It was a trip like something out of a movie...

Luang Prabang Travel Blog

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Okay. I'm going to try this one more time. This is the third try on this blog.  It have deleted itself the other two times I've written it. I know I probably screwed something up... There is no such thing as computer or blog demons are there... Maybe there are, we don't know for sure...

Disclaimer... I made the date up. I have no idea the date but the blog format requires a date. All I know for sure is it was late '74 or very early '75. In April '75 The Vietnam War ended as far as the Americans were concerned & I left Thailand in June of '75 so we have the time line. 

Once upon a time, way back in 1974 (probably), before many of you were born, I was working for the US Army in Thailand. It wasn't a job of universal importance. I ran part of the recreation services program on a small Army Post near Udorn Thani. I knew no secrets of importance to national security. Actually I didn't know any secrets at all. And becasue of that, I didn't have a security clearance & wasn't barred from traveling around the neighboring countries. A couple of friends of mine who were also not encumbered by security clearances & I did some traveling together. We had made several trip to Vientiane, Laos, & the surrounding area. We had a great time & let me tell you, the best French bread in the whole world is not in France but in Vientiane, Laos. The real French legacy after twenty years of being in the country. It is made with rice flour, not wheat flour, in wood burning clay ovens. It is or was wonderful! When people from the Post knew we were going to Laos they would say, "Bring us French Bread". We would buy all the bread the vendors had on the way back to take the boat back across the Mekong River to Thailand. Sometimes we would take as many as fifty loaves back with us.

Because the Vietnam situation was not going well & the countries surrounding it were having an insurgency problem because of the Vietnam chaos, we decided that we had better get any traveling done we wanted to do, because it was getting ready to all be shut down for US personnel. We decided on Luang Prabang, Laos, the old royal capitol. "Old Royal Capitol" conjures up images in the mind. Sounds so cool. Now you have to remember this was in a time prior to personal computers & the internet. You couldn't just google Luang Prabang, Laos & see what was there & what was happening, etc. We found out that there were basically two ways to get to LP (Luang Prabang). We could go to Bangkok, all the way south from Udorn which is all the way north about 35 miles from the Laos border & the Mekong River by train for 12 hours or by bus for 12 hours. Then we could catch a Continental Airlines flight to LP. Or we could take a barge up the river for a week. Not a cruise, a barge carry stuff upriver. We passed on the barge & elected to do the airline. There was no cross country travel becasue there was no paved road. I suspect there had been, at one time, a road of some kind since the French had been in Laos for twenty years but in the mid seventies that was not a do-able deal.

Prior to leaving Thailand we checked around as best we could to make sure it was safe to go to LP, that the US & Laos friends were still in charge of the country & we were assured all was well. We left Udorn Thani for four wonderful days in LP. So we spent our 12 hours on the bus freezing to death. In that era there was very little air conditioning in Thailand. The buses that carried westerners were really proud of their A/C, so they cranked it up. There was a food & potty stop at midnight for the night bus in Khon Kaen. We always got off the bus to thaw out. Those buses were the exact opposite of the heat & humidity of Thailand & 100% miserable even though the Thais thought they were doing a great thing keeping us cool. Their advertisements were for "Fully Air Conditioned Buses" and they weren't kidding. Every time we had to go to Bangkok we would ask them to turn the a/c down when we got on the bus & they would give us this huge smile & say yes we can do. They never did. We caught a taxi to the airport from the bus terminal in Bangkok. We caught a Continental Airline (which is no longer with us) plane to LP. There were maybe six of us on the plane.

Back in the day, Continental was the only commercial carrier in & out of LP. They flew two flights a week from Bangkok. They had taken the last 2 rows of seats out of the plane & carried 55 gallon drums of fuel & the oil they would need to make the return trip to Bangkok. Everything going into LP was either flown in or barged in.  When you get on an airplane now you don't even think about how the fuel & oil get to it. Back then you didn't have to wonder...

