A note from the Editor: Janelle Kaz aka. @motogypsy is passionate about two things: motorcycles and wildlife. For the last few years, she has been living on her bike riding around the world creating and implementing wildlife and environmental education outreach programs to prevent the illegal trafficking of wildlife. These are some of her many stories.
In order to tell a moto-adventure story from SE Asia, which involves bombs exploding in the landscape, one must understand the reality of how those bombs got there in the first place.
From Legacies of War
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians during the nine-year period.
Here are some other startling facts about the U.S. bombing of Laos and its tragic aftermath:
Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War; up to 80 million did not detonate.
Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed. More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.
There are now just under 50 new casualties per year in Laos, down from over 300. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children.
Between 1993 and 2016, the U.S. contributed on average $4.9M/year for UXO clearance in Laos in contrast, the U.S. spent $13.3M per DAY (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
Thankfully, in 2016, the US pledged to give Laos $90M in a span of three years to help with clearance throughout Laos, shared among all UXO-aid organizations.
My first night in the capital city of Laos, Vientiane, my hands peeling from rock climbing and my nails dirty with engine grease, I attended a fancy-lawyer cocktail party where I felt incredibly out of place, in borrowed clothing.
Unsurprisingly, I wound up talking with the most underdressed person there, a t-shirt wearing archaeologist from Australia.
He told me about his organization, Heritage Watch International, and their very exciting upcoming project to begin archaeological research at one of the seven (out of 90) Plain of Jars sites safely cleared of UXOs.
The Plain of Jars is an archaeological landscape in Laos, dating back to the Iron Age some 2000 years ago.
They still don’t know what these prehistoric megalithic vessels were used for. They are theorized to be a part of burial practices, as some skeletal remains were found in a number of them, but the myth has it that giants used them as vessels to store and drink their rice wine.
I set out the next day for some reconnaissance work to see if it is possible to reach the project site by dirt bike so that the excavation team doesn’t have to make the 6 hour walk. I was given GPS coordinates, but they were known to be incorrect, so I would have to find it first.
It was a wildly unsuccessful first couple of days at the Plain of Jars, as my hunt for Site 52 led me four different directions within a 50km radius. I’d been down tiny dirt roads, leading me nowhere, even accidentally running over a chicken (a very sad and bizarrely turbulent experience on my bike – I somehow didn’t go down – can’t say the same for the hen, unfortunately).
The sheer amount of conflicting information is still hard to fathom, even from local guides and reputable sources – and I was running out of time.
On my third day of searching, I realized just how far I was going to have to push myself out of my comfort zone in order to find these mysterious relics.
While out on a small dirt mountain road, with the sound of bombs exploding nearby and the instantaneous hope that each boom is an intentional detonation, I carried a sort of nervousness with me that I haven’t felt before.
Then, an explosion shook the ground, echoing in my helmet. This one was close. I stopped on the trail, taking some time to breathe, listening to the insects, admiring the white blossoms on the trees, and eating some fruit I packed along.
I could turn back. I could return to the safety of the town and perhaps be more certain of my route.
The landscape was beautiful in its vastness and simultaneously daunting in its remoteness.
Do I choose comfort in safety or do I move forward into the adventure?
I had a roasted coconut in my bag and became determined to crack into its sweet water among the ancient stone jars I was seeking.
Wrong turns, river crossings, a map drawn by a fingertip in the dirt, forks in the trail, a smoked-out face shield from seasonal hillside burns, and sketchy bridges all led me to the mountaintop village of Ban Phakeo, gateway to the Jars.
I would never have found this site were I not able to speak some Lao with the local villagers.
I don’t believe words of any language can adequately describe how extremely satisfying and fulfilling it was for me to arrive in Ban Phakeo, the tiny Hmong village on top of the mountain where the jars were said to lay just beyond.
As I ascended the steep dirt hill, there was a young boy at the top, carrying his little sister piggyback, watching me arrive.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sheer joy I felt at the sight of him standing there, with a big smile on his face and the gorgeous yet seemingly elusive mountain village behind him. I stopped to share the bananas I had brought along with the children on the path.
I could not contain my own smile nor the elation in my voice when I excitedly said hello to him and asked if this was indeed Ban Phakeo.
He said it was.
I asked him if there were stone jars here.
He said there were, and pointed further up the mountain to the east.
I rode on, making my way through the beautiful Hmong village of Ban Phakeo.
In order to reach the ancient stone jars, you must cut through the center of the village, snaking around their only water source, a hand-pumped spigot, and continue upwards, ascending an overgrown single track trail.
Finally, I arrived at the site of the archaeological ruins I had come to find.
“Plain of Jars” is not a fitting description for Site 52.
These megalithic stone vessels rest on the very top of a mountain, shrouded by forest.
There were bricks laid out on the ground, half red, half white. The bricks are the sole indicator of where the land has been cleared from explosive UXO in the ground. The land to the left of the pictured brick, the white, has been cleared. The land to the right of the brick, the red side, has not been cleared and is not safe.
