Detained in Laos: Lost Tribes of the CIA’s Secret War
It was the most beautifully appointed detention cell I’d ever called my own. The tiled-floors were spotless. The toilet was porcelain. There was a comfy, queen-sized bed, a TV boasting four channels of static, and a wooden armoire in case I was enjoying myself and decided to stay for a while. My favorite part was the sparsely decorated wall, with which I passed the time banging my head against. Sadly, after ten hours, this pastime lost its novelty.
My door was unlocked and so I poked my head out into the chilly night.
My armed guard was nowhere to be seen. It would be at least another hour before he’d stumble back reeking of rice wine, invite me into his office, and torture me once again with Lao soap operas.
This was my chance. I quietly slipped out into the darkness, closing my door behind me.
The front gate was open.
Across the dark valley I could see the former CIA-base “Sky” milling with soldiers, glowing faintly beneath a silver sea of stars.
On the evening of May 15, 1997, the CIA declassified a series of documents revealing the largest covert operation in U.S. history—a bizarre and shocking story involving a “Secret War” and a tribe of militant opium farmers in Laos, called the Hmong.
The earliest documents dated to the 1960s. The US wanted freedom for Vietnam, however some of the Vietnamese wanted the freedom to choose communism. The US responded by bombing them to cinders—for freedom, off course. As the war intensified, the North Vietnamese began to infiltrate the American frontline by sidestepping through neighboring Laos—a direct violation of the Geneva Treaty, which mandated that Laos would remain a neutral buffer state.
The Americans couldn’t bomb the Vietnamese in Laos (for freedom) without breaking the treaty themselves, so they did what any upstanding, dignified world superpower would do. They hired a ruthless, tribal drug lord named Vang Pao to command a “Secret Army” of CIA-trained, right-winged Hmong tribal soldiers, to fight a “Secret War” against the communists in Laos.
Then the story got weird.
To accommodate the Secret Army, the CIA built a “Secret City” in the Laotian highlands named Long Chen (a.k.a. Lima Site 98). From this base, they conducted a covert air war over Laos. According to the CIA documents, the U.S. dropped more firepower on Laos than it did on Germany and Japan in WWII combined—an estimated average of one bomb every eight minutes, twenty-four hours per day, for nine years—making Laos the most heavily bombed country on earth. For freedom.
By 1973, Long Chen boasted a population of 50,000 and one of the world’s busiest airports—making it the second largest city in Laos, even though it never appeared on any maps. It was a comic book city, a place of tribal warriors, Thai mercenaries, spies, prostitutes, and secret agents using codenames like “Mr. Clean,” “SuperMex,” and “Junkyard.”
The last and most disturbing document was dated May 14, 1975—the fateful night when Long Chen came to a violent end.
Bloody civil war erupted in Laos and the communist forces surged the highlands. When the CIA issued an evacuation, panic ensued. Crowds of civilians surrounded flights on the tarmac, crying and screaming. Those evacuated were mostly Hmong leaders and CIA personnel.
“Farewell my brothers,” shouted Vang Pao as he boarded one of the last of the choppers. “I can do nothing more, I would only be torment for you.” He then took off, leaving tens of thousands of Hmong soldiers and refugees behind.
The shelling of the Long Chen began that evening. 10,000 Hmong crowded around the airstrip, waiting for the helicopters to return. None ever did.
After that night, the Hmong tribe slowly disappeared. Thousands of them were killed or executed as traitors. Many became refugees, fleeing across the borders into Thailand and China. Some sought asylum in the United States. Others vanished deeper into the jungles, waging a guerilla resistance movement that lasted until 2003.
The secret city of Long Chen still exists today. The base was reclaimed by the Lao military, but the rest of the city has since fallen into disrepair, reclaimed by nature and littered with reminders—bomb casings, abandoned barracks, and a long, crumbling airstrip.
