In September 2010 I went back to Australia for a while after spending months travelling in the US, Europe and Asia. My return was to catch up with family and friends, do some travel there and a few months of contract work to boost the coffers, then I had planned to move to the US. But with the economy still in the gutter I thought, what the hell, I am going to Vietnam and Laos for 2 months (via Singapore)! So I put the relocation off for a while and headed to S.E. Asia. I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 3 of that journey (Laos).
November 8th, 2010
From Dien Bien Phu I flew back to Hanoi, Vietnam and connected to a flight to Vientiane, the capital of the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos (a Communist single state government, but you would never know it really, apart from Communist related signage and flags). In 10 days I have flown with 5 different airlines (Qantas, Jetstar Asia, Jetstar Pacific, Vietnam Airlines & Lao Airlines)! I was a bit of a long day sitting around in airports, but much quicker than the rugged overland route!
Vientiane is a small, relatively quiet city on the Mekong River, close to the Thailand border. Flags with the Communist hammer and sickle are prominent around Vientiane, as are western tourists and workers.
The city although small is more modern than I expected with numerous hotels and new restaurants. You pretty much get left alone, no one is hassling you to buy anything and the Laotians are very friendly people and always appear happy. There are plenty of Tuk Tuk’s etc. running about, but it is a relatively easy place just to walk around and there isn’t much traffic on the road (more cars/4WD’s than motorbikes which is a major change from Vietnam). Although I should note that the traffic situation changed on my second visit to Vientiane due to the cities 450 year city celebrations!
Vientiane is dotted with numerous Buddhist temples (Wat’s) and a few museums. I have visited the more famous ones i.e. That Louang (Buddhist stupa – originally built in the 16th century, but the current one is from the 1930’s) – this is the symbol of Laos, Wat Sisaket (the oldest surviving one in Vientiane built in 1818 – the Kingdom of Siam didn’t destroy the place when they invaded in the 1820’s). Wat Sisaket temple has many murals inside but they are badly damaged, and the surrounding courtyard has an impressive collection of seated and standing Buddha statues all along its walls (and within the walls of both the temple and the courtyard are little arched niches with miniature Buddha statues within them). Haw Pha Kaew was the original royal Buddhist temple but is now an art museum with similar Buddha statues etc.
The Laos National Museum had an interesting collection of ancient and more recent Laos history. Collections on display ranged from dinosaur bones to how the Lao patriots freed the country from the Japanese and the “US Imperialists and their Lao and Vietnamese puppets” (their wording on the signs!).
Patouxai is the Lao equivalent of the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, it is to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the Royal Lao government in the 1950s. I also found a rather unusual Communist victory monument out near That Louang with various carved murals around its base, one had a bizarre image of a man hanging from the landing skid of a USAF helicopter????
From Vientiane it was short flight (45 mins in comparison to up to 10 hours by bus) to Xieng Khouang Province and the town of Phonsavan. Upon arrival at the small airport I could see Lao Air Force MiG-21 fighters & Mil Mi-17 helicopters off to the side, this area is administered by the military and I had to register with them upon arrival.
The Xieng Khouang Province was one of the most heavily bombed parts of Laos during the Vietnam War due to it’s strategically important location. The bombing was part of the US “Secret War” in Laos supporting the Royal Lao Government against the Communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army. Along with military targets many villages were destroyed and thousands of innocent people were displaced as a result.
Myself and a fellow like-minded traveller – a Dane – Elisabeth from the flight visited the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) in Phonsavan who clear the Unexploded Ordinance (UXO i.e. bombs and land mines) that were dropped and placed in Laos during the Vietnam War – yes 35 years later they are still clearing them! More than 2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos that they know about (apparently the equivalent of 14 aircraft carriers, 2 Golden Gate bridges)! Up to 30% of these bombs did not detonate when they hit the ground! Laos is the most bombed country in the World per capita.
Almost half of Laos is contaminated by UXO. According to the Legacies Of War organisation UXO have killed at least 30,000 civilians and injured 20,000 since 1964. 20,000 of those casualties occurred after the Vietnam War ended. These are horrible statistics.
