MY TRAVEL IN LAOS
I intend for this page to be chronicles of my travel during this
important journey into a very remote village named Ban Kok Mak,
a.k.a. Kok Mak, Cocmak.
The entire experience of being in Laos is worthy of documenting.
21 March 2023
0800 hours we are on the road to Ban Kok Mak. We will spend most of the day in the area of this ethnic village which is about a 20 minute ride from Vilabouly on another rugged (not as rugged as Rt. 28A) rural dirt road. Many of these roads are part of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail
Along the way we pass a LZ (landing zone) used by the DPAA (Defense POW MIA Accounting Agency) who conducts recovery missions in this area, as well as throughout Laos. The scenery is basically the same as the rest of the rural areas we’ve passed through in Savannakhet Province in central Laos.
I don’t really have any expectations in my mind, but I do have goals that I want to accomplish. I want to try to visit the possible crash site of Owl 08 Captain James Steadman and Captain Robert Beutel lost on a nighttime mission on 26 NOV 71. As it happens I have become acquainted with Captain Steadman’s daughter through our mutual interest of those airmen still missing-in-action. I don’t have as much interest it trying to locate Colonel Carter Luna’s crash site since he and his back-seater (weapon systems officer) Capain Aldis Rutyna both ejected on 10 MAR 69. But, I do have great interest in trying to get to Colonel Luna’s last known position on 10 MAR 69, as well as a possible burial site. I really have no idea what to expect as we approach the village where we’ll try to contact the village chief.
In 2019 when in another nearby area to Vilabouly I encountered several villages. Because of that experience I do at least have an idea what a “village” in remote Laos will look like. They are small areas along a road or path with small windowless structures. I call them “houses” but they are by far nothing like what we know as a house in the U.S. They are wood structures with shutters where windows would be. Many of them have satellite dishes, electricity, but no bathrooms. There are community used squat toilets for bathroom purposes. In this village there is a bomb crater (photo not included yet) by the squat toilet that I used. I’ve noticed from outside that there doesn’t seem to be furniture inside. Chris told me that the people basically “live” or spend their time outdoors and go inside to only sleep, which makes sense to me while being there. It’s commonplace to see cows, pigs and chickens roaming in the village.
On an mission like this you do not call ahead to make an appointment to see the village chief. It will be a hit or miss situation, but Chris has met him before so maybe we will get lucky.
Once we arrive we park the rented white pick-up truck at the entrance to the village. There are a fair amount of people including children everywhere. We are met with stares… “who are you and why are you here” sort of looks. I’m sure it’s a rare day if not the only day that most people here have seen an American. Thankfully, we have Mouk as our translator and being Laotian it’s most beneficial to have her to begin this part of our mission… communicating with these ethnic villagers. We are pointed towards the direction of the village chief’s “house”, where nearby we come upon three men by a campfire. Mouk begins to speak to them inquiring if the village chief is available. She’s informed that he is not there but at a meeting with police. Not to be discouraged Chris recognizes one of the men as someone he had contact with on a trip to this village a couple years ago.
After conversation the man identified as what could be described as an assistant village chief agrees to accompany us to some nearby crash sites. We travel maybe a mile or so away from the village and travel a dirt path wide enough for one vehicle. Not too far down this path we stop for the first crash site. Located on the right a short walk off the path we see a clearly defined excavated site. This site was excavated in 2019 by the DPAA and in 2020 a positive identification was made of Lieutenant Alva “Ray” Krogman. His aircraft an O-1F Bird Dog was hit by enemy fire and this is where it crashed on 17 JAN 67. It was surreal standing at this site but more to come during the day would be more profound for me.
On the opposite side of this path Chris GPS led him to the coordinate of another crash site, possibly that of Captain James Steadman and Captain Robert Beutel, lost on 26 November 1971. We walked maybe 50′ off the path through a lot of bushes but didn’t continue because it was so thick with brush. I gathered a small amount of dirt for Captain Steadman’s daughter.
