I always debate how to deal with terms some folks might not recognize. Normally if it’s short, then I’ll put the meanings inline and keep going so I don’t break the flow. But, where a longer explanation is needed, then this is the way I deal with it. Note that this will be a “living, and growing” list.
Air America – covertly owned and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1950 to 1976. In this context, Air America flew a variety of cargo, observation, and rotary-wing (helicopter) aircraft supporting the Secret War in Laos
CAT – The Civil Air Transport was created by Claire Chennault (of Flying Tiger fame during WWII) to supply airlift to war ravaged China in 1946. The CIA bought the company in 1950. It was reorganized and renamed Air America in 1959.
Indochina – This is often referred to as French Indochina. It stems from the mid 1800s when the French colonized a large portion of the region. Although the borders have changed a little, this encompasses what is now Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Pathet Lao – The Communist forces and political organization that opposed the Royal Laotian Government in Laos from the 1950s to 1975. (They won and took over the Laotian government in 1975). The Pathet Lao were also organized, trained, equipped and led by the North Vietnamese Army. China also provided them with 115,000 guns, nearly a million grenades, 170 million bullets, and trained 700+ or its military officers.
RLG – Royal Laotian Government – From 1954 to 1975, the term “Royal Laotian Government” was almost indiscriminately used to mean Laos’s government. However, this government took many forms over the years.
Kong Le is probably the least understood and most misunderstood character of the Laotian Civil War. As a Captain in the Royal Laotian Army, he led a coup d’état against the Royal Laotian Government. When a counter-coup “ousted” him, he took his forces and joined with the Pathet Lao… only to flip-flopped sides, and rejoined forces with the Royal Laotian Army… all within a period of about three years.
Kong Le was born to a farmer. His father was a “Kha,” and his mother was Lao. The Kha were an ethnic minority and, at the time, considered the lowest on the “totem pole.” (Kha means slave.) Kong Le took over the “family business” when his father died… he was only six years old… or perhaps ten, depending on the source.
At 17, he joined the French Army to fight against the Viet Minh. After the French were defeated, he transferred to the Royal Lao Army. There he caught the attention of American advisors. He showed promise as a leader and was sent to Ranger school in the Philipines. He excelled at ambush and guerilla operations.
Back in Laos, Kong Le was promoted and became a leader of a “crack” Parachute Battalion. His battalion was used in an attempt to curb the Pathet Lao’s activity. The battalion was under-supplied, under-armed, and rarely paid. The United States was sending in arms, munitions supplies, and money for the Royal Lao Army. That US support should have been available to Kong Le and his troops. But corruption was rampant within the government. Military generals and government leaders were using foreign aid to line their own pockets.
Finally, Kong Le and his troops had enough. On 10 Aug 60, Kong Le let his parachute battalion into Vientiane and seized power. It was a nearly bloodless coup d’état. Only six were killed. It’s important to note that the arms Kong Le’s forces used were US weapons.
Kong Le was a “neutralist.” He wanted all foreign interference and the corruption it brought gone from Laos. He believed the ongoing Civil War was caused by foreign intervention and wanted to stop all the “infighting.”. He especially blamed the United States “aid” because of the corruption it was causing and wanted the United States out. As a Neutralist, Kong Le proclaimed:
“I am for Laos and the Lao people, for honesty and purity, and against corruption”
“This fratricidal fighting among Laotians must cease!”
Kong Le as reported in Time, 22 Aug 60
Kong Le accused that the Prime Minister at the time, Somsanith Vongkotrattana, had “exchanged our country for American Money” and wanted the U.S. military training mission out of the country. He also wanted the North Vietnamese out of the country’s affairs.
Kong Le wasn’t wrong. The government was corrupt, and outside interests were fueling the civil war. The United States supported the Royal Laotian Government to block Communist expansion while North Vietnam, along with their benefactors China, and Russia, supported the Pathet Lao to further their own interests.
When the coup succeeded, Kong Le did not name himself as the leader of the country. Instead, Souvanna Phouma was again installed as Prime Minister. Souvanna, who was in and out as prime minister four separate times from 1951-1975, was himself a Neutralist. Souvanna thought he could bring together a coalition government and, therefore, peace to Laos. He wanted to unify the country by “neutralizing” the government. This would mean that the Pathet Lao would have “a seat at the table.”
The U.S. Government (CIA, State Department, etc.) was concerned that with Souvanna as Prime Minister and the Pathet Lao allowed into the government, Laos would be lost to the “Reds.” Keep in mind, the “red scare” was still a great concern in the United States. (By today’s rhetoric, maybe it still is.)
Soon after Kong Le’s coup d’état, a sort of shadow government was formed in Savannakhet (Southern Laos) by General Phoumi Nosavan. General Phoumi, who had been the head of the Royal Lao Army at the time of the coup, was right-wing pro-western, and pro-American. The United States, still under President Eisenhower, immediately began to supply General Phoumi with arms and munitions to counter the new government. General Phoumi organized the “Committee Against the Coup d’état” and vowed to remove Kong Le from Vientiane. Note that General Phoumi had been Kong Le’s “boss” at the time of the coup, and Phoumi was not a happy general.
