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Published: December 18th 2006
Peek from a dwelling in a Hmong village in Xieng Khuang Province, Laos.
© L. Birch 2006
Striking off across rice paddyfields amid stunning limestone karst scenery - unfeasibly shaped mountains with saw-toothed ridges all around us - we revelled in the sense of freedom and drama our new surroundings afforded. We were in Vang Vieng in central Laos and it felt good to be able to wander unrestricted across the fields and not have to worry about landmines. Bombs, Mines and Stone Age Jars
Only a few days before, landmines - and other forms of unexploded ordnance (UXO) - had been a very real concern. We had been in Xieng Khuang province, close to the borders of Vietnam and China. During the Vietnam war, the province had seen some of the heaviest bombing of the conflict - as evidenced by the number of bomb craters that still scar the province today. At the height of the war, the US flew more than 580,000 missions over Laos, dropping somewhere in the region of 2 million tons of bombs. It is estimated that around 30%!o(MISSING)f the bombs dropped failed to detonate, leaving the country with a dangerous - and enduring - legacy.
Most of Xieng Khuang encompasses a high altitude plateau 4000ft above sea level.
Ordnance from a Secret War
Still litters the provinces of northeastern Laos.
© L. Birch 2006
We got there on one of the rattle trap public buses, roosters crowing from bamboo baskets tied to the roof. The bus climbed through dramatic mountain scenery passing through impoverished villages of squat bamboo huts, scattering chickens and barefoot children in its wake. The transition from tropical montane forest to the almost treeless plains of Xieng Khuang was sudden. Cresting the final pass, the bus came out onto an undulating plateau of short brown grass, punctuated by stunted bushes and pinetrees. The villages we passed through were predominantly tribal Hmong and Lao, the people tough and wiry looking with almost Nepalese features. Once or twice, I saw men with guns slung over their shoulders - long barrelled rifles, an aged AK47 or an M16.
We found OK lodgings in the provincial capital, Phonsavanh - a dusty boomtown with one wide main street and little else. Trucks loaded with goods rolled through town from Vietnam most of the day and night and many of the houses had collections of bomb casings, tank shells and mortar shells as garden ornaments. While in town, we made an informative visit to the offices of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a voluntary organisation that
Miss Bombshell, 2006
Viv poses next to shells recovered from fields around Phonsavanh.
© L. Birch 2006
has done a great deal of work in the tricky business of clearing mines and unexploded ordnance from the surrounding countryside.
But as interesting as all this was, we hadn't come to this remote part of Laos simply to check out its war history, we had also come to see the so-called "Plain of Jars". More than 500 large stone jars - some as big as 3m and weighing up to one tonne - lie scattered over a large area to the north and southwest of Phonsavanh. The 3 main sites have been largely cleared of UXO but you can still only visit as part of a tour and are advised to walk within designated areas only. For once, I decided this was not a good time for me to indulge a passion for exploration or a total disregard for fences and signs that say "Keep Out!"
Viv had been looking forward to this part of the trip with all the excitement of a kid on Christmas Eve. Next morning, she was up at 7.30, eager to get going. Stumbling out after her to find some breakfast, I was a little surprised by the temperature. Although it wasn't
Lay scattered across a wide area close to the town of Phonsavanh, Laos.
© L. Birch 2006
that cold on this particular morning, my breath came out in vapourous clouds - surely this wasn't right? But of course, because of the altitude, I had forgotten that it could be extremely hot by day... with temperatures plunging to near freezing over night.
For our trip we had teamed up with a small group of travellers that included 2 British guys, a Norwegian, 2 German girls and an Eastern European couple who spoke little English. Together with our Hmong guide, we made a rather multinational little band and we were soon calling ouirselves the "United Nations". Viv's excitement grew to fever pitch as we approached site 1 where big signs in three languages warned you not to stray from marked paths. Heedful of the signs, Viv set off up a dusty track and was amongst the first to the top of a small, bare hill where several stone jars lay scattered. The jars are believed to be somewhere in the region of 2-3000 years old and though there have been many theories as to their purpose, it now seems fairly certain that they were used as funerary urns, carved by a vanished civilisation. Carvings of figures on the
Explorers on a plain of Jars
Peer into the interior of a jar outside the town of Phonsavanh, NE Laos.
© L. Birch 2006
sides and lids of some jars lends credence to this theory and could be likened to the practice of placing a photograph of the deceased on a tomb or memorial - as is still the case in present day Thailand.
It was an exciting and interesting day, leavened with visits to a Hmong village and a roadside distillery where rice - fermented in old oil drums - was turned into a clear, potent brew that took the breath away. We were all offered a shot glass of the resultant whiskey to try, the Norwegian knocking his back with a practiced flick of the head before cheekily asking for another. I felt sorry for our guide. We were probably not the easiest group to keep in check - and as individuals - would wander off in different directions to explore any new sight we arrived at. Several times, the guide would be running around trying to round us all up, beads of perspiration breaking out on his forehead. "Boss no happy if I lose toulist", he explained, a worried expresion creasing his brow. Mountains and Sunsets in Vang Vieng
But of course, none of us were lost and
Paddyfields and Mountains
Were typical of the scenery around Vang Vieng.
