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.
It was the ride of his life.
It was a 100cc Chinese make ‘ a glorified scooter, actually’ the type of four speed bike that is ubiquitous throughout Southeast Asia. The horn was burned out, along with the electric starter and both turning signals. The tires were bald. Neither the speedometer nor the gas gauge functioned. The silver-dollar sized mirrors looked as if they had been ripped from makeup compacts and attached to the bike with safety pins, spinning freely on their mounts like reflective whirly-gigs. The black paint job was ancient and covered in deep scratches. The hand brake didn’t work at all, and the foot brake felt as if it was attached with a worn out rubber band. Despite its many flaws, the bike held one advantage over the only other motorcycle to be had in town that day: It started.
By the time I rolled into Tha Khaek I had been traveling for nearly twenty four hours: A night bus from Bangkok to Vientiane, an overpriced tuk-tuk to the bus station, followed by an eight-hour Lao local that dumped me off in this rotting ex-colonial town.I had come to Tha Khaek as part of my greater sweep through southern Laos. I had been to the northern part of the country the year before and this time wished to explore the quieter and less-visited southern half. I was seeking isolation, natural beauty, and adventure, and southern Laos seemed just the place to get it. And how would I find it? By motorcycle, of course.I had gotten the idea for a specific bike trip from a certain guide book, the same guide book that every western tourist clutches like a Gucci handbag, as they wander along the dusty streets of a new town like lost pets. The book mentions a three or four day motorcycle trip that some travelers do out of Tha Khaek, commonly referred to as “The Loop”. It says that the trip takes you through beautiful and remote country, and that it can be performed on a 100cc bike. But can you take one of these down a rocky dirt track and into the hills of southern Laos, through rural villages, across rutted tracks and rice paddies? The book recommended the trip, or at least mentions it as a possibility. But had the writer actually done it himself? Bleary-eyed and hungry enough to eat my own shoes, I staggered off of the local bus and had the rare pleasure of being left alone. No touts swarmed, no children hawked photocopied versions of the guide book, no cyclo drivers chased me down the street shouting “Mister! Mister! Where you go?” A woman and her children, sitting nearby, half-heartedly regarded me, but their attention was better held by the sticky rice and yellowish roast chicken on a stick in front of them. After a few minutes, a tuk-tuk came by, which proceeded to take me to the Tha Khaek Travel Lodge, a guest house that serves the smattering of tourists who pass through, not to be confused with the teddy-bear mascotted cheap motel chain back home, home to endless meth labs and Phish fans. This Travel Lodge was a compound of sorts, with a courtyard in front, complete with nightly bonfires. So I checked into the shockingly cheap hostel-like dormitory room and proceeded down to the fire, where I chatted with some fellow travelers, downed several bottles of ice-cold beer Lao, and feasted on laap, which is Lao’s national dish of ground beef, onions, and ass-searing chilis. After a lager-induced black sleep, I took a cold shower and made my way downstairs for breakfast, which consisted of a noodle soup that had to be ordered twice. This phantom-dish phenomenon plagued me the whole trip, but my patience always endured. It was Laos, after all, where time moves as if it’s encased in a thick gelatin. Laos is also a communist nation that has only recently opened up for visitors, and the people just aren’t used to capitalism, especially in the south, where the tourists are few. Food and drink orders are often met with a panicked look of utter confusion – the proverbial deer in the lights before it meets its end in the grill of a Mack truck. Bills are glacially tallied with looks of semi-despair, as if the people adding them up are working out impossible calculus equations or deciphering cuniform.
The colonial French had a famous saying:
“The Vietnamese plant the rice. The Cambodians watch it grow. The Lao listen to it grow.”
After my two hour noodle breakfast, I asked the guesthouse if there were any motorbikes available; I was informed that they were all rented out. So I slapped on some sunscreen and decided to walk into the town to try my luck.
Tha Khaek is a provincial capital, so there are some large administrative buildings in town, imposing and looking the part of bastions of communist authority. I walked down the main street towards the river, past pharmacies and dark garages, past women grilling chicken and selling boiled eggs, past young men lounging on their motorbikes and daring each other to try out their English on me. Most of the buildings were low, with faded paint that was cracked or peeling off. The closer I got to the river, the more dilapidated the buildings became, and the more the street became a mixture of paved parts and red dirt patches, as if the town itself was slowly falling into the brown waters of the Mekong. Chickens ran free, and dogs, some with sickeningly-severe mange, laid next to trash mounds and broken concrete on the roadside.
Acting on a tip from the guesthouse, I tracked down SV Rentals, a company that rents out all kinds of equipment for any need in Laos. The company was located in a massive garage near the riverside. Inside were numerous cars – including two brand new shiny Hummers, along with some construction equipment, and two sorry looking 100cc motorbikes. When I asked about the bikes, I was presented with a note, evidently from the guy responsible for renting them to foreigners. It became quickly apparent that this mystery man was the only person in the whole complex who spoke any English at all.