With the help of the assistant village chief we left this area and traveled maybe another mile. It’s a little difficult for me to estimate distances as Chris refers to them in metric numbers which creates a little more challenge. We drive down another path and are directed to stop at what is obviously another excavated site. Our village guide is indicating to us that human remains (bones) were found there. This site could possibly be the site of another aircraft also shot down on 17 JAN 67 (another researcher is familiar with this and should confirm this information for me).
Our village “guide” directs us back to the original path where the first visited sites are located telling us there is another crash site. He tells us that no one (DPAA) has explored this site. The villagers in these remote areas come upon these crash sites while wandering in the area, or working fields of rice, or cassava. They also hear stories passed down through the years by elders. This makes sense because if you had several aircraft crashing in your “neighborhood” over several years it would be something to talk about! Since we didn’t have confirmation of this being a crash site and assuming it had not been cleared (de-mined) we did not proceed into the thick brush. As Colonel Luna’s crash site has yet to be confirmed I think that it’s a possibility that this could be it if in fact there is a site here. Colonel Luna’s site has always been of secondary importance to me since he ejected and I know the coordinates of that location. At this point in time it’s also highly unlikely that there would be any evidence of the aircraft on the ground surface because these sites were quickly scavenged by the locals.
Our next area of interest to explore is the last known position of Colonel Luna on 10 MAR 69. First, we drop off the assistant village chief back at Kok Mak, and decide that now is a good time to take a drive back to Vilabouly and get some food and water for the village people. On the way back we detour to the my area of interest bearing right at a fork in the road where 9112 & 9116 intersect. We travel a short distance (maybe a mile) and stop when Chris’ GPS indicates we are close to the coordinate 48Q XD 039 828. Along the road is another cassava field which has been harvested. The field is relatively easy to walk through only the uneven ground requires attention. I follow behind Chris as he walks towards the edge of the field where it meets an area of heavy brush, not big trees as those seen on the distant mountains. He stands at the GPS coordinate where Colonel Luna was last known to be alive. In my mind during all hours of the day or night on many occasions while thinking about 10 MAR 69 I have already been here, I just didn’t know what it REALLY looked like. After 54 years someone is standing in the area where Colonel Luna was; I’m not aware that anyone else (DPAA, for example) has been in this spot. I should mention that this coordinate does not include the entire location of where Lieutenant Colonel Luna tried to evade the North Vietnamese who were all around him and Captain Rutyna, but it’s close enough as it was the location documented from the SAR (search and rescue) logs on that day. As we stand here and talk Chris spots a purple flower, and we see two clumps of berries. What is significant about this observation is that there were NO OTHER FLOWERS OR BERRIES visible in this area. This is some sort of “sign” to me that we are in the right place… I have this purple flower.
Maybe 200-300 yards away is a site that could be related to Colonel Luna. The site is located on the edge of and slightly below the road we traveled on 9116. In 2006 the DPAA did a surface sweep of this location based on information from a former Vietnamese soldier. Nothing was found during the sweep so no further action was taken. Based on additional information that I have read in a more recent report, and the close proximity to Colonel Luna’s last known position I have a strong belief that this could be his burial site. The question becomes… when will this area be excavated?
We return to Kok Mak with the items we purchased and when we distribute them along with toys, books, and other items that I brought from the U.S. for the children. Mouk helps pass out the things to the children by making a game of it while being able to speak Lao to them. The children were fascinated when I demonstrated how to sharpen a pencil. They also really liked stickers that I places on their hands and arms. Chris with the help of the assistant village chief and a bicycle pump blow up two balls (like a beach ball) with an image of the world on it. The children have fun throwing the balls to each other. Someone boils water and a few people eat the noodles we brought them. A 75 year old man sitting across from me pushes his bowl towards me, but I push it back and indicate that the food is for him. We interview him to find out if he was living in the village in 1969. He tells us that he did, and there is only one other elder currently in the village that was there. He explains to us that the villagers fled the village at some time during the war and lived in a “big hole” and were fed by the North Vietnamese soldiers. As we talk to him I notice the metal bowl he is eating his noodles from and I ask Mouk to find out about the bowl. After questioning him about it he says it’s made from a bomb casing (possibly a napalm bomb casing).
