Motorcyclists discover Lost City in Laos.
In December, 2001, on an ASIAN MOTORCYCLE ADVENTURE tour we actually discovered a “Lost City” in the jungles of Laos. This article appeared in the ASIAN WALL STREET JOURNAL on May 3, 2002, and was also published in ACTION ASIA Magazine in their July-August 2002 issue.
About the last thing you expect to do on a motorcycle tour is to discover an ancient lost city in the jungles of Laos, but this is exactly what happened. This story of discovery is still unfolding, and the first couple of parts go like this:
I am the owner-operator of an Asian-based motorcycle touring company called Asian Motorcycle Adventures, and on the last night of last year’s Laos Motorcycle Tour, we were lodging in a brand-new guesthouse in the Laotian provincial capital of Luang Nam Tha. Always on the lookout for new and interesting things to show my biking participants, I asked the guest house owner, a man as familiar with this wild and scantly-explored territory as any, if he had any suggestions? He mentioned a few ho-hum things nearby, but one recommendation had me popping with excitement, about an ancient lost city in the jungle, not far from the road on the way back to Thailand?exactly where we were heading the following day.
“No,” he said, he never visited it, nor does he know anyone who has, but he was reasonably sure it existed. He gave me the name of a small village in that general vicinity and suggested stopping there on the way out. “Perhaps they might know something about the ancient city.” I also happen to know more than most about Northern Laos, being one of the first tourists allowed entry in 1994 and I also have been revisiting Laos consistently ever since. And if I never heard of such a “lost city”, the odds are pretty high that no one else has either. This lost city could just turn out to be a major archeological and a once-in-a-lifetime find.
Indiana Jones-style dreams filled my head that night, and the following day our biking convoy rode southwestwards on a magnificent mountain road over an age-old caravan route to the tiny Khamu hill tribe village of Ban Nom Kham. We asked around if anyone could substantiate this lost city story. Of course we could not use such a word as “substantiate”, since these were the most simple of folk, living off the land in a way unchanged for centuries, and we spoke not a word of their native tongue, a Mon-Khmer branch in the Austro-Asiatic linguistic family. So my questions ricocheted from English into Thai into Laotian into Khamu, and their answers bounced back in the reverse order. Much was certainly lost or misunderstood during this convoluted conversation. What we were able to “suss” out was that, yes!, there are ancient ruins nearby called Kou Vieng; that it is deserted; and who built it is a mystery. No one now alive ever lived in it, or knows why or when the people who lived in Kou Vieng left.
The Khamus are animists believing strongly in spirits, and the headman warned us of a curse befalling those who enter?it supposedly struck one villager blind?so the locals avoid Kou Vieng totally, not even to fetch a wayward cow. The Ban Nom Kham headman led us behind his hut nestled in this beautiful mountain valley. He pointed a crocked finger at a lonely hillock in the middle of their rice fields and uttered, “Kou Vieng.”
Completely overgrown in underbrush and covered with trees, it looked exactly like any one of the million other hillocks in the area. But now that he pointed it out, yeah, there just could be a lost city hidden beneath all that shrubbery. On this, our last day’s riding in Laos, we had no time to actually investigate Kou Vieng because we had to cross Thailand’s border that afternoon. I filed away this “lost city” for future investigation and research, its actual location seared into my brainpan, and vowed to return again soon.
Soon turned out to be nearly a year later. In the interim, I researched the heck out of: Kou Vieng, ancient cities, ancient temples, historical kingdoms in Lao, and pored through every guidebook I could lay my hands on, and came up with zilch. Even the internet proved useless, the undisputed champion for arcane facts and trivia. No mention anywhere, or anything even approaching it. The only way I would find out more about Kou Vieng would be to return and actually visit it myself.
Coincidently, during the intervening summer, a television production company contacted me, wanting to film one of my tours for their adventure travel series “Destination Adventure”. “Do I have any proposals” they queried.
“How would you guys like to actually discover an ancient lost city in the jungles of Laos, complete with a curse for added drama?”
“Fantastic! Great plot! Lets do it!”
Now the pressure was on?I put my money where my mouth is, and a potential worldwide television audience would be witnessing our discovery, or our folly.
I knew there had to be something doing at Kou Vieng, sketchily attested to by the villagers living in its shadow. It surely couldn’t be another Angkor Wat, for something that grandiose could not stay hidden all this time. But a search for whatever was on that hillock should make for an interesting TV segment at the very least.
