Blood, Sweat and BeerLao: The Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by Suqsuda, Aug 8, 2009.

  1. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    Five guys riding Honda XR250s on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos – 2,500 kilometers in 12 days in November-December 2008.

    The Trail:
    The Ho Chi Minh Trail is the route by which the North Vietnamese moved men and military material through neighboring Laos to battlefronts in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It has been called one of the greatest military engineering feats in history. The North Vietnamese had their own name for the trail: the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route, named after the Truong Son mountain range that divides Vietnam and Laos. More simply, they called it the Blood Road.
    The trail ran through Laos because the U.S. could not deploy ground forces there to block it. The 1962 Geneva Accords, which the U.S. signed, declared Laos neutral and prohibited the presence of foreign troops. So the U.S. resorted to a massive bombing campaign to interdict the trail, bombing Laos virtually round the clock for nine years. Laos is the most heavily bombed place on earth. Keeping the trail open was crucial to the North Vietnamese war effort and to the ultimate Communist victory and they defended it with anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles, shooting down some 540 U.S. aircraft over Laos.

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    The Riders:

    Digby: Veteran adventure rider and guide, based in Hanoi by way of Australia. One the first, and one of and few Westerners to have extensively explored the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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    Ian: Expert dirt bike rider from Australia.

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    Ray: Rides a chopper in Switzerland.

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    Steph: Expert dirt bike rider, motocross racer and trials competitor from Australia.

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    Bob: Me, from Seattle, writing my first RR. No appreciable experience on two wheels on-road or off since the 1970s when I rode a two-stroke Bultaco and a Yamaha RD350. Recent, but not-very-applicable experience with Ural and Chang Jiang side car rigs. (And no, I did not ride this 125 cc Minsk on the trail although there I times I wished I were on it).

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    Preliminaries: We met up in Laos' capital, Vientiane (more correctly called Viang Chang). It is charming, ramshackle city of dilapidated old whitewashed French colonial-era buildings and Buddhist temples along the Mekong River. Unlike Asian mega-cities such as Bangkok and Beijing, it still has a lot of dirt roads and you are likely to be awakened by roosters crowing. Pictures from my hotel room balcony:
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    These tuk-tuks are the taxis in Vientiane; they are steered with a set of motorcycle handlebars. Usually the driver is napping in a hammock slung in back:

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    We spent a couple days acclimating in Vientiane, then started the ride.

    Next: the ride.
    #1
  2. vidd

    vidd how was your lamb?

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    and do tell how does that beerlao glide?
    #2
  3. VampyreMP

    VampyreMP Frustrated Adventurer

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    This has big time potential. I'm subscribed!
    #3
  4. Spuds

    Spuds On my way home

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    In
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  5. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    DAY ONE was an easy ride south on Route 13, a paved highway that runs along the Mekong heading south from Vientiane. We planned two-to-three easy days before getting to what was our trail head at the Vietnam border -- time I needed to accustom myself to being on a bike again. I felt something like blind faith or a forlorn hope that my vestigial riding skills would return. Isn't the saying 'It comes back to you, like riding a bike?' But I'm not sure this was the kind of bike they meant.

    We turned east onto Route 8, up and over a mountain pass, then onto a red clay dirt road to Kong Lor.

    Here Steph motors up a side road to an overlook:

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    This was the view:


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    And more:


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    Crossing rice paddies toward an eco-lodge on a riverbank at the base of the distant mountains just past the tree line. If there was a real road to this place, we never found it; it is visited and provisioned by river.
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    The cross-country ride was hard going. The paddies are squares in a chessboard pattern separated by dikes about a foot to a foot-and-a-half high and just wide enough to walk on – that’s the green line I am approaching. Some paddies were flooded mud wallows and others dry enough to cross. You had to move like the knight on a chessboard -- two squares forward and one square left or right -- trying to pick a passable route. We ended up spread all over the field trying to pick our individual routes through, getting mired in mud and turning back.
    I figured out quickly that you had to hit the dikes head on to get over them. As a novice off-road rider I found that the shocks on these bikes suck up enormous impacts. But hit the dike obliquely and you’ll go down. That’s what happened to Ray. Worse, as he scrambled free of the falling bike, the butt of the handlebar came down and speared his foot, mashing his toes. He ended up limping for the rest of the trip. He also hurt something in his rib cage -- either from falling or from the strain of lifting the bike back up.

