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Knights Off The Grid

Laos State of Mind

LAOS | Monday, 28 March 2011 | Views [1084]

Wedged between Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, this place is literally the land that time forgot.  It wasn’t until several years ago that the Laos telecom industry had to increase from four to six the number of digits in their phone numbers.  In 2001, I had to search all over Vientiane, the capitol, for some clear tape because there wasn’t any glue on the back of Lao stamps.  Tourism is finally catching on here, but it doesn’t take much, like 100 yards or so, to get completely off the grid.   

Laos (it’s pronounced like “cow” but with an “L”) holds the dubious honor of being the most bombed country in the history of the world.  Between 1964 and 1973 the United States held a monumental grudge against these guys for a couple of reasons: eastern Laos was a major Ho Chi Minh Trail thoroughfare during the Vietnam war and this area also happened to be the headquarters of the Pathet Lao, a Russian-backed communist insurgency.  

The statistics are absolutely staggering.  The United States dropped over two million tons of bombs on Laos in just under under nine years.  We spent around $2.2 million per day during that time attempting to free the hell out of these people.  More than two tons of bombs were dropped on Laos every 9 minutes for 9 straight years.  Amazingly, we managed to do this without ever declaring war on the country or even notifying Congress.

Thirty percent of these munitions failed to detonate, so Laos is now a really, really big minefield.  The countryside is stunningly beautiful.  Unfortunately, it will also kill you.  About sixty people a year, mostly kids, become casualties from these left over unexploded ordinances (UXOs).  On the bright side, these spent bombs and shell casings and make fantastic flower pots and school bells as well as provide the area hotels and restaurants with a great way to separate themselves from the competition.  You see this morbid creativity everywhere. 

So, why would anyone want to come here?

According to me, Laos is probably the last remaining cultural bastion of “Old Southeast Asia.”  With 49 distinct ethnic groups, the Mekong River cutting a path through the heart of the country, a rich French colonial history, and jungles so remote that elephant and tiger sightings are relatively common, this place is a third-world paradise.  It’s also an immediate must-see because the rest of Asia has realized it left one of its own behind and is rapidly rectifying the mistake.

The trip we’d originally planned for Laos was dramatically different than the one we completed.  In Bangkok, Em packed a 15 lb backpack that included 2 shirts, 2 pants, a couple of scarves and not much else.  We left the majority of our gear behind with the thought of spend 3 weeks touring Laos by motorbike.  The 12-hour overnight bus to Vientiane was uneventful with one exception: we got to watch the new Star Trek movie on large screen complete with Digital Surround Sound.  Sadly, the center speaker was broken so every aspect of the movie’s audio was blasting us with 21st century technology except for the dialog.  I still don’t have a clue what that movie is about but the special effects are breathtaking.      

It’s always the other travelers we meet that make the trip.  From Vientiane, we made our way north with our new found friends/family: Johnny, Maca, Ruben, Shannon, Ryan, Markus and Ana.  This was an interesting mix of Spaniards, Irish, Canadians Germans, and us.  We spent the next 7 days moving from one location, and comical situation, to the next.  I won’t go into it, but within one 24-hour period alone Ryan got two black eyes (no idea how), Maca married some Dutch guy, we were forced to rescue Markus from being helplessly adrift on an inner tube,  and Emily and I happily adopted Johnny, the Irish Guy, as our son.  He’s absolutely thrilled, BTW, with the name Johnny Knight.  

We ended up in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of French Colonial Indochina.  Then disaster struck;  Emily got a cold.  A terrible cold.  And she couldn’t shake it.  At least that’s what she said.  According to me, Emily’s cold is highly suspect actually.  You see, Luang Prabang is quite possibly the most exquisite small city in the world  (and I don’t ever use the word “exquisite”).  It sits on a peninsula overlooking the Mekong and has the perfect blend of Asian and European influences.  You can get up in the morning, throw back delicate croissants, drink locally grown Lao coffee, wander the backstreets of town admiring the colonial architecture, then sit back sampling the competing flavors of expertly cooked Lao food while watching the sun set over the river.  You get all this with the backdrop of hundreds of Buddhist monks silently walking the streets behind you.  It’s a paradise.  Emily happily stayed there for 9 days.  

Once I found out Emily was sick and that she wasn’t getting any better but didn’t seem like she was going to die either, I did what any good husband in this situation would do: I left.  I rented a motorbike and headed out for a few days to eastern Laos.  It was sad parting with Emily, our first in over 3 months, but I swear as we said our tearful goodbye she kept glancing over my shoulder at the french patisserie just behind me.  I drove east to check out some ethnic villages and hopefully see the famous Plain of Jars, possibly the most remote UNESCO World Heritage site on earth.  The Plain of Jars is actually bunch of ancient jars that are situated, amazingly, on a plain. The jars are around 3000 years old, there are thousands of them, and nobody has a clue what they were used for.  (Rice storage and funeral tombs being the big theories.)  There are dozens of jar sites in Laos, however there are only 3 major sites open for viewing due to all the unexploded bombs  and mines left behind by Uncle Sam. 

The different ethnic groups and Hmong tribes I came across quickly became too many to count.  It was approaching their New Year so a number of the communities were out in full regalia.  The most noticeable aspect about these groups, I found, was their complete lack of animosity for me, an American.  The number of amputees you see in eastern Laos is absolutely appalling.  That said, I was welcome into a number of homes, was shown an overwhelming amount of kindness, and was even given a parting gift by one of the guesthouse owners; a Russian hand grenade.  It was one of the greatest presents I’ve ever received and couldn’t wait to show it off to everyone back in the States.  Several days later it was pointed out to me, just before we left Laos, that airports aren’t very understanding about packing unexploded bombs into luggage these days.  The grenade is still in Luang Prabang.  

After 4 days on the road, I headed back to rescue Emily.  I soon found out she’d made a heap of local friends while I was away, eaten at most of the local restaurants and even played a gig or two.  I think there was even a bit of croissant crust on her lip when I burst in announcing my return.  In retrospect, I’m not completely sure she knew I was gone.  

The next day Emily and I headed north up the Nam Ou River into the outback of Northern Laos.  We completed some hikes, checked out a cave or two, ate the local Laos cuisine - including fried crickets and grubs - and generally lost ourselves in the spectacular scenery and laid-back Laos lifestyle.  Several days later, we made it back to Luang Prabang just in time to celebrate Emily’s 28th birthday.  After 9 days in town, she’d made some lasting friendships, and they managed to pull off a small, intimate birthday party while watching the sunset over the Mekong.  Her birthday present from me, a handmade spoon cast from the spent casings of old American bombs, wasn’t necessarily a cry-with-joy moment, but I fully expect it to grow on her with time.  

You’ve never been out there until you’ve been Laout there.  Enough said.  We'll be back.  

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