The Vientiane Boat Racing Festival is held every year, starting from the 15th day in the 11th month in lunar calendar.
The actual race is held on the 16th day, with heats starting early in the morning. Over 20 dragon boats and rower/paddler teams line up for the race on the Mekong River. The entrants come from all around Laos to compete in this significant festival.
Fa Ngum road, the road along the Mekong River bank, and other streets leading to the river are lined with stalls days before the actual festival starts. These sell all kind of clothes, food (especially grilled chicken and sticky rice cooked in bamboo pipes), fruits, and drinks. There are also sideshows, such as pop-the-balloons, where small prizes can be won all over the place.
There are usually three categories of boats: sport for men; traditional for men; and traditional for women. Teams of rowers are usually sponsored either by big name companies, such as Beer Lao, and telecom companies or by ministries or organisations in Vientiane.
On the race day, the town comes alive with noise and festivity as the teams make their way to the river either by truck or walking, banging drums and singing. The streets to and along the Mekong River bank are very crowded as thousands of spectators cram along to cheer their teams.
“in Laos stick to the main Route 13, which runs the length of the country from south to north.
It’s paved, in good shape and traffic is light. The few cars and trucks on the road go relatively slow and give cyclists plenty of space when passing.
Go off the main road and it’s a different story. Your back road will almost certainly be dirt and little more than one big mud puddle in wet season. It may not even exist. Triple check with locals before heading off onto a road that looks promising on your map. Just because it’s marked as a big red line doesn’t mean it’s at all suitable to cover on a bicycle or that construction has even been finished.
As an example of how misleading maps can be, we were planning to cover Route 23 in southern Laos until we met someone who had just come from that road. She had to walk for two days because there was nothing more than a forest path and this was an allegedly major road on our map. We later saw pictures of the road and it was just a rocky, sandy track.
Maps of Laos are almost impossible to find in the country. Bring one from home or just wing it.”
U.S. Air Force Maj. Wendell Keller and his co-pilot, Lt. Virgil ‘Mike’ Meroney, prowl the night sky above Laos in their F-4D Phantom jet, on the lookout for North Vietnamese forces stealthily making their way along the Ho Chi Minh Trail far below.
Muzzle flashes suddenly reveal the location of anti-aircraft guns.
Nearly out of rockets and bombs after striking at suspected enemy positions for the past half hour, Keller takes only a moment to decide that his wingman, who is flying an F-4D Phantom nearby, needs protection.
Radioing his intentions to a spotter plane that has been helping direct his attacks, Keller points his plane into a dive and sends a volley of rockets sizzling and snarling into the darkness.
In the spotter plane, members of Keller’s squad watch as tracer bullets stream skyward from the ground.
Fear grows when they see the sulfurous arcs suddenly terminate, indicating the fiery slugs have encountered something.
Simultaneously, small blooms of fire erupt on the ground as Keller’s rockets hit their mark.
Moments later, the flashes are dwarfed by a much larger explosion nearby.
Keller’s wingman immediately calls “Mayday, mayday, mayday” on an emergency channel before attempting to raise Keller on the radio.
But the calls go unanswered as the wingman circles above the Laotian landscape, which has again fallen dark.
The jet fighter eventually runs low on fuel, and its pilot reluctantly turns toward home, a U.S. airbase in Thailand.
For the next week, radio frequencies are closely monitored, but Keller and Meroney are not heard from again.
Michael Keller knows the story well, having collected declassified data on the mission and accounts of the incident published in military magazines.
And for most of his life he has understood that his father died that night in 1969, flying over the jungles of Laos.
“I pretty much knew he had been killed in action, and I just thought that, after all these years, they’d never find anything,” said Keller, who lives in West Fargo.
But in 2010, more than 40 years after his father’s plane went down, a search team traveled to Laos to take a closer look at a spot that had been identified many years before as a crash site.
Keller said at first he and his family weren’t very hopeful because the region saw heavy action during the Vietnam War and many planes were lost in the area.
But then the news came: Searchers had found a tattered ID card belonging to Maj. Wendell Keller, along with samples of human remains, which were sent to the United States.
Since then, it has been confirmed that the remains were those of his father, Maj. Keller, and of his father’s co-pilot, Lt. Meroney, both of whom received promotions in rank after their deaths.
Both will be honored on Friday at a funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., where co-mingled remains of the airmen will be laid to rest.
There will be another service later at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., for individual remains identified as belonging to Wendell Keller.
Michael Keller, who was 4 years old in 1969, said he always felt his father was a hero, but those feelings intensified when he learned the site of his father’s plane crash had likely been found.
In honor of his father and as an outlet for his feelings, Keller began building a scale model of his father’s F-4D Phantom, a task that took him the better part of a winter to complete.
