Saturday, November 26, 2011

Day 45 - 46: Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars

In the morning we moved from Dok Khoun Hotel to Dok Khoun Guesthouse. Possibly owned by the same people, but the room was cheaper, the bed was more comfortable and they did banana pancakes for breakfast, so it was a no-brainer. We spent the day mooching around the town. Phonsavan reminds me of what a Wild West town would look like if they stuck guesthouses up on either side. A wide main road with a few shops either side, some hotels, and little else. We ate lunch at Sanga and I once again went for fried fish, and once again wasn't disappointed.

There is a Mines Advisory Group (MAG) office here which explains - in excellent detail - the horrors inflicted upon Laos by the US air force. A popular trivia question is "Which country is the most heavily bombed in history?" The answer is Laos. Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped almost 2 million tons of bombs on the country in order to disrupt Communist Laotian groups and the Vietnamese, without the knowledge of the American Congress or the people. The atrocities that the US committed would have them hauled in front of a war tribunal for war crimes today, but back then the CIA was running the show in the so-called Secret War and was accountable to no-one...mainly because they prevented anyone finding out about it. The aftermath of the devastating and relentless attacks mean that 40 years on, 30% of those bombs which didn't explode are still littered around the country. We watched, shocked, at the videos explaining how civilians digging up bombs for scrap would frequently be killed or maimed, how children would mistake "bombies" (unexploded bomblet contained within a cluster bomb) for tennis balls and inadvertently set them off, and how the US has refused to sign up to a treaty to ban the use of cluster bombs to this day.

MAG works to detect and clear villages, roads, schools and other areas of unexploded ordnance (UXO). They train the local people, have many teams of all-female technicians to promote equality within the country and challenge traditional conventions, and have made safe hundreds of thousands of bombs littering the country. Given the scope of the bomb dispersion, however, it will take decades to clear, and the US has given a relatively paltry sum of money to help clear the mess it made. Farmers cannot increase their crop for fear of digging and hitting UXO, and villagers risk their lives each day cutting into bombs that they have found in order to sell on the scrap metal to subsidise their living.

Needless to say, our visit to the MAG centre was eye-opening, as were the videos we saw there. MAG hopes that clearing enough of the ordnance will allow UNESCO to grant Xieng Khouang World Heritage status, which would increase tourism, funding, and ultimately allow more and more of the UXO to be cleared. One of the benefits of the clearance project was the Plain of Jars, which was made accessible thanks to MAG assistance. This was where we planned to visit the next day.

That evening we ate at Nisha restaurant, an Indian run by a husband and wife with assistance from their two young daughters (who couldn't have been more than 9 and 6). The food - when it came - was excellent. Unfortunately the popularity of the place meant that it took over an hour to get it to our table; they would definitely benefit from an extra pair of hands.

We had found out that - quite by accident - we'd arrived for the Hmong new year festival. A fairground of sorts had been set up just around the corner from where we ate, so we wandered up. It was great, and a little surreal. They had rows and rows of stalls where you had to throw 3 darts and burst balloons, a bumper car arena, a karaoke/nightclub venue, a ferris wheel, a fashion show, and all manner of other stalls and activities going on. I had two blasts on the dodgems and felt like I was 15 again. Fantastic.

This morning we booked a tour of the Plain of Jars which also took in a trip to a Hmong village, and in the afternoon a visit to a Russian tank and a spoon village.

There are 3 main sites most visited by tourists in the Plain of Jars, and we went to all three. the "jars" are actually funerary urns left by an ancient Lao civilisation, which when discovered, contained bones and personal items. They litter the landscape but have only been accessible in the last few years thanks to UXO clearance. To be honest, I wasn't blown away by them. They are stone jars on a hill...and after we saw one site, the other 2 were probably overkill. Having said that if you could pick and choose for your tour, I would suggest visiting site 1 and 3, and leaving 2 as it's probably the least interesting. Our genial guide, Lien, was a great help though and gave us plenty of information, made some awful jokes, and generally improved for me what was a fairly dull excursion.

The Hmong village we passed had loads of children wearing full clan dress, all weaved locally by their parents or grandparents, and it was quite the sight. The Russian tank was a rusted, graffiti-ridden shell, and not worth a visit at all. The spoon village gave me a slightly polarised opinion. Essentially, the villagers there melt down aluminium purchased from scrap dealers and convert it in to spoons which they then sell back to villages, restaurants, and so on. It's a fairly simple but repetitive process which allows them to smelt and make around 500 spoons a day. I was allowed to have a go myself at making one; it involves pouring molten aluminium into wood-carved moulds, and then removing the cooled result from them about 60 seconds later. Only two of the three moulds I poured metal into turned into spoons, but I considered that a result for my first go and purchased one of them as proof of my blacksmithing prowess.

That was probably the highlight of the tour for me. The flip side was earlier on, where a few of the people on our tour expressed their disappointment - quite vocally to Lien - that the weavers were not in their hut weaving, and allowing us to photograph them. This was because they were at the various Hmong festivals around the area, but hey, why should that get in the way of tourist demands? As a result, they told Lien they wanted to visit one of the village houses and see the people living there. An obviously embarrassed Lien then asked a lady of over 80 years if it was OK for a bunch of comparatively rich tourists to tramp around their house. Being Laotian and not wanting to offend, she consented. Her entire family were in the house, and as I waited near the steps considering whether I should go in or not, Willem - a retired Dutch man - said to me: "Rob, come in; it's why you're here."

That struck me - what right did we have to go into these people's homes? We'd paid a relative pittance for a day's tour (about £10) and still we expected more from them? I wandered in, and managed about a couple of minutes of watching our group shoving cameras in the faces of the old lady, her kids and grandkids, and had to leave. I felt sick, as if I'd violated the privacy of the locals' lives. Festivals are one thing: they are an obvious outlet for exuberance and sharing with anyone in the area. Invading someone's ome for a couple of digital photos of what a "poor person's house" looks like was too much for me.

When we got back to the tour office, the owner - whose grandfather was a spokesman for the Pathet Lao, the Communist rebel group the US was trying to crush - showed us a video of the Secret War with interviews from CIA agents, US journalists and his own father. It's well worth watching if you have the chance - click here (5 parts). After the film was over, the owner of the tour office, who still supports the Communist rebels, told us that the film took 6 years to make and he took some of the film crew out on location, but the version we saw was the unedited version and different versions are shown around the world. Willem refused to believe this was the case, and despite us trying to explain how propaganda, country-specific agendas and censorship worked, wouldn't have any of it. We left fairly sharpish before I decided to say something I regretted. The naïveté of some westerners defies belief. A meal at Simmalay followed, and was even better than the one we had on our first night.

Tomorrow we head to Sam Neua, a small town en route to the Laos/Vietnam border. It's another 8-9 hour bus ride, joy of joys, and from there we will have to work out the best way to get into Vietnam. We can't actually enter until the 29th November as that's when our visa starts, so we'll have a day to kill.

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