Lost in Laos
In 1970 when Pet was just three years old and the youngest of seven children, his village came under bombardment. The bombing was severe and it happened all too quickly. As the bombs rained down his father grabbed three of the children and ran from the back door of the house. His mother in panic and fear grabbed three other children and ran through the front door, clutching Pet and two of his other siblings. They were separated as a family and remained separated for eight years. Pet’s father found his way to the Lao government soldiers who were attacking the area. His mother found herself with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) which was also active in the area. Pet was to spend the next five years living hand-to-mouth in caves and jungle until the hostilities finished. He describes this time in great detail; no food – they would eat anything that came by: grasshoppers, lizards, tree roots and cockroaches. He found his way to these caves with eight other families and by the end of this horrific journey only four families had survived – the others dead from illness, bombing, chemical sprays and starvation. It was to be eight years before this father and three other siblings were re-united with him, his mother and two other siblings. It was only then, eight years later, that both parents realised that one child was missing. In the confusion of that night a child had been lost, each parent thinking the other had the child. They had no way of establishing the fate of their lost child – a boy who was ten years old at the time.
Almost 24 years later in 1994, Pet was working at a local hotel in Phonsavan. One morning an American guest who had checked into the hotel the night before contacted Pet and asked him to come to her room later that morning; she gave no explanation. Being a shy boy from northern Laos, Pet was unsure but nevertheless made the rendezvous with this American guest who presented him with a letter. He opened the envelope, assured by the American that it brought good news, but he never expected that this letter was to have such an impact on him and his family. It was from his lost brother, thought dead 24 years ago; but actually living in the United States and working as a doctor.
Pet’s first reaction was disbelief; how was it possible after all these years? The letter revealed that on that chaotic night, when Pet’s mother had gone through the front door and his father through the back door, Pet’s 10 year old brother had somehow found himself in a ditch by a rice field along with a Hmong family, sheltering from the ‘yellow rain’ of cluster bombs. After the raid had passed and in the aftermath, Pet’s brother could not locate any family so he stayed with the Hmong family; it was his only chance. The family and Pet’s brother eventually found their way to American territory via refugee camps. The passage was made a little easier by the US government, who having long encouraged the hill tribe dwellers to fight against the communists, were sympathetic to their refugee status and many Hmong families were relocated to the US, and indeed Australia. In the US he was able to complete school and university and become a medical doctor in Pennsylvania; he married a Hmong girl and had two children.
Pet remained skeptical and showed the letter to his parents. They agreed they could not accept this as the truth so they decided to ask more questions. The American envoy accepted the list of more specific queries about relatives, names and characteristics; questions that would help Pet’s parents clarify his identity. The answer came back; he was familiar with the family history, he could remember many things about his parents, his uncles and aunts and where he used to live, so Pet’s family accepted the story.
After 24 years their family was together again, and by this time Pet’s parents had raised three more children. Pet’s brother has visited several times from America. His father died four years ago, but lived long enough to see his family together and reunited.
What a heart-warming story!
I lost contact with Pet for 3 years and then purely by chance we met again at a café in the very remote village of Muong Khoa near the Plain of Jars. For those past years Pet had been working for MAG (Mine Advisory Group) helping clear unexploded ordinance, acting as interpreter and training locals to assist with this dangerous work. He still managed some guiding and on this day he was with some American guests. We exchanged email addresses – I remember his was ‘lone buffalo’. I asked if he could help me guide our Ho Chi Minh Trail group which would arrive in May of the following year (2012). He was excited and we confirmed the arrangement a few months later.
In 2012 our Ho Chi Minh Trail journey travelled from Vinh in central Vietnam to the border with Laos. As we approached I was very much looking forward to seeing Pet, happy for our guests to also meet such an engaging and knowledgeable person. The border area at Muong Seo is rarely frequented by foreigners. Set in the Truong Son Mountain range the countryside is one of limestone cast with deep valleys and jungle covered slopes. There is some distance between the Vietnamese border gate and the Lao arrivals; perhaps 150 metres of ‘no man’s land’ where you must drag your bags and hand luggage across a gravel track. We reached the gate and I could see our bus waiting just 20 metres away, but there was no sign of Pet’s smiling face.
Once the customs and immigration formalities were completed I met our driver and a Lao gentleman called Sok. ‘Where was Mr. Pet?’ I asked. The Lao people are extremely gracious, quiet and unassuming. Their belief in Buddha permeates every day of their life and gives them an uncommon sereneness. I looked at Sok. ‘Mr. Pet died three days ago’ he said. It was a heart attack; Pet was just 45 years old. He had moved on, leaving this life of equal sadness and happiness.
