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Published: April 20th 2008
It was time to make a move from LaLa Land so I woke up and boarded the bus bound for Phonsavan. Spring Break was over.
Phonsavan is famous for its mysterious Plain of Jars, and infamous for being the most heavily bombed region of the world. It was going to be a very educational experience.
All Aboard (literally)
One of the best parts of traveling is experiencing all the different modes of transportation. I would have to classify my Laos bus trips as the most interesting so far. Anything and anyone is allowed on a bus in Laos, as long as it can fit through the door or on the roof. When the bus pulled up in VV, it had all sorts of packages, cages of chickens, and most impressive was a motorcycle…all on the roof. As I entered the bus I was greeted with 20 curious pairs of eyes just like on every other bus in Asia. The most bizarre carry-on was a man’s huge wooden instrument. The aisle was scattered with bags of rice and antsy children making it quite the obstacle course to get to the back. An English guy got on right before
me who was wearing a shirt with Japanese writing. Although not a JET, he was an English teacher in Japan. Michael became my new best friend on this 7-hour bus trip to Phonsavan.
As the bus started speeding up a man crawled out the window to make sure the stuff on top wasn’t flying everywhere. You would never see such a spectacle in America! It was a bit scary when I saw a truck completely turned over on the side of the road, hoping that we didn’t end up the same way.
Our “rest stops” were by far the most rural I had ever experienced. The bus randomly stopped along the side of the road and no one informed the foreigners what exactly was going on. Puzzled, I stepped outside to see men lining the weeds and women in the weeds marking their territory. It all started to make sense! We didn’t stop at any little roadside shacks because there weren’t any! It was that rural en route to the southeastern region of Laos. I had to follow the locals, and found my own little patch of weeds to call my own.
The best was when it
looked like we were pulling up to a little eatery, which turned out to be just a patch of shacks along the road with women selling huge cucumbers. When I got off the bus in hunt of an actual bathroom, I saw women scurry behind the huts and in the gardens to do their business. I was thinking, “you have got to be kidding me.” Basically we were given free range to urinate anywhere we wanted in that little “village.” I guess you could say we were fertilizing the gardens around the village. I chose not to purchase a cucumber for consumption.
Once in Phonsavan touts bombarded Michael and me and again I used my loud American voice to reach some sort of order. After viewing a few different guest houses we settled on one with furniture made out of old war metal. Phonsavan lacked the charm of Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. It only exists because it was a station for American and Hmong troops during the Indochina War. There weren't many temples or bright colors. Instead just one long rather desolate street lined with guesthouses put together with scrao metal left over
from the Indochina War, decrepit restaurants, and occasionally a car or motorcycle would drive by.
I was a bit down at this point of my trip. It was the longest I had ever been traveling and it would have been nice to see some familiar faces. Apparently someone upstairs was listening. As Michael and I were claiming our backpacks from the van Nilam and Hazel from Luang Prabang jumped out of another van. Yipee! After we all got settled in our respective guest houses, we set out to find the perfect guide for our trip the next day. In terms of nightlife (when with Nilam and Hazel it was a must) we came up pretty empty-handed. Of course, plenty of Beerlao, but only our guest house lobby to drink it.
We woke up early and jumped in a van with our guide No to venture around Phonsavan. First stop was at a market to pick up some food for breakfast. Like in Vietnam, Laos people prefer to eat soup for breakfast. I personally can’t handle that many wonderful flavors that early in the morning and went in hunt of a sandwich lady. In lieu of a hunt for
Notice the instrument to the right
breakfast we cam across some bizarre food items. The butcher area sent off a putrid smell of meat and we witnessed a lady using a grate to remove the hair from pigskin. Next up we found live rodents to be bought to eat, not as pets. Next to that were dried rats, followed larvae still in the comb, then some dead baby chickens, and wine with live hornets inside to wash down your other tasty items bought at the market.
The bugs were too much for me to handle. You know how Indiana Jones responds to snakes? That’s how I feel about bugs. I agreed to put one on my hand. As I gingerly laid my palm flat for a little larvae to be put, another lady came out of nowhere and threw a hornet from the wine onto my palm. I seriously almost had a heart attack and let out a yelp that had the whole market looking at me. I gave these ladies plenty of amusement for the entire week!