Interestingly, a 6 Dec 60, a CIA secret analysis of the situation predicted, “If Souvanna were to lose out and the anti-Pathet Lao government takes over, Kong Le would probably join the Pathet Lao.” The analysis suggested that a quick counter-coup victory was unlikely and that Laos was headed toward civil war.
However… a successful counter-coup a few days later is exactly what happened.
Having seen the “writing on the wall,” Prime Minister Souvanna fled to Cambodia on 9 Dec. On the next day, one of Souvanna’s ministers flew to Hanoi to conclude an agreement with the USSR to provide arms and supplies to Kong Le. All was arranged with the agreement that Kong Le would join forces with the Pathet Lao.
I don’t know if Kong Le himself had knowledge or agreed to this at the time. In any case, on 11 Dec, Russian aircraft landed at Watty airport with arms, munitions, supplies, and… six 105mm Howitzers. None in Kong Le’s nor the Pathet Lao’s soldiers knew how to operate the cannons, so they were manned by North Vietnamese troops. The Soviet Aircraft continued the build-up over the next days.
On 13 Dec, General Phoumi launched the counter-coup. After a short but fierce battle for the Capital of Vientiane, Kong Le and his forces withdrew to the Plain of Jars (PDJ). Between 15 Dec and 2 Jan, the Soviets made 184 airlifts to the PDJ in support of Kong Le. During this time, the Pathet Lao claimed to support the Neutralists against the “Right-Wing American stooges.”
Souvanna was out, and a new Prime Minister was in. General Phoumi was made head of the new armed forces.
Most sources agree that while Kong Le likely had Laos’s interests at heart, he was naive to the realities of the larger world. The Communists duped him into believing that they too wanted a neutral Laos. Not realizing that they were telling him what he wanted to hear, he joined forces with the Pathet Lao.
Laos continued in turmoil and intermittent fighting until another Geneva conference established a “new” “Neutralist” government, taking over in July 1962. The United States was one of fourteen nations signatory to the agreement. Once again, Right-wing General Phoumi was out, and Neutralist Souvanna was back in.
In November, Souvanna appointed Kong Le as head of the Neutralist Army. For the time being, the forces of all three factions (Right-wing, Neutralist, & Pathet Lao) were merged into one army. However, there were right-leaning Neutralists and left-leaning Neutralists. There was a series of assassinations in the early spring of 1963. Kong Le’s deputy was one of those killed. Other assignations followed. The Pathet Lao government ministers feared for their lives, causing them to flee Vientiane.
Sources seem to be all over the place on exactly when Kong Le split with the Pathet Lao and again sided with the Royal Laotian Government’s Right-Wing arm. New York Times or “Time” articles use weasel words like “before long” to describe the time frame when things happened. In this case, “before long” means sometime between July 1962 and March 1963.
So… “before long,” Kong Le made agreements for his Neutralist forces to be supplied by the United States. And “before long,” the left-leaning Neurtalists left Kong Le and joined forces with the Pathet Lao. And “before long,” Kong Le once again aligned with General Phoumi. And “before long,” the Pathet Lao / North Vietnamese began attacking Kong Le’s positions. Vang Pao’s forces were brought in to support Kong Le. In fact, the only thing that saved Kong Le’s position was the support provided by Vang Pao’s Hmong forces.
Pewwwwww! Like everything in Laos, turmoil prevailed throughout. Changing loyalties and infighting continued until outright civil war broke out again in 1963.
Somehow, by 1964 Kong Le emerged as some kind of superhero to the Lao people. His position of neutrality, demand to get rid of foreign interference, and anti-corruption stance brought him widespread support. Realizing he had been tricked into supporting the Pathet Lao, he also became staunchly anti-communist and anti-North Vietnam. At the time, he was quoted as saying:
The pro-Communist lackeys of North Vietnam evil policy is to make the Kingdom of Laos a new kind of colony of international Communism
May 23, 1964 New York Times Article, Man in the News; Key Laotian General; Kong Le
Many Laotians believed he was the return of the legendary (mythical) King Setthathirath. The belief was that when Vientiane was in trouble, King Setthathirath would return to save the day. The May 23, 1964, issue of the New York Times article said, “To them, Kong Le is 10 feet tall, rides a great white horse and is indefatigable, unbeatable and immortal.”
That New York Times article concluded with, “… he appears destined to play a major role for years to come.”
Some have likened Kong Le to an “Asian Napolean.” With many of the Lao people seeing him as Setthathirath, he likely saw himself as the Napolean for his country. He believed it was his destiny, and the spirits were giving him signs. He told of being given confidence when he saw an omen: it was raining lightly and unexpectedly saw a frog swallow a snake! Perhaps he believed it meant he was the frog and the snake was the corruption and foreign interference he sought to eliminate. Personally, I suspect it was opium… the one cash crop of Laos.
Despite his notoriety and popularity in 1964, his successes were short-lived. While he was an excellent small unit field commander, he didn’t fare well as a self-appointed General at the head of the “Neutralist” army. When things were going well, he was upfront, “leading the charge.” When battles weren’t going well, he would excuse himself with migraine headaches. There were also occasions where he “retired” from battles to serve as a Buddhist monk.