    Ray's foot (hope this doesn't violate the ADV ban on nudity in pics):

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    Later that night:

    Ian: 'Ray, you feeling a lot of pain?'

    Ray: 'Yeah.'

    Ian: 'You know what you can take for that?'

    Ray: 'No, what?' (hopeful inflection in voice).

    Ian: 'Take a can of harden the f*** up.'

    I also fell in the rice paddies. I hit a dike that was too high, got the front wheel over but the rear wheel hung up on top of the dike, and the bike bucked and unseated me and then fell on top of me. The impact knocked the wind out of me and popped the gas cap loose. I was momentarily trapped under the bike while gas glugged-glugged from the tank and soaked my jeans as I scrambled free. I envisioned the gas igniting from contact with the hot exhaust and incinerating me. I struggled clear but my adrenaline was spiking like I’d been injected with a drug.

    I was alone in the rice paddies when I fell. I got the bike started and rode over to a stand of bamboo, shut off the engine and put down the kickstand and dismounted. In the sudden silence with the engine off, I heard the bamboo swaying in the wind, the leaves and branches rattlings and the bamboo trunks as big as my limbs rubbing against each other, which made a beautiful sound like the timbers in the hold of a wooden ship bending to the wind, or like being inside a stringed instrument - like being in a Stradivarius. I consciously let it calm me. Then got back on the bike.

    We found our way to the lodge with appetites for a whole roast suckling pig waiting for us for dinner:
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    Look carefully and you'll see a jar of applesauce that Digby thoughtfully carried from from Vientiane to complement the pork:

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    #5
  6. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    Day Two: Some velvet morning. In daylight, we saw our surroundings for the first time:

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    We stayed in these huts:


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    We relaxed in the morning:

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    The inn is situated on a river:

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    I lingered after breakfast:

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    Steph worked on his bike:

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    We rode back across the rice paddies and up the road to Kong Lor cave:

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    Kong Lor cave is 7.5 kilometers long with a river running through it and under a mountain. I'm told it's under consideration to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The dirt road leading there is bound to be paved and there will be bus loads of tourists visiting; but not when we were there.

    Guides took us in shallow-draft wooden canoes that they hauled with ropes through rapids to the mouth of the cave.

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    You could possibly load a motorcycle into one of these canoes and resume your ride on the other end of the cave on the other side. I don't know whether anyone has ever done that.

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    We had to get out a few times to pull the canoes over sand bars. The cave has high vaulted ceilings and there were massive log jams wedged into rock outcroppings on the roof. For the water to be high enough to do this, it must come out of the mouth of the cave like a fire hose sometimes.

    We returned along Route 8 heading for Tha Ket, a provincial capital on the banks of the Mekong. Digby flatted a rear tire on a curve while crossing the mountain pass. I didn’t see it but Ian, who was behind him, later said he didn’t understand how Digby possibly kept the bike upright. There was an oncoming truck and he likely would have gone under its wheels if he had gone down. You could ride for an hour on that road without passing an oncoming vehicle but there it was, bearing down on him like a bad date just when his tire punctured.



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    Notice the helmets set on the ground? Flat repaired, we took off again but just down the road Ian braked to a stop, tore off his helmet and started swatting at his head. Turns out an army of miniature red biting ants had crawled into his helmet while it sat on the ground. I never left mine on the ground again.

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    We got into Tha Ket just at sundown -- another old French colonial-era city on the banks of the Mekong. Dinner that night was a Lao barbeque. The metal cone fits over a stone bucket of embers that sits in a hole in the table. You barbeque beef and chicken on the dome and pour broth into the trough to boil greens, vegetables and eggs.