Starting with a stock kit, he customized the model to recreate precisely the look of the plane his father flew for the last time on March 1, 1969.
He also put together a display that has been shown at the Fargo Air Museum, and he collected stacks of documents from his father’s career, including flight logs from the years his father, a graduate of North Dakota State University, was stationed in the Red River Valley and flew out of the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Keller said his dad was always busy flying and he did not see him much before he left for Vietnam.
He remembers his father as a man of few words who was always gentle and caring toward his family.
Keller keeps a letter he wrote about his father in 1972 when he was 7 or 8 years old.
With boyish misspellings preserved, it reads in part:
“My Dad is Maj. Wendell Keller. He is a POW MIA. In the war.
“He has been gone sence March 1, 1969. I am hoping he will come back. Our holl family is very sad about our dad.
“If he comes back I am going to tell him not to go back to the war. I have been sorry about him. I have only seen him about five times.
“I wish and wish for him to come back. He has been in the war sence I was a little boy. I was about two then.
“Every one feels sorry about him,” the letter concludes. “They wish he would come back too.”
Michael Keller plans to be in Washington on Friday to welcome his father home.
But it looks like his mother, Jacqueline Keller, won’t be there.
The reason is a painful one and harks back to 1975, according to Keller, who said that was the year the widow of his father’s co-pilot asked the Air Force to change her husband’s status from missing in action to killed in action so that she could remarry.
The Air Force granted the request, but at the same time it also changed Wendell Keller’s status to killed in action, even though it did not have a written request from his family to do so.
“Which was a mistake on their part,” Keller said.
“What it did, basically, it denied my mother benefits that should have been available to her,” he said.
“This has created a huge hardship for my mother,”Keller said, adding that his mother, who never remarried, raised him and his older brother, Gregory, on her own.
Keller said his family learned of the Air Force’s error 20 years after it was made and he said the military eventually admitted its mistake, offering what Keller describes as a small settlement.
Since then, his mother has fought for additional compensation.
From her home in Colorado, Jacqueline Carol Tessier Keller, a graduate of Fargo Shanley High School, said she would like to attend the honors ceremony at Arlington, but she is too upset to participate, given her ongoing frustration with the Air Force.
“They spoiled for me what should have been a joyous occasion,” she said.
While the government agreed to scrub its 1975 decision and push back the date of her husband’s killed-in-action status by several years, which resulted in her receiving full benefits, Keller said the move came 22 years after the fact and the back pay she received did not take into account inflation and lost interest.
She’s also looking for compensation for the error.
“Thirty-seven years ago, the Air Force made a serious mistake and legal error, improperly changing the status of my husband, Col. Wendell Keller, who was shot down over Laos in 1969,” Jacqueline Keller said.
“That admitted mistake has cost me dearly, and the cost continues to mount,” she said. “The acknowledged error robbed me and my family of a great deal, and this error has yet to be fairly and properly corrected, despite my best efforts over the decades.”
The story of her disagreement with the Air Force can be found on her website: http://hm.dinofly.com/JCK/.
While he understands his mother’s feelings, Michael Keller said he doesn’t want that aspect of his family’s story to detract from what he believes should be the focus right now: the services planned at Arlington.
“I want my father to be honored for the hero he is,” Keller said.
“You’ve got to ride a dirt bike like you’ve stolen it,” as we accelerated through a particularly gnarly section, the wheels weaving between rocks, mud spraying up from the bike in all directions. All around us was deep Southeast Asian jungle, with no form of civilization for miles. If anything happened to us out here we were in trouble; the only thing to do was to hold on and enjoy the ride.
Less than a week before I’d been sitting in an office in London when my boss turned to me and asked; “How do you feel about a little trip to Laos next week?” A few days later I was on a plane to Bangkok, bags hastily packed, a slight sense of trepidation as to what the hell I had let myself in for. My mission: to recce a 600 km section of the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail for a TV program I was producing. And since the only two people who knew the trail well enough to act as my guides were bikers, we’d be doing the trip by the glorious medium of two-wheels.
My boyfriend Marley was less than delighted about my latest task, “So, let me get this straight; you’re going to be spending a week riding a motorbike through the jungle, with your thighs wrapped around another man? I’m not the jealous type but..”
The other man was Don Duvall and D Greenhalgh, a bike and trail obsessive. Don, dubbed the Midnight Mapper, has lived in Laos for 10 years and dedicated his life to mapping every single square inch of the Ho Chi Minh trail by GPS from the back of his trusty Honda XR400. With a proclivity for frequent peals of laughter, Duvall’s cartographic retentiveness knows no bounds, and to date he has mapped more than 50,000 GPS points in Laos. I couldn’t have wished for two better people to be riding with.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail is arguably one of the greatest feats of military engineering in history, a Goliath of ingenuity and bloody determination. At its peak this 20,000km transport network spread like a spider’s web through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, an indestructible labyrinth through which the North Vietnamese fed the war in the South. Without the trail, there could have been no war, a fact the Americans knew only too well. In a sustained eight-year campaign to destroy it they flew 580,000 bombing missions, dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on neutral Laos, denuded the jungle with chemicals, and seeded clouds to induce rain and floods. At one point Nixon even mooted the notion of deploying nuclear weapons.
