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Jars and Bombs

2008 April 10
by rob

April 6, 2008

It’s been a few years since I went on a roller coaster ride, however, I think I managed to find the closest thing today. We took a grueling nine hour bus ride through the mountains from Vang Vieng, Laos to Phonsavan, Laos. There were bumps. There were turns. There were sharp jolts. There were more turns and more bumps … for hours at a time. It was in a full-sized bus, so we weren’t overly crowded. Every seat was full, but we weren’t really packed in like sardines, so that was a small mercy. The music wasn’t as loud as rides before either, so that was good, too. It was the longest and roughest ride that I’ve experienced so far, though.

On several bus rides before, the bus staff would hand out plastic bags to people if they wanted them. The plastic bags are not for holding food or gabage… they are PUKE BAGS. On this bus ride, there were a few people that used the puke bags with gusto and passion. Poor Chris was seated beside a Lao women and behind two other Lao women who were basically vomitting for the entire ride. It was disgusting. The women in front of Chris would fill up her puke bag so often that she had to keep chucking them out the window.

Oh yeah, that reminds me! I wanted to rant about the manners of Lao people. They are the friendliest people I’ve ever met, but they do some things that really bother me.

1. Spitting in public. It’s not just Lao people that spit in public. I’ve seen Thais do it, too. I hear and see it basically every day here. They often preceed the spit with a really solid HOOORRRKKK to get as much as they can out. Both men and women do it. It’s disgusting.

2. Littering. People will throw out their garbage anywhere. I’ve seen so many plastic bags and bottles pitched out bus windows on the side of highways that I want to weep. I know that the Lao government wants to market Laos as a Eco Tourism Destination, but they have to keep the roads and countryside clean if they want it to work! Laos is developing very quickly these days and they’re starting to pick up the consumer culture of the Thais (and our own). Since there are so many vendors selling disposable goods and little snacks in disposable packaging now, I’m sure the problem with roadside litter will get worse here before it gets better.

Enough ranting.

We got to Phonsavan and found the guesthouse that was recommended by our guidebooks, Kong Keo. The owner of the guesthouse is quite a character: Mr. Kong (though his friends call him Crazy Kong). It’s funny that we keep meeting guesthouse owners who’s names rhyme with “ong” — first Pong in Chiang Mai, then Kong in Phonsavan.

We booked ourselves a tour for the next day and had dinner in the guesthouse. The dinner consisted of very yummy coconut soup and barbecued shishkebobs. The kebobs were grilled on an open fire in half an old bomb shell.

Bombs are everywhere in Phonsavan. The region is the centre of the largest bombing campaign in history. From 1964 to 1973 the United States aided the Lao Royalists in their civil war against the Pathet Lao communist forces. The Pathet Lao were centred in the northeastern provinces of the country and were subjected to a massive bombing campaign by the Americans, even though that the Americans had signed treaties stipulating the neutrality of Laos. The entire bombing campaign was a secret — not even the American Congress knew what the American military was doing.

As a result, bombs and landmines litter many parts of Laos. Development of the country is slowed because many bombs still remain hidden in fields, under roads, and in the forests. They can really be almost anywhere. The bombs are being cleared, but its a labourious and painstaking process.

Anyways! Yeah, dinner was good (and cheap). We drank from Beer Lao. Alex and Chris went to bed early and I continued sitting around chatting with Jan and Becks — both from England. I had actually met Jan twice before — he slept in the bunk below mine in Spicythai Backpackers in Chiang Mai and I ran into him while tubing in Vang Vieng. While sitting around the patio there, we met Kong’s brother, Wel. He was totally hammered, but talked with us for at least an hour before pulling out a mattress and falling asleep on the patio. With that, it was time for us to go to bed, too.

April 7, 2008

In the morning Kong returned from the party he went to the night before. He was still wearing the same clothes and said that he was hungover from drinking and smoking too much. He showed us his pot plants in the front yard of the guesthouse. Someone asked him if many people smoke in Phonsavan. Kong proudly told us that “No one smokes in Phonsavan, only me and my brother!”

Kong and his other other brother, Insin, were our tour guides that day. Despite his hungover state, Kong would still drive the bus on the tour. The man is a trooper! On the tour that day was Alex, Chris, Becks, Jan, and I.

Our first stop was the market where we picked up food for breakfast. We got sticky rice, various meats on various sticks, some pork steamed in banana leaves, some bamboo shoots, and some fruit.

We then drove to a field outside of town that was littered with bomb craters. Kong told us about The Secret War and its affect on the country. From there, we drove to a Hmong village where people used old bomb shells as construction material. They used bomb shells to make fences, stilts for houses, barbecues, anvils, lamps, and flower and herb gardens. Apparently the village used to have many more bombs around it, but they were sold off for scrap metal a while ago. The few houses that still keep bombs around consider them to be “savings accounts” and are waiting for the price of iron to increase before selling them.