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    Day Three: Up early with plans to ride to the Vietnamese border where the main Ho Chin Minh Trail enters Laos.

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    We stopped on the way out of town so Ian could get a new front brake rotor (I get the feeling that ADV readers like to see pics of repairs).

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    I like the small Buddhist shrine in the garage, which I like to think is meant to bless your ride.

    Teaser: maybe Ian should have paid obeisance or left an offering.
    #6
  7. team ftb

    team ftb Befuddled Adventurer

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    Love your inclusion of some background bits in your writing. Very thoughtful:clap . Working on my bike now to get it ready for a Laos off road ride. Thanks for the incentive. You picked a lovely time of year to do your trip. Onward with the report my friend, can't wait.
    #7
  8. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    We headed east on winding tarmac roads past jungle-clad limestone karst mountains toward the border with Vietnam atop Mu Gia pass. That&#8217;s where the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos begins. At first, road construction included stretches of gravel strewn over pavement that was like riding on marbles, and two lanes of traffic narrowed down to one lane going opposite directions making you flinch with inches to spare when passing oncoming trucks. But after that it was a fast, smooth easy ride on a good road - with almost no traffic:

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    Thee bikes topped out at about 120 km/hour and we rode them at this speed on these empty roads. We were buffeted by gusts of strong wind and so crouched down on the handlebars.

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    Ian crashed nearing the foot of Mu Gia pass. I was riding ahead and didn&#8217;t see it. Ray was riding with him. He said Ian was veering off the paved road to ride parallel to it on the dirt, then rejoining the road, then veering off again. He was keeping pace with Ray who was doing 60-70 mph on the road. Ian went off road one more time and came to a dry creek bed or culvert across his path. It was way too late to stop so he gassed his bike, wheelied and tried to jump it. He said later he would have made it were it not for the luggage on back weighing him down; he came up short, nose up. His back tire hit the far side; this compressed his rear shock, which released and catapulted him forward into a cartwheeling crash. He was thrown clear of the bike and was stunned or knocked unconscious. He wasn't moving and Ray later said he thought he might be dead. But by the time Ray stopped and ran back to him, he was stirring. X-rays later showed that he broke five ribs. The bike&#8217;s handlebars were bent and it had some other damage but it was rideable.

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    We met up again at a village at the foot of Mu Gia pass. This SAM had just recently been disarmed and the warhead was stored in the building in the background. Ian didn't mention his crash so it was left to Ray to tell us. Ian didn't complain so we didn't realize at first how badly he was injured.

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    We rode up the pass, pulled onto a verge and ducked in the lee of this rock to wolf down tins of spam for lunch. The wind was blowing almost hard enough to push you over and storm clouds were boiling over the mountains. We talked about whether it is possible for the wind to knock you over while you&#8217;re riding and someone who knows more about it than I do said that, yeah, it can happen.

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    The Mu Gia pass was obviously a key target during the war and as such it was heavily defended; the caves and jungle bristled with AAA and SAMs. American pilots called this area 'the doghouse.' Some 50 U.S. aircraft were shot down in the immediate vicinity. You can see some of the vegetation blowing in the wind:

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    Steph and I rode the last few kilometers up to the Vietnam border while Digby and Ray took Ian down to the village with the SAM and cleaned and dressed his injuries.

    Then we turned south and started down the trail:

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    The road is well maintained but is lined by bomb craters on both sides.

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    It wouldn't cross your mind that an expert rider could have a serious crash at low speed on a road like this so I assumed there must have been a mechanical breakdown when I stopped my bike and waited for a long while and Digby and Steph didn't show up.