“Dear Sir or Madam,
Today I family out of the town the go. Rent motorbike to leave passport with man and taking key. Sorry to problem.
After choosing the one bike that ran, I handed over my passport and around $30 in Thai baht and was off, cruising down the cracked road of Tha Khaek and joining the locals, most of whom were riding much nicer-looking bikes. The first thing I did was stop into the nearest garage and have my mirco-mirrors tightened. Little did I know of how many more Lao mechanics’ garages I would see over the next few days. I would experience a real life Zen of motorcycle maintenance, emptying my mind while watching Buddhist after Buddhist labor over my sad machine.
The road heading west out of Tha Khaek was two-laned and mostly paved – a luxury in road-challenged Laos. I opened up the bike and took in the scenery. To my left a turquoise river snaked up the valley – deep cool pools tempted me to stop the bike and have a refreshing swim, but I had just begun the journey and wanted to get some kilometers under my wheels. The road wound through farmland – mainly rice paddies with bored looking water buffaloes or groups of malicious black goats. Huge limestone mountains shot up on both sides of me, looking as if they had been crammed through the Earth by massive hands. The scenery was both stunning and magical. I breathed deeply and took it in with joy, reminding myself that this was why I had come back to Laos.After about thirty minutes of riding, I came upon two other Westerners on 100cc bikes. Their names were Inga and Steve, a couple of Belgian backpackers who had decided to take on The Loop as well. I had actually met them over breakfast while waiting for my no-show noodles. Inga sported tattoos and dreadlocks, displaying a hard edge against Steve’s laid back and smiling demeanor. I would pass them several times on the trip, only to be overtaken by them when I was broken down on the side of the road or in a village. We became companions of sorts, both out to conquer this loop on woefully underequipped machines.It was in the town of Gnomalat, the first real settlement since I left Tha Khaek, where I experienced my initial setback. My foot brake barely worked in the first place, and I noticed it getting even weaker every time I used it. This was of great concern, of course, since it was the only thing which could save me from certain death by water buffalo collision or a nasty plunge into a ravine. As I was crossing a small bridge and leaving the town, it failed entirely. The pedal went straight into the dirt of the road. So I gingerly rode the bike back into the dusty town and stopped at the first mechanic I saw. He was located in a dirt-floored shack at the bottom of a steep embankment. It took both of us to roll the bike down the path and into his shaded shop. The place was littered with grease-covered motorcycle parts, tools, and cigarette buts.The mechanic did some adjusting on the brake pedal and replaced the actual disk while his compatriots stood around, smoked, and commented in sing-songy Lao. With authority he pushed down on the brake and smiled to me as the wheel actually stopped.
“Okay? Okay?” he said.
“Okay,” I responded.
Fifteen minutes and two dollars later, I was once again crossing the bridge and now blazing out of town, heading down a ruler-straight stretch of road which shot up to the Nakai Plateau. My day’s destination was the actual town of Nakai. So I stopped to check the guidebook map to see how far I had to go, and once satisfied that Nakai was only an hour or two off, I happily jumped down on the kick start to continue on my way.
Again. Again. Again.
The bike was refusing to start. I kicked down on the starter ten more times with no results. I then ran the bike along the road, hopped on, and attempted a pop start. Again, nothing. After several more tries to pop start it, I cursed the sky and began the long, sweaty push back into Gnomalat.
As I toiled underneath the afternoon sun, Inga and Steve – the Belgian duo – putted up. I informed them of my troubles and they shook their heads and rode on, with promises to see me up the road. A few minutes later a local man rode up and gave me a push by placing one of his feet on my passenger peg. I then popped the bike into gear and managed to get it started, albeit with greatly diminished compression and power. My helper smiled and rode away, and I crawled my bike back into the town. As I came upon the bridge, I pushed down on my footbrake, which failed exactly as it did before, in the same spot, even. The pedal went straight into the ground and then kicked back up, right into the flesh of my leg, leaving a nasty bruise and bleeding gash. The bike then died. Again.
Covered in sweat, dust, and annoyance, I was approached by three Westerners on proper dirt bikes.
“You are having some sort of problem?”
From the sound of his accent, I figured him to be French. Laos is full of French people, smoking, gesticulating, and checking up on state of their former colonial holding.
