Journalists In The Minefields

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This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, December 08, 2004 was originally posted on December 12, 2004.

DAY 417:  The infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, the secret route that ultimately led Communist North Vietnam to victory in the Vietnam War, crossed through a portion of northern Laos.  Because of this, the US military dropped over two billion kilograms of bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1972, making it the most heavily bombed country in world history.  Reminders of this turbulent era in Laos’ past is still seen today, from the bomb craters in the landscape to the active land mines still present in the ground, a danger for both Laotians and the tourists the Lao government only recently let into the country.

“FIVE HUNDRED KIP PER MINUTE?  It’s too expensive!” Austrian tourist Werner said at the one main internet cafe in the sleepy town of Phonsavanh.  The satellites were finally up and running after a day of inactivity, providing access to the web in a slow and expensive way.  Tourists went to the cafe anyway as the internet has become an integral part of travel — my hats off to those backpackers of yesteryear who could travel without it — and I spent the early morning uploading my latest before my ten o’clock tour of the archaeological sites in the countryside.

“Five hundred kip per minute?  That’s very expensive,” I heard again, this time not from a quirky Austrian male voice, but from a soothing female voice with a non-regional American accent fit for commercial voiceover work.  It came from the Asian-faced girl at a nearby computer who couldn’t seem to connect.

“You can use mine.  I’m done,” I told her.

“No, that’s okay.  I think I’m finished.”  I waited for her to pay her tab and walked out with her to the main road.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“New York.”

She was amazed.  Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, she ran into a New Yorker; it was the first of many surprises of the day.  Soon, I’d discover that in Forrest Gump’s proverbial “box of chocolates” (you never know what you’re gonna get), I had picked up a chocolate with many secrets hidden inside, but was ultimately still sweet.


NOW BEING THAT THIS BLOG IS READ BY MANY PEOPLE — over 38,000 unique hits to date — I have to keep the anonymity of my new friend so as not to incriminate her since she was an American journalist just off her coverage of the ASEAN Summit 2004 in Vientiane.  Officially, she was supposed to leave the country right after, but she decided to wander Laos for a bit before heading back to her home in Bangkok.  When I say she was a journalist, I mean a real one for an American national broadcasting network (that will also remain anonymous), not the freelance kind like the one I am, the kind that stands for Truth, Justice and American Poop Humor. 

“Where are you going now?” she asked.

“I’m going with a group to see the Plain of Jars.  You wanna go?”

“Okay, yeah.  How much is it?”

“Five dollars.”

“Oh, five?  That’s good.  Everywhere I’ve asked wants seven or eight.”

“Well, we have a big group — well, a group we amassed yesterday.  Plus the price was negotiated by this old Austrian professor who’s, uh, eccentric.


“WHERE IS THE JAPANESE MAN?!” called out Werner in his quirky Austrian mad scientist voice as my new friend and I approached the tour office.  Nearby a minivan was already full with the group for the day:  Sarah, the German couple, and three guys from Jersey (the British Channel Island, not the Garden State of America).  It was almost ten and Gakuji was a no-show.

“It’s already ten o’clock!” Werner said.

“I thought you said [we meet at] a quarter after.”

“No, a quarter to,” he said.  “Even if it’s a quarter after, we would see him by now.”  Werner, my new journalist friend and I hopped in the minivan.  “We go to the guesthouse and look for the Japanese man,” Werner told the driver.  “If he’s not there, we go.”  (I realize that written on screen, Werner seems like a bit of a prick, but everything he said with his quirky accent and wild facial hair was quite funny.)

Back at the guesthouse, Gakuji was in the room reading until I ran in and told him the van was waiting.  He got his stuff and soon we were off.


THE XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE COUNTRYSIDE where the Plain of Jars is located, was where most of the US bombings of Laos took place.  Thirty years later, grass grows in the bomb craters in the fields, while mountains sport “bald spots” where explosions took place.  Land mines are still a problem, but are under the control of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), who carefully swept areas for explosives and removed them.  With that said, the traffic in region was regulated and we were stopped at a checkpoint by the Lao Police.

Now when I introduced my new Asian-American reporter friend to the group, we wanted to do the proper thing of adding her name and passport number to our registration roster.  Our guide Chatha said it probably wouldn’t be necessary because they probably wouldn’t count heads properly.  However, the cops did count our heads and noticed we were heavy by one person, and soon an argument started outside between the police, our driver and our guide. 

“Do you have your passport on you?” I asked our unlisted passenger. 

“Yeah.”