Amazingly, considering its importance, there are very few people today who know of the whereabouts of the remaining sections of trail. Backpackers might ride a sanitized, tourist version of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam, but only a smattering of devotees make it as far as the real trail in Laos. Much of the vast network of roads and tracks has simply been lost forever to the jungle and most sections that do remain are heavily contaminated by unexploded ordnance (UXO). Even today, almost 40 years after the last bomb was dropped, UXO is a deadly legacy of the war and still kills around 200 people a year. Since our ride would be following some of the main arteries of the trail, UXO was something we had to be very careful of – there would be no diving off into the jungle for a wee.
The three of us set off from the village of Nongchan, a scrappy border settlement in the shadow of the Truong Son Mountains. This jungle-clad spine of karst peaks stretches for around 1,000 kilometers along the Vietnam-Lao border and would be our companion for much of the ride south. Since I’d never ridden a dirt-bike before and now wasnâ€™t the time to start, Iâ€™d be riding pillion on a hired Kawasaki KLX 250, with Don solo on his Honda. As I poured myself into the non-existent gap between my driver and our tower of luggage, Don let out a whoop of laughter; “Jeeeesus, you two are going to have an interesting time, this ride is hard enough alone, let alone with two of you on that bike.” By the time I’d wedged myself in there was barely room for a Higgs boson.
Nongchan’s wooden shacks petered out into lush jungle, the morning mist hanging over jagged karst outcrops, the red dirt road cloggy from recent rain. Bomb-craters punctuated the roadside, a reminder that during the war this area, the Ban Phanop valley, had been pummelled into oblivion by the United States. Forced through a natural gap in the mountains from Vietnam, all southbound traffic on the trail was funnelled through this valley, a fact the U.S. knew only too well. It was so heavily bombed one U.S. pilot called it “the most God forsaken place on Earth.” Looking at the dense, verdant jungle that flanked us as we rode, it was hard to imagine that 40 years ago it would have looked like the surface of the moon.
The first village we came to was a single dusty street of ramshackle stilted houses. The whole village was a living war museum, and as we wandered up the street pointing out the countless bits of war ephemera converted for use in everyday life. Spring onions sprouted in rusty cluster bomb casings, women leaned against ladders made of aluminum fuel rods, boys paddled in canoes fashioned from fuel canisters, and a chicken nested in a missile nose-cone. Outside the small wooden temple the faded wing of a US F-4 fighter leaned against a tree, children peering at us through a large hole in the metal.
Walking past one house we noticed two large 500-pound bombs lying under the steps; “I’m sure those are still live ” look, they’ve still got the fuses on, - pointing to their shiny tips. No one seemed the remotest bit concerned though, and children’s bare feet ran past inches from the fuses. We later found out from an NGO that these two bombs were indeed live, and that the man who had found them was keeping them until he could sell them for scrap metal. It highlighted what terrible risks people here would take with UXO in order to sell the valuable scrap metal and put food on their family’s table.
Every village we rode through that day, and for much of our journey, bore the same scars of war. Cows wandered along the road wearing bells made of mortar fuses, houses were held up by cluster bomb casings, and schoolyards were pockmarked with bomb-craters. Often red UXO-warning markers poked out of the dust next to houses, outside schools, or on the edge of the dirt track. Yet these reminders of war seemed so incongruous with the children who waved and shouted “Sabadee!” as we rode past and the shy mothers smiling down at us from their huts.
Laos is a country of a thousand rivers and as we rode south through Khammouane, Savannakhet, Saravan, Sekong, Attape, and Champassak provinces, we would cross what felt like a hundred of these. Methods of getting across these rivers varied according to depth, width, and how many people were watching. Generally it was a case of throttle-on-feet-up-and-ride, hoping we wouldn’t smack a large rock in the middle and get an ignominious ducking. Deeper crossings saw me being hoofed off, while he edged the bike across and I walked. If we were lucky there might be some sort of makeshift “bridge” – a questionably stable structure made of bamboo or galvanised metal.
One river crossing was somewhat more perilous. This particular river was several hundred metres wide, and while trucks could just about drive, bikes had to make the short journey on an extremely narrow, very unstable wooden canoe, steered by a toothless old man wielding a single pole. He rode the bike on in front of me, the wheels wedged in the rut at the bottom of the canoe, his legs resting on the paper-thin sides for stability. “Just crouch down, sit behind me and don’t move”he said, not even daring to turn his head for fear of tipping us. I obeyed, hardly daring to breathe as the old man inched us across, so slowly that a large green lizard paddled past, eyeing us with a beady yellow eye. At one point we wobbled so violently I feared we’d be joining the lizard, and I could see His legs shaking.