While the city lies in a restricted military area, each year there are a handful of adventure-seekers who attempt to get inside. Some have tried on motorbikes, but turned back due to road conditions. Others have made it to the city check point, only to be turned around or slapped with a heavy fine. In 2007, three Laotian-Americans tried and disappeared, never to be heard from again.
As far as I know, only one foreigner—a well-connected German filmmaker—has set foot on the tarmac of the Long Chen airstrip since the night of May 14, 1974.
My goal was to be the second.
After two weeks of plodding along the Lao tourist trail, I excitedly unveiled my plan to Intern Lydia.
“No,” she folded her arms.
“How are you planning on getting there?”
“Why is that important?”
“Do you even know where it is?”
“No, that’s why they call it secret! It’ll be like Nancy Drew!” I exclaimed. “But instead of missing puppies it’ll be military bases and tribal genocide.”
A week later, I set off alone.
I didn’t know where to find Long Chen, but I suspected that if I were Nancy Drew, I’d start my search in Saisombun, where a local population of Hmong enjoys blowing up government buildings. To reach there, I would need to travel deep into the mountainous jungles of the Saisombun Restricted Militarized Zone—a convenient undertaking by public bus.
The night before my departure, my Nancy Drew suspicions were confirmed—the wise Google search engine informed me that Saisombun was the last place the Lao-American guys were seen before they went missing. While I was thrilled at this discovery, I could hear a voice in the back of my head saying that this should be the last place I’d ever want to go—but I happily ignored it as the bus rattled out of Vientiane and into the countryside.
After an hour, we stopped at a village and a boy stepped aboard, dressed like a third-world, ‘90s boy band. He wore a sideways baseball cap, fingerless black gloves, and a jean jacket that he’d successfully put on backwards. He swaggered his way down the aisle and stopped over my seat.
“Hello excuse me, sir!” he cried with a heavy accent. “Do you work for beer money?”
He reconsidered his question. “Do… you… work… hmm… for beer money?” He sat down next to me.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, sir!” the boy exploded with excitement. “America is very good, sir! I want to live in California-Hollywood!” he said, before launching into an incomprehensible, thirty-minute lecture about California-Hollywood. The boy’s name was Kum, and he was a chatterbox college student who was studying computer programming in Vientiane, but his family lived in Saisombun.
Eventually I cut him off. “Do you know about Long Chen?”
“Of course, sir!” he smiled. “My grandfather was soldier for Vang Pao.”
I sat up straight. “Are you Hmong?!”
He nodded. “Of course, sir. Do you know Shakira?”
“Super cool! Is she nice?”
“No, no, I don’t really know Shakira, but–”
“You don’t know Shakira?”
“No, I mean, I know her music, but I don’t know her personally. How do I–”
“I am not understand.”
“Yes, she’s very mean. How do I get to Long Chen?”
“Take a bus!” he said. “They go every Wednesday at 7AM.”
It was only Monday.
“But be careful!” he warned. “There are many prison camps in that area. The government doesn’t want outsiders. If they catch you there, they will put you in jail or maybe worse. You could end up in the prison camps or disappear. Do you know movie actor Vin Diesel?”
“No I don’t–”
“Vin Diesel is Lao hero! Vin Diesel comes from Laos.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
As the road wound its way deeper into the jungle, passing barbed wire fences, bomb craters, and mine fields strewn with yellow markers, Kum’s monologue withered deeper into absurdity, before finally he announced, “We’re arriving in Saisombum!”
The Saisombun Restricted Militarized Zone was a place of subtle charms. Very, very subtle charms. I stepped off the bus and found myself in the post-apocalypse. There was barbed wire everywhere. It was only 9PM, but the muddy, piss-scented Main Square was dark and deserted, save for one skeletal man in a rice hat, who tended to a massive bonfire of garbage. By morning, it would transform into a lively market, brimming with exotic vegetables, dangling meats, and live animals. Pepsi signs would hang over every other stall—tailors, barbers, and woodworkers—used as a fashion statement rather than an advertisement. Hmong women would arrive from the surrounding hills wearing tribal headdresses, while the men opted for blue jeans and baseball caps—usually worn sideways. The cultural footprint left by the Americans was glaring.