    Steph was hit by a tractor and knocked down and then it ran over him. These tractors are the workhorses of rural Laos. The driver steers from a cart hitched behind the tractor. Steph was passing it on the left and was almost past it when it turned into him. This picture was taken a couple days later but shows the kind of tractor I'm talking about:

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    Not to speak for Steph but this must have been horrifying -- more like an industrial accident that a bike crash. Like you're working on the assembly line and get pulled onto the conveyor belt and into the machinery. These tractors engines go chug-chug-chug and the climb over anything and it went over Steph and his bike. One tire went over his chest and the other tire over his knees. Then he had to crawl frantically out of the way because it was pulling two-wheeled cart full of people and he didn't want to get run over twice.

    The driver and the passengers in the cart were literally crying and hysterical and when Digby came upon Ray, he saw that Ray was up and walking and reassuring them and calming them down -- that was his first instinct.

    We pushed on and came to the village of Ban Sen Phen where we would spend the night:


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    #8
  9. child

    child poop is fun

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    !!! Those are some amazing views

    Thanks for sharing your trip! The cliffs/mountains are amazing. You guys had one hell of an adventure by the looks of things. I'm not so sure I would have even thought of attempting to ride across rice paddies... sounds like a great way to spend a few hours going a few feet :p I guess they aren't always muddy though...
    #9
  10. vidd

    vidd how was your lamb?

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    Im really enjoying this.
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  11. Snailster

    Snailster Confused but Determined

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    Awesome write-up!
    Can you please post a map, if available?
    Great pics, great story, strong work!!
    #11
  12. on2wheels52

    on2wheels52 Long timer

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    Most interesting. Waiting for more.
    Jim
    #12
  13. Eduardo

    Eduardo Eduardo

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    Great report and pics, keep up the good work. Saludos
    #13
  14. IceCreamSoldier

    IceCreamSoldier suffering somewhere

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    :lurk ............ subscribed
    #14
  15. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    We were in the village Sen Phen at the end of our third day of riding. We had a couple hours of daylight left to wander the village. There is no electricity or running water in Sen Phen; water is fetched from the Bangfai river:

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    U.S. aircraft jettisoned their empty fuel canisters, which the Lao cut in half and use as canoes:

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    The village is located in the Phanhop Valley, where traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail was funneled into a natural bottleneck between mountain ranges. As such, it was heavily targeted. U.S. pilots nicknamed this area the 'Bowl of Fire.' Maybe that's what it looked like from a B-52 with the bombs exploding at night. Bombs are all over the village:

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    This bucket was obviously made from part of a downed U.S. helicopter or jet:

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    This house is built on cluster bomb casings and the siding is of aluminum parachute flare canisters pounded flat:

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    Cluster bomb casing used as a planter:

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    Another hut built with bomb casings:

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    This ordnance looked live. The Lao call the yellow sub-munitions 'pineapples.' You can see why a child would be tempted to pick one of these up:

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    The children were friendly and curious, the adults more wary and standoffish, but not unfriendly.

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    #15
  16. vidd

    vidd how was your lamb?

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    the stuff in that last batch of photos is just ... wow
    #16
  17. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    Digby broke out a bottle of whiskey and we drank with the village headman who made room for us in a hut. We brought our own food and enough to share with our hosts; these people do not have food to spare. Digby was the diplomat with the headman. Ray cooked dinner, over an open fire. I helped Steph clean and bandage his injuries. One of his knees was swollen to the size of a grapefruit and the kneecap was in the wrong place -- I don't know how else to describe it. He had some gouges and cuts on his arms and legs and bruises running across his chest in a tire tread pattern.

    It was not clear how we could continued down the trail in the collective state we were in. It was a somber, subdued mood --

    Except, later that night:

    Ray: Ian, you hurting?

    Ian: Yeah, I guess so.

    Ray: You know what you can take for that?

    Both Steph and Ian were iron men, not once whining, wincing or complaining although they had to be in a lot of pain. I don't know if it's cause they're Australian or that's just the kind of guys they were. Ian was having some trouble breathing and I worried that Ian or Steph or both of them might have some internal injuries. I woke up once in the middle of the night and I was relived to hear Ian breathing. Steph, I couldn't tell but I told myself he was O.K.