Light was already fading by the time I arrived, so I knew I couldn’t stay long.
I took my coordinates, cracked into my coconut, and revelled in my surroundings.
A few of these particular jars have animal reliefs carved into them; I saw the frog. To me, this is the most special of all the Plain of Jars sites, still with so much mystery surrounding it. It is a strange thing how suffering through and working hard to get what or where you want makes it so much better once you finally achieve it.
It reminds me of how emotional suffering can cause one to become more loving, more compassionate.
I see this as a twisted aspect of our reality.
It seems we are wired to push ourselves; wired for personal growth.
You might think that’s the end of the story, but it’s not.
There is always a balance to life.
After having such an incredible adventure searching for ancient relics on a mountain top to help my archaeologist friend, I was on cloud 9 – as they say. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been so elated in my life.
The following day heading back to Laos’ capital city left me stranded, literally, and wondering about the balance of life; perhaps the highs are always balanced with the lows.
Because even while I was feeling SO happy, I had the thought that there must be a balance, always. Someday, I feel an equal and opposite, extreme sadness.
Moments after this thought, my bike completely quit.
I had ridden multiple hours down a hot, dusty, terribly washed out road. I thought perhaps it just needed to cool off, as I did, too. After a swim in the Nam Xan river, my bike still wouldn’t turn over. I was already parched before this happened and was planning to stop for water in the nearest town.
The sun was intense and I had nothing to drink.
I began to try and pop the clutch by pushing my bike up the hill multiple times. My attempts were unsuccessful and left red-faced and exhausted in the heat.
I felt delirious, my body and mind began to suffer. I wiped my mouth with my glove and saw a white frothy smear.
Finally — a passing truck. I waved him down and asked if he had any water. He didn’t, but he did have a surplus of cucumbers. He gave me two. He asked if my bike was running and I accidentally told him that it was, “dai,” when I meant to say that it had died, “tdai (with different pronunciation and tone) laeo.”
So he drove off.
Now two hours in, I felt tremendously frustrated. I was in the middle of nowhere and considerably concerned about my own well being.
I pleaded with my Serow to start.
I actually began to break down a bit at this point, with tears.
But immediately, the memory of some part in a cheesy movie where the guy tells the woman not to cry because she’ll dehydrate further materialized in my mind.
With renewed focus, I checked over my bike and when I couldn’t find the issue, I decided to hide my bike and attempt to hitchhike somewhere, anywhere, to look for parts and supplies. I stashed my motorcycle bags in the forest and my bike underneath a bamboo cover.
A truck driver came by. I was standing on the side of the road alone, my bike out of view. The driver immediately asked me if I was American. I was surprised, as this often isn’t the first guess I get.
He told me that he was Hmong, his family members were refugees and he was actually born in the USA, in Minnesota. He spoke zero English because he and his family moved back to Laos when he was an infant.
How crazy that someone born in my country was the one to give me a ride.
The nearest village was 11 km out.
Ban Phamueamg was a cute village with a few karst formations jutting out in the landscape and beer Lao flowing freely among its happy residents.
I heard “gin bia baw?” More than a handful of times from full tables of men sitting in plastic chairs, which basically translates to “hey, want to come drink beer with us?”
I told them I didn’t want a headache in the morning and they laughed.
There was a little shop still open, with water, fresh cucumbers, chili paste, and boiled eggs (among some other things I prefer not to eat, like insects and fertilized duck eggs with formed baby ducks inside), but the best part was their five month old red-breasted parakeet and the little boy who loved him.
Even though I was sad this creature was not free in the wild as he should be, he brought back many memories for me. I rehabilitated this exact kind of bird one year ago, after he was kidnapped from his jungle nest as a featherless chick.
I spent the night in this village, having to physically push a very drunk older man out of my room and lock the door, not opening it again until the morning.
I hitched back out to my bike the next day; I still didn’t know what was wrong with it or if I could fix it.
“Air, fuel, spark, combustion,” my older brother, a skilled mechanic, kept saying when I was able to call him in the village, “it must have all of these things or it will not run.”
So, the only thing to do was to I take my franken-bike (the wiring was already a mess when I bought it in Vietnam) apart and followed all systems, eventually leading me to find that the wire to my CDI box had completely jostled out of its connection.
As soon as it was back in place my Serow fired right up.
I learned a lot from this experience.
Most importantly: always carry water. (My hat and sunscreen felt heaven-sent too).
Secondly, I learned how to navigate my bike a bit more, electrically speaking. I learned how to test for spark and the quality of it without a spark plug and I definitely now know the characteristics of having no spark.
Thirdly, I learned how to effectively hitchhike in Laos, and I made a few friends by doing so.
Sometimes I get lonely out on the road but when I see how much I gained from such an experience, I feel thankful that I was forced to endure it on my own.