Guns & opium in the Xaisomboun Special Zone

Laos Travel Blog

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The Xaisomboun Special Zone in North Laos is traditionally an unstable area. During the Vietnam War the American CIA ran their covert 'Air America' operations out of an airfield at Long Chen in the centre of the zone. The Hmong inhabitants allied themselves to the Americans and when they withdrew from Indochina in 1975 the US left them at the mercy of the communist Lao government. Many of those who didn't receive asylum in the US either had to flee to Thailand or face persecution at home. The trouble has rumbled on over the years. In the early to mid 2000s news of banditry and little reported skirmishes with Lao government forces has periodically emerged from this part of Laos. In 2007, I decided to go and see what the fuss is about.

Prior to arrival in Vientiane I scanned the most real-time country advice sites for security information on the zone. Things appeared quiet so it seemed a good time to go. Vientiane was a sleepy enough place and after a night in a moderate guest house and an evening supping Beer Lao on the Mekong river bank (recommended) I ventured north on Route 13 in a pick-up truck to try to get into the zone. I reached the district boundary (a river crossing) and rather than the expected military checkpoint, there was just a blue sign by the side of the road announcing our arrival at the "Xaisomboun Special Zone". We drove on.

Having entered the zone I was a little wary of our presence on the road (a number of ambushes have taken place, including one where foreigners were killed in 2003 or 4). We proceeded smoothly but with some trepidation towards Long Chen. It was a beautiful day and from our road vantage point we could see jungle covered hills stretching into the distance. The hills were perfect for the kind of hit-and-melt-away tactics often used by guerrillas. After a while the road started winding down a steep hill into a wide and flat valley. This, the driver told me, was Long Chen. Having reached the valley floor, we stopped at a small tea shop on the side of the road and ate some food. The driver was speaking to the shop keeper excitedly and after a while this aroused my interest. I asked him what he was talking about. He told me that there had been a shooting incident near the Phu Bhia plateau a couple of days previously where a foreigner had been shot - fortunately not fatally - by an ambusher who had lain in wait by a jungle track. The villages had told him that the area where the firing took place had been covered in opium spit and empty cases from an AK47, suggesting that the gunman had been high at the time. He'd fired his rounds and disappeared into the undergrowth. The foreigner had been taken to hospital but fortunately had suffered only minor injuries. I felt a pang of excitement as our trip took on an adrelanin inducing edge - the reputation of the Xaisomboun Special Zone had confirmed itself to me.

After a night in Long Chen we decided to head further north and drove through some beautiful mountain scenery. The people seemed friendly enough and unused to seeing too many foreigners. We made sure we travelled during daylight hours as we felt that 'ambush-time' would be during the night. We then drove out of the Zone and back to Vientiane. Supping my Beer Lao on the bank of the Mekong river the evening of my return I realised that I had witnessed a part of historic Laos that is far removed from the Luang Prabang tourist trail. It felt good to have travelled there.

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