My savior was indeed French, as were his two companions, and he gave me a push back to the mechanic’s, where we immediately handed the bike back over for further work. As I talked to the French trio, I learned that they were living and working in the area. It seems that a massive dam was being constructed on the Nam Hin Bun, a large river in the area. The three were employed by a French company involved with the project. As we waited for the mechanic to replace my faulty sparkplug and once again take on the evil foot brake, one of the Gallic trio sped off on his bike, quickly returning with two cold and glistening bottles of beer Laos. We passed the bottles around and drank – the cold delicious beer a welcome addition in my parched mouth. One wonderful thing about the French is their ability to enjoy a good drink or bit of food, even in the most uninviting conditions.
Before I knew it, the French had departed, and I was back on my bike, which now ran with full force and gusto. I crossed the bridge for what would be the last time, and sped straight up towards the Nakai Plateau.
At one point the semi-paved road gave way to a rought dirt and rocks. According to the guide book and those I talked to, it would stay this way for the next 80 kilometers or so. This slowed my progress, as I had to watch out for large and sharp rocks protruding from the roadway. I had also entered a construction zone, since every two minutes a cement or dump truck, coming from or going to the dam site, would barrel by, kicking up enough dust to bury a small town. I wrapped my scarf around my face and firmly placed my sunglass around my head, braving the huge clouds of dust which regularly obscured my view and took over the whole road. A red and white sign warned me of the obvious hazard in Lao script and English:
“BEWARE THE TREUKS IN-OUT.”
I began to climb up to the plateau, switch backing through verdant jungle, punctuated by small farms growing tobacco and rice. Despite the onslaught of trucks I was making good progress and the bike was running well. Even the hated foot brake felt as if it may hold for the rest of the trip.
Eventually the road stopped winding and climbing and I rolled into a proper town, or what passes for one in remote areas of Laos. Was this Nakai? Had I reached my dayâ€™s goal? The roads were dirt and the whole place covered in reddish dust. It had the feel a frontier boomtown – a result of the work the dam project had brought, to be sure. As I entered the town I noticed a large billboard. In English it boldy welcomed me, but the name of the place wasn’t “Nakai.” I supposed that this was a town not accounted for on the map and decided to press on until I came to the real Nakai.
It wasn’t until it was after dark and a good twenty kilometers up the rough dirt road that I realized my mistake. The night before, around the campfire at the Travel Lodge, an American I met was loudly carrying on about his recent trip on The Loop. I was a bit drunk, more than exhausted, and not paying him the strict attention probably warranted.
“Once you get to the top of the plateau,” he said, “you’ll come to Nakai. Only the locals call it by another name. This happens a lot in Laos. The government has its official names, and the locals have theirs.”
So it was now dark and quite cold and I had overshot my town by over an hour. The next real settlement was at least sixty kilometers down a rocky and unforgiving stretch of road. I would have to turn back.
When I rode back into what I now thought to be Nakai, I was badly in need of some food, not to mention beer and a place to stay. I didn’t see any guesthouses in the town, though I had been told that there was one. What I did see, parked outside of a small restaurant, was a fully decked out 250cc Yamaha dirt bike. I quickly surmised that it did not belong to a local, most of whom prefer the small 100’s, like the one that was under me.
I parked my bike and walked into the restaurant and sat right down next to a Westerner decked out in dirt bike armor and typing away on an expensive-looking laptop. This was in place lit by a fluorescent light bulb with a dirt floor. The incongruity was stark, to say the least.
“Where’s Nakai?” I asked, not bothering to introduce myself.
“You’re in it, man. You’re here. Have a seat and grab a beer.”
His name was Don, and he was American. He was an expat, spending most of his time on his sailboat in Malaysia. Don was living the dream, of sorts, in that he had made enough money to pack it all up, wave goodbye to his friends, buy a boat, and sail halfway around the world. He was in his mid fifties and sported a dirty blond ponytail, which, with his dirt bike getup, took a good fifteen years off his appearance. I ordered a beer and Don immediately set out to show me his state-of-the-art laptop. Using Bluetooth sattelite technology, Don was able to log on to the internet in the most undeveloped areas of Laos, in places where some people have never even seen a computer. But the real reason Don brought such equipment with him had little to do with email or checking his stocks: Don was making maps. He spent four months of the year motorcycling around Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, all the while filling in the details on satellite maps. Every village on every dirt track was meticulously plotted, within thirty foot accuracy, according to him. He claimed to have the most comprehensive and accurate map of Cambodia in existence. He said that he had “finished” the country.
This was Don’s hobby, and he was passionate about it. He told me that it cost him a lot of money and time, and that he hoped to one day financially profit from it. But I could tell that money wasn’t a huge concern for Don, despite that fact that he kept bemoaning the weakness of the dollar versus the strength of the Thai baht.
But soon the conversation switched form cartography to my my own foolhardy quest. He shook his head and laughed.
“You’re gonna try to make it down the rest of this road, all the way to Lak Sao, on a 100cc scooter? You’ll never make it man! I’d turn my ass back if I was you.”