There were more words going back and forth beyond the windshield.  “It’s okay.  I have my passport,” she called out, but they didn’t hear her.  In the end, the cops just let us go with our one stowaway.  As we drove off, she told me it was a good thing they didn’t check; we would have probably been detained for a while because her visa clearly stated she was a journalist, not a tourist like the rest of us, and all journalists had to be accompanied by a government-approved guide.  “I would have been busted,” she told me.


THERE ARE THREE SITES OF THE PLAIN OF JARS and we did them in reverse order, starting at the farthest, Site Three, and working our way back to Site One.  On the way out we stopped to visit a stupa in the middle of a field, where people once came to pray by day and thieves came to raid at night in search of golden Buddhas to pawn.  “There’s another stupa over there,” our guide Chatha pointed out.

Oh, that one that looks like a radio tower?” I joked.  A closer look at the second stupa revealed damage from the American air raids.  Afterwards we were driven to other bombed out remnants:  the old French provincial administration building and the Phia Wat, a Buddhist temple whose Buddha had survived, but with damage.  Clearly, the United States of America bombed the bejesus out of the Laotian landscape.

The bombed out sites were scattered in the middle of villages and it was no surprise to see all the little Lao children walking to school — running to school when we pointed our cameras at them.  My new Asian-faced journalist friend surprised me when she could actually talk to them.  “[Something, something,]” she said in the local language.

“[Something something,]” one of the boys answered before running off, laughing.

My new Asian-American friend was actually Lao-American, and was born in Vientiane before her family emigrated to the States at the end of the war.  “You speak Lao?” I asked her.

“It’s Hmong.  I’m Hmong,” she answered, referring to one of the bigger hill tribes of the region with its own identity and language very different from the mainstream “Lao” language.  The Hmong were a relatively new people in Laos, descendants of China that arrived in the 19th century, whose identity had been threatened by the coming Communist party.  “I have to keep it quiet.  They can get pretty sensitive about that stuff here.”  Although officially neutral in the Vietnam War, Lao had a secret war within its borders; most of Laos supported North Vietnam while the U.S. aided the Hmong rebels, who had organized a guerilla army to fight the Communist threat from within.

Surprisingly, my new Hmong friend found some kids that could speak Hmong and they exchanged some small talk.  “It’s great to be here and to be able to communicate with them,” she said to me.  For her, being in Xieng Khouang was a sort of pilgrimage to her roots as she was seeing the area of her ancestors for the first time.  It was her first time back in Laos after thirty years.

As the tour continued to the sites by minivan and foot, the Hmong reporter and I chat about the ups and downs of journalism as Chatha briefly explained some history.  He mentioned someone in Lao history that wasn’t such a popular character, one of the Hmong rebels.  My new Hmong friend confided in me that she was actually related to that person (who will remain anonymous), another reason why she should keep a low profile in those parts.

“Boy I really lucked out when I picked you up this morning,” I teased her.

She laughed.  “I wouldn’t reveal that to anyone, but you’re from New York so it’s okay.”


THE PLAIN OF JARS IS APPROPRIATELY NAMED AS SUCH because it is, not surprisingly, a plain of big limestone jars, carbon-dated to 2,500-3,000 years in age.  Like England’s Stonehenge, the reason for their creation and position remains a mystery, although many theories exist, from the ceremonial to the practical to the extra-terrestrial.  “What do you believe?” I asked our guide Chatha.

“The local people tell the children it’s for Lao rice whiskey,” he answered.

“But what do you think?” my fellow journalist asked, hoping to get a possible soundbite, but Chatha couldn’t provide a straightforward answer.

After lunch, we drove from Site Three to Site Two of the Plain of Jars, stopping briefly at an old Russian tank left over from the war; Soviet technology was used by the northern powers.  Site Two had many leftovers from the war, and by that I don’t mean stale meatloaf, I mean land mines hidden in the ground (although some believe that meatloaf can be just as explosive).  Chatha informed us to stay between the markers placed by MAG, the Mines Advisory Group, placed in pairs like a slalom course.  The dirt path in between markers often had a clear patch of dirt where a land mine had successfully been extracted from, but I was careful not to step on them anyway.  I step where you step.  I touch nothing.  Walking the trail, it sunk in where I actually was and I had to say it out loud:  “We’re actually walking through an active minefield right now.”

The problem with the MAG trails was that sometimes they didn’t exactly correspond with the established dirt path.  If you simply walked the dirt path like you normally would, sometimes you’d actually walk out of the safe zone.  “This is really confusing,” my journalist friend said.

“Maybe we can throw a rock over.”

“Yeah, that’s smart,” she said with sarcasm.  Bombs were still out there; Chatha said that one had been set off accidentally by an animal or something just a couple of days before.