MAG work with locals to rid farms and villages of UXO – a massive job. Laotians call the UXO “Bombies“. Horrific injury and death still occur from these today (up to 100 victims per year of which 50% are fatalities and sadly the victims are often kids). We donated some money to help – I also got a cool t-shirt. They show a number of documentaries and one featured an Aussie guy who has been teaching the locals to clear UXO for a number of years – it was a fantastic movie called “Bomb Harvest“. Despite the nature of the movie it was very funny at times with dry Aussie humour, but it also highlight ted the crazy sense of humour of the Laotian workers! At one stage a group were carrying a heavy bomb and a Laotian worker said something like “who just farted 3 times?”, then the Aussie said “I think the bomb already went off” – that type of thing! It also provides some insight in to the daily life of Laotians which was very interesting.
I came to Phonsavan primarily to visit the Plain of Jars – thousands of stone jars dotted over the countryside used for ancient burials (dating back 2000-3000 years ago). Some of the jars are up to 2 metres high and are spread over 50 sites across the Xieng Khouang Province. After a couple of hours discussing options with tour guides (and negotiating prices)! Elisabeth and I arranged a customised tour at a good price with lunch (traditional noodle soup) – with 2 of us we cut the price by sharing the cost of a driver and guide. We went to the main Jar sites – Sites 1,2 & 3.
These places were quite impressive and it was good to see the countryside and travel through the villages, but you have to be careful and stay within the marked areas due to the risk of UXO. The marked areas have been cleared of UXO by MAG.
Some of the tour guides we discussed tour options with told us you only need to go to one site as they are all the same and to see more than one would be boring! How wrong they were, each was very different and had it’s own unique location and look. The company we chose was the first one we spoke to and actually based in the guest house in which we were staying – they were very accommodating and delivered everything they promised. Pays to shop around, but in this case we didn’t really need to in the end!
In between the sites we tried some smooth but deadly home-made whisky in the “Whisky Village” run by this smiling old lady. That stuff would put hairs on your chest! Then we made a quick stop off at the “Russian Tank” – a bombed out shell of a Communist PT-76 tank from 1968.
We also visited a Hmong village “Bomb Village” who used to collect old bombs for scrap metal and sell them (a dangerous pastime)! A highlight in the village was a pet monkey wearing a jacket and drinking condensed milk!
This whole area is still dotted with bomb craters and many hills and plains have no plants due to the chemical agents used in the bombs. This poisoning of the land has also had long-term effects on the local economy as the land cannot be used for farming etc. The scars of war do not always fade away.
During a visit to the UXO Survivors Centre in Phonsavan I inadvertently became part of a Japanese TV news program! They were doing a story on the job MAG do and also on the victims of UXO for a big convention going on in Vientiane regarding this matter. So I will appear on the show talking to survivors, looking at old bombs etc. This was all quite unexpected – the Japanese reporter was very apologetic saying she was sorry to inconvenience me – didn’t bother me, I always wanted to be “Big in Japan” (as the old Tom Waits song used to go)! It is a shame I will never get to see the final footage.
I have to say that the people I met there who have been maimed and disfigured by UXO still have a very positive outlook on life, regardless of their injuries. It was a pleasure and a distinct privilege to meet them and hear their life stories.
Before departing Phonsovan, we went to a local market. What a fascinating place Asian markets are, seeing all the types of foods for sale, some delicious looking others not so much! Bush meat (all sorts of creatures), bats and bugs are all on the menu! Some vendors didn’t want photos taken of their wares but most were OK with it.
I arrived back in Vientiane by air to catch up with an old Horsham High School (in Australia) friend Dave who works for a mining company in Laos. We had a couple of good evenings catching up over good French and local food and local beer, visited the Lao PDR Army Museum (it was closed for renovations, but unlike Vietnam they let us look around the grounds which had tanks, aircraft etc), paid a visit to the morning market, watching DVD’s etc. It was fun to catch up and see a familiar face – we haven’t done that since 1996!
Now it is on to Vang Vieng tomorrow and then Luang Prabang in the North of Laos.