“I know I can do it. These little bikes are tougher than you may think,” I replied. I owned one back in Korea, where I lived, and it served me well.
“Listen man – that road is a construction zone. This dam project is a big deal, it’s being financed by the World Bank. The road is nothing but potholes and rocks and dirt and dump trucks roaring by every thirty seconds. And that guide book is telling backpackers to come ride up here? They’re out of their fucking minds.”
We let it rest at that and after a hearty dinner of rice, soup, and some sort of fried meat (Beef? Buffalo? Cat?), Don and I drank a couple more beers, and then he showed me the way to the guesthouse, a sprawling complex around the corner from the restaurant that was mainly being used to house workers on the dam project. I got a room and fell into a deep night’s sleep.
When I left the guesthouse in the morning, Don’s bike was already gone. He was probably halfway to the Vietnamese border, mapping dried riverbeds and counting chickens. I was hungry, so I stopped at a restaurant with a sign in English, usually a strong hint that their menu will be in the same tongue. I was lucky – I could indeed read the menu, so I ordered a bowl of noodle soup that did not take two hours to get to my table. It came right away, actually, as did the two cups of thick Lao coffee that charged me up for an uncertain day’s ride.Day two on The Loop started like day one, with breathtaking scenery, a happy motorbike, and the full body thrill that always comes with cruising down the road in an exotic country. I passed through more rice paddies and thick forests. The trees cast their cool shadows over the road and the truck traffic was minimal. The morning sun warmed my back and everything was bright and good.Of course this bliss was doomed to end, and it did so abruptly, in the form of a large rock in the middle of the road. Crack! My back tire hit it with full force, blasting out all of the air and kicking the rock straight up into the chain, which responded by jumping the sprocket. In less than a second, my peaceful morning cruise was transformed into a roadside stall-out in the middle of nowhere. So I did what I had learned to do the day before in such situations: I pushed.Within ten minutes I was pushing the bike into a small village called Ban Nongboham. The area was dotted with these villages, clusters of wooden huts with thatch roofs, surrounded by fields with crops. All of the buildings were built on stilts – the rainy season was evidently serious business in these parts. As I strained into the village, I came across an open-faced hut with a woman inside. In front of her was one dusty counter with a smattering of goods for sale – a few cans of orange Fanta, some pink rolls of toilet paper, bottles containing gasoline, and unidentifiable foodstuffs packed in plastic wrappers (Nuts? Dates? Insects?). The woman smiled and greeted me loudly with the all-purpose Lao greeting:
“Sabaidee!” I replied, as I always did. At every village I rode through, the people – adult and child alike – would briefly stop what they were doing, wave, and hit me with their best shout-out.
The woman immediately followed her greeting with a litany of Lao, a language that I could only say “hello” and “thank you” in. She seemed unconcerned with my incomprehension. Surely any foreigner who would ride a motorcycle into this part of the country would be at least semi-facile in the language, she seemed to assume.
I just pointed to the tire and then pointed to the chain, shaking my head as to indicate a problem. She understood at once, and shouted to a dirty-faced little boy who meekly took us in from the other side of the road. She then motioned to the little boy and told me to follow him. Even though I didn’t understand the words, the intent was clear, and for a moment I convinced myself that I could actually understand the language, a self-delusion that I commonly fall into when confused in Asia.
I followed the little boy deeper into the village, past a line of huts. Hairy black pigs rooted in the dirt. Chickens of all ages clucked and ran in terror as I approached. Trash littered the ground, along with half burnt pieces of wood and dried cakes of cow shit. This village was poor. It lacked both running water and electricity. It also seemed to lack men, as the only people observing me were women, the younger of whom held infants to their breasts. It then occurred to me that the men were probably out in the fields – either that or they had recently been rounded up by government troops, taken to a deep part of the forest, and shot. I began to harbor serious doubts that my motorbike could be fixed. These doubts were soon assuaged, however, by the arrival of The Mechanic.
The Mechanic was a man, though one unsuited for farm work. He was deformed, with shriveled and useless legs. He had matted long hair with bits of wood and grass in it and wore an old army jacket so filthy that I had an impulse to yank it off and burn it. He got around on his hands, which seem longer and broader than usual, but perhaps this was only a result of him ambling about on them for a lifetime. He looked like he was in his early 30’s, the perfect age for a prenatal victim of Agent Orange, which the U.S. government mercilessly sprayed over this part of Laos throughout the Indochina War. The Mechanic looked at me, flashed me a smile, lit a cigarette, and made his way to my bike for an inspection. By the look on his face I could tell that the fix would be no problem, and he was soon barking orders to the gang of bored looking boys who had gathered around us to take in the action. One boy scurried up a ladder and into a hut, reappearing with a burlap bag filled with some tools. The Mechanic quickly got to work, ripping off the tired and tube, locating the leak, and patching it up. At one point, when his kid helper couldn’t locate the extra tire patching, The Mechanic climbed up the ladder and into the hut, using only his arms and doing so with the confidence of an expert. He came back down with the patch tube and finished the job.
