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Riding amid bombs on Ho Chi Minh Trail

British travel writer Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent shares why she decided to travel one of the world’s most dangerous trails. Alone. On a small Honda Cub.

The Pink Panther simply defies expectations.

With her short skirt, trendy handbag, and pair of stilettos, she’s the sort of girl you’d like to talk to and care for but not take along on a hiking trip.

You suppose she will not cope well with the elements and hazardous terrain.

You couldn’t be more wrong.

Bolingbroke-Kent says traveling on a small motorcycle that was recognizable in the region was important. (The Star)
Bolingbroke-Kent says traveling on a small motorcycle that was recognizable in the region was important. (The Star)

In an instant, she will take off her stilettos and put on her boots, ready to get all dirty.

Or at least that’s how British travel writer Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent describes the Honda Cub motorcycle that was her travel companion.

Ant, as she’s known, and the Pink Panther trekked the renowned Ho Chi Minh Trail, cutting through the jungles and mountains of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 2013.

The trail played a crucial role during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. It was a pivotal supply route that began in the North Vietnam and spanned Laos and Cambodia before terminating in the South Vietnam. It was used to supply manpower and arms to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, and was engineered in such a way as to confound the American forces.

“Without the trail, North Vietnam would never have won the war and America would have succeeded,” Ant points out in a recent telephone interview from Britain.

The fruit of her thrilling journey ― apart from the myriad people she met and countless stories they exchanged ― is “A Short Ride In The Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail By Motorcycle,” a witty, humorous, and unpretentious travelogue published last year.

It was not the first time the 36-year-old TV producer trekked this treacherous trail that is littered with unexploded ordnance such as bombs, land mines and artillery shells.

Several years ago, she followed TV hosts Sue Perkins and Liza Tarbuck with a group of 16 people, which included a camera crew, medics, and a translator, to film an episode of the BBC’s World’s Most Dangerous Roads adventure travel show.

But it wasn’t enough for Ant. She writes in A Short Ride, “I wanted to return to the trail, to explore some of the remaining sections of what was once the world’s deadliest road ... this time I wanted to do it without medics, translators, jeeps and drivers. This time I wanted to do it alone.”

While Ant believes that traveling alone is more conducive to writing a book, that wasn’t the only reason she ditched a crew ― she reckons the crutch of companionship can be a stumbling block when it comes to unleashing a person’s potential.

She says in her book that “company makes us idle, gives us masks to hide behind, allows us to avoid our weaknesses and cushion our fear.”

Ant is no stranger to long and arduous adventures: she traveled through 12 countries in a pink tuk-tuk with her friend Joanna Huxter to raise funds for the mental health charity Mind. This was in 2006 and the duo authored a book about their adventures called “Tuk Tuk To The Road: Two Girls, Three Wheels, 12,500 Miles.”

While that trip was quite the feat, as they traveled from Bangkok to Brighton in England, it is still not the same as traversing one of the deadliest trails in the world on a small motorcycle. Why did Ant do it?

“It was very important that I did the journey on a small, cheap bike that was recognizable in the region. That way, people won’t look at me and think ‘Here is a really rich foreigner on a huge bike.’ They could relate to me. Of course, it added a bit of comedy doing it on a small, pink bike, too!” she points out.

Ant goes on to say the bond she had with her motorcycle was very significant. “In the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks’ character talks to the football because he’s alone. It takes on a human persona.

“My relationship with Pink Panther was like that. We were alone ... a lot. So she was my best friend, and my greatest foe at some points. She almost took on a living form!” quips Ant.

Of course, Ant couldn’t fix everything. Agreeing that the journey was very emotional for her, she says she was utterly saddened by the tragic stories she collected along the way.

“I met Cambodian tribal chiefs who fought with the North Vietnamese, American fighter pilots who were returning to visit the trail they had bombed, Viet Cong soldiers and the like.

“I heard a lot of sad stories and saw the ongoing legacy of that war. Hundreds of people are still dying every year from bombs that were dropped 50 years ago.

“I found it absolutely fascinating hearing those stories firsthand but also very sad that there are still people who are suffering and losing their lives,” Ant recounts.

She also voices her disappointment with the U.S. government for not doing enough to rid the trail of all the UXO.

“There have been 20,000 people killed or injured by UXOs in Laos alone since 1975. That’s 300 people dying in Laos alone every year and lots more in Vietnam and Cambodia.

“It’s a real travesty that the U.S. really isn’t doing more. Their annual defense budget is hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet they are spending about a million a year in Laos to clear up the UXO.

“A lot of the work is being done by fine NGOs and the local governments, who are often too underfunded to deal effectively with such a problem. But it’s going to take decades and decades to clear everything and it is a very laboriously slow job,” Ant laments.

Besides encountering war survivors and unexploded bombs along the trail, Ant could not avoid meeting her share of unsavory characters with equally unsavory propositions.

“There were four different instances and, every time, I didn’t feel in danger. It’s either they were drunk or were confused about who I was and what I was doing in such a remote place.

“As soon as I put on my special stern voice and said no, they stopped. I never felt like I was in danger, I just felt like, ‘Not this again!’” she says matter-of-factly.

She also rubbished ― with the trademark sarcasm that infuses her book ― the notion that it is dangerous for a woman to travel alone.

Not discounting the fact that precautionary measures, common sense and instincts are important, Ant says: “Generally, people in the world are lovely and they’re not out there to murder you but to help you!”

In the final paragraphs of her book, Ant writes, “I feel as if I have only scratched the tip of the iceberg and would love to return before it’s too late. In six months, a year, two years’ time, much of the Trail I rode will be unrecognizable.”

So she urges those who are contemplating exploring the trail to do it soon. “If you are interested in the trail and all the extraordinary stories around it, don’t waste a minute in going and exploring some of what remains because it really is vanishing month upon month,” Ant says.

And it might help you find out what you’re made of because, as Ant says, we are actually able to do a lot more than we think we can ― sometimes, it takes you being in the jungle to force you to do it.

By Dinesh Kumar Maganathan
(The Star)