His shortcomings as a General led to distrust and discontent among his subordinate commanders. The “Neutralist” army began to divide into pro-Pather Lao and pro-Right Wing supporters. Four battalions broke off, calling themselves the Patriotic Neutralists, and joined forces with the Pathet Lao.
As things degenerated, battalions began to mutiny in protest to Kong Le’s leadership. By late summer, 1966, he had lost the confidence and support of most of his officers. After some infighting, three of his officers rose to the top and took control of the remnants of Kong Le’s Neutralist army. Kong Le fearing his life was in danger, took refuge in the Indonesian embassy in Vientiane. On 17 October 1966, he left Laos. He spent the rest of his life in exile, living in the United States for a while and then France.
I think there is no doubt that Kong Le truly had Laos’s best interests at the core of his beliefs. Unfortunately, he was an idealist. His lack of political savvy in the government and lack of effective leadership at the military’s highest levels failed to bring about his dream of a Laos free from foreign intervention.
Upon his death, in January 2014, an article in New Mandala said of him,
“Kong Le went from soldiering to politics, only to discover that he was no politician; being a patriot was not enough to save his country from itself.
The spirit and the dream continued while history took another path. May his spirit rest in peace while his dream lives on.”
New Mandala- The colonel from Savannakhet – 24 Jan 2014
So… was Kong Le a Super-Hero or Super-Viillain ? You be the judge.
From 1954 to 1975, the term “Royal Laotian Government” was used indiscriminately. This government took many forms over the years, depending on the latest peace agreement or latest coup d’état. This adds to the mess and difficulty in understanding Laos and the Second Indochina War. To try and clear it up just a little bit, I’ll divide it into three different governments: RLG1, RLG2, and RLG3. (There were actually more than this as a result of coup d’états, but these were short-lived, so I’ll stay with the three.)
Laos was established in 1953 and further confirmed as an independent country in the 1954 Peace Accords, which divided up French Indochina. RLG1 began as a “constitutional monarchy.” In practice, this meant that the King would give his “approval” for stuff, but the real power rested with the Prime Minister (parliamentary elected) and his Cabinet. The United States supported this government. However, it was never stable. From 1953 to 13 Dec 1960, there was a succession of nine Prime Ministers. (There were only seven different individuals as two were in and out of office during the period.)
There was never any real unity in this government. The King tried to use his influence to establish a coalition government with the “Three Princes” leading the government: Prince Souvanna Phouma, who would end up being Prime Minister four different times; Prince Souphanouvong, who supported the Pathet Lao; and Prince Prince Boun Oum who was a neutralist.
The Three Princes held most of the power. Unfortunately, they were given their positions because of their relationship to the King and not because of any ability to govern. Moreover, ministers were appointed under the Princes based on nepotism, alliances, and friendships. Again, abilities had nothing to do with appointments to positions of importance and influence. Perhaps the most damning feature of this government was the rampant corruption. Those appointed only wanted to advance their own interests and not that of the country. This served to destroy rather than bolter any national unity that was supposed to be developing.
The United States sent foreign aid with the intention of nation-building so that the “hearts and minds” of the people would be pro-western in general and pro-US in particular. This included military aid sometimes sent directly to the Generals. Note once again that the Generals were appointed to their positions based on relationships, etc. It had nothing to do with the General’s military ability. These generals and the rest of most in government we mostly interested in advancing their own interests. Foreign aid was used for advancing their position for status and lining their own pockets.
The United States fueled the situation by threatening to withhold aid or actually did withhold some aid when the various officials didn’t do what they were “directed” to do. This simply added fuel to the fire as opposing sides used this to levy accusations of corruption at each other. (Usually, the claims of corruption were absolutely true.) Still, the United States continued to supply aid to those favorable to the United States.
Throughout this time frame, the North Vietnamese backed Pathet Lao attempted to establish themselves. Starting immediately after the 1954 accords, the Pathet Lao engaged in a low-level guerrilla war against the Royal Laotian Government. There were attempts to integrate the Pathet Lao into the government, but none succeeded.
By 1959 an ongoing Civil War had broken out between the Pathet Lao and the remaining Royal Laotian Government (RLG1). By this time, RLG1was mostly in disarray. Those Pathet Lao who had been participating in the government pulled out. The civil war continued, and RLG1 remained in turmoil into 1960. In mid-1960 Kong Le’s coup was followed by a counter-coup led by General Phoumi.
General Phoumi was a Right Winger, and controlled Southern portions of Laos still under RLG control. (The North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao had gained large portions of the region to be used for the Ho Chi Minh Trail.) Phoumi had the support of the third prince (Prince Bunum). Since General Phoumi was staunchly pro-western, the United States sent him massive aid… especially military aid. In December 1960, Phoumi’s counter-coup successfully ran Kong Le out of Vientiane. General Phoumi installed Prince Bunum as prime minister.
The civil war between the re-constituted RLG1 and the Pathet Lao raged on. The Pathet Lao, with the North Vietnamese Army leading the way, believed they could conquer the whole country. General Phoumi, on the other side, wanted a victory, but his forces never faired well against the North Vietnamese Army.
