Feb 27, 2007

Road Dangers

This is a bus Guard at the Kasi Lunch stop

Nothing like a picture of a folding AK strapped to someone’s back to grab the readers attention. Actually the most dangerous part of this bus journey was about to unfold fifty feet away. As I walked around the other side of the bus I saw the driver and door guy at the back table being fed shots by the restaurant proprietor who was hanging out drinking with his buddies. Shots of hard liqueur in Laos are looked upon as elsewhere as a measure of ones manhood. The driver in his mid thirties was being fed booze by the restaurant guy who was in his fifties.
I was taking a direct bus Vientiane to Luang Namtha. Scheduled for twenty three hours, they usually do it in twenty. The easy part of the driving was over, the next sixteen hours are twisty mountain roads on a good surface, a lot less bumps but the speeds are a lot faster, they don’t drive those busses like they love them, they put them through their paces. Before lunch the driver had been adjusting up the brake pads, I’d bet they go through a set every other trip.
The restaurant owner had no work to do, his wife ran the restaurant. The driver needed all his facilities intact. My sincere hope was that he was also doing amphetamines, otherwise I’d be scared of him falling asleep. Twenty hours of mountain roads is too much for anyone. At the end of the ride I asked him how he felt and he said great, looked wide awake to me.
Don’t think me a prude, I too have driven long drives in the mountains while drunk and on meth, just not lately and definitely not with 33 people on board. I counted just for fun.
I was on my second trip to Laos in 1996 when I first heard of a problem on the road. I’d been sitting in the same noodle restaurant in Vang Vien all morning with a Lao policeman, a girl who was then my then fiancé, and her mom. We saw a bus roll in from Luang Prabang, it had taken 26 hours thus far, (rainy season delays), sounded like fun and my suggestion to go there got an enthusiastic reaction. Except from the policeman. Don’t do it he said, bad people in Kasi, lots of problems. OK,, policeman advises against it, ok with me I thought. Maybe that long bus ride isn’t worth it.
My mom in law went back three weeks later anyway. It was the new cool place to have been for Vientiane Laotians. The cloth for the skirts is distinctive and it shows you’ve traveled. A resident Frenchman in a minivan fifteen minuets ahead of my Mae Thaou, and everyone in the van got shot to death. Oops.
Ever since then over the years there have been other “incidents” I lose track of when and the particulars. Truth be told I don’t pay that close attention. Seems like every couple or three years something happens. If there is a foreigner of necessity it’s known, if only Lao people it’s hushed up if possible.
I noticed the last time I came to Laos a presence of government police for the entire trip to Luang Prabang as well as lots of regular army guards who got on and off at random places along the most troublesome part of the road.
This winter I’ve traveled the road many times back and fourth to the north while going for little walk-abouts. There seemed to be a lot less of an army presence, I saw none on regular bus duty, and the federal police seemed to be making an effort to be inconspicuous, often wearing a coat over their gun and wrapping up the gun while eating. Often I don’t even spot a police man on the bus until maybe the end of the trip, or like here when he got off for lunch. I liked the way this guy was watching the back of the bus while we ate, no bombs.
I had assumed that the guards would be removed from the busses soon altogether. They scare tourists and cause tongues to wag. I’d say that they’ve done a pretty good job of pushing the whole story under the rug. Most tourists I’ve talked to are unaware that there is a low level counter government insurgency going on. Insurgency sounds too organized a word for scattered groups of Hmong including their women and children trying to hide and keep from getting shot.
Lately with the good coverage of cell phones and the ready availability of digital video cameras more news is starting to leak out of what’s called the Xaysambon Special Zone. Most famously there was a video taken of the raped and disembowelled bodies of young Hmong teens and the interviews with the survivors of a government attack. Gruesome stuff. Often there are desperate calls for help to relatives in America relayed to their small sympathetic press, the Huntington News, of being encircled and out of ammunition complete with starving children and so on, then nothing.
I guess the Lao government probably knows better if the guards on the busses are superfluous or not. Five days after I took the photo all heck broke loose with the regular dry season offensive somehow making it’s way into the daily rumour mill, and even worse onto the road north of Vang Vieng, but most importantly not the press.
The following is from the Travelfish website which must have very good sources indeed. I suspect an off the record report from someone at the US embassy. It seems too well informed and factual to be a guest house owner or tour operator. My only reservations are due to the use of the term bandit, usually used by the propaganda arm of the Lao government to classify the insurgents as common criminals. For the record armed robbery of foreigners is extremely rare in Laos, and robbery with firearms unheard of.