No crazy sandwich ladies like the ones in Luang Prabang. Instead we found a lady selling all sorts of fried breads. They looked edible despite containing
I deciced to go behind the hut in the far left corner.
enough oil to give me a second heart attack for the day before 10 am. We all decided to get an assortment for the morning. After picking up some fruit (the safest option) we were on the road in search of some Jars and wreckage.
We first stopped at an old town that was supposedly riddled with remnants of buildings from the “secret war.” It looked like a pretty normal Laos village to me. We did get to go out and see some very old temples made out of mud, but they had nothing to do with the war and our guide didn’t have too much info on them either. I felt kind of guilty in Phonsavan because I clearly was hoping to find traces of war wreckage as if I was on a treasure hunt. It’s easy to forget about how many people were killed and what atrocity was caused during the 70s. As “let down” as I was to not find any bombed building or huge rotting tanks, I should have been happy because either the town was not affected or had successfully rebuilt itself since then.
I personally had no idea about Laos's very sad
touts touts and more touts
welcoming party when you get off the bus
and horrific history before getting there. Upon returning home, I realized that no one
knows about the "secret war" in Laos during the Vietnam War. Over a span of 10 years, 2 million tons of bombs were dumped on this region of Laos by the CIA's "Air America." This was a covert operation because Laos was designated a neutral zone. The Viet Minh relied on the Ho Chi Minh trail for supplies from the communists so went against the neutrality pact. Therefore the Viet Cong and American forces "secretly" went into Laos as well and bombed the shit out of it in the attempt to prevent the Ho Chi Minh trails from being used. All I can say is poor poor Laos. More bombs were dropped on Laos in that 10 year period than on Japan and Germany combined during WWII. 200,000 people were killed in Laos during the Indochina War, most of them being Laos Civilians. I am embarrassed that my country caused such atrocity on a country that got thrown into war that was out of their control.
Our next stop was to wander around the Plain of Jars. Truth be told, these hundreds of jars do
I dare you to eat one
look exactly like they do in the photos, but I honestly thought it was so worth it to see them in person. These jars are a mystery to everyone. No one knows why they are there or what was their purpose. There are just thousands of jars everywhere. There are lots of ideas of what they were used for, such as for funeral jars, food storage, kegs ...but no one knows the real answer.
In addition to the jars there was a huge cave that was used as a hospital during the Vietnam War. It was one of the only safe places in the area that provided shelter from the thousands of bombs. Looking out over the desolate countryside was pretty amazing. I still couldn’t get over how few people really lived in Laos. The countryside here was a phenomenal scene because there were huge potholes everywhere, which were caused by the thousands of bombs. You also have to becautious when going beyond the designated areas because there are still land mines everywhere. It saddens me to know what this peaceful country endured.
Our tour ended shortly after this and we were back in Phonsavan. We decided to
would go great on a salad
explore some of the war memorials in the city. On the way there we passed a group of kids outside of a house. One thing led to another, and we were having a blast playing with these kids and taking photos of them. At first they were so afraid of the photos because they didn’t know what the camera was doing. I am sure many of the children had never seen a camera before.
Instead of going a bit further to see a war memorial, we decide to develop some of the photos of the kids and families and surprise them with the photos. When we returned to give them the photos the children were a bit confused ecause they had no idea what they were. When they realized that they were photos of themselves, they were over the moon! We gave a photo to one of the grandmas and she looked at us with such elation and gently grabbed Hazel's shoulder. I think it was one of the nicest things she had ever received in her life. Something as simple as a picture that is so common in our lives gave them so much joy. This was by
far a highlight of my time in Laos.
Afterward we headed out for dinner. When with Nilam and Hazel, it’s never a dull moment. We walked about 20 minutes away from our guesthouses and then realized that none of us had more than 4 dollars on us. We totally didn’t know if we were going to have enough money to eat! At the Indian restaurant we had to stick to vegetarian food because we didn’t have enough to buy meat dishes! Of course, we saved enough money to get a few large beerlaos to split among us. Then they brought the bill and we didn’t have enough money! We started to panic, and then realized that they had screwed up on the bill. Good thing Laos is cheap.
I had a huge decision looming now…was I going to head with my crazy brits back to VV to extend Spring Break, or was I going to venture with Michael further afield on an unknown journey to Nong Khiaw? Wait until the next blog to see what I chose to do.
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