We got to LP & were completely traveled out. There was a hotel van there to take us to the hotel. We had no reservations. There was just one hotel & they sent a van to meet every plane just in case someone wanted to stay at the hotel. We were the only ones going to the hotel. We got to the hotel which was up on a hill. Supposedly it had been a Holiday Inn at one time. It could have been because it had the look of a Holiday Inn of that period. But if it had been, it no longer was. It was very clean & the staff was very nice but it needed paint & was generally run down. They told us dinner would be served when we were ready. We went to our room & washed off a day & a half of travel & went to the restaurant. They handed us menus. We made our selection & they were sorry but they were out of what we had ordered. We chose a second time & they were again so sorry... We suggested that they fix for us whatever they thought we might like. Fried rice. The oriental all time favorite. It worked for us. We ate & went to bed.

When I woke up the next morning I stepped out onto the balcony of our room & was looking across the top of the jungle. There was the smell of cooking & cooking fires & little wisps smoke rising through the canopy from the cooking fires. I could hear children playing & laughing, a rooster crowing & someone hammering. Everything else was totally quiet. No machines. There were only two vehicles in the town. The van that had picked us up at the airport  & a truck. They had been brought to LP in pieces on barges & reassembled. All the fuel for them had to be barged up river. They didn't let the vehicles idle. My friend stepped out on to the balcony with me & we sat listening to the "silence" for half an hour. It was amazing & was the most enjoyable & memorable part of the trip, though not the most exciting.

When we went to the restaurant they offered us menus & we told them just to bring us something nice. We had already had our learning experience with the menus. Guess what we had for breakfast. Yep! Fried rice...

The van driver said he would take us to town, if we wanted, when we were finished eating. So off to town we went. When we got into the van two boys pushed it until we were on the down hill slope & were rolling on our own. We were immediately concerned that we were out of gas. Not to worry. We rolled until the first up slope & then the driver started the van & drove us the rest of the way to town.  He told us what time he would come back for us at the end of the day & we synchronized watches, knowing that was a joke since the orient does not run on time. My experience of the orient is 1 o'clock might mean 1 o'clock & it might mean sometime next week. You just never knew...

The town was more of a village with the standard stores & vendors lining the streets. Many shops & houses had dirt floors which were diligently swept several times a day. There were lots of colonial wood buildings in much need of maintenance & some pre-French stone walls & temples. I googled LP before I started to write this & it is unbelievable the difference between then & now. All the beautiful buildings that are showcased now either weren't there or weren't beautiful in the mid seventies. The main temple was a huge stone affair that you could walk up on top of & stand just under the dome & pier out over the town. Very old temple I am guessing this is the temple we walked up on. If it is, the avenue leading up to it was not all clean & clear as in the picture. It was cluttered with vendors & stuff & trash. 

We walked the town eating our way up one side of the street & down the other, looking in shops. We met a couple of Dutch back packers who had come up river on a barge who were having trouble touring the countries around Vietnam becasue of the upheaval the war was causing. Cambodia & Burma had already gotten too scary. They had already spent quite a bit of time in Thailand & Malaysia. Laos was their last hope for a place to hang out. They had been there two days & so far it was looking promising. We left them to their own devices.

We walked up on to the top of the temple & when we got there we were shocked. There were a half dozen fully armed soldiers with rifles & double bandoleros across their bodies, full of bullets. We were stunned. They weren't our guys & they didn't appear to local government guys. We spent some time looking at insignia trying to figure out who they were. We had already tried the direct approach so popular with Americans. "Hi, how are you? Nice day, yes? Do you speak English? Nice gun. Can I hold it?" None of that had gotten us anywhere. They didn't speak English. They didn't speak enough English to know what the question was. They didn't know to say "no".  They just smiled & bobbed their heads. We finally worked out that they were Pathet Lao soldiers.

James Bond 007 time. We obviously had to get photos & gather intelligence because these guys weren't supposed to be here. I think what saved us was they were all about 18 years old with no rank & they appeared to be the only soldiers in town with no older, higher ranking persons in charge. We decided to get pictures. The direct approach of "let me take your picture" didn't work. They waved us off with the international hand waving sign of "no picture". My friend being the flirty type decided she was going to get them to let her have her picture taken with them. Before it was all over we had pictures of them, pictures of her holding a gun next to them, me holding a gun next to them, etc. We were too cool. We finally ran out of film. Remember, this was the dark ages before digital... I don't know how many pictures we needed to prove they were there.... We walked down from the temple & there was the van driver saying time to go back to the hotel. Amazing! Sure enough. We had not been where we were supposed to be at the prearranged time so he came looking for us. I'm sure it wasn't hard to locate the only two idiot tourist girls in town since I imagine that everyone in town knew exactly where we were every moment of the day since we were the novelty of the day. They probably also knew where to the Dutch backpackers were. Small towns, everyone knows every thing. Don't live in a small town, if you can't deal with that...

