War Junk Part 1

(Originally written in 2003 in Laos/recently revised)

I met Harry in a basic ‘restaurant’ in what was then the small town Xan Neuau in the east of Laos, close to the Vietnamese border. He was a big man with short blond hair parted in the middle, blue eyes, and a square jaw. He was a little overweight but certainly not fat.

He was sitting on his own at a rickety wooden table near the open front of a local bar/restaurant sipping a beer and gazing at the traffic: bikes, buffalo pulled carts, a few motor bikes, the occasional motor car.

It was near sunset and the jungle covered mountains on the horizon had turned a deep green, almost black.

I sat down at his table because I didn’t have a choice. The other tables, further back inside, were occupied by locals. We started chatting.

Little did I know that I was going to be there for much of the night, listening to one of the most disturbing stories I had ever heard from any human being.


As two foreigners – Australians – alone in a far flung town, it was natural that the first thing we did was swap stories about where we had been and where we were going. He had come over the border that day from North Vietnam. I was headed in that direction after staying a few days on the Plain of Jars.

Harry and I were travelling in Indochina at a time when the region was opening up to tourism. In the 1960’s, the U.S. had gone to war to stop the advance of communism in Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It had lost that war and the communists, backed by China and Russia, had won. For almost 3 decades, the entire region was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world.

In 2003, tourists needed a visa and obtaining it was a long winded process and there was a strict time limit on how long one could stay (often depending on where one applied for a visa).

Harry and I discussed the ins and outs of applying for a visa at the Vietnamese border. During our conversation, I found out that Harry was an Vietnam veteran. Done two tours of duty. Not a conscript.

The man had been a professional soldier committed to the anti-communist war.

Later in the night, I discovered that there had been more than duty involved…..

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Long Night in Laos


Luang Prabang 

In 2007, there was one bus a day from the town of Luang Prabang, in the north of Laos, to the capital city, Vientiane in the south.  It left at 7 in the evening.

Officially, the journey took 10 hours, but sometimes it was longer.

On the evening I was on the bus it took 6 hours longer: the problem was, the bus broke down. This happened about three hours after we departed Luang Prabang. By this time we were in wild mountainous country.

There was a piercing shrieking noise. The driver pulled over to the side of the road and we all got out. Twenty metres or so down the road was what looked like a long piece of metal pipe. Closer inspection revealed it was a section of the drive shaft – the shaft running under the bus which transfers the power of the motor at the front to the axle at the back.  A section of the drive shaft had snapped off and shot along the road like a bullet and left a deep gouge in the tarmac.

The other westerners on board – some young Americans and Germans and an older Englishman – gathered together in a group. Altogether there were eight of us including my partner and I. We were all in a state of disbelief. And so too, we knew we were in for a long wait. It wasn´t possible to fix this problem up on the spot; it wasn’t like a flat tyre.

The driver stood by the side of the road, waiting for a vehicle to appear so that he could get a ride back into Luang Prabang.

We began chatting and sharing travel experiences.

The night was perfectly still and clear, the sky a blaze of stars. There was no moon.

And there wasn´t much traffic either.

Finally we saw headlights appearing. It was a Hyundai light commercial vehicle heading in the direction of Luang Prabang. Our driver waved it down. Got in and then vanished.

All of us assumed that he would go back to the bus station, get another bus and drive it back. But what if there wasn´t a spare bus at the station?

We might have to wait until the next day.

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