Link to Travelfish site

"Sources who were in Vang Vieng on the weekend of 10th / 11th Feb, reported they had seen very large numbers of Lao troops to the north of Vang Vieng. The most obvious area of activity on R13 North is understood to be around 15km north of Vang Vieng. It's not clear what precisely took place, but some locals believe it may be Lao Govt "attack" on people in nearby Hmong villages connected to the Hmong refugees in Nong Khai who are scheduled to be returned to Vientiane. February through April are known to be the months of highest bandit - Lao Govt conflicts.Vang Vieng Town itself is considered safe, but travellers should exercise caution on R13N, and for the time being - should probably avoid cycling and/or trekking too far north of Vang Vieng.The "troubles" do appear to have spread south of Vang Vieng as well, with arrests being made as far south as Phonhong (around 70km north of Vientiane) and skirmishes taking place south of Vang Vieng over the past few days. Partly as a result of this there remains a high profile troop presence throughout Vang Vieng District. The risk to tourists is still very low indeed. The bandits are not a competent, aggressive fighting unit looking to blow up bridges and kill tourists -- they are really just "on the run" and only fight back when they have to. Having said that, as a tourist, it is probably not the best time to be in Vang Vieng right now simply because there are restrictions on what you can do. Certainly doesn't sound like time to try the Happy Pizzas anyway!"

I was out trekking in the mountains in the north of the country which might as well be on a different planet. I got a text message from my wife when I re entered an area covered by cell phone. “They have a war going on in kahsii vangvien right now I want u to take arplan back” She had been getting calls from folks we know in the Lao army who know I often take the bus. Of course if you are in the army and people are getting killed you tend to look upon it as serious.
Searching for a good excuse to give my wife for taking the bus I asked a friend who might well be a party member. He reported that the situation was way overblown. Just a case of a few drunk soldiers shooting each other up. I think the misinformation came directly from the top, when repeated many times it’s a great way to dispel concerns over safety.
After reading a warning from the US embassy I took the bus, plane was full. It took me a whole extra day, oh well. I realize that the road carries some risk. So far the insurgency isn’t over and there is always the possibility. It’s trying to asses the likelihood of that possibility that becomes problematic.
When I used to climb we would asses risk all the time. If there is a one in one thousand chance of a piece ripping out of an anchor we consider it to be very poor odds, do something a hundred times and you’ve brought the likelihood down to one out of ten. Put in another piece of equal quality and the odds are back up to ten thousand to one, add another and you are up to ten million, back in the realm of acceptable odds.
If there are bus attacks on average once every three years with three hundred sixty five days in a year your chances of being on the road that day are one out of eleven hundred. Ride the bus six times in that time span and it’s one out of a hundred and eighty. Mind you we are talking about being on the road that day, not in the actual bus. As I remember they have attacked only passenger transport, not cargo or individual vehicles. Sixty busses and mini vans per day? Your odds just went up to around one out of eleven thousand. Significant enough to make me think about it.
I know and accept that amount of risk. It’s interesting to hear some deride it as being non existent or similar to the chance of getting hit by a meteor, or safer than walking city streets in America.
It’s also interesting how people perceive risk. If something appears scary the risk is assumed to be much higher. The chance of being in a plane or building attacked by Al Qaeda are infinitesimally small, in the millions, yet for years after the World Trade Centre in New York was attacked all people could think about was being the victim of a terrorist attack. I think it has a lot to do with those images of planes hitting buildings and buildings falling down.
Juxtapose those images with ones of forty hot tourists falling asleep on a long bus ride and you can see where the insouciance comes from.

In googling around to find background for this blog entry I also found this from an old Time Magazine story called “unlucky 13” after the route number. Great name.

“Around 8:30 a.m., the gunmen as many as 30, say witnesses jumped out from behind bushes along the road. Waving their guns, they stopped a crowded public bus, several cars, a tractor and the two Europeans who were heading north on a bike trip. Survivors claim the gunmen fired M-16s and grenades from rocket launchers, then stepped over fallen bodies and executed the wounded. The two Europeans, who have yet to be identified, tried desperately to flee on their mountain bikes. One was shot repeatedly in the back.”

Ouch, “repeatedly shot in the back” now there’s some guys without a sense of humour. Of course I doubt they were shooting M-16s, the rifle would have to be thirty years old. More likely the ubiquitous AK. Makes great reading though and I think puts a date on the last bus attack at 4 years ago.

Here’s the link
Time magazine

Months ago I ran across the photos by a guy named Roger Arnold who managed to get into the Special Zone, link up with the insurgents, take photos, and publish them. For most of the world it was the first glimpse of something they had heard about but sounded too otherworldly to be true. Soldiers from a war that was over thirty years ago still fighting in the jungles of Laos.
Being a taker of snapshots I liked the photos. A very wide angle and lots of natural dark light from the forest. I can hear the dew dripping of the trees. When I looked carefully at the photos I noticed that very young guys carrying soviet style rifles seemed to be doing most of the running around with guns. The M-16s look to be saved but not in use.

Link Here for photos or read the Story Here.

Hard to imagine as I sit comfortably typing on my keyboard and as my wife and kids sleep peacefully upstairs that this is all going on less than a hundred miles from here. At this very moment people are quietly waking from a nights sleep, looking around, and wondering if the day will bring government soldiers. It is an overcast day. The beginning of the end of this long dry season? Let’s hope so.

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