SITE TWO WAS SIMILAR TO SITE THREE, although it had the privilege of being the site holding the longest jar at 3.5 meters in height and some jar lids with vague figures of people on top.  We walked around the limestone jars, taking photos of not just the artifacts but also the beautiful countryside around usGakuji felt inspired and just stared out and took it all in.  Werner wandered around taking pictures with the Germans.

While wandering the Jar area, I was still careful where to step; although the site was cleared out by MAG, I didn’t exactly trust the minesweepers.  What if they missed one tiny patch that just so happened to have a land mine in it?  Meanwhile my new reporter friend was asking Chatha more questions with not much progress in terms of a story.

Ask too many questions and you might blow your cover, I thought, but she was a real reporter and I figured she knew what she was doing.  What she really wanted to do was show off to him that she was Lao and could speak one of the languages, but wisely held back.  I can only imagine she felt like Wonder Woman as her secret identity being inhibited from kicking some ass.


“WE’RE SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST,” I said to the group when we finally arrived at the Plain of Jars Site One, the biggest of the sites with 334 jars scattered in three sub-areas, connected by MAG trails — one of which led to a dead end when I went exploring by myself (picture above).  At the entrance were some collected bomb shells and nearby was a cave where the local people hid and survived during the brutal American air raids.

As planned by Werner, we arrived just in time for the beginning of sunset.  My new Hmong Lao-American journalist friend and I sat out on two jars away from the bigger groups, perched halfway up a hill.  The sky was just starting to change color, making the landscape a more dramatic and a bit romantic even.  The two of us sat and chat while looking out at the majestic landscape reminiscent of one in a Spaghetti Western.

“There’s no story here,” she said.  “Our guide [is awful].  I’m going to have to come back with a real guide.”  Real reporter, real guide — of course.  True, for a professional journalist for a national broadcast network, a day with Chatha wasn’t exactly the story of the year.  But for me and The Blog, a story was found.  I mean, I was talking to my story, and was still in a bit of awe of discovering her and her many hidden secrets; not only was I amazed that she could quickly switch from the Hmong language to American English (complete with the use of the slang term, “sweet”), but her peculiar circumstances that just never seemed to end.  Just ten minutes prior, we had run into the only other tourists wandering Site One the same time we were, a Lao-American family from Fresno, California, coincidentally the place where her sister lived.  Chances are if she spoke to the Lao family for a while, they’d know her sister, which might have drawn attention to her she didn’t need.


“YOU WANT TO MEET UP LATER?” I asked my fellow journalist when we got back into town. 

“Yeah, do you want to have dinner?”

“Yeah, sure.”  We made plans to meet in an hour.  In those 60 Minutes, I secured a seat for the next morning on the weekly Friday direct bus from Phonsavanh to Vinh, Vietnam (it was take it now or be stranded in Phonsavanh for a week).  Meanwhile, my new friend’s streak of weird encounters continued when she bumped into an uncle of hers that last she saw, was in a coma years ago, back in the States.  Weird.

Gakuji tagged along for food that night and we ate at the journalist’s guesthouse, a bungalow off the main strip that Gakuji and I wished we stayed at.  Run by a young local family, it catered to a younger, hipper crowd with an outdoor bar, campfire and porch filled with cushions to sit on around a stove fashioned out of an old bombshell.  The three of us sat around with duck curries, freshly-grilled pork and sticky rice — a nice final meal in Laos.  We were joined by the owner of the house, a funny drunkard who knew a bit of Japanese, mostly vulgar words that made Gakuji laugh.  We were soon joined by a group of four Lao tourists, also quite tipsy from drinking Beerlao.  My new friend explained to one of them our different Asian backgrounds:  Japanese, Lao, and Filipino.

One of the drunk guys called out something in another language.  The bilingual journalist translated:  “He says we all look Chinese.”


“THIS IS MY BEST NIGHT IN LAOS,” I said by the fire.  Good food, good company.  It was my last night in the country after a very short stay, but in that period I came away with lasting impressions of a country I didn’t really know about before I got there — the Lao people, history, cuisine, theater and even an inside look of a Lao-American in a pilgrimage back to her roots.  One thing missing was a look into Lao pop culture, but I ended the night with a crash course in it.

There was a seventeen-year-old girl that worked at the guesthouse named Chan, who was absolutely thrilled when the journalist walked in the night before.  She too could speak Hmong and was overjoyed to have a big sister-type to latch onto; in fact, she always addressed her “big sister” in Hmong. 