After close to two hours in the village we departed for Vilabouly. Although it’s early afternoon it’s been a busy day spent wandering the remote areas in probably close to 100 degree sunny weather. I’ve got a considerable amount of dirt, etc. covering me and look forward to a Beer Lao, or two. Back at Bounhome Guesthouse Mouk heads to her room for a rest while Chris and I enjoy cold beer. We discuss the revelations of the day along with ideas for future exploration.
12 April 2023
This is an update since returning home to the U.S. I have contacted a fellow researcher about the 2nd excavated site that we visited on 21 March 2023. He thinks that it is the site of U.S.A.F. Captain William Cogdell, date of loss 17 JAN 67. He concludes this based on the map I prepared with coordinates and describing the proximity to the site of Lieutenant Alva “Ray” Krogman whose crash occurred on the same day.
I have worked with Google Earth maps (see one below) to identify and plot coordinates for the last known position and possible 2nd related site of Colonel Luna. I have more work to do with plotting the other locations we went to which are a known crash site, and probable crash sites.
COLONEL LUNA’S LAST KNOWN POSITION
MAP: LAST KNOWN POSITION OF COLONEL LUNA
POSSIBLE BURIAL SITE
Due to the fact that I am not very proficient using these maps I am listing these coordinates
as “approximate” although I’m confident they are very close to accurate.
BAN KOK MAK
(Ban= village; village of Kok Mak)
20 March 2023
1100 hours my driver/guide Chris from Lao Adv Tours along with his translator Mouk arrive at my hotel. We start our 4 hour journey to Ban Kok Mak travelling east out of Savannakhet on Rt. 9 towards Vietnam. Rt. 9 is a paved road in very good condition compared to the next road that we would travel on to Vilabouly. We stopped for lunch which for me of course consisted of rice with cucumbers. After lunch we continued towards the intersection with Rt. 28A which leads to Vilabouly. Near Muang Phin (pin) we stop and see a disintegrating helicopter and some bomb casings at the Lao Vietnamese War Memorial. At the same time we take advantage of using a squat toilet before the rough ride we embark on next.
Once we turn north on Rt. 28A near Sepon the fun (sarcastically) begins on the rough ride. The road is dirt and very dusty especially when tankers from the mine approach, or other vehicle or motorbikes pass you. We have already passed some chemical tankers from the Sepon Gold and Copper Operation. The road has changed very little since my last trip in 2019. There are a couple small areas where new roadway is being constructed, but will be an ongoing effort as the big trucks continuously tear up the road. In addition there is extensive expansion at the mine which will increase truck traffic.
After about 4 hours we arrive at the Bounhome Guesthouse. It’s no-frills but clean and serves the purpose for the next couple of days. After the rough ride and the additional almost 4 hours of driving it took Chris to get to where I was we aren’t interested in doing much else today.
19 March 2023
Sabaidee (Laos greeting)! The last few days in Savannakhet have been somewhat challenging. Without a lot of details I’ll just say that apparently COVID has severely affected the service industry here. This is NOT a tourist area to begin with but I’ve stayed at the same resort twice before and had all the amenities I needed right here. Now, the restaurant is closed (limited breakfast only), spa/massage and gym are closed (padlock on the door). I’m not adventurous to try different cultural foods so that has limited my options greatly, however, I did bring snacks with me. I wish I had brought more but weight limitations on baggage became an issue. The takeaway is that even with months of planning, and previous experience here it could not have been predicted to know what I was going to encounter upon arriving. This was more of a layover for me and now that I’ve been her three times, and considering my current experience I will probably pass on coming here again.
To share a few things that you might find interesting about this area of Laos, there are only two stop lights that I know of. Most traffic is quite free flowing and not a huge regard for traffic laws… as we know them. There are frequent roundabouts as in the U.S. You cannot assume a pedestrian has the right-of-way. I received a couple of receipts for services of a van driver and payment of USD to change air reservations. The receipts were written out of a pad using carbon paper… do you remember that? Kind of ironic because they do use computers to print airline itineraries, and probably other documents here at the hotel.