(See what a mess all this was. Even RLG1 was a mish-mash of differing factions and ever-changing government. The government was reformed in some fashion of another ten times between 1954 and the middle of 1962.)
When President Kennedy took office in 1961, he pursued a negotiated peace in the civil war. The superpowers (the USSR supporting the Pathet Lao & the US supporting the RLG) coerced their “puppet forces” into accepting the 1962 accords, thus creating another tripartite government. This time Prince Souvanna, representing the Neutralists, became Prime Minister for the 4th time. Prince Souphanvong, representing the Pathet Lao, and General Phoumi, representing the right-wing, becoming deputy prime ministers.
For a short period between July 1962 (Geneva Accords) and May 1964, the RLG was a coalition tripartite government. The Right-Wing was headed by Prince Boun Oum but mostly controlled by Laotian Army Generals, a Neutralist Wing with Prince Souvanna Phouma as the country’s Prime Minister, and a Left Wing headed by Prince Souphanouvong but controlled by the Pathet Lao and North Vietnam. (Note that Prince Souvanna and Prince Souphanouvong were half brothers.) The United States always supported the Right-Wing and Souvanna Phouma… but only gave “lip service” to supporting the tripartite government.
As before, aid (especially military aid) was sent to those who were at least “western leaning.” There was a continued attempt at “nation-building” with civic works and educational projects. When he was assassinated in November 1963, whatever scheme President Kennedy had for Laos was lost. Things went downhill for RLG2 after that. By 1964, actions in South Vietnam were gaining more attention, so Laos became of less importance. The US had deployed the Air Commandos to Bien Hoa airbase in South Vietnam. As that operation grew, the USAF 1st Air Commando Wing was established to give direct US air support to South Vietnam.
In May of 1964, full-scale civil war broke out (again) in Laos. There had never been complete peace among the factions, but until this time, there were continuing attempts at conciliation and compromise to make RLG2 work. However, after May 1964, the tripartite government fell apart. Although there was never an “official” end of the tripartite government, for all intent and purposes it ended over the next couple of months.
The Pathet Lao, under Prince Souphanoubong, became a separate entity and claimed the remaining Royal Laotian Government to be invalid. Without saying it “out loud,” the Pathet Lao broke ties with the King. The Right-wing and Neutralists unified (sorta) and stayed with the “Royal Laotian Government.” North Vietnam, China, the USSR, and most Communist countries did not “recognize” the Royal Laotian Government. For the remainder of the war and until 1975, the United States only “recognized” the Royal Laotian Government with Souvanna continuing as the Prime Minister till the bitter end. In fact, the United States continued to recognize the RLG under the pretense of respecting the 1962 accords establishing Laos as “Neutral”.
In fairly short order, several things happened. First, in late 1964, William H. Sullivan became the ambassador to Laos. Taking control, Sullivan used Kennedy’s presidential order that “all U.S. military operations in Laos were under the direct supervision of the Ambassador.” Then-President Lyndon B. Johnson did nothing to dissuade Sullivan from operating upon that premise. From that point and forevermore, the “secret war” in Laos also became known as “Sullivan’s war.” He controlled all aspects of military operations, including those covered by the CIA, US airpower, and other covert operations.
Second, the North Vietnamese increased their use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Sullivan thought Laos should be handled as part of the total Southeast Asia problem. To that end, he set up the rules of engagement for US air operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail… which areas could be bombed, which could not and granted/denied permissions for air operations.
Third, the Pathet Lao were making gains throughout the country. By late 1964 they had occupied most of the PDJ. Laos was in danger of being taken over by the Communists.
To stay in power, RLG3 needed the support of the United States. Without that, they would have been taken over by the Pathet Lao/North Vietnam in fairly short order. The United States needed to keep RLG3 in power to obtain tacit approval for the effort to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail (#1). The United States was able to say they were requested by and had permission from the Laotian Government to take “certain limited actions.”
So the relationship between RLG3 and the United States continued as one of necessity for the two countries. As long as the US helped keep the Pathet Lao from taking over in Northern Laos, the US was allowed to bomb the Ho Chi Minh trail. Indeed, the bombings to support the Royal Laotians in the North, combined with the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, made Laos the most bombed country in the world… ever.
The US continued to support operations, albeit dwindling support, in Laos even after the Vietnam War ended with the Paris Peace Accords of 27 Jan 73. When the Case-Church Amendment effectively cut off US Military support (air support) in Laos on 15 Aug 73, the CIA and Air America continued to support RLG3 into 1974 when even that support ended.
RLG3 managed to survive until the Pathet Lao took over in April 1975. Soon after, the King, his family, and officials of RLG3 were sent to “re-education” camps where most died.
#1 – While researching, I found an interesting report. In July 1965 Ambassador Sullivan stated in a secret meeting, “… that he was prepared to encourage the use of overt U.S. or Vietnamese force Westwards along Route 9, gradually extending the SVN border, while publicly denying that the troops were in Laos, all the way to Tchepone (Xepon) if necessary.” Throughout the existence of RLG3, Prime Minister Souvanna was adamant that while permitting certain limited US involvement, he would never permit US ground troops in Laos. Therefore, Sullivan went on to say that the operation would have to be secret and the US would deny any such operation.
