pao reluctantly followed the CIA’s counsel and decided that he could no longer maintain Long Tieng against the opposing forces. Between May 10 to May 14, 1975, US C-130s and C-46s airlifted people from the airbase to US bases in Thailand. Between 1,000 and 3,000 Hmong were evacuated. Crowds of civilians surrounded the flights on the runways, creating a chaotic atmosphere. Those evacuated were primarily Hmong military leaders and CIA employees. The evacuation ended with the departure of Major General Vang Pao and Jerry Daniels. Vang Pao told the people still on the tarmac “Farewell, my brothers, I can do nothing more for you, I would only be a torment for you,” as he boarded a helicopter. Tens of thousands of fighters and refugees were left behind. The 10,000 or more Hmong clustered around the airfield expected more aircraft to return, but they soon realized that none would come. The shelling of Long Tieng began on the afternoon of May 14. Many of the Hmong fighters and their families made their way overland to Thailand during the next several years, a dangerous journey that cost many of them their lives.” The terrible thing is that there are still Hmong being hunted by Laos government forces in the forests, and many of them still hold out hope that the Americans will come back to rescue them. It breaks my heart. I’d read a book about the pilots, called ravens. Much of the book involves this base, and I had to see it for myself. It’ s pretty much been a restricted area since the war, and no tourists allowed. The two riders had met a military guy in Phonsavan who told them it was open now and ok to go. They had just rode the rough track from Phonsavan to Xaysombourne the previous day and had awesome pics. A very strange experience though because of being followed and their every move watched by guys in black. Knowing the history of the place, I had to go. Highway 1D going to the north is beautifully surrounded by limestone mountains.
The road snakes its way up and down through valleys and over ridges. Instead of staying on path to Phonsavan I turned off at Ban Vieng Thong to head west towards where I could catch the road to Long Cheng. It wasn’t a go fast road and was thoroughly rutted out with large rocks jutting out at every angle, but drove into a nice sunset over the peaks.
They told me the Long Cheng road was a day trip so I didn’t worry about riding far in the dark and set up camp on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. I rode down into Xaysombourne in the morning slowly escaping the morning fog, which opened up gorgeous vistas.
A big meal stuffed into my belly and I was ready for a big day. In Xaysombourne the road becomes sealed and nice going to the west. Around Namngon theres a road that heads north, and this is the one that twists up to Long Cheng. It’s hard to miss because theres a massive mining operation going on. In the first village, a few km in, there were already guys walking around with assault rifles. The road wasn’t wonderful, but not too bad. The area is full of limestone mountains and ridges, and somewhere close is the tallest mountain in Laos.
I made it to Long Cheng District, and was well on track. Along the way I stopped to help a few guys who were fixing a flat tire and needed a knife. They recommended i stay the night in Long Cheng. I was hoping I got some good karma from helping them, which would help me through. I made it 36 km in and hit the sign for the town, but standing in the road by it were six guys with big guns. They automatically gave me a timeout hand sign and pointed back where I came from. They weren’t the most official looking ragtag bunch of guys. Some wore cammo and some just regular clothes.
I offered them money to let me through, but nothing worked. Finally one left to check if I could with someone higher up I’m guessing. Before I knew it more police showed up. Most of them were fairly friendly. They wore clothes like a detective and had handguns on their hips. They talked and talked and finally told me I needed to go back to Xaysombourne. It was very matter of fact and they were done talking. Damn did I feel defeated. Usually you can find some way to make things work out, but I had to drive all the way back out, and then it’s not an easy way to Phonsavan. It took a lot longer to get out because the road was shut down for two hours to do construction, and there is no other way.
I could still try from Phonsavan. Instead of choosing to go back over the road I had already done from Ban Vieng Thong, I came back out and drove west. On googlemaps theres a road, which goes over towards Vang Vieng, but turns out a dam was built and theres a massive lake instead of a river now. My offline map showed this, and also showed a ferry doing a route across it to the road I wanted to catch. The road towards the lake starts at the mining town. As I drove down the gravel road in the dark, twice I passed groups of at least ten camouflaged dudes marching with assault rifles. Not the most settling feeling in the world when you don’t really know where you are and why theres so many guys with guns. I made it to the shore where a small floating home and some rickety canoes greeted me. The family didn’t speak english, but luckily he had a friend to call that did. Found out ferry would leave the next day at eleven and I set up camp on the road leading down to the water.
I found out in the morning what all the guns in the area were about. It’s mostly the security for the mining operation, which is a big Australian company (Phu Bia Mining). They’re mining all around the area and have a lot of protection going on. I wish I would have known that the previous night in the dark. It wasn’t a small boat, but it wasn’t the ferry that I expected, and definitely more of a passenger ferry. I had to take off the windscreen and mirrors just to barely fit it in.
It took us about twenty minutes to squeeze it into the entrance. It’s a nice hour long trip through the lake with ridges rising around you. It went by quick because I made a friend. There was a little boy looking bored so I gave him my camera to play with and he loved it. He picked it up really quick. My dirty motorcycle came in handy for drawing pictures. The people shared their fruit and I shared my chocolate bars. Remote control cars will always be fun no matter how old I am, and we built ramps out of my ammo can lids. We raced his car all over the boat.