After a few days of contemplating and working through adjustments to my upcoming travels (partly because of an airline cancelling a flight next weekend), I will leave here tomorrow. My driver and guide will take me to a rural area in Vilabouly where we’ll stay until Wednesday. Really, going back to this area and Ban Kok Mak is the main purpose for me traveling to Laos. The days spent in Luang Prabang and Savannakhet were necessary to fill in some time, and very enjoyable from a tourist standpoint.
16 March 2023
Today was the trip I had planned to Kuang Si waterfalls and black bear rescue facility. I decided to ride in luxury in a private air-conditioned van after having been so hot and sweaty yesterday. It was about a 45 minute ride from the hotel to a remote area in the country.
Along the way I saw lush green rice paddies even though there is still some slash and burn going on in areas. There are two seasons for the rice planting. Also, I saw some military training taking place along side the road. There were soldiers with weapons and upon the return trip they were seen running through fields. This drive was an opportunity to visualize the terrain, as it is today, to have an idea of what it may have been like in 1969. There’s areas of course that have been cleared since then for villages, schools, etc. But, I felt like some of the higher terrain in the mountains was very similar to what it looked like when U.S. airmen were flying in this area on bombing and other missions during the war.
On arrival at Kuang Si waterfalls my driver told me I had to take an electric car from the parking lot to the waterfalls. I didn’t understand his explanation for this but once I arrived there it was apparent there wasn’t enough room for vehicles to travel through. There’s quite a few vendors lining the road at the entrance to the falls.
First, I came upon the black bears… I have an affinity for bears so this was an exciting experience for me, an up close experience as some bears were maybe 10 feet away! The low chain link fence was bordered with electric wires so apparently there was no threat… not that I was 100% convinced though. Oh, I forgot to mention that I was the first person to arrive at the waterfalls and sanctuary. My research had shown me that it’s important to arrive at opening time as it gets very crowded, and taking photos of the waterfalls can become less fulfilling… so to speak.
The first bear I saw just on the other side of the fence was leaning on a concrete base. He/she was leaned forward across it as if to be resting. Later a caretaker confirmed that it was resting when another bear came along and antagonized it. It was obvious that he/she wanted to be left alone, and the two exchanged “words” (SEE PHOTOS!). A little further along was a bear playing with a big ball that was hanging from a post. I know that bears like to play and it was fun to actually see this happening.
Walking into the jungle along rough paths with tree roots and uneven ground leads to the series of waterfalls at different elevations. The water color was as clear and beautiful as the photos I’d seen in my trip planning. The temperature of the water was surprisingly not too cold, and there were a few people wading and swimming. It was a beautiful place to experience.
Arriving back at my hotel midday my laundry was ready to be picked up. Needing to start organizing my baggage for my trip tomorrow it was also time to recharge all my batteries… phone, phone charger, camera batteries, and lap top.
Mid-afternoon brought an unexpected storm. It got very windy followed by rain so my late lunch was delayed until the weather cleared up.
15 March 2023
I had a busy day which began about 0600 hours when I walked to the main street to watch the monks receive their daily alms (food for the day- sticky rice, and other small food items). It was an experience to watch the procession of young and older men walking briskly on the sidewalk. Locals and tourist sat on small stools (to keep themselves below the monks heads) and gave them their alms. There were many, many vans lining the streets at this time having transported tourists here to witness this ritual.
After the giving of the alms were done (lasted maybe half an hour) I walked along the Nam Khan River after sunrise. I took some good photos as the sun rose above the trees, and I now experienced this river which joins the Mekong River in front of the hotel’s restaurant Viewpoint Cafe.
Next, at 0900 hrs. I returned to Big Brother Mouse bookstore where a van took me and two young French ladies to Big Sister Mouse School. It was about a 20 minute ride to the school which is located in the country. There are 600 students at this school ranging in age from 4 to maybe 12.
Children were waiting for our arrival as they must do on almost a daily basis! They immediately approached us with hugs, high-fives, or other gestures. One of the teachers guided us through most of the day which ended at 1600 hours. It was a long day!
