3 x 1.25 metres
Allow me to leap forward in time. In 2012 a 76 year old American was found dead in his Chiang Mai home. There was a bullet in his head, a revolver in his hand, and a crucifix in the other hand. His name was Bill Young, and he was the leading C.I.A Vietnam war era operative and hitman, in the jungles of Burma, Laos and Thailand.
He grew up on a Burmese mission station, his grandfather and father were missionaries there. His father forged the CIA link in that region by spying into southern China after Mao arrived on the scene.
Bill grew up amongst the hills tribes and spoke five local languages. with his special knowledge of the area, and his fathers links, it was almost a fait accompli that he would join the CIA. He had soon organized an army of several thousand Lahu tribesmen to help disrupt communist supply lines running through Laos during the Vietnam war.
At the height of the war, he was air-dropped into the mountains of central Laos to find a suitable site for an airfield base. He searched the mountainous, forested jungle terrain on foot, and finally found an ideal valley near the Plain of Jars. The airfield was named Long Cheng, and it didn’t appear on any map. It became one of the busiest airfields in s.e.asia, supplying and supporting several thousand Lahu hillstribe warriors trained by the C.I.A to disrupt the NVA supply lines. At the time all completely covert and off the radar. Together with the American bombing of Laos, It became known as the Secret War, and was one of biggest unofficial wars in history.
Thus the CIA operation Air America was born. Long Cheng was a large busy town with everything an American serviceman could ask for, including bars, casinos, brothels and a church. Flight crews, airfield maintenance crew, logistics teams, various servicemen, green berets, special ops, tribal militia groups, and all the staff it took to house, feed and operate the base. All deep in the mountains of Laos, and unknown to most people. All made possible by Bill Young.
His British co-operatives likened him to a quiet modest James Bond type which belied his CIA killer image. Killing was part of the job Bill once said, and it was known he had fought his way out of several tight skirmishes and ambushes in remote hill tribe villages. A past friend said Bill died violently the same way he lived. The US consulate general in Chiang Mai said Bill was an extraordinary person who lived an extraordinary life.
Bill also liked to party and his home became open house to a stream of air hostesses and nurses headed for the Air America base. Bill fell in love and married one hostess who convinced him to return to normal life and a job back in the states. He lasted a few months before it ended in divorce, and him returning to the life he knew best, saying I loved her dearly, she was beautiful, but my home is with the Lahu hills tribe. During these times Bill Young’s base as a CIA operative was in a comfortable house on the Thai banks of the Mekong, overlooking Laos.
My point is you never really know what is going on around you. You can read up, study some history, browse the travel guides, the same guides everyone is reading, and be dished up the same cold dried old facts. But you never really know whats occurring just around the corner from you, let alone what is happening all around you behind closed doors, in a building across the road, or a house across the river. The unfolding dramas, the clandestine machinations, through the shifting veils of subterfuge and power. The secrets and untold stories, the unmentioned human experience layered in rooms beneath the folds of time.
The town stretched along the Mekong and wandered inland towards the surrounding hills. I booked into the Wattay Noi Hotel, by the river, on the edge of town. Calling it a hotel was a little ambitious. It was a three story, family run pensione, clean and comfortable enough. On the rooftop was a flat open space with tables and chairs and some old parachutes as shading draped around. On one side there were clear views across the Mekong to Nong Khai and Thailand along the river banks.
Perhaps, just perhaps, it may have been possible to see Bill Youngs house compound from up on that roof. But what did I know back then. From the other side you looked over the immediate village below, and across Vientianne with the infamous hills as a backdrop in the distance. The Lao hills beyond Vientianne concealed various hills tribe guerilla factions, along with the Pathet Lao, Viet Cong, and covert C.I.A operations. There were all sorts of life threatening forces and nefarious activities busily undermining each other in the dark mountain jungle terrain.