“Look at her, she’s so precious!” the journalist said whenever Chan’s pretty face lit up with a smile.

Chan took us to the big to-do in town that night, a Lao comedy show on a stage set up at the old bus station.  Chan translated the Lao to Hmong for her “big sister,” who translated it to English for Gakuji and me.  Chan was often embarrassed to translate what was actually being said by the sketch comedy troupe mostly of men (some in white clown face make-up to represent being a “foreigner”), because a lot of it was very vulgar (i.e. “eat shit,” “eat pussy”). 

Chan told us the tradition in Lao performances was to buy plastic leis and run up to the stage during mid-performance and bestow them to your favorite actors.  In the middle of a scene involving a fight between a rich guy and a poor guy over the hand of a woman, we were the only ones to run up and give plastic leis — in fact, we were the only ones to do so during the entire night.  When we weren’t up near the stage, we were standing on stools in the back for a better view, clapping and yelping “Woo!” at all the good parts.  If anyone in the crowd cared, our journalist friend’s cover would have been blown for sure.


GAKUJI WENT AHEAD TO TURN IN, leaving the three remaining of us to continue the lesson in Lao pop culture.  The remainder of the show got repetitive though, with lanky ladyboys in drag dancing to the music of the crooner in the middle.  After I won us some candy by popping balloons with two out of three darts at a nearby carnival stand (three would have gotten us a single bottle of Pepsi), we headed back down the main road to our respective guesthouses in the cold frigid air.  (Yes, it gets very cold in northern Indochina in December.) 

We stopped at the intersection of my way and their way for an e-mail exchange and a farewell journalists’ handshake that turned into a farewell embrace — and just after the mere thirteen and a half hours since we first met. 

“And you thought you’d just have a boring day at the Plain of Jars,” she said.

“Yeah, I know!”

Our time together wasn’t nearly long enough, but perhaps there would be another since she told me to look her up in Bangkok.

“I’ll see you in Bangkok,” I told my fellow journalist.  “Really.  I’ll be in Bangkok by the 22nd to go to Manila, but then I fly back to Bangkok.  Unless you’re in [that world city that will remain anonymous], I’ll see you.”

The girls went down their deserted road and I went down mine, pleased with the unexpected events of the day.  Not all unexpected surprises in minefields involve severed limbs; it can involve a new colleague in the field of journalism, a new friend, or possibly something else.

“You look adorable!” the professional journalist called out in an unprofessional way as a final by-the-way, sending me down the cold, dark road feeling a little warmer and with a smile on my face.  I suppose it’s fitting it ended that way to build up the drama that as much as I would have loved to spend another day in her company in Phonsavanh, I was headed to the former warzone of Vietnam in the morning, whether I liked it or not.






Next entry: Platoon

Previous entry: Life Is Like A Box Of Chocolates




Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Journalists In The Minefields”

  • Werner has a nice moustache.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/12  at  01:44 AM


  • I’d be freaked out that they had missed a landmine - don’t think I could walk thru even the “cleared” path.

    Posted by Liz  on  12/12  at  01:48 PM


  • yes, I’m glad we got to see Werner’s facial hair!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/12  at  04:04 PM


  • good stuff about Laos too.  I’m trying to choose between Laos (Luang Prabang was my main town) and Northern Vietnam (Hanoi & kayak in Halong Bay) and it’s a really hard choice.  I have a week for one or the other.  Even if I don’t go to Laos, it’s nice to read your entries about it.  The journalist seems nice too, I hope you see her again!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/12  at  04:08 PM


  • Erik and the Hmong-Lao-American- journalist, sittin in a tree…...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/13  at  01:58 AM


  • Was just talking about Hmong culture on saturday…thanks for some insight….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/13  at  01:58 PM


  • All this anonymity for the potential future Mrs. Trinidad. The suspence is killing me!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/13  at  02:38 PM


  • Hmongs gotta marry Hmongs to keep the Hmong culture alive…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/13  at  02:56 PM


  • Your hair is getting long.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/14  at  11:28 PM


  • pic of ” a clear patch of dirt” looks like your missing a leg!!! eek.

    oooh an international WOMAN of mystery. how intriguing…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/15  at  03:56 PM


  • That has got to be a stressful job, working for the Mines Advisory Group.  You don’t want to have a bad day, that is for sure. 

    Did they say anything about how they locate the mines?  I know there are trained rats that are used to sniff them out.  They are even experimenting with using bees to find mines.  The bees somehow pick up the tiny traces of tnt, just like they do pollen.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/15  at  08:05 PM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


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Platoon

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Life Is Like A Box Of Chocolates




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