When the rainy season ended making dirt roads in Laos drivable again, our group of eight: a cameraman and the show’s producer, another motorcycle guide and myself, a mechanic, plus three motorcycle enthusiasts wanting to take home the ultimate holiday souvenir?a starring role in a TV show (no union card needed)?crossed the Mekong River into Huay Xai, Laos for the start of the Laos Lost City Motorcycle Tour.
We spent our first night in the largish town (by Laotian standards) of Vieng Phoukha?the only place with beds for rent within a 60-kilometer radius. The following morning we rode east 8 ks. to the Khamu village sitting besides Kou Vieng. Once there, we successfully induced/indemnified the headman of Ban Nom Kham plus two other villagers to ignore the curse and lead the way into the “lost city”.
Slashing and hacking a tunnel through the thick jungle with machetes, our small band of explorers plus one big video camera and tripod plodding closely behind, making as much commotion as possible to scare away any snakes, halted at the base of a steep, five-meter high embankment covered with weeds, leaf litter, and slippery soil. We scrambled up, grabbing tree roots and vines for purchase, and at the top saw a deep and narrow, straight-as-an-arrow trench, with an identical five-meter high embankment directly opposite. A moat. Definitely man-made. Bingo! We found it!
Down into the moat we slithered, under and over fallen trees lying horizontally across the narrow chasm, then back up the opposite side, and alighted on flattish terrain completely overgrown with trees, thick stands of bamboo arcing into the canopy, and thorn bushes with every shape and sharpness of needle. We are probably in the city section proper, I thought. Except for our own noises, it was deathly quiet and darker than dusk from the choking foliage.
We continued following our Khamu bushwhackers on a slight uphill bearing. At a highpoint they stopped and pointed to a mound. “Chedi”, they said. Then we saw the bricks and could make out the base of a chedi. (A chedi is a spire in a Buddhist temple complex built to house a relic of religious importance.) Strewn beneath us on the forest floor, jutting up from the moist loam, were hundreds of rough-hewn bricks and brick fragments of a deep, blood-red color. I clambered to the top of the crumbled mound that had once been the soaring chedi and in the middle was a deep hole, once hollow but now nearly filled to the brim with fallen bricks and forest debris. I wondered if the collapse was due to the centuries elapsed or treasure hunters? A mature strangler fig tree, roots anchored into the remains of the chedi base, was as responsible for keeping it intact as for prying it apart. Surrounding the chedi further out was a low wall of bricks, mostly covered with dirt, but with many parts easily visible and still in good condition, approximately one meter high, two meters thick, each wall around 50-meters long. A plaza of some sort.
Adding to this mysterious and creepy aura of a place so secluded and being violated by trespassers for the first time in ages, I brushed into a bush next to the chedi, and recoiled when I saw it churning with tens of thousands of long-legged spiders, each one stirred into frenzied motion from our shattering of their peace. Higher up, illuminated by a piercing shaft of light, a huge web capable of snaring a bird spanned the limbs of a tree. A lone black spider, motionless in the middle, wide enough to palm a basketball and looking capable of sucking the air out of it, was oblivious to our presence so close beneath him.
The headman told us we were the first foreigners ever to set foot inside Kou Vieng, and after backslaps and high-fives all around for our successful exploration and excellent footage for the TV show, we departed Kou Vieng and headed back to our motorcycles parked in the village. We topped up our tanks from a 42-gallon industrial drum?the village filling station?and if you believe in curses, ours began now. This Lost City Tour had been running splendidly, but suddenly our good fortune turned sour.
It wasn’t petroleum that we pumped into our bikes, it was diesel, and as good for motorcycles as cement is for a water pistol. Every one of our bikes fouled their plugs from the oily truck fuel, and they either would not start or came to a spitting halt soon thereafter. With our bikes running frightfully, we had the hardest part of the ride coming up. Problems plagued us all afternoon, culminating in one rider driving directly into the only deep hole on the entire 190-kilometer trail, and launching himself and his bike over the edge of a 200-foot cliff. He jumped off at the last moment and barely managed to grab onto a log near the road surface. Gregg was clearly shaken but relatively unhurt, and his bike, luckily, fell only two-meters down the river valley before snagging on weeds. Dangling upside down but reachable, it miraculously suffered no damage except to the paint job. As close a call as possible.
Hours late from our spell of misfortune, we got caught out riding in the jungle at night, a very big no-no in anyone’s survival book. We arrived at the same guesthouse in Luang Namtha where the seed for this grand adventure originated from in the first place. Now we needed just one further discovery: how to rid ourselves of the Curse of Kou Vieng.