He easily re-railed the chain, even tightening it up a bit with his wrench. When the bike was ready to go I paid him his fee – one dollar – and went on my way.
The next stretch of road was the most isolated and beautiful on the Nakai Plateau. The villages disappeared, and soon I was riding through untouched forests and jungle. The traffic was light, and I made a steady but reasonable pace down the rocky road. My goal for the day was the town of Lak Sao, the last stop in Lao before the border with Vietnam. Within an hour I was crossing the Nam Hin Bun, which stretched out below me and reflected the noon sun. A new bridge was being built a half of kilometer up, and soon, within a year or two, the river would be dammed (Or should I say “damned?”) and much of what I had seen would be underwater. Ahhhh, progress. The words of Edward Abbey, whose “Desert Solitaire” I had completed just days before, rang in my head:
“Our modern industrial economy takes a mountain covered with trees, lakes, running streams and transforms it into a mountain of junk, garbage, slime pits, and debris.”
Soon I came upon two other riders covered in dust. It was Inga and Steve. They too had stayed in Nakai the night before, but they were at a different guesthouse. They were in good spirits and their bikes had held up for them well. They were incredulous when I told them about my troubles.
I rode with the Belgians for a while, but their pokey pace was a bit too slow for my liking, so I gave them a wave and cranked up the throttle.
The road began to wind down from the Nakai Plateau, and now the string of trucks making their way up and down was intolerable. I rode through Saharan dust clouds and was nearly forced off the road by coffee-jacked truck drivers rushing to make their deliveries in time. As I coughed up dirt and picked dust nuggets from my nose, I thought of a clean shower and hot meal awaiting me in Lak Sao. My fantasy was soon interrupted, however, by another flat tire. The Mechanic had just patched the tube. They had no new ones in the village to sell me. The stress of the road was evidently too much for the tire to bear, and the patch failed. So I pushed the bike down the road, soon passed by the Belgians, who could only laugh and look at me with sympathetic eyes.
Soon I was off of the plateau and into a village. This village was the most developed settlement since Nakai. It may have even had electricity. I pulled off at the first mechanic I spotted and he had a new tube on and inflated within ten minutes. This is the terrific thing about breaking down in Laos. Everyone rides 100cc bikes for transportation, so even the most primitive village has someone who can fix them. Let us give thanks to the invention of interchangeable parts.
After stopping for a brief swim in a cool river, I caught up with the Belgians and accompanied them into Lak Sao. Lak Sao is used as a stop over point on the way to and from Vietnam, so despite the rugged frontier feeling to the place, there are plenty of good places to stay. I got a huge room in a guesthouse in the shadow of and imposing mountain. It even had hot water, though the water was only truly hot at the lowest volume – which was nothing more than a trickle – so I spent the greater part of thirty minutes feeling like I was getting peed on.
I took a wander through the town, which is located at a crossroads with a main, paved route. The worst part of the journey appeared to be over. The rest would be on smooth, sealed roads. I wandered through the market, past stalls selling clothes and food. Meat sat out on tables, unrefrigerated, shining in the periodic bursts of sun. One stall featured several gutted rats and what appeared to be a guinea pig. Lak Sao is located in a mountainous and unspoiled part of the country, and much of the local wildlife was evidently available for consumption at this market, but in recent years there has been less and less to eat, as the hunt went on unchecked. Just rats and pets left, it seemed.
I joined Inga and Steve at the main restaurant in town, aptly named “The Only One.” The menu was vast, containing your usual fried rices and curries, along with a dish puzzlingly named, “Boiled the furniture of buffalo.”
We ordered the chicken and fish.
Soon a man rolled up on a big dirt bike. It was Don, my map making drinking buddy from the night before. He had been all the way up to the border, which is at a high elevation, and was too chilled to continue with his ride. An unnatural and frigid wind blew down from the mountains that day, making motorbike travel a balls-chilling affair. So he joined us and we ordered more food and more beers, continuing our impromptu party well into the night. We were eventually joined by three Aussies who rode in on dirt bikes, as well as a group of about 40 elderly Dutch people from a tour bus staying the night on its way to Vietnam. To see a true trailblazer such as Don and this herd of package tourists in the same room truly represented the two extremes of Southeast Asian travel. By the end, aided by countless bottles of beer, I had made friends with them all. And after nearly falling asleep at the table, I said my goodbyes and stumbled back to my room though the pitch black of the town.