Tired, muddy, elated, and in need of a Beer Lao, we rolled into Villabury at the end of the first day, 120km on the clock.”You’re going to love tonight,” He had said earlier, a glint of mischief in his eyes, “we’re staying at a tranny hotel.” I had visions of rolling up at a one-horse town in the jungle and finding a sequin-clad oasis of dancing ladyboys. Instead we were greeted by a rather corpulent, grumpy transvestite, whose short skirt revealed a pair of startlingly hairy legs. Nevertheless, it didn’t deter from the novelty of the situation, and the $8 rooms, cheap beer, and fried rice were just what we needed.
The crux of our ride was a 60km section between Nong and Ta Oy: “the boonies” as the boys called it – dense jungle inhabited by remote tribes, elephants, and the odd tiger. “No one’s ever ridden this section two-up, - warned my driver, as we filled up at a petrol shack in Nong where part of a tank languished outside, “I’m not even sure it’s possible.” The ride was every bit as hard as my driver and Don had warned, a thrilling cocktail of river crossings, mud, rocks and steep hills, the tree canopy enveloping the track in a green womb. Only one hill managed to get the better of us, the bike sliding over in the mud, caking us both in a sticky layer of Trail dirt.
The few villages we did ride through in this area were home to some of Laos’s 50 different ethnic groups; animists who speak no Lao and have few ties with the central government. Pot-bellied pigs, skinny dogs, and chickens scrapped in the dust and no one seemed to be doing much. It was as if achievement was measured by who could do as little as possible, for as long as possible, in as much shade as possible. There were no schools, no temples, no electricity, and by the looks of the swollen stomachs of many of the children who ran after us, not enough food. It was so remote here we didn’t even pass the ubiquitous, overloaded mopeds, which frequently trundled past us during the rest of our ride, weighed down by anything from bananas to saucepans, logs and even live pigs. The only traffic we saw on this section was a handful of women walking barefoot along the track, large bamboo tobacco bongs slung round their necks. Amazingly, two of them fled into the jungle in terror at the mere sight of us – evidence of the rarity of foreigners in these parts.
At Ta Oy we emerged from the crepuscular darkness of the jungle onto the packed dirt of a new road, a row of parked up diggers and width of which suggested this was destined to be a major highway. It was a bizarre juxtaposition to the remoteness of the jungle. Aching and adrenalized, we checked in to the only â€œhotelâ€ and celebrated our victory over the crux by getting utterly inebriated on Lao Lao, a potent local moonshine which should only be imbibed in the absence of anything else. Since Ta Oy was, ” shithole,” and our hotel was a plywood, mosquito infested dive, getting drunk was an exceptionally good idea.
The accommodation may not have been high luxury, but one of the many wonderful things about this ride was our ever evolving environment. We breezed along sections of graded red dirt, spun through glutinous mud, sped along the occasional winding ribbon of tarmac, and bumped over original Ho Chi Minh Trail cobblestones. And as we pushed south, the topography changed entirely, morphing from jungle to strange pine-clad plateaus, redolent of Greece or Turkey. At Chavan, a parched plateau used by the French as an airstrip in the Indochina War, we ate a picnic lunch in an old bomb-crater, then spent an exhilarating few hours trailing Don’s bike through the pines, leaves eddying up behind his wheels. Later that day the land changed again, the beautiful Bolaven plateau rising to our right, Truong Son mountains to our left, blue sky and ochre dirt completing the picture. Dipping down towards Attapeu as dusk fell, we passed the rusting hulk of a tank, abandoned in some distant battle, every ounce of removable metal stripped from it for scrap.
Our last stretch was 200 kilometers of surprisingly smooth tarmac between Attapeu and Pakse, a final dash before I had to cross the border to Thailand and catch a flight home. The ride had been such a blast, and Don and Dig such excellent companions, I wasn’t relishing the thought of being catapulted back to the normality of an English winter. With barely a moment to spare before I had to leave for the airport, we skidded into Pakse, a backpacker haunt on the Mekong, and after a hasty goodbye to the boys it was all over. Much to the disgust of my neighbor on the long flight home, I hadn’t even had time to wash or change, and traveled the whole way to England covered in a thick layer of trail mud. It was a strangely satisfying end to a truly marvellous adventure.
Ants Bolingbroke-Kent writes The Itinerant. To join a small group ride down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, contact D0n at, Laogpsmap.com. The map costs a bargainous $50. A tour with the mapper himself a smidge more than this.