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A Stranded Tourist on the Empty Streets of Laos

From the desk of Bill Newbrough, Founding Director of Jungle Vine

View from the summit of Mt. Pousi

Fifty years ago, Laos changed my life dramatically. It was November 1972, and I was managing AT&T’s North American Network Control Center in New York City when a childhood friend, then completing his American Peace Corps service in Malaysia, sent me a charter airplane ticket from London to Singapore.

I’d made previous trips to Asia, and thoroughly had been captured by the adventure and intrigue of a continent that seemed radically different from small-town Iowa USA, where I had spent most of my 25 years of life. The opportunity to visit a land so far away nearly caused me to sacrifice attending my maternal grandfather’s funeral. He died a week before the charter from Gatwick Airport was to depart, but my father insisted that I fly from Iowa rather than New York to London in order to attend the funeral.

While visiting my friend in Kuala Lumpur, I met another Peace Corps volunteer who invited me to travel to Penang, and then meet in Bangkok a few days later. I decided to visit Laos after another Peace Corp volunteer shared his hand-written notes about Laos.

I needed to be back to the Manhattan Network Control center in 10 days. In order to spend a week in Laos, we would need to arrive the following day. We also knew that there was a “Secret War” underway. I felt anxious about attempting to visit a war-ravaged land and felt that perhaps my anxiety about it would be over soon, because it would be impossible to get a visa.

There was no line to enter the Lao Embassy in Bangkok when we arrived at 8 a.m. to inquire about visas. But within a couple of minutes we were filling out visa applications. We were assured that visas could be issued by the end of the day and that the problem of not having a photo for my application could be dealt with if I brought one to our 3 p.m. passport pick up time.

While we waited for our visas, we went to buy second class sleeper tickets on that night’s train to Nongkai, where we would take a boat across the Mekong and spend most of Sunday in Vientiane. The passports with freshly-issued visas were ready upon our return to the Embassy. The train left on time, and several enjoyable hours were spent drinking whiskey with other travelers, none of whom we could communicate with words, because they knew little English, and we knew no Thai.

Monday we got up early to check out Talat Sao, a morning market that has since undergone renovations. We found the Royal Air Laos ticketing office, and bought tickets on the Tuesday afternoon flight to Luang Prabang! I recall being stimulated by the chants from monks floating across the Mekong from Thailand and feeling so far away from home.

There were only a few passengers aboard the veteran Lockheed Electra turboprop airliner, so we took seats in the rear, originally for first class passengers. The low altitude flown allowed us to spot remnants of the war along the way. When we arrived in Luang Prabang, we saw the most significant war damage. We saw the roof of an aircraft hanger that had blown away.

Finding a hotel room was easy. There was only one hotel, which had undergone several management and name changes throughout its history. First it was the Phousey Hotel, then the Avanti Plus Hotel. When we arrived it was the Luang Prabang Hotel. We were the only guests there, and the staff disappeared before sunset. There were a few hours of electricity in the early evening.

Using the notes and sketched maps made by Peace Corp travelers, we located the base of the stairway up Mount Phousi, which had been concealed by uncut vegetation. We reached the summit as the sun was setting. Our vista was towards our next destination, what we now call the “Old Airport”.

When our aircraft began to taxi around 7:30 p.m., we heard the sounds of piston aircraft engines starting, and the revving of the two motors. It was dark and suddenly the runway lights came on, and the aircraft quickly began its take off. As soon as it was in the air, all lights were extinguished. We could hear it circling the area gaining altitude.

Royal Air Laos DC3 boarding at Luang Prabang Airport

Near the Mekong, approximately 10 miles northwest of the airport, a slowly-descending flare was being dropped by a neighboring aircraft. The flare illuminated a large jungle area. Then we saw hundreds of rounds of tracer bullets leaving the aircraft towards the illuminated area. The scene of aerial flares followed by tracer bullets continued as we began our descent along the same stairs we had used on the trip up to Mount Phousi.

The following day, we explored the largely deserted town. The Palace grounds were open. Two Lincoln Continental vehicles were parked in the area where the current garages are. We opened the doors and sat in them. They were gifts to the King from the U.S. Presidents.

The largest concentration of people was in the marketplace where the Dara Market now stands. There were dozens of 50cc motorbikes parked nearby. I don’t recall seeing other vehicles. The main streets seemed as lifeless as they did during our recent COVID lockdowns. Most people had left the town, reportedly for the relative safety of Vientiane.

Commerce at Luang Prabang market

Early on Thursday, my Peace Corp companion departed on a flight to Chiang Mai. It was time for me to make my way back to New York. I went to the Royal Air Laos on the main,today’s night market site, road to check in for a return flight to Vientiane, I was told that my ticket would not be honored that day. Somehow I found the way to the U. S. Consulate.. The man in charge explained that I’d been bumped from the flight to Vientiane by an Australian diplomatic group ,there was a very good chance that I’d be accommodated on Friday’s flight.

He took me to the airport where Air America was operating. They were the CIA’s airline service. He instructed me to approach the pilot of each plane and ask for a ride to Vientiane, and assured me that he’d return at the end of the day to be certain I’d been successful in hitchhiking by air.

There were 6 to 8 flights that afternoon. All but one flight was full or destined for a location other than Vientiane. The pilot of that aircraft reported that he would be going to Vientiane and would be happy to haul me. However, he’d need the approval of his customer, the U.S. military. However, they declined my request —likely not believing my story about being a tourist from Iowa stranded in Laos.

The man from the Consulate returned as promised and gave me a ride back into town. The Pathet Lao controlled the area around Luang Prabang, and intelligence reports predicted that its takeover was imminent.

I could stay at the Consulate, but I was better off back in the hotel. The Consulate would be among the highest profile targets when the anticipated invasion occurred. The man from the Consulate assured me that the Americans had emergency evacuation plans, and they would not leave without me.

I spent the night sleepless by myself in a hotel without electricity. Maybe enhanced by the realization of my new reality, the frequent explosions audible during the 2 previous nights seemed a lot louder and closer than the earlier ones.

Friday morning’s Royal Air Laos flight carried me to Vientiane without a hitch. I made it back to my office in New York on time Monday morning.

This rural naïve Iowa boy was changed forever. As soon as I was able to travel again to Asia, 26 years later, Luang Prabang was one of my first destinations. Now I live here, serving as a coach and business consultant to an NGO owned and operated by 6 Laotian partners. They do much of the work in Laos for the charity, The JungleVine® Foundation, of which I am Founding Director.

Our charity serves to link artisans of the Khmu ethnic group with the global marketplace for distribution of their bags, fashion items, cleaning products, and miraculous fiber. We aim to reduce rural poverty, strengthen the power of women, and offer the world Earth’s Greenest Bag, which is handmade in dozens of remote homes from all natural materials and has a negative carbon footprint to help mediate global warming.

Please check out our work at www.NatureBag.ORG.

Luang Prabang never was invaded militarily Speculation is that the Pathet Lao understood the need to leave it undamaged, which has allowed it to be preserved as an UNESCO World Heritage village.

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