    The next morning Steph fixed his brake pedal which had been bent double in the crash:

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    We had breakfast:

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    I rode around the village. I'm told the villagers built a fence around this half-buried rocket to keep children and animals away from it:

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    Close up:

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    We saddled up to ride:

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    Ian borrowed my kidney belt and cinched it tightly around his rib cage - it seemed to help.

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    It was clear that we could not continue down the trail, which only got more difficult from here; Ian was hurt badly, and anyway, the villagers were not sure they could get us across the Xe Banfai in canoes -- the only way across -- because it was running swiftly and high.

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    We doubled back toward Tha Ket, the city from which we had started the day before, but we found a trail heading in that direction that kept us off the paved road for part of the way back. Steph and Ian on the trail:

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    We stopped at a MAG (Mines Advisory Group) ordnance clearing operation. You see their skull and crossbones logo all over Laos. Some one third of the bombs dropped on Laos did not detonate on impact and now are unexploded ordnance or &#8216;UXO.' Especially prevalent are countless tennis ball-sized cluster bomblets and similar sub-munitions. Some 6,000 Lao are killed and many more maimed every year by UXO, often while clearing fields to plant. MAG finds the UXO with metal detectors and blow it up in place. We heard a siren sound which meant they were about to detonate some charges.

    Here Digby radios back to their base to get permission to proceed:

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    We got back to Tha Ket and that evening, Ian had another scary episode of trouble breathing. The next morning we dosed him on pain medications and got him and his bike in a pick-up truck to return to Vientiane. Steph accompanied Ian. The plan was to get Ian to a hospital in Thailand. It wasn't clear whether Steph would return to ride with us, but he left his bike in Tha Ket to keep that option open:

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    #17
  18. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    While Steph accompanied Ian back to Vientiane to get him to a hospital, Digby, Ray and I spent the day exploring the caves around Tha Ket. There are countless caves in the limestone mountains outside Tha Ket, reachable by trail only by motorcycle or on foot. Many have rivers running through them. Many are Buddhist shrines.

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    We rode our bikes into this cave:

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    Lao street food that evening back in Tha Ket:

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    #18
  19. tricepilot

    tricepilot El Gran Payaso

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    :lurk

    but :dg , not so much
    #19
  20. Suqsuda

    Suqsuda Secret Sharer

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    The morning of day six -- I was happy to see that Steph back with us and ready to ride. He was operating on little sleep, having arrived sometime in the middle of the night after having gotten Ian into a hospital in Thailand.

    We set off early to cross Laos east to west once again and get back on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. About 50 km outside of Tha Ket, we turned off paved highway and headed toward Mahaxe. It was a dusty, red clay road:

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    Mahaxe is a market town:

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    Past Mahaxe:

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    We intercepted the HoChi Minh Trail at Bua La Pha, about seven or eight miles south of Sen Phen, where we had been two days before.

    U.S. pilots called this part of the trail 'The Chokes.' It is another natural choke point where geography forced strands of the trail to converge in a river valley that was heavily targeted by U.S. bombers. The satellite photo below shows a well-defined dirt road south of the Nam Phanang river -- a route that Digby had taken before. The photo also shows a dirt road running on the far side of the river to the base of a mountain -- 4,583-foot Phou Louang mountain. Another track is visible running along a ridge line in the foothills to the mountain.

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    And this Vietnam War-era U.S. military aviation map appears to show the trail running along the west bank of the river.

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    Outside of Kok we paused to consult the map and decided to take one of the unexplored (by us) routes on the far side of the river:

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    We crossed the Nam Phanang:

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    The riding was smooth and beautiful. The only thing that slowed us down were immense flocks of purple butterflies.

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    We stopped for a picnic lunch. We saw no one else on this part of the trail. Villages were few and far between.

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    My lights were on -- we were already starting to lose light:

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    I believe this is Phou Louang mountain looming in the distance:

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    #20