Mist-shrouded Long Tieng in Laos is still off-limits to outsiders, 38 years on
Electricity and an unsealed road now run through what was once known as Lima Site (LS) 20A. But 38 years after the CIA abandoned its secret Long Tieng base in one of the last acts of the Indochina War, it remains just that – a secret place.
Off-limits to outsiders, special permission is needed to enter the mist-shrouded valley that served as the nerve centre of the CIA’s private war in which Hmong hilltribe irregulars fought North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces across the mountains of north-east Laos.
But driving along the overgrown 1,350m runway, once the busiest in the world, it is not readily apparent why it remains closed – especially when the present communist government has turned its own wartime headquarters into a fascinating tourist attraction.
Seven years ago, Vientiane dissolved the Xaysomboune special military zone, which since 1994 had encompassed Long Tieng and nearby Phou Bia, the country’s highest mountain and for decades a refuge for armed Hmong holdouts.
But while the region has now been incorporated into Vientiane province to the south, the security restrictions surrounding Long Tieng have stayed in place, ostensibly because the rebels are still carrying out occasional attacks.
Just early last month, there were unconfirmed reports of five to eight people killed in a bus ambush on the road between Long Tieng and its old sister base of Sam Thong (LS20) to the north.
Last year, gunmen fired on troops guarding Australian-owned Phou Bia Mining’s copper and gold mine, about two hours’ drive south of Long Tieng and one of the country’s top foreign exchange earners.
“They just can’t let go,” says one resident, nodding to the mountains where legendary Hmong leader Cher Pao Moua is believed to have died after secretly returning to Xieng Khouang from a Thai refugee camp in the 1980s.
Similar sensitivity prevails around LS32, Colonel Cher Pao Moua’s former command and the only outpost never to fall, and LS85, where sappers scaled sheer cliffs in March 1968 to overrun a US Air Force radar site directing the air war over North Vietnam.
It could simply be lasting paranoia – or it may well be because of unexploded ordnance and scores of minefields that still litter the most heavily bombed piece of real estate in the world.
At LS32, for example, where soldiers made it clear outsiders were unwelcome, dozens of unspent 37mm anti-aircraft rounds lay in the grass beneath one of the series of hills surrounding the now barely recognisable earthen airstrip.
Better known as Bouam Long, LS32 is 100km south-west of Phou Pha Thi (LS85), a towering 1,750m massif reachable from the west today by a deeply rutted four-wheel-drive track and approachable only along a series of jungle trails.
Foreign trail-bikers received a hostile reception some years ago when they sought to scale the marginally accessible eastern side of the giant limestone slab, which lies just 40km east of the Pathet Lao’s old Sam Neua-Vieng Xay cave complex.
Again, that might be because of the mines that guarded the edifice, albeit ineffectively, and the tonnes of bombs dropped around it as a crack Vietnamese regiment began its offensive against a target Hanoi couldn’t ignore.
Eleven Americans died in the assault, the highest single death toll the US Air Force suffered during the war. The remains of only three of them have been recovered in the years since, the last in July last year.
Still, it is Long Tieng that captures the imagination. Guarded to the north by brooding Skyline Ridge, where Hmong and Thai mercenaries held on under heavy pressure, the valley is hemmed in on the other sides by jagged limestone karsts.
One outcrop at the western end of the runway was dubbed the “vertical speed brake”, for obvious reasons. Behind it are the scattered shells of buildings that previously housed CIA case officers, pilots and refugee aid workers.
At any one time, Long Tieng was home to 40 to 50 aircraft – Lao Air Force T-28 bombers, Pilatus Porters and Helio Couriers, Raven O-1 observation planes and an assortment of helicopters, mostly flown by Air America and Continental Air Services.
Amazingly, given the poor visibility, there was no control tower and no navigation aids, even for the big C-130 and C-123 transport aircraft flying in the ammunition and supplies for the agency’s 30,000-strong army.
The cheerful woman running Long Tieng’s only food shop made probably the best bowl of pho (beef and noodle soup) I have eaten in years, served with a heaped plate of fresh local vegetables.
Now populated by about 1,000 people, Long Tieng has become something of an education centre. Its school, built with Vietnamese and Asian Development Bank funds and catering to 800 students, takes in boarders from six other villages.
It seems a peaceful place now. And that’s how it should be. But why the continuing secrecy?