For lunch, we treked down a steep mountain trail to the base of a waterfall for a picnic. I was looking forward to my steamed pork, hoping it would be similar to the pork that I had in the Akha village on my trek. Alas, it wasn’t even close! It was sloppy pasty substance consisting of pork and flour. It tasted so bad, I could only take a couple of nibbles before rejecting it. That says a lot, considering I eat almost anything! The rest of the food was good, thankfully. While eating, Kong told us amusing stories about water buffalo. I’ll repeat one for you right now!

Did you know why the water buffalo seems to be missing many of its front teeth and smiles with its upper lip covering the top half of its mouth? Well, according to legend, back in the mists of time Buddha gave the water buffalo an important message to deliver to the people on earth. Buddha wanted the people to live a quiet life without much work. He wanted the villagers to have only one meal every three days to keep things on the down low. When the water buffalo descended from heaven he got mixed up and told the villagers to have three meals every single day. Oh man! When Buddha found out, he was so angry that he threw a hammer and knocked up many of the water buffalo’s teeth (that seems like a very un-Buddha-like thing to do, to me!). As further punishment, the water buffalo was sent to earth to labour in the fields with the villagers in order to help them meet the needs of growing all the food they would need in order to eat three times a day. Silly water buffalo.

After lunch we climbed up the waterfall a bit and went for a swim in the refreshingly crisp (read: cold) water there. It was fun to swim under the falling water! It was a hot day, so it was worth it.

We climbed back the hill side and saw many cascades of water all the way up. It was beautiful. However, when we got to the top, we had a gruesome discover! A leach had attached itself to Chris’ foot! TWO leaches had attached themselves to Alex’s foot! GROSS! We had to pull them off. It was the second time that we had encountered leaches, since Chris was molested by one our trek before. Thankfully, I still remained leach free.

After the waterfall we drove to the Plain of Jars. It was a bit of a drive. On the way Kong swore and shouted at other drivers on the road that were in his way. It was pretty hilarious. He was the least-Lao-like Lao person I’ve met in Laos so far.

The plains around Phonsavan are covered with hundreds (maybe thousands) of ancient stone jars. No one really knows how old they really are, or who created them, or what they were used for. They were all carved from solid pieces of limestone, and many of them weigh several tons. There are like 80 groups of jars on the plains, but only 3 of them have been cleared of bombs and are safe to visit.

The Jars are definitely “the” tourist attraction of Northeastern Laos. Many tours visit all three of the open sites. Our tour only visited the one since, to be honest, one plain full of stone jars looks like any other plain full of stone jars.

That night was huge drunken piss up and dinner at the guest house. All of the people from the tour were there, including crazy Kong and his brother. Many other people from the guest house came out to drink too. We drank a LOT of beer and a LOT of Lao Lao. Quite shammered we got, lemme tell you. It was for a good cause, though. In a couple days Chris had to part ways with us since she was going north to Vietnam, but we were heading south to the south part of Laos then to Cambodia. It was sad, but we agreed to meet up again in the future. The current plan is for the three of us to meet up in August for the Burning Man festival in Nevada. Brent (from Spicythai Backpackers) has completely sold me on going to the festival and he’s going to indoctrinate us there. It should be good.

April 8, 2008

Ugh. Head hurts today. Alex was in rough shape, too. Chris was doing okay. We knew it would be a quiet day. We hunted around for internet access, but both of the internet shops in town said that the internet wasn’t working that day. Doh. Instead, we spent most of the day sitting around the guesthouse reading. At night, we went to the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) Information Centre in town to watch a couple of documentaries about the bombings and bomb removal programs in Laos. It’s pretty heart wrenching to see what this country had to go through, and is still going through today. It’s estimated that, at the current rate, it will still take one hundred years to clean up all the unexploded bombs left behind by the bombings more than thirty years ago.

April 9, 2008

We woke up early and got a ride with Insin back to the bus station. Alex and I parted ways with Chris. She boarded a northbound bus to Xam Neua (and eventually Hanoi in Vietnam) while we boarded a southbound bus to Vientiane — the capital city of Laos.

This bus ride was a brutal one, too. Nine and a half hours long, back over the mountains again. It was hot since the air conditioning didn’t work well. The driver played the CRAPTASTIC Lao music louder than before, and I wasn’t successful drowning it out with my iPod. Thankfully, there were so few people on the coach-sized bus that we each had lots of space. We both had empty seats beside us so we could stretch out.

Vientiane isn’t really much like the rest of Laos. I hadn’t seen a single other traffic light in my first three weeks in the country — until I got to Vientiane. There were lots of cars zipping by, too, so we actually had to wait and look both ways before crossing the streets. If this city were the only city in the whole country that people got to see, I’d feel sad for them, since it’s not representative of the country at all.

We booked ourselves into a hotel room for one night. Vientiane was only a stop-over for us… we were on our way to Pakse (in the southern part of Laos), and the busy big city wasn’t the place we really wanted to be.

Regardless, since its the capital, the city actually has good food. For dinner, we went to an Indian restaurant and had really cheap and really tasty curry. I enjoy Thai curries, but I think Indian ones are much better.

To be continued!

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