The morning proved to be even more frigid than the night. The wind had intensified and I could see my breath, a phenomenon I hadn’t counted on for this trip to the “tropics.” I put on my pants, two t-shirts, two button-up shirts and my sweater, and proceeded to zip down the road, savoring the smooth surface and quick pace. The dirt track was behind me, and once again I was on smooth and sealed hard surface. Like the two previous days, the ride started out perfectly. I was winding through wide valleys, punctuated by huge mountains. It was dramatic country, reminiscent of scenery found in the American West. I made it about an hour down the road – which was pretty typical for the trip – before my I hit my first patch of trouble. There was a dip in the road and I was heading back up at a pretty steep grade. I had the bike opened up at a good speed, when the engine suddenly started making a terrible high pitch noise, as if it were wheezing. I lost compression and a lot of power, and then the bike just died. By now I had cleared the top of the hill and just coasted it down, pop starting it near the bottom. The engine fired up, but now it sounded weak and unwell, and I was only getting about half the power I was before. This was accompanied by a thick blue smoke belching out of the tail pipe. I was burning oil.I went up a big rise and began to coast it on the other side, spying a village below. I pulled into the gas/mechanic hut and had them get a wrench to check the oil. The cap was so encrusted with petrified dirt that it could not be unscrewed by hand. The mechanic, an ancient crease-faced man, undid the cap and peered into the smoking oil chamber, which was empty. He shook his head and pointed.”No,” he said, displaying the extent of his English.I bought a liter of oil which he poured back in. He then pushed down on the kick start with his hand to pump it through. As he did this, a full stream of oil oozed out of the engine casing. He did it again and looked closely. There was a crack in the casing. The bike had been leaking oil for a long time and I hadn’t spotted it. One of the men who now gathered around mimed a rock jumping up and hitting the casing, causing the crack. The mechanic threw up his arms and told me “No,” once again. Evidently, I was fucked.
I looked up the empty road to the small mountains in front of me. I estimated that I had seventy or eighty kilometers until the road back to Tha Khaek. From there it was another ninety to the town. But within twenty kilometers was the town of Ban Na Hin, which was the site of another dam and gateway to a seven kilomter-long limestone cave, a popular backpacker stop. Surely this town would have a more sophisticated garage. If I could get the bike there, I could get the leak patched and still possibly make it back to Tha Khaek.
So I bought five more liters of oil, started the bike, and putted it down the road and up the mountain, blowing fat ribbons of smoke out the back like the loser of a WWII dogfight. Once the smoke cleared up I knew my oil was gone, so I’d pull over and pour in another pint, praying that I had enough lube to get me to the next stop.
And I did. Soon, at the base of a large mountain, located in a lush valley, the town of Ban Na Hin appeared. I coasted down and wheeled it in the first mechanic I saw, who was a young man in his very early twenties. It took an hour for him to replace the casing, and it set me back $20, which is a small fortune in communist Laos.
Now my oil leak was fixed, though my fear that the engine was significantly damaged was confirmed, as I rode the bike out of the town, spewing smoke and feeling the bike struggle to do its job. As I rode down the level road, I was fine. The bike sounded bad but was still going. It was only when I tried to climb the mountain out of the town that the bike bogged down and died on me once again.
So I turned the bike around and coasted it down the base of the mountain. I had not gotten very far up, but enough to where I was picking up significant speed on the way back down. And it was here that I was revisited by a previous demon: my footbrake failed yet again, only now my wounded bike was shooting straight down the foot of a mountain.
Luckily, I did not die, nor was I even hurt. I got the bike down by putting into low into gear and zigzagging back and forth along the road. This managed to slow me down enough to reasonably pop start the thing. From there I slowly took it back into town back to my ace mechanic.
This mechanic was more enterprising than the first one who touched the brakes. He at once busted out the welder and went to work, fixing the brake problem once and for all. When I stomped down on it, it felt firm, made of titanium. I knew it would now hold.
So it was back out of town and up the mountain. This time I kept the bike in first the whole time and it did not die. It climbed up, even gaining speed. At the top of the mountain was a turnout, a scenic vista, denoted by a sign. I stopped and took in the view, which was of intricate rock formations on the surrounding mountains, at least from what I could make out. The view was marred, ruined even, by the thick haze of smoke that hung in the air. It was the dry season in Laos, the time when the farmers burn their fields. This was going on all over the country, layering the whole place under a blanket of smoke, stinging the eyes, burning the nostrils.