“You must go to the police station,” said the owner of my guesthouse. “They’re already looking for you.”
“How do they know I’m here?” Assuming the worst, I prepared to play the Dumb Tourist Card; I donned a goofy novelty tee shirt, tucked my guidebook under my arm, put a camera around my neck, and lowered my fly.
No one at the police station spoke English, so they ushered me to the chief’s office, where he stared at me in silence because he also did not speak English. Eventually a polite, mousy officer was produced, with whom I could communicate on a basic level.
“Why have you come here?”
I smiled vacantly, adjusted my novelty tee shirt, and said nothing.
An awkward silence followed. “Hello?” The man shifted uneasily. “Are you here for the nature?”
“Yeah. The nature,” I said. “I heard it was BEAUTIFUL!”
The man frowned. “Okay, but this is a restricted militarized zone… That’s why it’s named ‘Saisombun Restricted Militarized Zone.’”
“Okay…” I nodded blankly.
“…Which means foreigners are not allowed here…”
I stared for a moment, before a wave of realization washed over my face. “Ooooohh,” I slapped myself on the forehead. “GAH! I’m so stupid. Am I in trouble?”
“No, no. Clearly this was an honest mistake.”
“Okay,” I said, burying a finger in my nose.
“You need to leave first thing in the morning. Where are you going?”
“Long Chen!” I said. “I heard it was BEAUTIFUL.”
“No,” he shook his head. “You’re not going there.”
“The road is very dangerous. Its been destroyed by a landslide and wont be cleared until next week. It’s also a military base and you’ll be arrested.”
The officers released me after I promised to leave in the morning and provided them my name and passport information.
“You’ll go to Vientiane in the morning?”
“I’ll go to Vientiane in the morning.”
We shook hands and I walked out.
I did not go to Vientiane in the morning.
I spent the next day hiding in my room, only risking exposure to make a kamikaze dash to the market, where I bought a bag of pork meat and sticky rice before retreating to my guesthouse.
Bus or none, I’d find a way to Long Chen on Wednesday.
At 7AM, there were no buses in the station.
The station manager pointed to a scruffy father and son who were loading a cargo truck with rice bags and live chickens.
I wandered over. “Long Chen?”
“Phongsavan,” shouted the man—a city just beyond Long Chen.
I threw my bag up and clambered inside, where I stood in the middle of the screeching chickens and sacks of rice, staring at the man.
He handed me a plastic stool.
Eventually more Hmong joined me amongst the chickens, before the engine finally roared to life.
The town of Saisombun faded behind us as the truck ascended higher into mountains, passing medieval villages made of palm-thatch and foraged war materials. We passed a group of children playing behind a fence constructed of barbed wire and plane shrapnel. Herbs and vegetables sprouted out of a gnarled warhead repurposed as a flowerpot. An old woman in a rice hat gazed out the window of a rustic, stilted hut built on cluster bomb casings.
Soon we reached the first military checkpoint. I relocated to the rear of the cargo hold, where I hid on the floor behind some chicken cages. To avert suspicion from the other passengers, I disguised this action by pretending that I enjoyed playing with the chickens. Because I’d never played with a chicken before, this mostly involved poking them.
After eight hours and three more checkpoints, we crested a mountain pass and a vast, grassy valley appeared before us, peppered with cream-colored buildings, barbed wire fences, and a long, crumbling airstrip. We were approaching Long Chen.
The truck descended into the valley and moment later, it screeched to a halt. Voices called out. A couple young men grabbed their things and disembarked. I ducked down behind the cages. My heart pounded.
It was at this moment that the chickens decided that they did not like me and I was betrayed. They began shrieking and clucking in panic.
“No! Shhhhh,” I whispered, gazing into their stupid, empty eyes.
I could hear the driver talking to someone outside. I held my breath, waiting for the inevitable.
The truck lurched forward. I peeked up and watched as the checkpoint receded into a cloud of dust.
