Yep, the title is a mouthful. Yet even so we fail to capture our time in Laos with one blog title. So you may need to read on…
We crossed from Cambodia to Laos on foot with a few other stubborn backpackers who declined the paid services of our very insistent bus driver and managed to carry our own passports for the necessary stamping and bribing border procedures. All in a day’s work.
A minivan and boat took us on to Don Khon in Si Phan Dhon (4000 islands) – a spattering of picturesque islands (cue sleepy villages over-run with backpackers) just up the Mekong from Cambodia. Now, I don’t know what colour contacts the Lonely Planet writer was wearing when they described these islands as the area ‘where the Mekong turns turquoise’, but mocha brown did the trick just fine for us.
We carefully chose Don Khon because it was supposedly (thanks again LP) the quieter, less touristy island. Turns out a local village wedding rivals any raucous backpacker ghetto for thumping beats and megaphone commentary day and night. Thank God for the communists and their midnight curfew.
We preferred to watch the dare-devil stunts of the local fishermen and women!
Our next stop was Pakse. That was it really, we stopped there for the night. Oh and we found a bag of individual Ovaltine sachets in the local minimart!!
Early in the morning we began what was to be an onerously long-winded bus ride to Thakhek.
After about six of the ten hours of Laos Karaoke music videos, we actually discovered the fascinating cultural insight provided by this bus “entertainment”. It goes like this…
Hard working farm/factory girl meets hard working factory/farm boy. They fall in love over handling boxes/farm produce or when girl falls off her bicycle. There is an obstacle to their affections such as misgiving parents, an urban-rural divide, another girl, or just long work days in field and factory which make it hard to find time for more than ‘glance-stealing’. There is a lot of glance-stealing. Boy bestows gift upon girl and they either begin to ‘date’ or set up home together. If the latter, girl dutifully serves boy to enable him to work longer hours at the factory/in the field. At this point the stories either wrap up with a baby and a reunion with the estranged parents they have not seen since eloping…or, more often, things end on a bitter note when girl discovers boy’s cheating ways. Cue flashback montage of all the ironing, cooking and footrubs girl has given boy as well as gifts he has given her. There are a lot of girl-tears and ripping up of photos. The end. Next Video… Same, same, but different.
Arrival in Thakhek brought with it nowhere to stay and night falling – the guesthouse we had planned to stay in was hopelessly full. There ensued a lot of backbreaking walking and searching with our bags which only led to arguably the worst place we have stayed in so far. It wasn’t that bad, if you take away the mozzie colony, the loudspeakers outside waking us up at 5am with propaganda music and chat, a pack of angry dogs accompanying the owner and some of the dirt perhaps too.
It was all really the fault of two Canadian girls we met when our nightbus broke down in Vietnam. They told us about this great mortorcycle loop you can do in central Laos over three or four days…all you need to do is go to Thakhek. And so ‘The Loop’ entered our vocabulary along with some of the best days of our travel!
The landscape was varied and jawdropping. Karst limestone cliffs, rice paddies, rural villages, a flooded forest, lakes, mountains, caves… We took it in turns to drive so we could both enjoy the scenery!
After the interactive ‘disney’ boat trip through the cave we had some more thrills jumping off a big rock into the lake below!
We loved our stay in Konglor village, who knew Tobacco could look so beautiful? We wished we had more time but the road ahead beckoned…
Laos has some stunning natural beauty and The Loop is amazing. I think you get the picture!
We were, however, about to discover some complications behind the “Simply Beautiful” tagline of Laos. There were shocking secrets and sorry scars to encounter in Phonsavan. First we had to endure a couple of overnight bus experiences and drift about Vientiane for a few days.
One thing we did in Vientiane was book an overpriced bus ticket to Phonsavan in North-eastern Laos. We broke the code of backpacking in Laos and skipped the holy grail of Vang Vieng to be history nerds instead in Phonsavan. Perhaps our punishment from the backpacker gods was three stubborn singing bus drivers and their CD collection. We arrived to a beautiful sunrise in Phonsavan, its red glare reflecting our blazing frustration after a full night of almost no sleep, a lot of loud Laos pop music and several failed attempts to plead with the bus drivers to at least turn it down.
Phonsavan wears its bomb scars on its sleeve.
Our first stop (after catching up on sleep) was the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) centre where information panels and documentary films informed, shocked and deeply moved us. Laos has been the victim of one of the world’s worst crimes against humanity.
“From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years.”
Laos had the misfortune of having part of the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail snake through its north-eastern side. Some of the bombing was obviously in an effort to cut off this North Vietnamese army supplies route in use during the Vietnam War. Strangely though, the bombing didn’t only focus on the Ho Chi Minh trail but spread out across Laos razing entire villages to the ground. On one occasion 435 men, women and children were incinerated to death when a plane dropped a missile into the cave where they were sheltering. Laos was America’s convenient rubbish dump in its war with Vietnam. Often fighter pilots failed to hit all their targets in Vietnam and, not wanting to land with bombs on board for safety reasons, they emptied their left-over bombs on Laos as they flew back to their airbase in Thailand. More bombs were dropped on Laos than were used in the whole of the Second World War! So-called “neutral” Laos has justly earned the title of the most intensely bombed country per capita in history.
