. The presence of treestumps in all of the fields show the extent of the carnage that the charcoal production is causing and there is no sign at all of any new trees being planted to replace the old ones. At one point we have to pull overto the side of the road as a police 4x4, lights flashing and sirens on, rushes past ahead of a small convoy of cars and small buses as a Laos 'nob' is taken somewhere. During our stop in the village of Phine I look out for a monument to Laos-Vietnamese co-operation during the Indo-China wars and note its position to get a photo on our way back. We arrive at Xepn at about 12:30 and wak the few hundred yards to the ViengXay Guest House. It looks OK, has clean and comfy rooms and is cheap so my accomodation worries appear to have been for nothing. We hire a motorbike from the guest house and set out to find the old town of Xepon Kao about 5km away. The motorbike turns out to have no speedo, no milometer, no power and more importantly almost no brakes !! We leave town over a large bridge crossing the Se Pon river and spot a lone standing bridge column in the river I guess from a bombed out predecessor. The original village of Xepon was bombed flat during the Vietnam war standing as it did on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and only a few fragments survive. The old bank vault, showing that it was built to resist any attempt to rob from it, still stands alone atop a small mound of debris at a junction where the old village would stood. Next to it is the village temple. All that was left of the original was a shrapnell scarred wall and the new temple has been constructed within the old
. I was a little disappointed at what was here after reading quite a lot about the place. Still, I had wanted to come here for some time and now I have it out of my system. We leave along a back road until we rejoin Route 9 and continue east for another 20km to the village of Ban Dong. This was the location of a battle that took place in February 1971 between South Vietnamese (ARVN) forces supported by US air cover and equipment and the Pathet Pao heavily supported by regular North Vietnamese (NVA) forces. The southern troops were quickly routed back to the nearby border. The whole area used to be a scrapyard of military equipment ost of which has been collected and recycled since. Only instructions from central government to the village headman has preserved a few pieces which are now housed at the Lam Son 719 Museum here; built to celebrate the Prathet Lao/Vietnam victory. The museum was supposed to have been open, I had read, and we told that it was open by the 'helpful' girl at Savannakhet butupon our arrival it was obvious that the big metal gates had not been moved in recent history. The courtyard in front of the building was full of military scrap including shells, fieldguns, aircraft scrap and a destroyed American T28(?) tank that could be seen through the rails of the fence. Whilst climbing onto the fence for a photo I nearly stepped onto whazt appeared to be a grenade or ortar shell or something similar just sitting in the long grass. I was a little more careful after that !! There is endless unexploded ordnance lying around all over the place and numerous international agencies are still working here to ake the area safe
. Shivering from the cold we retreated to a small roadside stall opposite where we enjoyed several very hot Lao coffees to get the circulation going again. The owner tells us that he was 15 years old at the time of the battle and was fortunate to be working away from home. The village evacuated itself for the duration and returned as soon as it was safe to find what remained of the homes and belongings. He also told us that the museum was due to open in a couple of months time - maybe ?!! I had told Jai that whilst we were here we would go to the Vietnamese/Laos border. Although we didnt have visas to cross over she could at least say that she had seen Vietnam. We were both very cold and a further 20km to Ban Dansavanh, on a dodgy bike just seemed like a bridge too far for both of us so we turned around and started to head back to Xepon. Upon arrival at the guest house we sat clutching another cup oif coffee whilst we thawed out again before going for a walk around town, what town there is. The market is bigger than it at first appears and is well stocked. Lots of the signs here are written in Vietnamese as well as Laos indicating the large border traffic that passes through town. They cant get many farang here, however, as I am surprised at how much I am being stared at here, something I had noticed for a long time. Even Jai is drawing wondering glances. Returning to the guest house I notice that the fence to the property is built around old wartime munitions, shell cases or aircraft petrol tanks ? A hot shower is just what the doctor ordered before we go out to find somehwre to eat
. Directly opposite the guest house is a dilapidated Post Office in whose grounds a few chaps are playing boule/petanque, npo doubt a dstant legacy of the French colonial period here. There are not too many places to eat but we find a row of Vietnamese restaurants at the end of the street, one of which appears to still be serving. It turns out to be a Lao man and his Vietnamese wife who run the place. He works the tables and she cooks. We manage to explain vaguely what we want to eat then sit down to wait and see what comes. The Lao chap is trying to explain it to his wife but she keeps pushing him away and is obviously sure what she is going to cook whatever is was that we wanted to eat. Whilst we were eating, pork, cabbage and boiled rice, the Lao chap starts to clean up some pig trotters in a bowl next to our table when his wife comes over and tells me he is doing it all wrong and pushes him away again. They obviously have a lot of problems communicating and she largely ignores him - I can sympathise !!! We get back to the guest house just after 20:00 and are both very tired.
Up with the alarm again at 5:30 and down to reception in the cold and dark for a welcome glass of hot coffee. We check-out just after 6:00 and skylab to the bus station buying some breakfast baguettes, 'koki', en-route. At just before 07:00 the bus that will take us to Xepon limps into the bus station and we board. We have been on better and worse buses and at the end of the day it is not too bad. We leave Savannakhet and head off east towards Vietnam. The chap sat behind us on the bus sniffed, cleared his throat and coughed throughout the entire journey and if the bus had not been full I would have had to move seats. Just before we leave Savannakhet we stop at a small roadside market where the driver loads up the luggage bay beneath the bus with goats, duscks and chickens who are reluctant to come on baord and whose cries for help accompany us all of the way. Jai is developing a goat fetish and wants a couple as pets. We pass rice paddies, endless new house building, lots of livestock in the villages and lots of charcoal production