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Published: August 3rd 2008
Welcome to Buddha Park
The 'entrance' to a giant pumpkin structure you could climb up inside
Ok, instead of some witty or poignant beginning to this blog we're simply going to lay it out there and say....
WE! LOVE! LAOS!
After ten months of amazing adventures and wonderful people, our time in Laos has been three of the best weeks ever.
It is a country that right now and for a few more years, is at that perfect
moment in history, the moment that foreigners living in today's Thailand, Prague or The Costa Del Sol would whistfully call "The Good Old Days".
The irony is, by writing this we are also helping to advance mass tourism, but with a country so lovely, yet so desperately poor, it's hard to stay quiet.
What A Difference A Border Makes
From Hanoi we "endured" a long and predictably unfriendly bus ride to Laos. The Vietnamese staff made sure we understood how painful and inconvenient it was to have to transport paying passengers. They also pulled out the usual "pleasures" of loud repetitive kareoke on the TV, barging past you in the isle and stomping on your luggage. #sigh#.
We arrived at the Vietnam/Laos border at 2am and slept on
Ventiane's Arc de Triomphe
the bus until it opened. In a wonderfully pompus moment a bugal call signalled the opening of the border and after a hectic but corruption free crossing we were back on the bus bound for Vientiane.
After the wealth of Vietnam it was a stark contrast to be in South East Asia's poorest country. The road was small and pot-holed, bridges had been washed away and the villages consisted of small wooden huts on stilts with straw roofs. Occasionally, if a charity had been at work, a village would have shiny corrugated iron roofs or a new communal water pump. Here, as in Africa, it is always intriguing to us how people or charities choose their locations. We have enjoyed stumbling across lovely projects in far flung places built by "The Generous People of Luxemburg"
or "Mr and Mrs G Wilderbeen of Jefferson City, Missouri"
Of equally stark contrast was the welcome return of the smile. Kids were waving madly at the bus and adults were returning our tired grins, even the ones whose shower in a roadside rainwater drain we interrupted as the bus thundered past.
So Laid Back It's Almost Asleep
David catches the reclining buddha unawares
After 20 hours, which was quicker than we expected (whoot!) the bus arrived in the capital city. We quickly found ourselves a budget guesthouse, showered off the journey and then hit the streets in search of new sights and tasty flavours.
Much has been written about Vientiane so we won't overdo it, but it would be fair to say that Vientaine is probably the most relaxed capital city we have been to. Wide empty streets, beautiful old French colonial buildings and dozens of bakeries and coffee shops sit alongside ancient temples, local markers and the mighty Mekong river. Where there are signs of modernisation such as new banks, buildings or their first ever shopping centre, the buildings are never more than two stories high and have been built to fit in, not stand out. Our guidebook told us that there were no cash machines in the country but times are a'changing and we found a number of brand new machines being proudly displayed in the streets.
If Vientiane has one lasting cultural hangover from the French, it is a love of food. This suited us nicely. As well as the aforementioned bakeries with their freshly baked baguettes and
Buddha park as seen from the top of the pumpkin
cakes, at night time the streets come almost alive with mobile food stalls, local restaurants and a row of outdoor BBQ restaurants along the riverbank. We picked a riverside restaurant and were about to order a whole fish when we noticed that there were none left on display. Just as we were about to move on the lady lifted a blanket to reveal live fish swimming in an oxygenated tub. She promptly scooped up a big squirming one, offered us a price and voila!... from living, to BBQ'ed, to in our very satisfied tummies in under 45 minutes.
Other than eating... and eating.... we paused for digestion long enough to devour a few sights. The first was Vientiane's very own Arc de Triomphe, also known as 'The Vertical Runway" because it was built with concrete donated by the US Government to build an airport. Unfortunately due to a civil war (which we shall talk about later) the structure was never finished but you can climb to the top for an excellent view. To get to it you walk down a road known as Laos' very own Champs Elysees which was definitely not so as grand as Paris.