My battery went dry and for a few days and it took a while to find distilled water. In the mornings I had to pop start it. Once on the other side, me and another guy had to push it up a steep hill so i could get speed coming back down and start it. It was a little scary flying towards the cliff edge and braking at the last second. From here I made it up to Vang Vieng for a couple nights to do some much needed work on the bike, laundry, take river baths, eat tons of sandwiches from the ladies on the street, and think about how I could get into Long Cheng. I spent a week in Vang Vieng a few years ago, and it was one of the craziest weeks of my life.
That was at the peak before it all got shut down. Combine super cheap booze and drugs with a river full of bars, swings, zippiness, and slides, and its going to get messy. Tons of people were dying each year and after an especially deadly year it all got shut down in 2012. The best thing about the place is the pure beauty of it. On the other side of the river are limestone cliffs hiding many caves and swimming holes. The guesthouse I camped at had a nice view of the sunrise hitting the mountains while the steam rose off the soil.
I messaged the german biker my dilemma and he sent me the contact info for the guy they had met, who was apparently high up in the military. I made it to Phonsavan and gave him a call. He spoke good english and assured me that it would be fine to go into Long Cheng and if I had any problems to call him. Thats all I needed to hear and it was on. I took most of my stuff off the bike and left it at my guesthouse to lighten the load on the crummy roads. When I woke up at sunrise to take off, I had a feeling like I shouldn’t go and that I should just stay in bed. I headed off into the thick bone chilling fog that constantly covered my face shield. The road was surprisingly good and the suns warmth was soon back. I was feeling very confident at the halfway point and thats when I came around the corner to a road block. A couple young military guys questioned me and then a couple police came over. The police are really hard to tell though because a lot of them are party or totally in regular clothing.
They wanted my passport, but I had left it at the guesthouse. They looked through my pouch and got my ID card, but weren’t happy with just this and insisted on my passport. They wanted to look through my tank bag and in my back case, but all I really had with me were tools. They wouldn’t let up about the passport and kept asking me the same questions over and over, “are you alone”, “why are you coming here”, “have you taken pictures”, “how many times have you been to Laos”, etc. I told them I would go back to Phonsavan, but was told no, and that I had to wait a moment. Time went by and nothing was happening so I got on my bike and said I was leaving. One guy grabbed my hand and keys in the ignition and told me to stop, while the others got around the bike.
I was continually told to wait for the boss. Finally he arrived in a truck with three other police. He wore an olive green uniform with military looking stuff on it. We went through another half hour of questioning, and then they said we had to go get my passport. First he told me that I would ride with them and one of the officers would drive my bike in. They didn’t trust me to ride back in with them following, and ended up loading it in the back of the truck. It was getting ridiculous. I was forced to sit in the back with one of the guys on each side of me. I’m guessing so I wouldn’t try to escape and jump out? During the hour plus drive back in I daydreamed about it being a scene in a movie. If I was Bruce Willis, I would pull out two guns from my leather jacket and with four shots they would all be dead. Then I would dive into the front seat and manage to gain control of the truck before it flew of the cliff.
I could picture the exact moves. I would most likely then be picked up by a helicopter and waiting on board would be my beautiful lover in a tight fitting dress. I realized I didn’t have my pouch and knew they had to still have it, but waited to check my pockets better till we got to town. Along the way, the boss cop would randomly ask me a question, which was always something I’d already told them. When we got back to Phonsavan I led them to the guesthouse to get my passport. I realized that my ammo can panniers were in the room, because I took them off for the day, and they would probably be alarmed when they saw them. I quickly explained it as I opened the door, and tried to convince them I wasn’t G.I. Joe secretly sent in. Three of them followed me in and while I got the passport they went through my things, and thoughrouly examined the cans contents. They loaded me back up and we went to the police station. At this point they had my ID, passport, GoPro camera, my other camera, and some documents. I was taken into a room and sat down at a table. Then all the police came by to take a look at the American while giggleng with each other. They wrote out an entire sheet in Lao and then asked me to sign it. I laughed at them just as hard as when they said they would drive my motorcycle. They tried explaining what it was, but there was no way i was signing it. For the next five hours I was interrogated by a couple different guys.
It was mainly done by one who I found out was an immigration officer. Some of the guys there were Vietnamese, and I think Vietnam has a lot of pull/control in the area. Portraits and painting of Ho Chi Minh were everywhere. We went over the same things repeatedly. The one positive was they brought me a whole box of little cakes for lunch. I shared them with some of the guys in the room.
Each one of them literally spent a half hour each looking at the GoPro and not understanding how it opened. They reminded me of monkeys. I mean that just in their actions and nothing rascist. Some people get the wrong idea. They all looked through every page of my passport. There was nothing I could do but make the best of the situation. The thing I was most upset about was my pouch and the money they took. It was over a million and a half, kip that is (still $200). After spending the entire day in the police station I just wanted to get out. They asked if I would write down on a sheet and sign that they hadn’t taken anything from me. Eventually they handed me my cameras and passport back, and said I could go.