It wasn’t until nearly six years later that there was any attempted operation to “take” Tchepone. Operation Lam Son 719 was a South Vietnamese Army (with limited US Air Support) attempt to interdict Route 9 and capture Tchepone. The operation failed. But… this is another story and I’ll leave it at that for now.
(Route 9 ran from the NVA transportation hub at Tchepone into South Vietnam. It is still a major transportation route from the border at Lao Bảo Vietnam into Laos. Today is paved all the way from the border to Xepon.)
A few days back I was asked a question about what to take on the HCMTrail ride. In particular, the essence of the questions were, “What riding gear do we need” and “What should we take on the trail. At first, I was going to give a short answer. But as I was writing the email, I realized that if one person was asking, anyone interested would probably want to know. Besides, there is no short answer.
When you look at a lot of the videos of riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail Don Duval has posted, you will see the riders dressed from head to toe with every piece of riding gear you can imagine. But I always think it amusing when in the video you see a family of five going the other way on a scooter wearing little more than shorts and flip flops.
So yes… if you really wanted to, you could ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail in shorts and flip-flops. But I don’t think it would be a very good idea.
A few years ago I rode all over Thailand wearing a helmet, combat boots, over-pants (I’ll explain over-pants in a minute), a jacket, and gloves. I consider this to be the minimum. As I go through the stuff, I’ll show you a recommendation or two. I’ll also include some of the recommendations Don Duval has made.
On the trip from Chiang Mai to Nakhon Phanom (NKP) I went via the towns of Phitsanulok, Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani (Udorn)… about 1000km. The pic shows the gear I wore all the way… “combat boots,” over-pants and the blue vinyl jacket hanging from the handlebars. The helmet is hanging on the handlebr underneath the jacket. The bike is a Honda CRF-250L. More gear is in the red bag, but I wasn’t wearing the extra stuff for the easy (tarmac) parts of the ride.
I should mention that I’m one of those that wears every possible piece of gear you can imagine. I often ride motocross tracks. I rarely race these days, but just the same, I prepare for the worst. I’ll tell you about my gear as I go along, but for now, I think this video will tell you the story best. I made the video because I was testing out a new GoPro mount. I was also wearing the new helmet and riding pants I intended to take on the HCMTrail Ride. (I didn’t think my Red-White-and-Blue themed gear would go over well riding in Laos. Here… watch the video.
Throughout the rest of this post, I’ll be putting in little pics of the stuff I’m talking about. Each pic is a link to Amazon so you can check out the items. All the links open up in a new tab. (Since commissions are earned with these links, please check the “#WeaselWords” at the bottom of this page.)
This first item if for the GoPro “chin” mount… not the helmet.
Must Have Gear:
Before I go on I need to tell you that I go off-road riding two or maybe three times a month. That was the first “crash-n-burn” I’ve had in over six years. In the last two years, I haven’t even had a little “boo-boo” get-off. So all of this stuff is not likely to be “used,” but it’s needed just in case. Our trip down the Ho Chi Minh Trail won’t have a lot of risks. Still… shorts & flip-flops just aren’t a good idea.
Helmet – I don’t need to say much here. You need your own properly fitting helmet. Some old, worn a million times brain-bucket isn’t good enough for my head. This doesn’t have to be expensive. Don Duval recommends a “dual-sport full face” helmet… not the kind you wear with goggles. He says the dual-sport give you better peripheral vision to look out for ” that dog, Cow, Goat, or Water buffalo approaching from the limit of your peripheral vision!”
Like most gear, you can spend a zillion dollars, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. The dual-sport helmet below on the left is one Don recommended. It is like the one he wears, is a DOT approved helmet, and is only about $60. The other one is the one I wear and bought to take instead of my Red-White-and-Blue helmet. As to its cost, to mimic the words of the great Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker) in the movie, Major League… it costs juuuuussst a bit more.
(A reader told me that I should mention that if you are looking at this on some devices (like a cell phone), the items are not shown side-by-side. Instead, the “left” one is the first one shown, and the “right” one is the second one.)
Boots – As minimum, military combat-type boots. Today these are called “tactical boots.” The Bates boots shown below are the ones I wore all over Thailand. These are great because they are almost as light as sneakers. I still wear them all the time for riding my street bike (Honda) or for just out in the woods. The problem with these specific boots is with any water crossings… even little streams, your feet will get wet. Even though we are going in the dry season, a little rain in the morning could have you soggy all day. Bates does offer waterproof boots, but they cost juuuuussst a bit more.
Proper off-road boots will do a better job of keeping you dry. They’re also like armor for your feet and lower shin. Unfortunately, they aren’t much good for anything but dirt bike riding. Like all the gear, you can spend a small fortune if you are independently wealthy. As for me, the boots shown below are what I ride with.
I should mention, I’ll be wearing my combat boots as I travel to Laos. That will be my back-up if something happens to the motocross boots along the way. The Bates “Tactical Boots” on the left and my motocross boots on the right.
Gloves – These are essential. Don’t try and go with some $3 cheapie you can get from Harbor Freight. Good ones aren’t expensive and working up a blister your first day out won’t be fun. You can get proper off-road gloves for about twenty bucks. For years I have worn both Oneal brand gloves (left – about seventeen-bucks) and my current Fox gloves (right – about twenty-eight bucks).
