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The Most Secret Place on Earth

Over 9 years America dropped more bombs over Northern Laos than were dropped in Germany and Japan over the whole of World War 2. For that 9 years every 8 minutes a bomb fell. Yet Laos was declared a “neutral” zone during the Vietnam War.

Central to that activity was an airbase at Long Tieng that was constructed and operated by the CIA. From here the “secret war” was conducted in North Eastern Laos which was defined as the buffer zone between the forces of communism and those of the so-called free world.

As late as 2013 Long Tieng has been a prohibited area. It is remote and difficult to access and the Laotian Army has been determined to keep people away. It, and the nearby Plain of Jars is home to the Mong people who were used by the CIA to fight the Pathet Lao and Viet Cong as America tried and failed to hold the line.

There is a fantastic You Tube documentary on what America and its CIA did here to annihilate the locals, to secure the supplies of opium and heroin that led to 30% of its armed forces in Vietnam being addicts, and culminated in the indiscriminate carpet bombing of the area by B52s as in a final act of spite, the US tried to annihilate a whole civilisation.

Watch the movie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ye2rzEKbz8I . Most of us who lived through that 1965-1975 period had no idea about the CIAs secret war until the carpet bombing finale broke into the headlines in the mid-1970’s.

We decided we would attempt to ride to Long Tieng and on to the Plain of Jars take a sobering look at what happened there. We were told we wouldn’t be allowed into the valley. We were not stopped. The main problem these days is that there’s a Hmong insurgency – and we observed automatic weapon-carrying Hmong hill tribe insurgents along our route. It’s this group who have been ambushing buses and firing on workers at the Australian-owned copper and gold mine that’s a couple of hours south of Long Tieng, and set upon a group of bikers who were attempting to climb one of the spectacular karst outcrops in the vicinity. The Hmong and lowland Laotians have long been enemies and for the insurgents would the Laotian army did in cahoots with the CIA, press-ganging 14 year olds from villages into the front line as cannon fodder and denying whole communities their future – was and will always be unforgivable

Our day starts early – 6am on the bikes. We had asked local drivers the night before about access to the valley and the response was, ‘no’. The consensus was that if the military don’t stop you, you’ll find the road too rough anyway so forget it.

We are waved through our first military checkpoint and the second has the barrier down but is unmanned. A quick think and we seize the opportunity – we ride around the barrier and carry on. The road reduces to a jungle track and there’s no traffic so we are pretty nervous but press on. After about an hour of solitary traverse of the jungle trail we emerge on to a new road construct that is still being intensively worked up to a passable road by road gangs. At least there are people around now and they’re not waving us back so we keep going. At midday precisely we ride down into the Long Tieng valley and there’s the runway – the CIA’s most secret place on earth has been revealed to us. We’re ecstatic and get the mandatory photos and poses in front of the karst outcrops at the end of the runway affectionately known as the “vertical speed brake”. It’s hard to believe that once there were 50,000 people here – Americans, Thai military and Hmong tribesmen all fighting the Vietcong and Pathet Lao – and that by the mid-1960s it was one of the busiest airports in the world as the Americans sought to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail out of existence.

We managed the first meal of the day at the standard rustic Laotian roadside café just beside the runway – noodle soup never tasted so good. After a couple of hours reflection and recovery from the ride we then set off for the Plain of Jars. Then I had an involuntary dismount and as always seems to happen the right leg got trapped under the pannier and by the time I extricated it and determined I hadn’t broken the ankle but it would be swelling and remain pretty sore, Joanne and Dave were on the scene for the obligatory photo and to help strap it up. The accident was just the standard front wheel tuck under that can happen if you take you mind of the job for a second or two and find your front wheel in a hard caste mud rut when you’re on a downhill trying to turn, brake and going a little quick,.

But it made for a painful rest of the day for me as I limped the remaining 80 kms north to our overnight stop.