Goodnight Mr. Ping!

Last week I found myself back in Laos. It’s currently my most favourite country in Asia and although Vientiane, the ‘new’ capital is lovely, I keep getting drawn back to the mountains.

As mentioned in a previous post, I was up in the highlands working on a renewable energy project, where the biggest threat to life and limb is all of the unexploded ordinance left over from the Vietnam war. This trip was a fact finding mission for all of the main contractors who will work on the project so that they could see the ground reality and experience the tracks that pass for roads in the dry and resemble rivers in the wet season.

There were going to be around 40 contractors involved in the trip, plus half a dozen from the unexploded ordinance company we were using plus various strap hangers, so I knew that I was going to need some help keeping the various people together and literally on track. I asked an old friend, someone who I literally grew up with to come out and herd the cats with me. The right thing to do at this point would be to change his name “to protect the innocent” so to speak, so I am just going to call him Eric.

We set out from the southern town of Pakse with a couple of hired 4wd vehicles, complete with drivers and after a heated exchange and forced tyre change (for some that actually had tread on them) headed into the mountains. It wasn’t long before our driver, Mr. Som began to irritate Eric with his inability to change gear or conduct a hill start – both valuable skills as an off road driver, of course. Mr. Som also had the habit of stopping in the middle of a creek crossing, then change down to low ratio and try to climb out of the creek bed using way too few revs. He would invariably stall in a huge cloud of steam and sloshing of water and then select the correct gear (more or less) and grind his way out of the water. By this stage, I realised that some of the steam was actually coming out of Eric’s ears; his eyes were rolling and he was twitching and muttering like he was being tasered.  Hanging from the drivers mirror was a collection of amulets, religious charms, spare glasses, framed prayers and several strange objects shaped like bicycle clips. At the first hint of a bump in the road, the pendulous grouping began to swing. By the time we reached the worst stretch of the road, the objects had taken on a momentum all of their own; they moved like the rotor blades of a stricken helicopter, narrowly missing Alan, the UXO expert each time a hole in the road caused him to lurch forward.

Eric’s growls of anger prompted Mr. Som to grab at the now cyclonic collection right at the critical juncture of cresting a large hill and dodging a rock that had appeared in the middle of the track. Eric’s cry of outrage, Alan’s muttered prayers and my small girlish squeal caused Mr. Som to slam on the brakes, stall (of course) and skid to a halt on a sea of mud facing directly into several buffalo coming the opposite way.  I omitted to mention that Mr. Som did not speak English and thus far, we had relayed all instructions by cellphone through Alan’s office manager in Vientiane. The salty stream of curses that came out of Eric, a former marine and naval officer, needed no translation however. Mr. Som quietly smoked a cigarette, standing in the warm morning sun with his eyes tightly shut and tried to ignore the spittle laden invective. Alan and I gathered ourselves and had a chuckle at Eric’s rantings about incompetence, attempted murder, being reborn as a buffalo and we marvelled at the way his red shaven head seemed to deepen in hue as he worked himself into a frenzy. We took bets on how long it would be until a large vein in his neck burst but fortunately for all, Mr. Som made a low bow and strategically walked backwards until he reached the car and climbed back in.

I was explaining the ubiquitous nature of unexploded ordinance to the visiting contractors when one of the UXO pathfinders pointed out an 82mm mortar round, quietly sitting by the roadside. I expect that it has been disturbed when the road was made and left there as being ‘too difficult” to dispose of.  It had lost its tail fins and nosecone but was still ‘live’ and full of high explosive. Without the nosecone it wasn’t going too detonate and in fact, was pretty safe to handle, but the visitors didn’t know that and it made for a sobering discussion point.

In the next village we passed through, three people had died in the preceding years because of UXO’s. They were plowing fields and digging latrines at the time and had accidentally detonated some of the very large bombs that had been lying in the soil over the years since the war.

One of Alan’s teams was working on an NGO’s clearance project and we drove out to see them. The location was around half an hour from our destination and was very well set out to international standards with signs designating test pits, fragmentation pits and the first aid point. The idea was that the team would clear a waterlogged gully so that it could be dug out and turned into fish ponds. In order to clear the gully properly, they needed to lay out 1 metre wide rope lanes and place small planks on the surface so that the operators didn’t sink into the mud as they carefully swept the ground.

