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Published: July 22nd 2012
No-one is safe
In case you were wondering, many of these photos were taken from inside the safety of the water-proof housing.
In addition to the numerous ethnic minorities in Laos, we spotted a strange but familiar people. People whom we had encountered surprisingly rarely on our travels – Les Francais. Despite being a developed nation of over 65 million inhabitants, France’s sons and daughters had been conspicuous by their absence. They’ve been outnumbered by the Swiss, and even Norwegians and Finns. Only now did we realise why – they prefer to visit their old colonial stomping grounds.
In the small number of urban centres in Laos, the French certainly left their mark, most enduringly through architecture and cuisine. Presumably the proximity to baguettes and shuttered windows is an important consideration for les vacances Francais.
Luang Prabang may have the best name of any settlement we’ve visited. It’s also one the most pleasant in which to spend a few days. The buildings are universally pleasing to the eye, modestly proportioned and elegantly finished. There are neither concrete monstrosities nor glaring neon signs. The city centre encompasses a small peninsula, which ensures that it’s easy to navigate and not overwhelmed with thoroughfare traffic.
April is the hottest time of year in South East Asia. Even though Luang Prabang is at
the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, at this time of year they do little to cool the city. But for a raucous week around the Lao (Buddhist) New Year – “Pee Mai” – inhabitants and visitors alike need not worry – cooling water is never far away. In common with Thailand and parts of Myanmar, the Buddhist New Year is welcomed with mass water fights, a tradition that seems almost to be spinning out of control.
Militias roam the streets on foot or the backs of pick-ups, or position themselves at strategic points in the city. Armed with water-guns, hoses, pails and a seemingly never-ending supply of water, and even flour and food colouring, these teenagers and children consider anyone a target for a soaking – motorcyclists, tuk-tuk passengers, monks, police, tourists with expensive cameras – anyone and everyone gets wet. So, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em; if you can’t dodge ‘em, soak ‘em. Everyone has to join in, or get out.
So we too roam the streets, soaking others and being soaked, scooping water from huge street-side tubs, while being sprayed by guns and hoses, to the sound of loud music and
Wat Ho at the National Museum
Previously known as the Royal Palace, Luang Prabang, Laos.
laughter. It’s so hot by late morning that one is invariably glad to receive the first dose of refreshment. By lunchtime we are wet through. We dry over food and drink, then get wet all over again. By dusk, enough is usually enough. The music and partying continue, but the saturations cease.
This continues for three days, with the adjoining days only slightly drier. It’s interspersed with ceremonial processions between the two main temples, as the Buddha statue is taken out for its own annual cleansing, and the beauty pageant winner is also paraded through the streets. It’s quite a crazy time; we certainly enjoyed it, but also left wondering what Luang Prabang is like normally. We will have to return to find out.
We arrived in Vientiane, the capital, as Pee Mai dried off for another year. As Laos nursed its collective hangover, Vientiane seemed like a ghost town in comparison to Luang Prabang. It’s certainly not as pretty, but does have more than a handful of redeeming features. Both sit on the eastern bank of the Mekong, which at Vientiane again forms the border with Thailand. Here, there’s a large night-market, where from dusk, families and
Detail of window carving
Wat Ho at the National Museum, Luang Prabang, Laos
friends congregate, to exercise, play, eat, shop and chat.
The quality of Laos cuisine is a pleasant surprise. It has a lot in common with northern Thai, with refreshing but spicy dishes such as green papaya salad. Chinese influence is also evident, with dedicated restaurants, but also dishes such as roast duck. Despite being landlocked (the only such country on our travels), fish, particularly catfish, is abundant, thanks to the breadth, length and depth of the Mekong and other rivers.
The most distinctive Laos dish, though, is lap. It’s simple, but oh so tasty. It’s basically minced meat – usually chicken or fish, cooked but served cold, mixed with chilli, spring onions, herbs such as coriander and mint, and a few other ingredients. Like most dishes in Laos, it’s served with sticky rice, to be rolled into balls and eaten with the hand. It is something we will be trying at home.
At the Lao History Museum we received an amusingly muddled propaganda-filled introduction to the country, from the Paleolithic era to the Secret War, which finally ended in 1975. (The US continually denied its military presence in Laos, so the conflict became known as the Secret
You have been warned!
A simple guide of how to behave in Laos. And the only tiger we saw.
War.) Only the ancient artefacts are currently labelled in English, so all we learned about Laos’ recent history was that Imperialistic Americans dropped bombs while brave comrades posed for numerous photos and occasionally shot guns. Surely there was more to this 22 year long conflict than that.
Sadly, it turns out that there is a lot more to it than that. Nor is the story even over, almost four decades after North-Vietnamese-backed communist Pathet Laos took power. As part of the anti-communist offensive that most memorably engulfed Vietnam, the US dropped well over two million tonnes of bombs on Laos (more than it dropped in the whole of the second World War), principally to disrupt the Hoi Chi Minh trail. (This network of paths and tracks through the east of the country was created by the Viet Cong, in order to the supply the South Vietnamese insurgency with munitions from the communist North.) Thirty percent of these bombs failed to explode on impact. Overgrown or covered with earth, they leave a deadly legacy even to this day. Up to 100 Laotians a year are killed or maimed when they accidently encounter a ‘bombie’, while farming, hunting or playing.
In Vientiane, we visited the COPE centre, which provides prosthetic limbs and education about the legacy of the bombing campaign. Through photographs, videos and stories, it also provided some of the saddest sights and most indelible memories of our travels. Parents describing how their children died; people missing limbs and eyes, who are now unable to work and feed their families, tell their stories; people who slowly bled to death in agony are remembered. One story featured a teenager who lost both his hands and his sight while farming. Just another bomb story. But we then realised he was in the room with us, being presented with a birthday cake, and it brought the reality of his situation home to us even more forcefully.
We learnt that much work is being done to locate and diffuse the outstanding ordnance, with international organisations training locals in this tricky task. So, an upbeat conclusion to our visit, but one that could not overcome the horror at what we had learned.
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