Published: May 6th 2012May 4th 2012
One misjudgement after another is how this trip began. After several days of Pee Mai Laos (The Annual Water Festival), I bought an overnight bus ticket to the Plain of Jars in the mountainous Xieng Khouang province in the northern part of Laos near Vietnam. For some reason, I decided to walk to the bus station, some 10km outside of town. I arrived nearly an hour late for my bus, the last one of the evening. I would have to buy a new ticket and wait for the next bus at 6:30am. So I decided to sleep in the bus station for kicks on a bench like a number of other bus station employees seemed required to do for lack of better arrangements. I figured the cost of new bus ticket would be the same or more than a hotel room so why not. (About $11-$12 USD)
Outside of mosquitoes and the lack of a pillow it was ok for a night. I witnessed the unloading and loading of buses throughout different parts of the night which reminded me of what cargo ship loading might have looked like before the age of machines and containerization. Loading a motorcycle
Many people, like the man here, would smile when I raised the camera. Others, would turn their head to avoid being photographed. Most were indifferent.
on top of a bus and fixing it there upright, with only muscle and a rope (!!), looked like the most natural and easy thing in the world for these momentary porters.
From the hot, damp and splashy streets of Vientaine I journeyed to the dry, dusty streets of Phonsavan, the capital of Xieng Khouang province. Twelve hours of winding through mountains on bumpy roads is almost fun, but the only other choice is to bring your own transport. Most people stay in Phonsavan so they can get access to the Plain of Jars, an ancient site now sponsored by UNESCO which features a significant smattering of funerary jars of a distant civilization of which little is still known. It is only clear that this area has been an important stop on the trading routes between the civilizations on the Vietnam coast and those in the nation-state lands of present-day Thailand, Burma and China.
Much of the area was bombed into oblivion during the Vietnam War and caves where people once lived during the bombings are now part of the tourist trail. As soon as I got off the bus, a Hmong man, the
main ethnic population in this region, volunteered to take me into town to the guesthouse I had scouted out on wikitravel.com. He nicely tried to pitch me on a tour around the area. I let him know I preferred to travel on my own by scooter at first. He helped to find a place to rent a motorbike for the next day.
I proceeded to park the motorbike in front of my guesthouse before I checked in. From there I went to have some food. I was famished after spending all day on the bus and eating only pho noodles at one stop along the way. After dinner I returned to my hotel and my room to take a rest. Just before checking back in, a group of homeless boys clustered in blankets near the ATM whispered imploringly for my attention and I handed over some pocket change. I had plans to go downstairs and see what was happening and ask some questions about the boys but I crashed and woke up around dawn the next morning.
I looked for my motorcycle keys in harsh waking light hoping to get out to the plain
of jars for sunrise. I then realized they were not there and I suspected they were still in the motorcycle. I then rushed to the front window looking down on the parking spot where my bike had been the night before. As I started to suspect, it was gone! I had left the keys in it in my fatigue and transition to a new place. Sure the hotel should have brought in inside, as they usually do, but it was one of those fopahs that you must take responsibility for yourself.
Everyone was still asleep so I decided to immediately walk to the police station and wait until they were open. In so doing I decided to take pictures of all the people on motorcycles as they went by. I had been watching them go by on the walk over and felt they told many stories about the sense of place. More than that, they just got my attention. So I started to photograph them which I continued to do over the course of two-and-a-half days. I did visit the Plain of Jars later in the afternoon the same day and met some nice folks biking and
walking around. This was after I did the cash transfer shuffle necessary to purchase a new bike for the rental shop. They told me if the police found the bike they would return the money, but I'm not holding my breath. In any case, I found photographing people on bikes gave me much of the experience I was seeking and I wasn't going to let the trauma of the morning ruin possibly my only chance to explore this new place.
I got a feel for the working class population of the town, the sense that the town was constantly under construction, and that motorbikes were one of the main workhorses employed. I got a sense of fashion, personality, motorbike brand cache, temperature changes and the landscape of the town. I hope as you look at the photos you might see some of these things but also your own interpretations of Phonsavan.
I was brought to Phonsavan by graphic tales of American bombings and CIA activity amongst the Hmong people of the mountains here during the Vietnam War. Far more than these stereotypical images, I was drawn in by the everyday life of the town
I got invited to breakfast by the guy on the right
I had been sitting at the gas station taking pictures of motorbikes at an intersection when this English language student chatted me up (far right)
on motorcycles, outside of walking perhaps the most local form of transport. My dad had just mentioned to me, that he "didn't want to take photographs that everyone else takes." If you are looking for those kinds of shots, I've interspersed them and some video cilips with my shots of people on motorcycles and the people in town. So in my own way, I followed my dad's driving intutions. Whether it helped me create better images is quite another matter altogether. More important for me, it was fun and it opened some interesting interaction for me with a number of people in Phonsavan and in the surrounding towns and valley.
There are more photos below