Nothing is permanent in life, but I like to think that this ‘lone buffalo’ was reborn into a greater existence.
Fast rail from Kunming to Vientiane
‘The Times They Are A-Changin’– Bob Dylan 1964
Last November I was in Laos travelling down the Mekong River by slow boat on my way from Houay Xai to Pakbeng and eventually Luang Prabang. This is a journey I have made every year since 1999 and it is an absolute favourite. Two days of relaxation, beautiful countryside and a feeling of remoteness that is increasingly difficult to find in this crowded world. I have always thought that nothing much changes up here, but on this particular journey it was different. Everything is changing.
The Chinese are building a high-speed railway from Kunming in southern Yunnan province (China) to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. The distance is over 750 kilometres and will cut through mostly mountainous country that is sparsely populated. Once completed (in 2020), the railway will deliver millions of Chinese tourists, business people and opportunists to the previously sleepy and land-locked country of Laos. The scale will be massive.
Just south of Pakbeng you can see the construction; the Chinese bring everything with them, including a 200,000 strong workforce along with all the resources this mobile construction team needs. Accommodation, food, cement factories and roads are all identified by Chinese characters emblazoned across the site precincts. I saw tunnels and bridges being built. If I had not seen it with my own eyes I would not have believed it.
The railway is part of China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, the biggest infrastructure program the world has seen. Laos is a happy partner; they have always been the meat in the sandwich between Vietnam and Thailand, so this initiative will bring some prospects for local industry if they can take advantage of the economic opportunities.
As for China, the route to Vientiane may be followed by another train to Phnom Penh and then to Sihanoukville on the coast, thus opening another route for China’s energy transportation needs. Currently 70% of China’s energy comes through the South China Sea by ship, so I suspect their long-term goal is to find another route that avoids the South China Sea and diminishes the chance of conflict.
I am not sure the slow boat journey on the Mekong will be as pristine as before, however, this will not stop me from taking this trip again and trying to find new ways to enjoy the river and its many secrets. One thing for sure is that nothing ever stays the same… for ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.
The time of the Khmer Rouge – Navee’s story
I have heard stories first-hand of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge for many years. The emotion and intensity of these stories does not fade; the inhumanity that humans are capable of is frightening. In this article I have shared Navee’s story, our Cambodian guide in Siem Reap.
For me, touring around the Angkor temples is still just as interesting as the first time I visited in 1996. I remember at that time I was the only guest at the newly reopened Raffles Grand Hotel, an eerie feeling it was. You could also buy a Cambodian policeman’s badge for one US dollar.
Today our local guide is Mr Navee, he was born in 1962 making him 13 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power and plunged Cambodia into genocide. He lived here in Siem Reap where his father was a soldier under the Lon Nol government, who were strongly supported by the USA, and encouraged to fight the North Vietnamese, then later the Khmer Rouge (KR). In 1975 when Phnom Penh fell, the KR divided the citizens into two groups, the ‘old’ people and the ‘new’ people. The ‘old’ people were countryside folk and supporters of the KR, the ‘new’ people were academics, business people and anybody who had supported the Lon Nol regime. The KR emptied urban areas, forcing people to march into the countryside. This is where they had their power base and their genesis during the 1960s as a guerrilla insurgency. The name Khmer Rouge was given to this rag-tag band of armed countryside people by the then king, Norodom Sihanouk.
Navee by definition was one of the ‘new’ people. As a young boy and one of nine children, Navee had moved to Siem Reap to study, living with his uncle. When the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975, he was forced to walk into the jungle along with everyone else in Siem Reap. The KR were meticulously separating families. During their reign of terror, children were separated from their parents and placed under the instruction of dormitory managers who ruled ruthlessly, indoctrinating the children to follow the rule of Angka (this was the name given to the leadership and political arm of the KR). As a 13 year old, Navee witnessed horrific images of people being hog-tied and killed. He told his uncle who urged him to keep quiet; they were all on borrowed time
Soon after his arrival in the jungle camp, the KR held a public meeting, and for some reason which Navee did not explain in detail, he was ‘adopted’ at that meeting by a KR woman, one of the ‘old’ people. By default he became part of Angka. He goes on to say that he had enough food and was able to work trading rice for fish, and this is how he survived that time until the KR were eventually defeated by the Vietnamese. He says ‘new’ people just disappeared regularly, but it was not until hostilities finally ceased (1990) that he came to understand the full extent of the genocide. Navee never saw any of his family again. He assumes they were all killed.
Navee is a remarkable person; kind, considerate and articulate. His story of survival, then recovery and now prosperity, leaves an indelible mark.