Ready to go
This is how to hold the paddle, right?
second place was utterly bizarre and a sight to behold. At some point in the 1950's a cave dwelling Hindu Hermit returned to Vientiane and, as a way of spreading his philosophy about the cosmos, decided to build a park full of giant concrete statues of every conceivable deity in the Hindu and Buddhist world. Photos will not do it justice but when we tell you that the first sculpture you see is an enormous three storied hollow pumpkin full of skulls, snakes and skeletons, you will hopefully get the picture. As there were only a few people there, including some friendly monks, the place was simultaneously tranquil and freaky.
They Have A Cave Troll
From Vientianne we headed north to a place that is the one totally touristy exception in the country, Vang Viang. Set in a spectacular sheer rock valley, this town sits alongside the Nam Xong River which the locals now make a new living out of by floating tourists down it by raft, kayak or giant inflated inner tube. Like Queenstown in New Zealand, Viang Viang is one of those places where it would be easy to stay for ages, have a
A bit of a flood
The only way in was a big breath, dive under and up the other side
load of fun and chew through the money. We should say that by 'chewing' threw the money we are talking about a nice en-suite hotel room for US$4 a night, $1.50 for plate of fried rice and fresh vegetables and $1 for a 750ml bottle of beer.
For our first full day we decided on a combination trekking, caving and kayak adventure. Due to it being monsoon the river was flooded and dangerously swift so we didn't have to do much paddling other than to avoid, or plunge straight through, the numerous rapids. At one of the caves you are normally given the chance to float on inner tubes through the tunnels. Unfortunately for us the river level was now higher than the entrance so it was impossible to go in... UNLESS you were brave enough to swim down under the water and follow a rope in the dark far enough until you popped up in (hopefully) enough space and fresh air on the other side. Well... no surprises to say that we were straight in there, swimming against an incredible current and making it safely into the cave. From there, by the light of a small torch, we
Ready to get wet
pulled ourselves along a guide rope until we got so cold we re-emerged back into daylight, much to the relief of our tour guide.
After the cave came a huge and delicious lunch and then another 10km or so of kayaking where we had the pleasure of being flipped in a rapid and had to clamber back in while being washed downstream at a great pace. If you have been following our adventures you will remember that Tracey almost broke her leg getting flipped on a rapid rafting on the Nile in Uganda. This injury took three months to heal. Although she started the day a bit nervously in true T style she was immediately back in the saddle and we both had a wet and exhausting but excellent day.
Life In a Washing Machine
The next day we were back on the river for the one thing that VV is really famous for, tubing. Although in many ways the tubing is little more than a side show to the main event. At some point somebody had the genius idea of building loads of bars alongside and partly onto the river and in doing
Dave timed his swing release at the very height of the arc!
so created the world's longest aquatic pub crawl. Then, in order to get you drinking at their place and not a competitors, these same geniuses built ENORMOUS swings, slides, flying foxes and all manner of ways to drunkenly hurtle yourself into the river. Yes it is as dangerous as it sounds, and yes, every so often a (usually totally hammered) tourist gets killed, but maaaaaaaaaaaaaan is it good fun.
Everybody starts from the same launching point and then it is up to you when to float down to the next bar. Each bar has billboards in the river advertising their drink specials and what games they have. there are also young boys with large poles and ropes to help drag you in as you float past. As the river was so fast it took a real effort to steer the tube and we had fun watching people get washed by at high speed when they clearly wanted to stop and join their friends. Oh well, you can always catch them at the next bar. These same kids also drag you out of the water after you have been on the swings etc. Without them there would be no hope
One of my 5-a-Day
A Pineapple and Rum Smoothie counts right?
of getting back to your beer.
Although swinging was great fun it was even more enjoyable to sit back and watch other people in various states of intoxication hit the water in increasingly more dangerous and painful ways. David managed to do a spectacular, but painful double back flip that cut his hand and bruised his back, but received much kudos from the cheering crowd.
The challenge to this day is to time your pit stops perfectly. In order to get your deposit back you need to return your tube by six pm. But, as this is a one way trip you also don’t want to go too fast and end the fun prematurely. We made it back at five minutes to six. Many hours later while having dinner we saw people still returning. It’s no wonder that the odd tourist disappears. They probably pass out and wake up in Vietnam.