That does it for the absolutely, positively must-have stuff. There’s more that’s highly recommended, but first, I want to talk about pants.
Obviously cargo shorts won’t do. Getting a bad case of road rash would ruin your day. Once again, you don’t have to spend a lot of money, or you can indenture your firstborn for riding pants. At the bottom end, you could go with just jeans. When I was poor, I did a lot of desert riding just wearing denim jeans. They will prevent a lot of road rash and keep dirt from getting ground into bare skin. But they are the least effective. I’m going to let you be the judge, but I’ll suggest something more effective.
“Over-pants” may be the most cost-effective. When I rode through Thailand, I just pulled these on over my Wrangler jeans. At the end of the day, I just pulled off the over-pants and was ready for a night on the town. Ok… the jeans were probably juuuuussst a bit stinky, but at least I could check-in someplace to wash up. Besides… these days stinky jeans might help with that “social-distancing” thing. Of course, you could wear cargo-pants or some such underneath but then you wouldn’t be as protected as well to road-rash.
Proper off-road pants, in my case motocross pants, are the best way to go. They will give you the most protection to road-rash. They will also be cooler than the other options… even jeans… because the ones I’m suggesting have venting to let in a little bit of air. They will also be the most comfortable because they have flex & expansion panels in all the right places. The ones I’m showing also have a little bit of padding in the hips and knees. (I’ll say a bit more about padding when I get down to “Overkill”.) While not waterproof because of the venting, they will keep a lot of water away. Since it’s a vinyl/polyester fabric, splashed water runs right off.
The over-pants I wore through Thailand are no longer available. Although the ones I’m showing here (on the left) are similar, I can’t personally vouch for them. They are about $40. The motocross pants (on the right) are the ones I bought and will be wearing on the HCMTrail Ride. They cost about $70.
Highly Recommended Stuff
Most trail-riding “get-offs” are not like the massive tumbling down the highway, getting smoothed out by a car sort of crashes you get riding down the interstate. Don’t get me wrong… some off-road crash-h-burns can hurt a lot. I was hurtin’ after the one in the video I showed you at the top. But most trail-ride get-offs are more the boo-boos and rash type. Helmet, boots, pants and gloves take care of a lot of that. But there’s more stuff that will lessen your aches and pains if you get some boo-boos.
Arms, Elbows & Knees
I suppose you could call an old sweatshirt arm protection if you are brave. In fact, I used to wear little more than that when I was on a motocross track. But now-days I want more. As a minimum, a modern motocross type long sleeve shirt should be worn. These shirts are vented and moisture-wicking to help keep you cool. They also have a little padding on the elbows. The one shown here is what I sometimes wear on a motocross track now-days if I’m not wearing more. (I wear a “chest-protector”/”roost-guard” / “flack-jacket underneath when I’m just wearing the shirt but I won’t go into that here. I also have a red-white-&-blue shirt not appropriate for this trip.)
Don Duval (and I) recommend you wear knee and elbow guards of some kind as a minimum. These are inexpensive and will save you a lot of grief even if you have just a little tip-over. That little bit of padding those motocross jerseys have won’t protect you nearly as much as some plastic “armor.” The set below will do the job, and are only about twenty bucks. But… before you order up any of these for the HCMTrail Ride, Don has some of this stuff you may be able to borrow from him. So check first.
One option to go with instead of some kind of long sleeve shirt and elbow armor (you still need something for knees) is to go with “Body Armor.” Both Don and I will be riding with this. Besides armor for your elbows, this provides you with a lot more… chest, shoulder, and back.
Remember I mentioned I wear “flack-jacket” worn under my motocross jersey just a minute ago? On a motocross track, the bike in front of you can spray you with little pebbles and rocks from his back tire. Except those pebbles and rocks are coming at you like “flack.” Sometimes the competition in front of you “roosts” you on purpose. The chest protection Body Arnor has does the same thing as a “flack jacket.” Of course I would never roost you on purpose… unless you roosted me going through a water crossing.
One other advantage of body armor is that you can wear a t-shirt underneath. The “jacket” part is made of a mesh and is far cooler than anything else.
I was wearing body armor in the crash-n-burn in the video at the beginning. Believe it or not, I didn’t have a scratch on my elbows, shoulders, or back. When you see me, I’ll show you all the scratches my body armor has from that. Is it a bit of “over-kill” for most trail riding? Yeah… probably so… especially for the HCMTrail Ride. We’ll be taking it easy. Just the same… I won’t leave home without it.
The body armor shown on the left below will do the job and then some. It’s only about sixty bucks. The one on the right is what I will be wearing on the HCMTrail Ride.
There are a few more things that I wear any time I get on a dirt-bike. Most of this stems from my racing days and is far more than you will need for the HCMTrail Ride. When you are racing, you are always riding at your limits… sometimes over your limits. For the HCMTrail Ride, we are just going along at a pace for “sight-seeing.” Just the same, I’ve worn this stuff for so long, I feel naked without it. So, if you don’t mind spending some of your kid’s inheritance, here’s some more stuff.