A piece of jar
The French during their brief occupation of Lao called this place Plateau De Xiangkhoang and it was here they discovered stone jars scattered across hill tops that are believed to be over 2000 years old.
Little archaeological work has been done on these mysterious objects which are concentrated into three sites on the Plain of Jars as it has become known. It is also said there are many more carved stone structures scattered through the valleys and forests of this region still undiscovered .
I first visited the Plain of Jars in 1999 and I have been mesmerized ever since. Who built these carved stone structures? What was their purpose? There are many theories however it seems the most plausible idea is they were used as burial chambers.
A few years ago I found myself back in Lao on the Plain of Jars with a Goddard & Howse small world journey. We were visiting jar site 3 which is accessed across a rice field over a few styles to the crest of a small hill. Here there are about 90 jars in varying sizes. On the ground I noticed a small piece of jar that had broken off or worn away over those thousands of years and instinctively I picked it up and popped it into my pocket. My inquisitive mind was thinking I’ll take this to the ANU and get someone to analyse its composition and then we will have an idea about how they were made, the material used and perhaps more. An excited flush came over me.
They day went on and I thought nothing much more about this piece of jar in my pocket until I was back in my hotel room that evening and carefully pulled it from my jeans. Now I never have been very superstitious however after 20 years of living and working in South east Asia where ‘there is a ghost in every house’ I confess to some influence. And so it was that a feeling of anxiety swept across me as I gazed at this piece of jar – more than anxiety it was a compelling feeling of invasion by the spirit of the jar. I was taking something that did not belong to me; it belonged here on the plain of jars. I thought of that English chap Carter who opened the Tomb of Tutankhamen to be cursed some say for the rest of his days. That was enough for me. I tossed the piece into the field behind my hotel muttering apologies to the spirits, the gods, and the lost civilisation who built these jars. Anyone I could think of.
I know it was an irresponsible and dumb thing to do in the first place and I assure you I have not replicated these thoughts or deeds in any other part of China or south-east Asia ever again.
I did tell you however at the start of this story that I was mesmerised by the Plain of Jars.
FROM THE DIARY: A moment in Phnom Penh (Aug 2004)
I am in downtown Phnom Penh, a town like no other. The sky is grey with thunder clouds; the rain has been falling, sheets of soft warm water, a curtain in the sky. The streets awash, business continues without pause, people on bikes, trucks and in fancy cars negotiating their way along precarious thoroughfares with apparent nonchalance. Indifference to the elements transpires to the people, they just get on. One wonders how, the street people are poor and look desperate, dark pleading faces, red eyes set back begging for a morsel to help continue the moment. Phnom Penh feels like a frontier town, where rules are non existent and existence is day by day. You can get anywhere on the back of a motorbike for $2, see the sights all day for a few more, but just sitting is sometimes enough. The passing parade is a kaleidoscope of events and scenes like a permanent movie set where the actors know their places without direction.
There is an old man peering over the small green hedge that separates my lunch spot from the road and traffic noise. His face is dark and craggy, hair grey and short. His white shirt and pants are stained; an orange sash tossed across his shoulder and an old bag to carry what is left of his worldly possessions. He stares at me a long time and I smile back to which he responds with some inaudible words. I think he has seen too much. Civil war, the American war and the Vietnamese occupation, he could probably tell stories of all these events if someone took the time to listen. I doubt anybody will, he will take his secrets to the next life.
The dark clouds have gone; I watch a local scamper down some steps to the river and take a piss.
FROM THE DIARY: Life in Angkor (12th century)
This was the time of the great King Jayavaraman the 7th, he seems to be credited with the most energetic and continuous construction of temples including Angkor Tom (great city), and within its walls, Bayon, Elephant’s Terrace, Phimeanakas and the enormous Boupon. A Chinese scholar was the only foreigner to visit at this time and his memoir is worth a read. He tells us that the great king was compelled to sleep with the spirit woman of the nine-headed Naga every night in the golden tower that perched on top of the Phimeanakas temple. Every night for sure he must satisfy the beast and its beautiful creation before returning to his wives and concubines. I have climbed to the summit of this temple many times. Suddenly it seems to have more significance! Our Chinese friend goes on to reveal more about daily life of these ‘dark skinned’ people who command slaves who neither speak nor understand any language but the commands of their masters. He talks of disease, including leprosy and the Angkorian’s obsession with bathing, at least three times a day he suggests. This may account for the preponderance of lakes (man-made) called barays, which to this day remain intact, some full of water. He talks of gold and bronze, ceremony, astrologers, priests and what seems like endless concubines for the king. He also confirms that the common people are never allowed into the inner sanctum, a suspicion I always had – the early Angkorians were a highly structured lot where everyone knew their place.