After the fun of VV it was back on the road northeast to a place called Phonsavan to visit the wonderfully named Plain Of Jars. Spread over dozens of sites on hill tops and in mountain valleys,
The largest jar across all the sites
these things are clusters of ancient stone jars that are around two thousand years old. The largest jar (Dave's peering in to it in a photo)is two metres high and weighs ten tons. The really cool thing is that their existence is a complete mystery. Some historians think they were funeral urns, others think they were used to store supplies for nomadic tribes. What we do know is that we’re lucky they still exist. The Americans bombed the hell out of this area during the war and many of the jars were destroyed. Everywhere we went there were enormous bomb craters and, as much of the land is still full of unexploded bombs, we were very careful to stick to the path.
Near one of the jar sites was a cave that 200 people lived in for many years in order to survive the bombings.
While in Phonsavan we also discovered the joys of ‘Lao Lao’ a locally brewed rice moonshine. People brew this stuff as strong as 60% and death is not uncommon. In one of the bars they had a special mixture that also included some decomposing snakes, scorpions and lizards in the bottle. To see
One of many around Phonsavan
how much Tracey ‘enjoyed’ her Lao Lao experience there is a special photo essay at the bottom of this blog.
Due to the fact there are so many unexploded bombs about the locals have got rather good at disarming them and then using the metal casings to build fences, animal feed troughs, plant holders and even supports for their houses. At first you don't really notice them as your eye has never seen such a thing, then, after a while you start to spot re-used bomb casings everywhere - even at the front of our guesthouse.
An American Shame
It is now time for a rant. If you are an American you should hang your head in shame and start questioning what many so called ‘war heroes’ really got up to during the war.
Laos now has the infamous, but for many years, totally secret record of being the most bombed country per capita on earth
. Between 1965 and 1973 the USA dropped half a ton of bombs for every person living in the country. Because the North Vietnamese were using parts of Laos to travel through, the American military carpet-bombed it
Bombs for Bricks
Locals use pieces of ordinace for everything including building and cooking
in total secrecy, including denying it to their own Senate. Officially the USA was not at war with Laos, so ground troops could not enter and planes had to take off outside the country with top secret instructions. As there were hardly any military targets to hit and due to the nature of indiscriminate carpet-bombing, most of the death and destruction occurred on farms and in villages.
Meanwhile in Vietnam, press photos of woman and children being murdered by bombs led to mass protests in America and to President Johnson announcing that the USA would stop bombing Vietnam. He didn’t lie, he just didn’t mention that with all those bombs, planes and people ready and waiting, what was the US Air Force going to do with it’s time? What they did was increase the secret bombing raids on Laos from 130 to 30,000 raids per month. 30,000. This included dropping 250 million cluster bombs. The problem is, up to 30% of those bombs never detonated which left a war scarred Laos with around 75 million unexploded bombs.
One of the bomb clearing charities called MAG had an office in Phonsavan so we spent an evening watching a film
11 Hours of Luxury
our trusty steed to Xam Nua
and learning about the enormous task at hand. Unfortunately most of the victims are children as they tend to pick up the brightly coloured cluster bombs because they look like toys. As it is impossible to find and clear all the bombs MAG are concentrating on child and village education schemes.
Room Without A View
From Phonsavan we continued our journey east, almost back to the border with Vietnam. This area is hardly traveled by tourists and we expected the roads to be terrible. Actually the government is doing a terrific job with very little money and the journey would have been comfortable, had we been in a bus. Unfortunately local people also hardly travel this way so the bus company decided not to waste a bus on us. Instead the 11 of us piled into a Sawngthaew, which is basically the back of a pick-up truck with a tarpaulin roof. This was not a comfortable ride, and after 11 hours of getting squeezed and chucked around in the back we were more than happy to get to our next destination, the town of Xam Nua.
Since you know we are still alive it
Full of Holes
All the cliffs are pock-marked with caves
is fine to tell you that route is also known to produce the odd machine gun toting bandit but luckily we had no such troubles, although we might have enjoyed the hold-up just for a chance to stretch our legs.
We did nothing in Xam Nua but eat, sleep and try to stop our bodies from thinking they were still moving, then in the morning we caught another Sawngthaew for the last hop to our final destination, Viang Xai.