“Base-Layer” – This is what you wear under all of the other stuff. There are a variety of different types and price points. The main idea of these are to provide some extra padding to protect you from boo-boos. I always wear shorts like these. They’re kinda like regular outerwear shorts, but with padding. After a day’s ride, I’ll wander around the house with these on until I take a shower… even if my daughters are around. And they don’t even say ewwwwwww. If you are going to ride with only jeans, this becomes sort of a recommended item. The one shown on the left is a low-cost version… about twenty-five bucks. What I wear is on the right… about sixty-five bucks.
Kidney Belt – I’m only going to show one here… the one I wear… because it really is in the beyond overkill category. My Body Armor (and the other one I showed) has a built-in kidney belt and I still wear a second one. Part of the reason is because I’ve always worn a kidney belt… long before I started wearing body armor. It’s one of those things I feel naked without.
The biggest reason for a kidney belt now-days is because it keeps my shirt tucked in. I wear the kidney belt down low… partly under the belt-line of my pants. (The pants don’t actually have a belt, but you know what I mean.) Now that might not seem like a big deal, with all that other stuff on. But without the kidney belt, my shirt always comes un-tucked just above the beltline. And no matter what… any time I’ve ever gone sliding, the dirt seems to always find any exposed skin. Here’s the one I wear… about thirty bucks.
Knee Braces – Ok… now I’ve gone off the deep end. This purely stems from my racing, but it’s still that naked thing. I’ve worn these for so long now, I just can’t get on a dirt bike without them. There are no worthwhile knee braces under about $350 a pair… and they go up to over $750. But just think… I get to save twenty bucks on knee pads.
Socks – Yes, you’ve got to have some kind of socks under whatever you are wearing for boots. Sure… the best thing to do is to run down to Walmart and buy a pack of six athletic socks for less than the price of these overkill kind. But these overkill kind are oooooh so nice. Both of the ones below are O’Neal socks. The socks shown on the left ($17.50) are over-the-calf with moisture-wicking material for most of it, but thick knit heel and sole. The ones on the right ($28) are what I wear because they go almost up to my Yaa-Haa. The Yaa-Haa socks go under my knee braces to prevent chaffing.
All of the pics and links I’ve posted take you to Amazon. I can also recommend getting the same stuff from one of three places: rockymountainatvmc.com, btosports.com, and Chaparral Motorsports (chapmoto.com). I have received good service from all three, and have been doing business with Chaparral since they were a little ma-n-pa store in San Bernadino, Ca. in the early 80s.
I use mostly Amazon these days mostly because I have “Prime.” In normal times I (all Prime subscribers) get free shipping… 2 day on almost everything. I think it likely most of you have Prime by now. If not, they have a free 30 day deal. Even if you don’t want Prime, it would be worth their free deal if you are going to order a bunch of this stuff. You also get free Prime Movies, which during the Covid-19 thing might be a good idea for the next 30 days. Just click on the pic below.
I want to say again that the Ho Chi Minh Trail ride is in no way about pushing the limits. We won’t be doing anything any member of the group is uncomfortable with. I’m bringing all my stuff just because I have it… not because I intend to “test it out.”
When I started to answer the email about this stuff, I started out with, “I’ll make this a quick answer and let you ask questions.” Then I started writing the email. The email was growing into the monster you see now. So you see why I never sent that “quick” email.
I still invite you to ask questions or make comments. There are a million possibilities for this stuff, and I’ve only given you a few options.
Now… about what to bring. I’m working on a “quick” email for that and you’ve probably already figured out how that’s going. So that will be my next post. Stay tuned.
I wanted to add a little about Chaparral Motorsports. Their retail store may be one of my favorite places in the world to spend a day… yeah, a day. They are by no means a little store anymore. For me, I’m like a kid in a candy store. Except it’s a candy store that seems as big as an aircraft carrier… and that’s just their showroom. I won’t go into it all here, but they have about every brand of motorcycle you can think. And… they carry so much in the way of accessories & clothing that I can’t begin to name it all..
Although my flight itinerary to Laos has changed now, when I planned for last March, I arranged it so I could visit Chaparral during my 24-hour stay-over in the Los Angeles area. I don’t miss living in California, but I do miss being able to go to Chapparal.
#WeaselWords about the links to products on Amazon. All of the costs and labor associated with this web site are paid for out of my pocket. As such, to help defray the costs I have begun to include pics/links to products I use. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases when you click on the product links. In all cases, the links are to items I have purchased with my own money or have been recommended by a trusted source. I have never been supplied any of these items for free or at a discount. I have never been paid to endorse any product.
Today’s post was supposed to be a “wrap-up” of the Great Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride. I intended to use the last day in Laos & Thailand to reflect on everything. There were to be glorious stories of “places to go, things to do, and people to see”… and of Bangkok massage parlors. As we know, the world has changed, at least temporarily, and I never made it anywhere.
As the COVID-19 virus started spreading, I figured I would make it to Laos in the nick of time to complete the trip. I mean, as long as I got there healthy, the jungles of the HCMT were probably going to be the safest place to be. I had a whole plan for getting there healthy: a bag full disinfectant wipes and sprays to sanitize a cocoon around me; a 3/4 face mask with N99 rated filters. I also obtained some MREs so I wouldn’t have to touch or eat anything brought to me by others.
