Published: July 5th 2012July 5th 2012
Luang Prabang to Phonsavan
Typical northern Laotian mountain scenery
And it doesn't feel especially great. They say you should try everything once, but I can assure you, this is something you don't need to try even once.
So, six buses of varying quality, over a period of six days, over dubiously winding roads through the Vietnamese and Laotian highlands. Starting in Sapa and eventually ending in Bangkok, from where I am writing you this blog. Yes, I know it says it was written in Phonsavan, but that is basically a lie. The blog is going to be about Phonsavan, but the actually typing is being done in a little internet cafe in Bangkok.
How did it all happen? Well, theoretically I could have gone to Bangkok in a much more direct and relaxed way. It would still have involved 4 bus journeys, but I could have rested a few days in-between giving me time to recuperate from each ride. However, I had a goal in Laos and I had little time. The goal was to visit Phonsavan, and the Plain of Jars, while I was passing through the country. The reason was that I skipped it last time. However Phonsavan is not exactly on the straight route from
Warning sign at jar site #1
Sapa to Bangkok, in fact it meant a detour of two bus-rides, one of eight hours to get there, and one of twelve to get out of there. And with time pressing, it also meant that I had only one day to spend in that region. I literally came, saw, and left.
Was it worth the effort and time to get there? Yes and no. Yes, because I know I would have regretted it if I hadn't. No, because one day is far too little time for the place. Did I have a good time? You bet ya! I might have had only one day, but I made the most of it. Phonsavan is situated in the highlands of north-eastern Laos, and the surroundings are beautiful and green. All around are lush rolling hills, interspersed by small villages. Best of all, there are hardly any other tourists around. I, at least, found it rather refreshing for a change.
Anyway, I got myself a bike and went to the closest two 'jar sites'. And what are these jars all about, you might wonder. Good question, but the answer is probably unsatisfying. Nobody really knows much about their history. Even
Scenery outside Phonsavan
their age is just speculation. They are thought to be around 2000 years old, their purpose is unknown, though the most accepted theory is that they were used as coffins for the dead, finally nobody has a clue who actually built them. Quite enigmatic really.
The jars themselves aren't overwhelmingly spectacular. They are, after all, simply big stone jars, dotted on some hills. But the fact that I had both sites to myself was amazing, and whoever built them did a good job on selecting spots with fine views. It was just nice to be able to stroll around a bunch of rather mysterious jars with nothing more than some grazing cows to keep me company. A good place to ponder the significance of those objects, if you are into pondering.
To be honest, the best part was the bicycle ride to both sites. It took me through that verdant country side that encompasses Phonsavan. I passed through meadows and rice paddies, through small villages made of bamboo and palm fronds, and over small streams gurgling happily away under a bridge. It was relaxing and serene. That is until the heavens opened up and reminded me it was
the rainy season. But, fortunately I had my trusty rain poncho with me and the God of Rain was in a good mood, because he was nice enough to wait till I was almost back in town before he turned on the tap.
Now there is one more thing for which this part of the country is known, apart from those jars. It is a rather depressing fact that the east of Laos is the most heavily bombed region, in the most heavily bombed country in history. You might not quite understand how Laos became the most heavily bombed country in history, and you would not be the only one.
Laos was bombed during the Vietnam War, despite the fact that it was officially a neutral country. It was bombed because both the North Vietnamese at the time and the Americans didn't give a rats ass about its neutrality. The North Vietnamese used the east of Laos as a supply line to its troops fighting in the south. This line is what was called the Ho Chi Minh trail. The Americans were not happy about this so they bombed the hell out of the east of Laos hoping
to disrupt the supply line. They also send in CIA agents to train and arm various tribal groups in the east of the country who were opposed to communism. This bombing and training and supplying of arms was termed the 'secret war
', because officially America was not present, nor bombing Laos.
Secrets cannot be kept forever though, especially when you are throwing more bombs on a country than were thrown on Germany and Japan combined by all the Allied nations during the entire Second World War. Eventually it gets out. And it sparked an outrage within and without the US at the time, so the bombing eventually stopped. The problem with throwing so many bombs is that a lot of them don't explode upon impact. In fact 30 percent of the ordnance dropped onto the country did not detonate. This means that there is a lot of dangerous stuff lying around the jungles, fields and villages of eastern Laos, causing a lot of damage, injury and death even now.
Clearing those undetonated ordnances (UXO's as they are called) is a continuing effort. But with such a harsh terrain and with so much to clear, it is estimated that
Just lying around in fields
it will take another 100 years before this part of Laos will be deemed safe again. The consequence of this is that for now a lot of farm land remains fallow due to safety issues, meaning loss of income and poverty and more alarmingly it means that in the coming decades children and adults will still die and get hurt because they touch or step on the wrong objects.
This is the reality in eastern Laos, and even though the main tourist sites have been cleared, they were only cleared enough to make it possible to visit them. The main effort is clearing the rice fields and villages. So when you walk into one of the sites you are warned to stay within two white markers on each side of you. Step beyond those markers and you risk stepping onto a nasty surprise. Yes, even for the tourists there is no escaping the dirty secrets of the past.
And so after one eventful cycle trip, visiting ancient jars surrounded by unknown threats in the form of the ubiquitous UXO's it was time to get on a bus again, only a day after getting off the last one. It
Looks like a big stone coffee mug. Maybe giants used to live here?
was day five, in the evening and the bus was going to take me through the night to Vientiane, where on day six in the morning I took my last two buses, one to cross the border, the other to take me to Bangkok.
And on day seven, I rested, just like the Biblical God did. On day eight I continued with resting, because on day nine, which is tonight, I will be taking a flight back home, to my very own 'Garden of Eden'. And you know what that means, no more blogs for a couple of months. But, to quote Terminator: 'I'll be back!'
There are more photos below