At this point I closed my eyes to the scenery. The surroundings became secondary to me, as all of my attention was centered on the health of the bike’s engine, which was growing worse by every kilometer. I was still moving forward, going, but I felt the power weaken and the engine’s croak intensify. At one point I even ran out of gas, but manage to push my rapidly dying machine into a village which sold gas. By the time I made it to the road to Tha Khaek, it was barely moving. Still, I took a left and opened up my throttle all the way, which, in fourth gear, added up to what must have been no more than fifteen kilometers an hour. And it was an hour that I got on the road back to town – exactly an hour before the bike finally died, this time for good.
The last eighty kilometers to Tha Khaek were covered in a Japanese pickup truck. I had stuck out my thumb and secured a ride from a Lao man whose name I never got. We loaded the husk of the bike into the back of his truck and rode together in silence. Even if we spoke each other’s language there was nothing to say. The look of defeat on my filthy sunburned face, combined with the uselessly immobile machine with me, said all that was needed.
They took the bike back at the rental agency with little hassle. The English speaking man was there in person this time – no note necessary – and though he looked shocked at the state of me and the machine, he handed over my passport and I handed over his keys. When I told him about the oil leak, he informed me that they had “fixed it before.” I guess that I unfixed it.
Back at the Travel Lodge I related my war stories to those present at the campfire. I sipped my Beer Laos bottles and described gory detail after detail, delighting in the look of amazement on their faces that I could endure such an ordeal.
Late in the night, as I wobbled from the beer, Inga and Steve rolled in, looking defeated. I had not seen them on the road that day. They had evidently taken a dirt track out of Ban Na Hin that led to the limestone cave, thirty kilometers out. They had made it only ten when Steve got a flat tire. They pushed for an hour, but found no village, no mechanic, no rice paddy saviors. Eventually, they turned back toward the town and had it fixed there, choosing to then ride back to Tha Khaek.
When I tell people about the trip, about the plague of breakdowns, most lament my awful luck. What had I done to accrue such bad trip karma? But the mechanical failings, the problems, these forced me to stop along the way in places that I would have hardly given a glance to from the road. I got to spend time in these villages and get a glimpse into real Lao life – not what is packaged and sold to the Khaosan Road hordes. The problems on the trip made me relax, they made slow down. And Laos is a country best viewed in first gear.
Christopher Tharp is a writer who lives in Lacey, Washington. This story won the Gold Award for Men’s Travel in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.
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.
Well here I sit in Laos again, I have been putting around the place on and off for 10 years now. Mostly traveling by motorcycle, no surprise there. However I am now into offroading. This little hobby started around 1999 when I took my first backpacking trip after 15 years sailing around the globe on my sailboat Espritdemer. This land trip took in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. All countries I was able to rent bikes with the exception of Laos. And Laos, in those years was just opening up to tourism. Well so off to Singapore and buy a bike. Were I found a trusty ole Xl600 Honda. This good ole bike made many trips up through Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Borneo. To cut a long story short eventually I moved down to a smaller more nimble bike an XR400. In around 2003 I discovered the ancient Kymer Empire known as Ankor Wat. Cambodia at the time was just coming out of the Kymer Rouge era and the country was in a shambles with and dilapidated road network, which had more oxcarts than cars in the country. Well with the combination of great offroad riding and the lure of ancient temples in the Jungles. (Indiana Jones). I spent a few seasons with my GPS mapping, discovering many ancient temples and ancient road networks across the land. Wow great fun and memories, until development caught up with the place and it became a bit ordinary. The fantastic temples, surrounded by landmine signs with skull and crossbones that I would camp inside, would now have ticket gates guards and tourists!!
So blah blah blah. After a few years of this great fun I continued to map the whole of the country and produce the LaosGPSmap which you can see on the web site. However the Ho Chi Minh trail continues to be a passion, In fact I am writing this from Xepon site of one of the biggest battles of war. The Lao and Vietnamese are have a huge celebration and dedication ceremony at the new war museum here at Ban Dong.
To me it was a dark, foreboding place where we knew the enemy was creeping up on us and we were shooting at ghosts, just every once in a while happening to hit something important. Not enough to stem the tide.
Army OH-6 and an USMC CH-53 were seen on a hill just south of Tchepone in March 1971 after they were brought down by a North Vietnamese 37mm battery
Excerpt,”I participated in two invasions of Cambodia.The first was the U.S. invasion in the Spring of 1970. The second was in early 1971 (a couple of weeks before my tour of duty was over) when the South Vietnamese alone invaded Cambodia but were supported by U.S. gunship and medevac aircraft. During that second invasion, I never saw Cambodia during the day, as all of my medevac border crossings came at or after sunset.
