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Published: September 13th 2010
I have been in Laos for almost a week now and have enjoyed every minute! This country is stunning. I crossed into Laos in the south after spending 10 hours on a bus from Phnom Penh we crossed the border and because it was Sunday apparently that meant that the 'Stamp Fee' on either side of the border was increased from $1 to $2, therefore costing me an additional $4 on top of the visa cost of $35. What can you hey, you can't really blame the guys for wanting to make some cash on the side! To be honest though it wasn't much of a border crossing, just a wooden hut and a manual boom gate essentially.
First stop for me was the 4000 Islands - Don Det to be exact. Unfortunately the storm that had been brewing for all afternoon chose to hit with torrential rain at the exact moment I stepped off the bus and had to walk with my pack across the road to a waiting minivan, good times!
Don Det turned out to be very chilled, there were hammocks everywhere and relaxation is the main pastime. Unfortunately because it is the rainy season the
river was very murky and running way too fast for any water activites but I think in the dry it would be really lovely. Especially if you managed to sight one of the elusive Irrawaddy Dolphins (which I did not). I met a nice crew of english peeps on the bus so we all found accommodation together, it was the first time I have shared a room with a random guy (I promise) but I figured it was no different to a mixed dorm in a hostel right?
After a night of beer and pool Micky and I got up the next morning and decided it was a good idea to hire bicycles to head out to the other island Don Kone and check out some of the sights. Now I had heard that the roads were not overly comfortable but my goodness! They alternated between solid rocks or muddy swamps! The countryside was gorgeous and we rode through many rice fields and made friends with water buffalo but god my arms were killing me by the time we got home just from holding the handlebars so tight! I certainly worked off the Beer Lao that day!
Don Det I headed to Pakse which is a fairly small town made famous by the Bolaven Plateau which is a rich tea and coffee growing region. I headed out for a day trip to see tea and coffee plantations, local villages and some amazing waterfalls. Once again the landscape of Laos was breathtaking, this is the most beautiful country I think I have ever visited (and I've seen alot!). It's all very lush and green and still so traditional. Once you get out of the city/town you drive through fields of rice and corn and small villages where the people are still living very simply. Although despite living in a wooden hut they all seem to have a penchant for satellite dishes! The waterfalls we saw were amazing, so powerful. The only downer for Pakse was that some nasty person stole my genuine havainas from out the front of the guesthouse! I miss those shoes!
From Pakse to Vientiene I took an overnight sleeper bus and I am spewing my camera's battery died because this bus was hilarious! It was a disco bus for starters, with flashing lights up and down the aisle and the floor was clear
resin with little fake grass and rubber duckies in it - bizarre! But the best part was the fact that they have actual little bunks for you to sleep on but the space allocated to 2 people is really only big enough for 1 and if you are unlucky enough to be travelling alone you may very well be 'sleeping' with a random! I was very lucky and the chick I was supposed to share with slept with her boyfriend instead so I had the luxury of a bed to myself, thank goodness! So after a fairly good nights sleep despite the ridiculous roads I arrived in Vientiene and spent the day wandering the streets. My friends Courtney and Andi flew in that night so it was great to catch up with them and have some permanent travel buddies.
There's not much to do in Vientiene unfortunately so we spent the following day wandering and enjoying french cuisine. Then it was off to Vang Vieng, the party capital of Laos. The thing to do in Vang Vieng is Tubing, tubing down the river whilst stopping off at riverside bars, drinking 'buckets' of alcohol and risking your life on rope
swings and slides - sound fun? I will admit I was a bit skeptical about it at first as I expected loads of drunken louts being ridiculous and yes there were a few but we really had a fun day. The best way to describe the vibe is like when you first arrive a music festival and you're all excited and people are drinking and having fun. We rocked in and the music was blaring at the first bar so we got involved and partook a free bamboo shot and had 'I Love Laos' spray painted on our arms, acrylic paint is good for you right? We spent a lovely afternoon drinking and tubing and after vowing not to go on the slides we ended up going on the biggest one! lol. The highlight though was the part of the river after the last bar as we had to float for about 40 minutes until the end point and this was just stunning. Floating along the peaceful river with mountains all around and a few villagers here and there taking their evening bath or catching dinner. It was magical.
From Vang Vieng we ventured 6 hours on the windiest
roads known to man I'm sure to get to Phonsavan. There's not much in Phonsavan but you go there for the Plain of Jars, which is a group of ancient Funeral Urns dating back 2000-3000 years. For some time no one knew what they were but archaeologists have decided they were used for dead people. After your death your family would put you in one of these large jars, some weighed a couple of tonne, and wait for your body to decompose. When there was nothing but bones left they would remove them and bury the bones, a bit strange but who's to argue with ancient customs.
The most interesting thing about Phonsavan is the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and their UXO information centre. UXO stands for Unexploded Ordinance, meaning unexploded bombs and mines. During the conflict between USA and Vietnam (1964-1973) Laos became the most bombed country per capita in history with USA dropping more than two million tonnes of ordinance. All of this happened during what's known as 'The Secret War', secret because the US were in violation of the Geneva Convention which stated Laos was a neutral country and could therefore not be attacked. Alot of
the bombs dropped on Laos were a secondary thought for the US. Their planes were stationed mainly in Thailand and if their bombers could not execute a raid on Vietnam as was originally planned, rather than trying to land safely at the base with their bombs still on board they were diverted to 'secondary' targets in Laos. Targets that the pilots themselves knew were not legitimate military targets. I could say a lot more about the USA and the horror they inflicted upon Laos but it just gets me angry. Basically of the more than 2 million tonnes dropped approximately 30% did not explode on impact. This means that there are bombs still all over Laos, killing and maiming innocent people each year. The US used cluster bombs whose sole purpose is to kill human beings, essentially a load of small metal bombs fall out of the sky and when they hit the ground hundreds of ball bearings explode out, killing anyone in their path. These cluster bombs are called 'bombies' and they are discovered all over the place, in fields, near schools, in villages, making the risk to the people extremely high. Ok I'll stop the lecture now but
we watched a couple of documentaries at the MAG info centre on the danger the bombs pose to villagers and the work MAG are doing trying to clear them and it's a really important message, I think more people need to be aware of what happened to Laos. If you want to know more go to www.maginternational.org.
Alright I'm sorry this is such an epic entry but I had a lot to catch up on. I'm currently in Luang Prabang and have to say I LOVE THIS CITY! Off to learn how to be a Mahout tomorrow so stay tuned for the LP entry.
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