Distressingly, Laos is serving a life sentence of unexploded ordinance (UXO) while the United States of America is enjoying increased prosperity and continued fervent spending on military. ”Between 1995 and 2013, the U.S. contributed on average $3.2M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.” Tragically, the U.S remains one of the few countries who refuse to sign the UN agreement to cease the use of cluster bombs.
Meanwhile back in Laos, NGOs like MAG struggle to fund their operations. They train teams of local men and women (providing invaluable local employment in the process) to engage in the painstaking task of searching for and safely exploding or deactivating UXO. As the rate of clearing is going, it will be at least another century before Laos could be deemed free from UXO.
The poorest areas of Laos are those that are most heavily conatminated with UXO. Most of these areas are rural where farming is the primary source of food and income. The bombs provide an additional tempting earner in their provision of scrap metal increasing risk of injury and death. Families face the horrible choice between risking death and injury from UXO or starvation from avoiding farming land contaminated with UXO. Which would you choose for your family? Send your children to bed hungry or set to work in a field full of cluster bombs?
Laos has some of the most stunning natural scenery we have seen and the Plain of Jars historical sites number over ninety. The former cannot be fully developed for tourism and the latter cannot receive UNESCO status yet as only three of the sites have been made safe for excavation and tourist exploration. UXO prevents development of farming, tourism, infrastructure and health systems. Aid agencies are even prevented from working in the areas most in need because of the presence of UXO.
An entire nation has been metaphorically maimed alongside the literal maiming and killing of 100 individuals every year. As one young boy said in a documentary: “I am scared. I don’t want these bombs. They dropped them and now I wish they would come and take them back.”
The shock of the scars endured by Laos during the so called ‘Secret War’ go even deeper than the bombs buried under its skin. While in Phonsavan, we watched ‘The Most Secret Place on Earth’, a documentary film, currently banned in Laos, detailing some of the horrors of the secret war. The footage is a shocking insight into the treatment of the Hmong tribes people by the CIA, including their recruitment of child soldiers. This was, disturbingly, carried out under the guise of providing aid to Laos. As the world watched U.S propaganda footage of doctors setting up hospitals for children in Laos the CIA were training those children to shoot guns. American pilots who were recruited to transport food supplies soon realised they were carrying soldiers alongside rice. When one Hmong tribe refused to give over any more of their young men and boys to the American army their rice supplies stopped coming. A CIA airbase was built in a remote valley but was not on any maps despite up to 400 flights a day coming on and off its runway. Such was the secrecy of this secret war in Laos.
It is impossible to delve into the complexities of this history in this blog, but if you are interested in further information http://legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/ is a good place to start and is where our quotations come from.
Reeling from these horrors, we took a day to see the beauty of the bomb-scarred ‘Plain of Jars’. These ancient stone jars are littered across the Xieng khouang province but only three sites have been cleared of UXO, and even there signs warn you to stick the paths! Because of the lack of accessibilty and the damage from the bombing of Laos little has been done to preserve and excavate there sites. It was majestic to see the volume of these jars, thought to have been used in burial rituals, but sad to witness the ruin from the bombing and neglect.
The twisty, scenic mountain road from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang was the next stage of our journey. On arrival, we enjoyed a few days of great cheap food, old town street and temple wandering and some final Mekong river sunsets.
Luang Prabang is famous for its old Buddhist temples and so monks are prolific in and around the old town. The alms giving ritual is something we had seen in local contexts throughout South east Asia. We had been fascinated seeing the monks walk around in the early morning to collect food and cash from homes and businesses in exchange for recitation of a prayer by the receipient monk/s. On our last morning in Luang Prabang we rose at 5am and made our way through the dark streets to where we had been told we could observe the famous alms giving ritual of Luang Prabang. We were keen to be respectful in our observation and had enquired about how to do so after seeing these signs around the town…
As we waited quietly in the dark street it soon became apparent that this was no genuine alms giving ceremony but a fabricated tourist attraction. Locals were out in droves trying to sell us sticky rice and set us up on the street to give our “offering” to the monks. Minivans full of tourists started to swarm into the pre-dawn street as the sickening reality of the whole thing dawned on us. Ushered from their vans they bought their offerings before being escorted to waiting mats where they were costumed in traditional scarves and sat waiting for the monks. We turned away in disgust at this farce of a “ritual” refusing to partake in this Disneyland version of an alms giving ceremony.
We took in a couple of temples in Luang Prabang but realised we were feeling a bit templed out at this stage in our South East Asia journey!
The open river beckoned us to begin our final leg of Laos – the two day Mekong slow-boat that would take us to the Thai border…
Slow boat does mean it is slow. Nine hours both days non-stop on a boat did get tiring but the scenery was beautiful and we were lucky to have extra seats both days on the boat for spreading out and napping!