Man at His Best

What It's Like To Go Modern Day Caravanning Around Indochina

This writer drove 3,500KM around Thailand and Indochina to trace their military pasts.

BY David Bowden | May 3, 2016 | Travel

David Bowden

While my maths is somewhat rusty, even I was able to calculate that the journey equated to 350km a day and, in the backblocks of Indochina, I knew my planned caravan journey would involve some serious driving.

Despite having travelled extensively throughout the region, the opportunity to visit new places with exotic names like Buriram, Ubon Ratchathani, Pakse, Attapeu, Pleiku and Mi Né was too good to pass up. Other well-known destinations such as Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap were also on the itinerary for the ASEAN Friendship Caravan that I was to join in Bangkok to be conveyed around in a brand-new Toyota Hilux Revo pick-up.

Appreciating that I would have but a fleeting glance at some of these places, I arrived at the departure point in the Bangkok morning darkness to see a fleet of new vehicles and scores of drivers and passengers eagerly awaiting the flag-off. It was also my introduction to the concept of a caravan, which is growing in popularity as a means to explore the region.

My idea of a caravan was a line of camels laden with exotic treasures clomping across sand dunes, but it now refers to a group of mostly four-wheel drive enthusiasts venturing through remote parts of the region on a journey of discovery. It’s a growing form of niche travel that is well organised by professional operators and something worth considering for your next holiday.

Several foreign powers have influenced Indochina over the centuries, with trade having been conducted between the region and with countries like China, India and the Middle East, together with European powers, such as the Dutch, Portuguese, British, Spanish and French. While the term “Indochina” is now anachronistic, historically, it refers to the former French-controlled territories of Vietnam, Laos (now Lao PDR, although still known to most as Laos) and Cambodia.

Palaces of the Gods

Religion has and still plays an important role in the lives of those in Indochina. Hinduism, Buddhist, Taoism, Confucianism and Islam all have, and continue to contribute to the respective countries of Indochina. On my first day on the road, I headed from Bangkok to the northeast of Thailand where few tourists venture (known to the Thais as Isan).

One of the most significant religious sites is Phanom Rung (Prasat Hin Phanom Rung) on the Khorat Plateau. It’s a temple from the Angkor era that, at its height, extended from neighbouring Cambodia throughout Isan. So, while now in Thailand, this massive stone structure perched on a hill was once part of the Khmer Kingdom.

It dates from the 10th to the 13th centuries, and was initially a Hindu temple strategically located and constructed from pink sandstone. It is located along an ancient route that connected with Angkor. One of its most famous carvings is the Phra Narai lintel located above a doorway. It went missing in the ’60s, and years later, was placed on display in the Art Institute of Chicago. There was an outcry from art lovers, along with the Thai government, and it was eventually returned to its rightful location. 

Pakse in the Lao panhandle

The landlocked and mountainous nation of Lao PDR was my next port of call. While most tourists head to the capital Vientiane and the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, I’d never been to what is known as the “Lao panhandle”.

Pakse is the largest town in this part of the country, and like many destinations in Indochina, it’s full of surprises. Not expecting much, I was amazed at the quality of my accommodation. The towering Champasak Grand Hotel overlooks the bridge that crosses the Mekong River, and immediately opposite is the expansive and grand French-styled château where, I was told, the hotel’s owner lives.

While Pakse doesn’t freely roll off the lips of even the most intrepid traveller, one gets the impression that it’s a destination that’s ready to welcome an influx of tourists. The country’s largest fish market is located in the town, and waterfalls, temples, hill tribe communities and picturesque scenery are the main tourist attractions.

Its small airport caters to domestic flights and international arrivals from Bangkok, Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City. While the town’s setting is tranquil enough these days, the airport and the surrounding district were scenes for some of the fiercest fighting just over 40 years ago during the Vietnam War.

My reading companions for the journey were Christopher Robbins’ two books; surely the most compelling background reading on Indochina for the period from 1960 to 1973 and US involvement in the region. In The Ravens, Robbins notes that during the Vietnam War, more than 6.3 million tons of bombs were dropped on Indochina (more bombs than World War II), and that less than 10 percent of these fell on North Vietnam with whom the US was officially at war. He adds: “It is one of the extreme ironies of the war that it was South Vietnam, the allied country being defended, that bore the brunt of the US bombing—a staggering 3.9 million tons.”