The school has three buildings which we spent time in two of them during the day. All of our time was spent sitting on either concrete or wood floors. So, at 64 years old getting up and down, sitting on hard floors all day (including at our lunch break) made this an exhausting day. Even the two young ladies with me felt some of the same way at the end of the day. It was probably in large due to the fact that it was about 90 degrees and the school has no air conditioning just ceiling fans. In addition, we were required to wear face masks so it was sort of a draining experience in these respects.
The children spoke and understood English quite well. They are used to tourist “teachers” as they referred to us almost on a daily basis. The teacher explained the importance of the children learning English is to give them better opportunities into adulthood.
Our instruction for the day consisted of using books, games, cards, and displays to reinforce words that they obviously already knew, or most of the children knew. The younger children were understandably more “restless” it was a little more difficult to hold their attention. I also felt that there was quite a bit of behavior bordering on unruly. Children running through the open hallways… maybe it’s just that I haven’t been to school in a long time! But, my sense was that discipline was not a huge priority although I did see one teacher gently tap a couple boys on their butts with a thin bamboo stick!
The children seemed to have a good knowledge of geography, math, and reading. They were fascinated by my Canon DSLR camera which honestly I wish I hadn’t brought with me, the cell phone camera would have been enough.
An interesting experience was practicing sign language with a young man. All the students are taught sign language at this school. Our guide teacher also tried to teach us Lao which was not easy!
At the end of the day the students again were hugging and saying “thank-you teacher”. Once back at the hotel a refreshing shower was in order followed by a spaghetti dinner with red wine at the Viewpoint Cafe on the Mekong.
14 March 2023
My first full day in Luang Prabang was spent wandering the area of the old town, and observing people and things. Lots of photo taking as I admired the scenery especially the architecture of buildings, homes, guesthouses, restaurants. There is a strong French influence here seen in the construction of these places.
I went to Big Brother Mouse bookstore to speak English with children. Tourists are invited to come to the bookstore and spend time with children, and some adults helping them with their English. I spoke with two 9 year old girls for about 1.5 hours. They already had a good understanding of, and spoke English well. They had a stack of books that they liked talking about with me. It seemed their questions of me were probably repetitive with all visitors, i.e. “what is your name, where do you live, how many people in your family”? I brought flashcards with me which they went through identifying images and speaking words quite easily. There were a few words that were new to them… whistle, nest, blanket. So, I felt that it was worthwhile to have the cards since they learned something new.
13 March 2023
I arrived in Luang Prabang Laos today, my first time here. It’s smoky as the farmers are still burning the rice fields to prepare for the next season’s planting. This “slash and burn” process leaves the soil fertile with a nutrient rich layer for new planting.
Dinner was at the Viewpoint Cafe on the Mekong River nearby the hotel where I’m staying. Many slow boats on the river as nighttime approaches.
Flying into Luang Prabang I noticed that it was very mountainous, more so than where I travel in Savannakhet Province. My thoughts take me to the Vietnam War, or more specifically the “Secret War in Laos”. Many U.S. pilots flew across this river, and many were left unrecovered in Laos after aircraft crashes.
10 March 2023
Although I’m still in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia it’s important to mention the significance of this date on this page. I was not able to organize my trip to be in Laos today. I will arrive in northern Laos on the 13th, and travel to the area of interest in central Laos on the 21st.
Today is the 54th anniversary of Colonel Carter Luna becoming missing-in-action in central Laos. The bracelet that I wear commemorates him and that date, and has led me to travel over 10,000 miles from home to Laos. The reason for me to travel there is to be able to honor him, and seek more information about his fate. To me… that is reason enough.
I’m also sharing some of the details that are involved in planning a trip to Southeast Asia. While many times we can simply pack our suitcases, comply with T.S.A. rules and go “up, up, and away”, it is more complex (to do it right and be well prepared) on these trips. Even if you are an experienced traveler whether domestic or international it’s another experience all together traveling into remote areas of Laos.
To help me with the planning of my trips I start by making an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all my air travel, i.e. dates, flight numbers, seat numbers, arrival, departure, layover times. This is something that works for me, but others might not see a necessity for a spreadsheet.
For details about how I plan a trip to
Southeast Asia, click here for excerpts from my guide.
(still a work in progress)