© L. Birch 2006
neither did we encounter any UXO (thankfully. According to MAG, severe injuries and fatalities caused by UXO were still a commonplace event among the local population) and a day later, Viv and I were on another bus heading south. It was early and the bus had begun the long journey back over the mountains by the time the sun had risen above the tallest peaks. Handing biscuits round to all the passengers, we soon made friends with a Lao couple clutching a 5-day old baby girl. The baby had belonged to the husband's sister who tragically, had died giving birth to the child. Having made the long journey from Vang Vieng to the mother's hometown, the couple were now planning to bring the baby up as their own. They were poor and already had several children of their own but from the way they seemed to dote on the child, it was evident they were not doing it from a sense of duty alone.
"Baby no hap name", the husband told us at one point. "You gip baby name?" We were taken aback by this request and tried, politely, to demur. It was not our place, we said but
Filled the garden of our guesthouse in Vang Vieng, central Laos.
© L. Birch 2006
the husband was insistent. And so, by the time we had left the bus at Vang Vieng, we had given the couple a photograph with the name of our eldest grand daughter - whose name in Maori meant "Sunrise" - scribbled on the back. We waved until the bus was out of sight but will probably never know whether they chose to use the name or not.
Vang Vieng was not a place we had expected to like. It was one of those brash places - like Khao San Rd and Pai in Thailand - that had sprung up on the overland trail. It attracted young travellers in droves with the lures of adventure activities, all night bars and cheap drugs. Indeed, in the late nineties, it gained a reputation for being one of the easiest places in Southeast Asia to try opium. Drugs, in the form of 'space pancakes' and 'magic mushroom omlettes', are still on the menus of downtown bars today but you dabble at your peril. The police are cracking down hard on offenders these days and are often in collusion with the suppliers. Vang Vieng would have been an easy place to pass through quickly
Sunset over the Nam Xong
As the sun sets over the river, a lone figure crosses the bamboo bridge toward Vang Vieng.
© L. Birch 2006
had it not been for one thing: its magnificent location.
As ugly as the town had become, its setting was fantastic. The daily activities of life went on against a background of rice fields and jagged limestone peaks - the remains of a 300 million year old coral reef thrust up high above sea level by tectonic activity. We found a guesthouse on the other side of the Nam Xong river - the "Maylyn" - where rattan bungalows looked out upon paddyfields and karst peaks. During our 7-day stay, we explored local caves, drank a lot of local beer and were laid flat for two of them by a mild dose of food poisoning. We also did the obligatory tubing trip - floating down the Nam Xong on inflated inner tubes, stopping at riverside bars to down a BeerLao - partly because it was so out of character for us to do anything like that and partly because it would add another form of transport to our ever growing list. It also looked a lot of fun.
And so it turned out, a relaxing float down the river with the excitement of the odd rapid thrown in for good measure. But it was not quite enough. Everyone was doing the same things and - as fun as they all were - I wanted something a little different before we left the banana pancakes behind and headed for southern Laos.
We found it unexpectedly one evening while sat beside the Nam Xong watching the sunset. From the mountains on the other side of the river, a line of what looked like 'smoke' drew out from a tall central massif. It moved fast, snaking and undulating across the sunset - growing in length but never losing cohesion. Through binoculars, we could see that the 'smoke' was not actually smoke but bats - hundreds and thousands of them. Back at our guesthouse, I asked the - sometimes curmudgeonly - British owner if he knew where they were coming from. "Oh yeah", said Jo, eyes lighting up. "I know exactly where they're coming from." He was delighted as he hadn't seen the phenomenon for a long time and had assumed the bats had found another cave.
Next evening, two young Kiwis and I were struggling to keep up with 60 year old Jo as he forged ahead through paddyfields and dense thickets of bamboo. By 6.40pm, we broke through into a clearing with a deserted buffalo wallow at its centre. Above us loomed a high, sheer crag that glowed red in the sunset. "This'll do" said Jo and we settled down to wait as the sky turned from blue to pink and finally to orange - which, in the tropics, happens quickly. Sweat ran down my back and chest as we stood ankle deep among the leaves of mimosa pudica
- better known as the sensitive plant because its leaves close up when touched. Just when I thought it wasn't going to happen, hawks appeared and began to circle restlessly at the mouth of the cave. As if on cue, the bats emerged - not in ones or twos but in a great cloud - just as we had seen happen the day before, only this time - we were right underneath them.
The bats poured out in a solid stream, the air suddenly filled with the leathery sound of their wings. The circling hawks screeched at one another as they dove repeatedly into the swirling cloud but still they came - coiling out of the cave and across the sky like 'liquid smoke'. It seemed to go on for a long time but in reality, the spectacle lasted no more than 10 or 15 minutes while we stood, heads thrown back in wonder - the only words spoken, the odd "wow" as we struggled to take it in.
Walking back in gathering darkness; chatting, sharing a joke. I looked back at the towering crag with a brief nod of satisfaction. It had been a fitting climax to our stay in the mountainous north but it was time to turn up the heat and head into the deep south.
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