Set in a beautiful green valley surrounded by sheer cliffs and caves (a very important fact as you shall soon see) the tiny town of Viang Xai is the most important place in the modern history of Laos. Up until the war in Vietnam Laos had firstly been ruled by the French, and then, when they pulled out, under the control of an American influenced Royal Government. Unhappy with this situation and inspired by events in Vietnam a group of communists formed an independence movement called the Pathet Lao.
Funded by their fellow North Vietnamese and Chinese communist friends the Pathet Lao eventually grew into a parallel government who declared themselves independent from the Royal Government and started
One of the many tunnels blasted between the caves during the war
a civil war. Since the Royal Laos Government and their troops were supported by the US, who were raining bombs down on the people 24 hours a day, it didn’t take long for large portions of the population to throw their support behind the Pathet Lao.
And here is the really great bit and the reason why we came here. In order to stay alive the Pathet Lao used the hundreds of nearby caves to build an underground city. And a city it was. These people were not hunkering down in small wet caves trying to act like new leaders. Instead they used either the natural shapes of the cave or dynamite to blast out and build homes, meeting rooms, kitchens, military barracks and even a movie theatre and performance hall. Every cave and every person was accounted for and their organisation included a shop, bank, school and hospital. By day up to 20,000 locals lived in 480 caves only coming out at night to farm by moonlight. Meanwhile the parallel government was planning the future of Laos and entertaining visits from friendly foreign leaders and military generals from North Vietnam.
As you would expect this area was
Cave meeting room
Propper meetings were held in the safety of the caves while bombing went on outside
carpet bombed by the US more than any other part and at least here they had some legitimate military targets. All around the cave entrances are giant bomb craters and the rock faces are scarred from rocket attacks but due to the brilliance of their cave design they were all safe and sound inside while the bombs dropped around them.
The guided trip to these caves was our favourite thing in all of Laos. At this point we were travelling with a lovely German girl called Nike and on a beautiful sunny day we had the whole place to ourselves. We were told that only some of the cave systems were open and we had no idea what to expect so our expectations were low. Instead we were blown away by the brilliance of these people and how much you can still see and appreciate. Funding from overseas charities and the government has allowed them to clean up and maintain about 30 rooms including the special 'safe rooms' that were designed to protect against chemcial attacks and still had the hand operated oxygen pumps in them. They also have much of the original furniture, books and posters in them
The main caves had airtight rooms with filters in case of a chemical attack
including pictures of inspirational revolutionaries like Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara. The price of the ticket also includes a local guide which made the trip even more educational. Tracey also took the 'optional extra' and played a game of volleyball with the other guides.
After the American war ended and the USA pulled out of Vietnam (openly) and Laos (secretly) the troops of the Pathet Lao captured Vientiane, forced the King to abdicate and have ruled Laos ever since. Unfortunately they also did some pretty nasty things to those on the wrong side of the battle sending up to 50,000 supporters of the King off to ‘re-education’ camps’.
The plan had been to rule the country from little old Viang Xai but perhaps they too new about all those fish restaurants in Vientiane as they changed their mind and stuck with the existing capital. The leader of the Pathet Lao is a national hero and his face is everywhere including on all the money. What was nice to hear was that all the leaders of the original parallel government also built houses in Viang Xai and even today two of the original surviving members who are in
Commemorating Independence - in Xam Nua
their 80’s still come and visit. This is still a very big deal for the town and as we walked around the front yard of one of their houses we were told by our guide that if he was here we would not be allowed to do this as the place would be crawling with local dignitaries, police and security guards. Perhaps Dave shouldn’t have had a sneaky wee outside his front gate.
The write up in our ‘Rough Guide’ guidebook didn’t really do this place justice so if you are unsure of whether it is worth a visit, we more than recommend it.
From One Side To Another
Now it's is time to head west. Tomorrow we’ll be catching a bus for another epic journey across this beautiful country. Hopefully it will be at least semi-comfortable, as even the little travel-pillows we invested a dollar into are not doing that great a job cushioning our travel weary bottoms. Although with the possibility of armed bandits, tigers, landslides and millions of unexploded bombs lying about a little bum bruise is probably the least of our worries!
(PLEASE NOTE THAT THERE ARE TWO PAGES
Nothing was forgotten - there was even an underground theatre
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