But here I was in Lao PDR where Robbins also notes that the country took the notorious second position with more that 1.1 million tons being dropped along the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail (a network of trails extending some 13,000km and used by the North Vietnamese to move supplies and soldiers through Laos and Cambodian to various theatres of war in South Vietnam), and a further half-a-million tons on Northern Laos. To put this into perspective, Robbins equates this to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years, 17 tons of bombs per square mile of Lao land, or six-tenths of a ton of bombs for every Lao person. This was in a country that was never officially at war with the US, North Vietnam or China.

While some tourists now visit southern parts of the country to see war sites, most come to admire the natural beauty of the Bolaven Plateau, the Mekong River and cultural sites such as Wat Phu (or Vat Phou). 

I’m not sure whether the theatres of war such as Paksong and Saravane still have substantive war remnants, but it was Wat Phu where I headed to place another piece in Indochina’s historical jigsaw puzzle.

Archaeologists date the initial site here to the fifth century, but the remains of the temple that I admired only date back to the 11th and 13th centuries. Wat Phu was part of the Khmer Empire and it predates the more famous Angkor Wat. I began to understand the sphere of influence that the Khmers had over the region, as Pakse is a long distance from Angkor (today, a half-day bus journey). Now little more than a ruin, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most important religious sites in Lao PDR.

Coastal Vietnam and Khmer culture

After several days of driving through the plains and the mountains of Thailand, Lao PDR and Vietnam, the coastal vistas from Phan Rang down to Mi Né were much appreciated. Beachside holiday destinations aren’t as developed in Vietnam as they are in other parts of the region, but one suspects this won’t be the case for long.

Mi Né, 200km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), is a laidback development stretched along the coast that fronts the South China Sea. Unchecked roadside development gives Mi Né that pan-Asian beachside resort appearance that, apart from occasional signs in Vietnamese, ensures it could be almost anywhere in Asia. However, a long stretch of sand with low-key resorts makes Mi Né a relaxing seaside resort for those seeking something quieter than Pattaya and Kuta.

HCMC (still known to many as Saigon) has progressed rapidly since the war into Vietnam’s largest city of over nine million. It was the former capital of the French colony of Cochinchina, and from 1955 to 1975, the capital of the independent Republic of South Vietnam. While the popular tourist attractions are still the War Remnants Museum and the C Chi Tunnels on the city’s outskirts, it’s a very changed city from when I first saw it in the early ’90s before the US resumed normalisation in 1995. The Hotel de Ville (City Hall) remains much the same as it did when the French were in power, but high-rise buildings reach ever skyward.

The Rex Hotel where I stayed is another institution of the war as it was popular with war correspondents, and the US military conducted daily briefings on the rooftop bar overlooking City Hall. Rooftop bars have a completely different meaning in HCMC these days with many young Vietnamese partying in smart bars like Saigon Saigon, Chill and Level 23.

Another road journey, another border crossing, and I was in another country. Cambodia is a country with a chequered past, but you would hardly notice this while admiring the city’s progress and the numerous tall buildings on the skyline.

Cambodia was dragged into the Vietnam War when the US invaded in April 1970. It became known as Kampuchea from 1975 to 1979, when Pol Pot and the communist Khmer Rouge inflicted a form of social engineering upon the hapless population. This resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million from a total population of seven million Khmers. This genocide is more tragic in that the real numbers remain unclear.

Visitors to Cambodia’s leading tourist site of Angkor can also ponder how this once dominant regional power simply faded away. Archaeologists still debate how this thriving community with its complex infrastructure that includes the world’s largest religious site in Angkor Wat became an insignificant backwater.

Border patrols

ASEAN is working towards opening its borders so that citizens from member countries and a growing number of other nationalities can move freely between countries. Remote border crossings aren’t so problematic anymore, despite some only being open during daylight hours. It’s always best to check with the various embassies before travelling, especially if you’re from a country that requires a visa.

Adventurous travellers should consider joining a caravan trip, and then having experienced professionals handle all the paperwork for border crossings and other activities along the way. 

First published in Esquire Malaysia, the April 2016 issue. Text has been edited for length. To read the full feature, pick up a copy of the print issue.