Another country, another ancient site that baffles the archeologists and historians, but what would we unearth in Laos… 290 days in.
There seems to be a premeditated conspiracy between my bowels and horrendous bus journeys; the bags in faces overcrowded five hour stint in Sri Lanka, the tyre blowing nine hour drive to Kathmandu and now the twistiest turneous five hours in Laos, all coinciding with bouts of diarrhoea. We should have known we were in for a tough ride when we were handed our sick bags before departure. This was a minivan journey, and with the back seats full of rice and vegetables, it was limited to eight passengers, and that’s as many as we took, a relative first in that past few months! The backrow wasn’t your usual crowd and this group of 50 up locals were soon making use of the free supply of plastic bags, one of which made its way under my foot (fortuitously Helen spotted it before any straws were required); it would seem that the indigenous peoples don’t ride the hills too often! Pit stops at my insistance were hourly, but I sensed the other passengers felt it a welcome relief as much as I did, although the level of the facilities beyond a hole in the ground was a little troubling; not even a scoop in the water barrel! Despite the endless supply of bends, the journey was an amazing scene of staggering karst peaks plunging near vertically down into lush green valleys, seemingly undisturbed by human hand. Over 40 % of Laos is covered in forest and the internet suggests the government have a grip on the illegal loggers as all wood costs the same per unit area, meaning journeys into the jungle to find valuable ironwood rewards the same price as lopping down Bog Myrtle, I think?Our first port of call was Phonsavan, a few hours across the boarder from Vietnam and home to the Plain of Jars. Spread over a hundred square kilometres of grassland at an elevation of 1400 metres appear clusters of jars, often big enough to accommodate a human and caved from solid rock, sandstone to granite. Walking around a few of these sites was akin to a trip to an abandoned cemetery – which happens to be the lead theory as the mostly likely use of the jars, though this is still shrouded in mystery! Aside from a great setting for games of hide and seek amongst the jars, Phonsavan is also home to an NGO called MAG, established by Brit Rae McGrath. Many of the NGOs we come across are widely disliked by locals who see them as swanning in to their backyard, pointing out how deplorable the local tradition of *insert indigenous wild species being collected and sold to China*, and taking all the tourist cash. However, by training up locals to safely detonated unexploded ordinance and sending them across the state to make safe new land for agriculture or school playgrounds, the Mines Advisory Group has not only earned the respect of the community but also a Nobel Peace Prize. Oh, if you are wondering why an organisation such as MAG would be here in Laos then that would be of no surprise, given that the Vietnam war sounds rather confined to, well, Vietnam. But in these parts it is known as the second Indochina war, and as Brother Ho (Chi Minh) was sending reinforcements south via Laos, then the Americans saw this as a fair target for their newly developed cluster bombs. Dropping more bombs per head of population than any other war ever and onto a country they were prohibited to do so by means of the Geneva convention, without the knowledge of their public or even the senate means this was of course, completely illegal. Regardless, the legacy that the Lao people have to bear is that vast areas of the north east and south of the country are littered with unexploded tennis ball sized bombs designed to embed everything within a thirty metre radius full of ball bearings. With a failure to detonate rate of 30 % there are still hundreds of thousands of these bombies across the land, and each year more victims are added to the death toll. Of course, there is always an opportunity in every consequence and some enterprising metal smiths use the mortar casings to manufacture spoons and tools, but this can be a highly dangerous job when the rockets are still primed. Our next destination was Vang Vieng, far enough removed from the Ho Chi Minh Trail not to warrant any unwanted military salvos, but did receive attention of a different kind during the noughties when tourists started dying in beer and drug fuelled tubing accidents. Although mainly Australians, the authorities still decided to step in, closed down a heap of bars and put a curfew on the town. The tubing still runs and no one dies anymore, so Helen was pursuaded without much protest. Even at 10:30 am we were still the first tubers of the day and other than a few platoons of kayaks we had the four kilometres of meandering river at the foot of majestic karst skyscrapers to ourselves, it was serene. Our only scrape was Helen becoming marooned on a rocky outcrop among the rapids from which she could not free herself despite her best inverted turtle in a panic impression! As we had both been convalescing at the start of our stay in Vang Vieng it meant the days were passed in gentile fashion, but with a relaxing garden looking over fields and mountains time passed effortlessly by and in the evenings we made small talk with the old Irish owner, Jim, mulling over the price of wood, installing a cess pit and his run-in with the local village elders (settled with the donation of a pig to the rival party). Therefore, by the time we headed out to the blue lagoon (or more accurately emerald mere, which I still think sells it perfectly well and does not suffer factual inaccuracy) we knew to expect a cacophony of Koreans and a compendium of Chinese; and we were not disappointed! We actually enjoyed the scene as the crowd (us included) puffed out our chests then launched ourselves into the emerald waters from the outstretched brough of a fokienia tree to the yelps of the jovial onlookers. Our final night was passed in the company of an Anglo-Deutsch couple who last passed through these parts in the ’70s! An hour of wonderful tales passed and then the bombshell of a 2 hour 47 marathon was thrown into the mix and I was in awe. I was rather enjoying Laos, or as the Aussies would put it too easy; if only they could hear themselves.