I even considered the consequence of getting stuck there for a while. As you will see in a minute, I hadn’t considered all the implications. But I figured if I got stuck there, I would just ride it out. At the time, Laos didn’t have any cases of COVID – 19. So, if I got stuck in Laos, I thought it would just be a chance to go more places that had been deleted from the itinerary.
That even sounded like a good idea. You know… see all the stuff I was going to miss. And if some government or airline wouldn’t let me come home, then I wouldn’t have to justify it to my wife… I wouldn’t end up talking in a high-squeaky voice after I got back. Yeah… that’s the ticket.
Or perhaps I would get stuck in Thailand because our government closed down any incoming. Ok… that wouldn’t be so bad either. I would just rent a “street” motorcycle in Bangkok and tour Thailand. At the time, I thought another trip to Chiang Mai would be in order. Even if travel became somewhat restricted, I would just find a Bangkok massage parlor to stay in… not such a bad way to “hunker-down.” And once again, nothing to explain to my wife. Ummmm… I wouldn’t tell about the massage parlor part.
As things started to unfold, I even considered going a week earlier to avoid possible requirements to “self-quarantine.” My thinking was, “Just get there.”
All of this “schemin’” was only a bit more than three weeks ago. About the time I started packing my gear (I always wait till the last days to pack), I began receiving emails from the Thai and Laotian embassies. When traveling abroad, I always sign up for the “Smart Traveler Enrolment Program” (STEP) to receive travel updates and warnings. All the warnings were to “reconsider travel.” Ok… I reconsidered… and I’m still going.
Then the warnings became a little more concerning; “…airlines may cancel at any time, and countries may close their borders at any time… be prepared to stay for a prolonged period.” No sweat. I had considered that. A prolonged period in a Thai massage parlor seemed pretty good to me.
Within a couple of days came the messages from Laos border crossings were closed, but Wattay airport would remain open. Each day the warnings became more dire. Finally, the warning included “no travel from Thailand to Laos soon.” I could no longer deny the obvious. I “pulled the plug.” I realized that the measures governments around the world were implementing would mean no riding the HCMT… no Thai massage parlors. None of what I planned and hoped for was going to happen.
Since then, I continue to get updates from the embassies. Laos is “closed down” with no travel within the provinces or between the provinces. All airports are closed. I even tried to send a package to Don Duval in Vientiane, but no carrier can get there. The Embassy in Vientiane chartered a “last chance” flight out of Laos, and it departed on 12 Apr… at a cost of $1900 per-person to San Francisco.
Now about that Bangkok massager parlor. Here an update from the Thai Embassy:
“On 25 Mar, the Royal Thai Government declared a national state of emergency, effective 26 Mar, in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Thailand. Most restaurants, stores, and entertainment venues are closed… Several provinces have closed their borders…”
It appears that all hotels in Thailand have been directed to close and that all airports are either shut down or soon will be. As I continue to get daily updates from the embassies, I’m just glad I “pulled the plug” when I did. If I had made it to Thailand or Laos, I would have never have made it to the HCMT. I would likely have just turned around and come home, or be stuck there… and no massage parlor.
Today’s notice from the Laotian Embassy was:
Departure of Special Chartered Flight on April 12
A special chartered flight arranged by the U.S. Department of State departed Vientiane on April 12. The Embassy is not aware of any remaining option available to U.S. Citizens for leaving Laos via commercial means. The Embassy will not be arranging for another chartered flight.
I was scheduled to fly out of Southern Laos to Bangkok on the 13th. By then all flight out of Laos had been canceled. The following paraphrases a very long email from the Embassy, but this is the essence of what it said.
“If you can, get out now. Flights into Thailand are being suspended. Thus, there will be no airplanes to take you out. If you don’t get out immediately, then plan on remaining in Thailand indefinitely.”
Pewwwww! It’s a good thing I didn’t make it there. It would have been one thing to spend a few extra weeks in either Laos or Thailand… but that “indefinitely” part wouldn’t be fun. Everything in both Laos and Thailand is in lockdown. Only it is much more stringent than it is here. There would have been no exploring or travel of any kind. I’m not sure where I would even stay… indefinitely.
Fortunately, all of my airline travel expenses have been refunded. I canceled the hotel reservations early enough, so I didn’t have to pay any penalty.
If you read my last post, you already know the Great Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride is NOT canceled… only postponed. The current planning is to make the trip in mid-November. The way things are looking, I think the world will be mostly “opened-up” again by then. It seems to be the best time to go.
In the meantime, I’m going to resume posting stuff about Laos and the HCMT. There’s a lot more to tell about now that I have time to post it. Upcoming topics may include:
The Kong Lor Cave
Southern segments of the HCMT (sometimes called “Tiger Hound”)
The Bolaven Plateau
Operation Black Lion
Commando Hunt I – VII
And more as time allows.
As always, comments are encouraged. Keep in mind that comments are moderated and may not appear to the general public for a little while. While almost any “on topic” and “civil” comments are welcome, keep in mind that this is not the place partisan political or venomous debates.