It was labour intensive and very hot, but after the job was finished, the local community would be better able to feed itself. The team medic was actually an Army surgeon, who had plenty of experience with the trauma caused by UXO’s and he took pleasure in showing us his aid kit. I suspect that he secretly hoped for a casualty, just to keep his hand in, so we trod extremely carefully on the way back up the very steep hill.  The team later found an SUU-14/A ‘dispenser’ that during the war would have been attached to the underwing of a US  A1-E Skyraider that had not fully discharged.  They found one of the tubes still full of live cluster munitions.

On the way back in the car, despite Eric’s oft voiced desire to leave Mr. Som in a shallow grave beside the Ho Chi Minh trail, we reached the small town of Dak Chung without further incident. Dak Chung sits beside a very picturesque lake on a plateau in the middle of the mountains and it is a trading centre for the local people.

And yes, that is the outhouse in the bottom corner of the picture.  Aside from a myriad of small wooden shops selling rice, tinned goods and petrol it has a small hospital, a muddy main street and a couple of guesthouses. Luckily, the one I stayed in last time and fed myself to the bedbugs was full and we stayed in a far nicer, but still very basic establishment on the way out of town. All day, whilst cramped up in the car or boiling our brains under the scorching sun; we had herded the contractors through the various sites and I had been looking forward to dinner and a cold beer at a small restaurant overlooking that lake and despite the fact that by the time we arrived, it was down to single figures and drizzling with rain, we wrapped a shivering Eric up in a warm coat and limped down the main street, much to the delight of the local kids, confusion of the local pigs and disgust of the towns dogs, who yapped and snarled at our heels.  It became clear that Eric had got sunstroke during the day and he had a splitting headache and couldn’t get warm until the medication that I had found in my first aid kit and the long necked bottles of medicine I found in the restaurant fridge worked their magic. We ordered spicy pork ribs and speculated that the ribs had come from a family member of the squealing drift of porkers running around under the hut. We decided that they probably had, so at least the ‘from field to fork’ adage was being followed.

As the beers went down, a discussion about Mr. Som (who hadn’t been invited to dine with us) and his driving provoked more and more gnashing of teeth from Eric and more mirth from us. Having known Eric for over 30 years, I had to tell Alan that had hadn’t always been like an angry Rottweiler, in fact, when we joined up together, he was ten years older than I was; he’d been quite a charmer and was always the life and soul of the party. Eric claimed that it was during his time aboard HMS Brazen as a ‘puddle jumper’ or ships diving officer in the Caribbean when he’d been hit by sonar whilst carrying out a ships bottom search that started off his deafness, headaches and short temper.

Alan, who had spent 23 years in the Australian Navy as a clearance diver and in considerably more challenging waters than the Caribbean, laughed like a drain when he heard that Eric had been ‘pinged’ by sonar and we speculated that as sonar has been blamed for the death of marine mammals and reportedly caused Whales to strand, what might it have done to Eric’s brain? “where’s our bloody dinner and who are all those Chinese buggers”? called Eric as a group of Chinese workers pushed to the front of the queue to order. “PINGGGGG” shouted Alan, imitating the sound of a sonar shot. “Bastard” Eric replied, “PINNNGGGGG” I replied –  “Bastards” said Eric, including me in the conversation and the evening went south from there.

It was pretty cold that night and I was grateful for the fleecy blankets that the guest house provided, but I could have done with a couple more of them. I felt pretty seedy when I woke up and gathering up the other two, we repeated our ‘walk of shame’ back to the restaurant for breakfast. The Chinese NGO had beaten us to it and were busy trying to bully the serving ladies into serving them. “what the hell are they all doing here”? said Eric, “they’re even sitting in our seats” “PINNNNNGGGGGGG” we said in unison…….

That night, after a very rough and trying drive back to Pakse, we reached the fine Pakse hotel and after cutting Mr. Som loose, made our way to its 7th floor rooftop bar. The view was amazing and we ordered beers and started to look through the menu, just as the sun disappeared below the horizon and the new moon came up. A cold beer at the end of long hot, dusty day can pretty much cure all ills, even a bad attitude and our first bottle of beer Lao that evening was no exception. Despite all good intentions to the contrary, we stayed up too late and drank too much (again), but it had been a good trip, in a beautiful country with a tragic history and we were all feeling pretty mellow by the time we stumbled towards the lift. “Goodnight all” Eric said, “Goodnight Mr. Ping” we both replied…..