Long Chen appeared around us. We passed a crumbling building riddled with bullet holes and overtaken with weeds. We passed the haunting shell of a former barracks, graffitied with communist slogans. We passed an elegant temple rotting in the middle of a field. There was an ethereal, forbidding quality to the place. J.J. Abrams would have blown his load.
I waited a few minutes until we were safely away from the checkpoint before I made my move.
I pointed outside. “Long Chen?” I asked.
The other passengers nodded.
“Oh!!” I cried in alarm. I began banging the side of the truck. “Stop!! Stop!!”
The truck stopped and I leapt out with my bag, slamming down the Dumb Tourist Card for the win.
The driver came around, “No, no!” he stammered.
“Yes, yes,” I replied and handed him a wad of bills.
“Okay.” He hopped back in the cab and drove off.
I tightened my pack and set off down the road; I needed to set foot on the airstrip.
The Secret City had become a Ghost City. Ahead of me, the dirt path was lined on one side with smoky, wooden shacks. On the other side, behind a grassy embankment and a perimeter of barbed wire, I could glimpse a dozen retro military offices, the former “Sky” headquarters, and an old air traffic control tower.
If I wanted to get onto the airstrip, I would need to find a way around the barbed wire.
I suddenly noticed a little girl standing in the doorway of a shack. She stared at me, eyes-wide, jaw hanging, petrified with fear, as if a bear had wandered into town.
I waved. “Sabaidee!”
A blood-curdling scream erupted from her chest. “FALANG! FALANG!” she cried, disappearing into the shack.
More people appeared in windows as I walked. Heads whipped around, their faces twisting in shock.
Some of them waved. “Hellooo.”
I passed the open door of a noodle shack. “Hello!” a dozen soldiers waved.
I froze. I pulled out my guidebook, unzipped my fly, and nervously waved back.
They waved again. “Helloo!”
I cocked my head and continued walking. Perhaps the restrictions had changed, I wondered. Perhaps I was allowed to visit here now. I smiled.
A soldier appeared ahead of me.
“Hello!” I waved.
“YOU!” he roared, pointing. “GET OVER HERE!”
After thirty minutes of repetitive questioning, the officials disappeared into the checkpoint office to deliberate my fate. I sat with a young soldier on a bench outside, doing my best to act like a blithering nincompoop.
“Do you know where I can find a cheap guesthouse in this place?” I squinted.
The soldier smirked. “You can’t stay here. They’re going to put you on a bus back to Vientiane.”
“But that’s like a two days from here!” I moaned. My gaze fell to the ground, which was littered with bottle caps. “Wow, that’s a lot of Beerlaos caps!” I lit up again. “I love Beerlaos! I drank Beerlaos in Vang Vieng. I got drunk! Do you guys sell Beerlaos here?”
The man blinked. “You want a beer?… Now?”
“Heck ya!” I nodded.
I figured if I’d come this far, I might as well enjoy my last ten minutes with a drink.
The soldier called out and then a woman appeared with a bottle and two glasses. I poured us each a beer, we said cheers, and then I insisted the woman take our picture.
“No photo!” screamed one of the officials, emerging from the checkpoint office. “Give me your camera.”
“Are you taking me back to Vientiane?”
“No, no,” he frowned. “You’re not going to Vientiane.”
I was assigned an armed guard—a friendly, apathetic soldier named Liko. Liko escorted me from the checkpoint to a noodle shop, where he proceeded to get drunk on rice wine and laugh at soap operas.
“Hello!” someone cried. It was the soldiers who had waved to me earlier. They were flagrantly drunk, sitting around a mess of empty bottles. They invited me to join them at their table, where they talked to me in Lao and made me chug beers.
“Hello!” they screamed, refilling my glass once again.
“Hello,” I grinned, chugging it. By the time my lunch arrived, I was tipsy.
When Liko’s soap operas finished, he swaggered over to my table. “Ready?”
He pointed up the street. “The… The…” he searched for the word. “Doing.”
