January 21, 2024

Once the most secret place on Earth. Long Cheng

Long Cheng (also known as Long Tieng) in the mountains of eastern Laos was the busiest airport in the world towards the end of the Vietnam War in the early 1970's. Operated undercover by the CIA using 'independent contractors' flying 'Air America' it was the base for military operations against the Viet Cong as well as Laos itself. The CIA itself called it "The most secret place on earth".

The 1260 metre (4,100 feet) runway was surrounded by Karst mountains keeping it hidden from the Vietnamese as well as the US Congress who had no idea they were funding it. It grew into a town of over 40,000 people, with a wild west feel, some of the bars kept animals to try and attract the airmen. 

One famously kept a bear behind the bar who became rather too fond of the beer flowing out of the taps. It all changed dramatically as it was evacuated of Americans, as the US withdrew from the region after losing the Vietnam War. Most of the local and mercenary fighters were stranded and had to make their own dangerous way out of the country to Thailand.

Mud, sand and rocks. The main road to Long Cheng 

Today it is a ghost town boasting a population of only 3,000 people. Yet it still remains an important military base for the Laotian military and this prevented foreign visitors until recently. Ten years ago you would have been arrested and deported if you tried to visit, now you just need a really good 4WD car to get there. Technically you still need permission to visit, but no questions are asked if you bring a few bottles of beer and some cigarettes for any friendly road checkpoints you may encounter.

I left Phonsavan with Mr Pao and his new 4WD. He had moved from a village outside of Phonsavan to one near Long Cheng during the US Secret War on Laos, as his parents had been told it was safe from bombing, although they did not know the reason why at the time. He remembered the US bombers continually dropping bombs from sunrise to sunset, they rarely ran bombing missions at night which at least allowed the family to sleep safely at night.

Long Cheng in the distance surrounded by high mountains

The road to Long Cheng was poor, and that is being generous. It was just potholed and rutted up to the turn-off to the Chinese-run Xaysomboun gold mine but after that, it was just sand and mud with deep channels either crossing he road or running down the road carved out by the rains in the wet season. It was very slow going and despite slow and careful driving, we punctured a tyre.

Long Cheng is at 1,000 metres (3,200 feet) from sea level and as we drove in it became obvious why it was such a good location. Totally surrounded by higher mountains gave the base natural security and in the days before ubiquitous spy satellites kept it hidden from prying eyes. The Kart hills rise up from the end of the runway and were nicknamed "The Vertical Speedbrake" by the pilots.

General Vang Pao's house. Now a military officer's residence.

The town remains a military town. The base provides work for the remaining residents here and is still built on the edges of the large runway that dominates it. In between flights, it is used more as a shortcut across the town, it is in much better condition than the road, and a place to graze cattle. Presumably, they are moved before runway usage.

One of the largest houses that remains belonged to General Vang Pao (no relation to my driver) . A large-than-life character, he was chosen by the CIA to lead the local Hmong forces and a mercenary army of over 10,000 men from Thailand, China and the Philippines in a civil war against the Pathet Lao Army. 

Unexploded ordinance inside General Vang Pao's house

Under the tacit approval of the CIA, he established a heroin laboratory here to process the opium grown in the Hmong villages nearby. This was used to fund his army with the irony being that much of the heroin was flown into South Vietnam and was paid for and injected by American troops there, which did not add to their battle readiness.

The house is now used by officers of the Laos Military. I was allowed to wander around. There was no sign of a heroin lab, but there was a mass of unexploded ordinance left in one of the rooms with some Lao PDR. I had my fingers crossed that it had all been safely defused as I got in for a close-up view.

The abandoned temple from the ruins of the hospital

Moving away from the runway there are a lot of reminders of the large settlement that Long Cheng was. The large hospital used during the war is overgrown and lies in ruins. The Buddhist temple has been abandoned, although a new one has been closer to the town. Lumps of concrete and rusting metal litter the ground all around.

To get a good overview of the town we headed up the hill to the site of the old Royal Palace. It is hard to believe that any Laotian royalty would build a palace here. Its position high up on the mountain gives it a great view of Long Cheng. During the war, it hosted an anti-aircraft battery and intelligence officers. Now it is a military barracks for the Laos army.

The photo montage of Long Cheng base on the wall in the Laos military barracks 

The soldiers welcomed me into the old building, and we gave them our last bottles of BeerLao as a thank you. It was pretty spartan except for bunk beds and a kitchen. 

There was a large photo montage on the wall, including photos from the time the base was taken back by the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese forces which showed what an incredibly busy place Long Cheng was for that brief period of time before it returned to its somnambulic state.

The main runway/road in Long Cheng

You Might Also Like