One night while we were deep in Cambodia (North of Phnom Penh) we were hijacked by some ARVN’s (Army Republic of Vietnam) who were losing a battle. Because of the large number of casualties, the mission called for two Dustoff aircraft. I was the first bird in and CW2 was right behind us with his. Our landing site was to the center of a ring of tanks and and APC’s (armored personnel carriers) located on the top of a large bare (defoliated) hill top surrounded by thick jungle. All of the tanks and APC’s were outward and engaging with the enemy. The chaos reminded me of an old Western movie where the encircled wagon train was defending itself from Indian attacks from all sides.
When we “touched down” the ARVN’s abandoned their wounded and swarmed my aircraft. My medic and crewchief started to throw the unwounded off the aircraft when the ARVN’s pointed their weapons at us. I told my crew to get back on board and close the cargo doors when they could. I tried to pick our bird up to a hover, but with all the ARVNs on board, we were well over our Gross Max Weight limits and our rotor (RPM) would keep bleeding off. Since we were sitting ducks where we were, I decided to try a running take off and attempt to reach “translational lift” by running (sliding along on our skids) down the hillside.
I was surrounded by armored vehicles, so I looked for an opening between two vehicles that was large enough to fit, but ended up clipping off both of their FM whip antennas. Once outside of the circle of armored vehicles we started our run down the hillside with all lights out except our search light (the scan of which I controlled by my thumb on the cyclic). We slid and bounced toward the tree line, slowly gaining ground speed by nursing the rotor RPM, engine RPM and Torque settings gingerly to achieve lift off. As we cleared the the tree tops, I turned the search light off and began a slow climb and increase in airspeed. I radioed Stan to warn him what he was in for and asked my crew for a head count of ARVN’s on board. My crew chief said it was a “…pile of assholes and elbows and shit eating smiles…” that he estimated the count at 17-18 or more. Then my medic shouted that we had an ARVN hanging from the skids! I immediately reduced airspeed and power to begin a descent. I remember thinking,'”Man oh man, now what are you going to do? You’ve got a guy on the skids and a triple canopy jungle beneath you and it’s pitch black out there and you’re in the middle of bad guy country along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”. As I continued my descent, I decided to look for a road or clearing that would allow me enough room for a “run on landing” and a “run on take off”. Shortly thereafter my medic came on the intercom and said, “Never mind, we lost him.”.I immediately looked at my altimeter and saw that we were about 700 feet AGL (above ground level). I finally got through to Stan, but it was too late. They pulled weapons on him as well and I think he pulled out 18 ARVN’s as well. I radioed back to Tay Ninh for MP’s to meet us, but they were late arriving at the pad and all of the deserters disappeared into the night. ”
May and June 1966 were particularly deadly for the fliers over Steel Tiger North. The gunners were getting better at their duties and tactics by the time the dry season started giving way to the deluges of the summer monsoon. On the evening of May 15th Spooky 10 disappeared with eight crewmen aboard. The AC-47 was orbiting just east of the Chokes when the ABCCC controller took the crew’s last position report.
The big meadow, into which Captain Harley and Airman Guillot crashed, was already well on its way to becoming a major storage complex and transshipment center. From that cloudy day on, the valley also became known to the fliers at NKP as “Harley’s Valley.”
Please ask, about our Ho Chi Minh Trail tours! John R. Campbell, a civilian psychological warfare advisor in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967 talks about the bravery and dedication of the troops coming down the trail in Are we Winning? Are they Winning: A Civilian Advisors Reflections on Wartime Vietnam, Author House, 2004: There could not have been a starker documentation of the superiority in the depth of motivation, discipline and self-sacrifice of the average North Vietnamese soldier than knowing when he started down the Ho Chi Minh Trail that no one he had ever known ever came back. Yet they continued to go south in greater and greater numbers, year after year. Documentation shows that while few went with genuine enthusiasm, they still went. It wasnt as if this was just a vague rumor to them, since for an average of 500 who started down the trail, only 400 came out at the end of their trek south. This was a 20% attrition rate even before they faced an enemy soldier. In the early days of the war it took six months to travel from North Vietnam to Saigon on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. By 1970, regular North Vietnamese Army soldiers could make the journey in six weeks. By the end of the war with motorized transportation the trip might take one week. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 soldiers a month marched south at the height of the trail’s use. And, it wasn’t only men and trucks that came down the Trail. Captain Hammond M. Salley, recalls: Another misconception is the common belief that the trail was named by the communists in honor of their esteemed leader, Ho Chi Minh. In fact, the designation â€œHo Chi Minh Trail was a slang term coined by the Americans. Throughout the war, and for many years after the conflict ended, the North Vietnamese referred to the network as the Truong Son Road. In recent years (I suspect as a result of increased tourism) the Lao and Vietnamese have embraced the name invented by the Americans and now use it on signposts and memorial markers Contact the Don at, Espritdemer@hotmail.com or below at LaosGPSmap [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]
Contact the Don at, Espritdemer@hotmail.com