I took a sip of beer. “What’s The Doing?”
The Doing was sitting in a windowless room for two days. That’s what The Doing was.
That night, Liko was supposed to escort me to dinner at 7PM. By 9PM, he was still nowhere to be seen.
The gate was unlocked, so I took the liberty of letting myself out.
I crossed an old parking lot thick with weeds and climbed the escarpment to the barbed wire barrier. The base had come alive by night and its walkways bustled with uniformed personnel. I spied the control tower and the old hangar. I tried to spy the airstrip, but it was too dark. Somehow I would have to return during the day.
I sat there for several minutes, staring out across the old military compound, before I wandered back across the parking lot in search of dinner.
I couldn’t sleep that night.
After an early morning jog around my room and a good, ten-minute session of slamming my scull against the wall, there came a knock.
I opened the door. “I CAN’T STAY IN THIS ROOM.”
The young man flinched. “I’ve been sent to tell you that you’ll be leaving for Vientiane this afternoon.”
“PLEASE CAN YOU TAKE ME TO THE POLICE STATION.”
He shifted his weight. “Okay. Put your bag in my truck.”
The man drove me to the local sheriff’s office, where I quickly regretted my request.
For whatever reason, the police decided to put me on a low, cement platform outside the station in the sun, while they sat indoors watching soap operas. During commercial breaks, their heads would turn to watch me through an open door as I sweated profusely in the harsh sunlight.
“CAN I GO BACK TO MY HOLDING ROOM NOW.”
Their heads rotated away. The show was back on.
After the officers fed me lunch, they stretched out on the floor for a nap.
I checked my watch. It was 3PM; if I was going to set foot on the runway, I had an hour left to do it. I hopped off the platform, emptied my plastic water bottle into the grass, and very casually wandered away down the street.
I passed the bullet-ridden offices, the spray-painted communist slogans, and the creepy temple. I walked through the weed-covered parking lot, climbed the grassy embankment, and peered over the tangle of barbed wires.
There was no airstrip.
I stared around confusedly, certain I’d seen it from the mountain pass. It then occurred to me—it was hidden behind the airport; I’d have to reach the other side of the compound.
For a long moment I sat there, staring helplessly at the base. I thought of Nancy Drew, how she’d crawl through the barbed wire before making a Rambo-sprint behind the hangar. She wouldn’t be afraid to snap a guard’s neck.
I touched the barbed wire. It was very sharp. I sighed.
I slowly turned around and walked across the parking lot.
“HEY!” came the officers’ cries. I turned to see them jogging towards me, clapping their hands and whistling.
I smiled and waved my empty water bottle. “Hey! I’ll be right back, I need to buy water!”
Five minutes later I was sitting and sweating on the platform again—only now my plastic bottle was filled with hot, boiled hose water, which tasted like socks. Twenty minutes later a cargo truck appeared and I was unceremoniously stuffed in the back.
The soldiers returned my camera and a moment later the truck lurched forward, clearing the checkpoint, setting out on the two-day journey back to Vientiane.
From the mountain pass, I could see the whole of Long Chen. I could see the crumbling, weed-ridden airstrip, stretching the length of the valley between the barbed wire perimeter and dirt road.
Revelation struck me like a lightning bolt.
It was the parking lot.
On the evening of May 15, 1997, the CIA declassified a series of documents revealing the story of a Secret War and Secret City in the highlands of Laos. Since the CIA withdrew in 1975, only two foreigners have set foot inside Lima Site 98. One was a well-connected German filmmaker; the other was a guy with a novelty tee shirt, a ratty guidebook under his arm, and an unzipped fly.
I also got detained in Pakistan. The CIA were also involved: “Detained in Bahawalpur“
In fact, I had a couple of incidents with law enforcement there… One involved headless goat carcasses and also it was silly: “Goatball Superstar, Afghan Hero“
For an adventure with Intern Lydia, watch me stick her in a minefield in “Intern Lydia vs. LaLa & His Hippie Goons”