When we got in the van, we tried to talk to the driver about the soldiers. Had he had more English his answer would have been "no comment". Instead we got the standard oriental reply of "yes, yes" with head bobbing & smiling. You never knew exactly what that meant in any given situation. We had showers in cold water & changed clothes. When we got to the restaurant we got the same thing.  We went to the restaurant because we were supposed to & had the special of the day, fried rice. We really were already full from eating the Laos equivalent of junk food all afternoon. Fried bananas, coconut, coconut juice still in it's natural container, coffee, french bread, etc, etc, etc. The hotel staff wanted to feed us before dark so they didn't have to turn the generator on. So we ate & went to our room. They gave us a flashlight. I think when it got dark, you were supposed to go to bed. So we did.

At 4 am the driver came banging on our door yelling "Get up, get up! Hurry, hurry! Airplane is leaving!" We broke the land speed record for getting in to our clothes, throwing stuff in our bags & out the door in the dark. The guy had the van running when we got there. Off down the road at record speed. All we could get was that many soldiers were coming & the airplane was leaving & not coming back. Continental was getting their airplane out while they could. The plane was already taxiing. Our driver drove up beside the moving plane & we threw our bags to someone who threw them in the plane. He drove fast ahead of the plane & slowed down & told us to get out & run for the plane. Didn't have to tell us twice. We didn't quite get what was happening but we had adrenaline working for us.  The pilot slowed the plane but didn't stop it. Someone reached an arm out of the plane & pulled us each in. The door was closed & we were back to full taxi.

Since then I have become involved with airplanes. Now I have a list of questions. I can't remember if we taxied to the end of the runway & turned around or if the pilot just put the peddle to the metal, so to speak, from there. How long was that runway & how much of it was behind us when we took off? Or more importantly, how much of it was in front of us? How high was the jungle at the end of the runway & by how much did we miss the tops of the trees? What kind of airplane was it? How many times had that pilot taken off in total darkness before? They didn't have runway lights. (But of course no one asked Capt. Sully how many water landings he had made before he landed on the Hudson River.) Sometimes you just do what you have to do & it works out. And there are of course times when it doesn't. Thankfully for us it worked.

I do, looking back, clearly remember that I did not tell the pilot "good job!" I didn't have the presence of mind to say "thanks for getting us out!" I don't think we had the presence of mind to realize the danger of the whole deal on any level. I do remember my friend griping about only staying for one night, having paid for three & them not giving us our money back. I remember hating that Americans gripe about everything & that maybe I would find someone else to adventure with in the future when I was going somewhere that my husband couldn't go.

A few weeks later I had to be in Bangkok for a meeting. And who did I meet but the two Dutch backpackers. They were on their way back to Holland. They had left LP the morning we had left. As soon as it was light they made arrangements with a barge going south loaded with pigs being taken to market to take them down river. It had been a scary trip. They had been attacked by robbers. Many of the pigs where killed & the drums of fuel on board were punctured. They were amazed they weren't hit along with the pigs or that the barge didn't catch fire.  They said they were giving up their wanderings up for the time being.

nathanphil says:
An amazing story...
Posted on: Apr 26, 2010
lwatkins47 says:
My memory of it is that it was best in Vientiane but I don't know if that is real or just a false memory. Check to see if they are using rice flour & a wood burning clay oven. If they have modernized, all bets are off. Modernity really ruins some things...
Posted on: Dec 24, 2009
invizee says:
Wow this experience in Luang Prabang must have been very memorable! I enjoyed reading this very much!

And now I really must try French bread in Laos!
Posted on: Dec 24, 2009
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Luang Prabang
photo by: oxangu2