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The Minority Report Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you'll die.

Northern Lice

LAOS | Thursday, 20 March 2008 | Views [939] | Comments [2]

The small and relaxed city of Vientiane, actually pronounced Wiang Jan and translated as City of Sandalwood, sits on the northern bank of the Mekong River. For a capital city, Vientiane isn't exactly overloaded with museums and sights, but that's part of the attraction. We got to slow down to Loa speed.  We spent several days here doing much of nothing. On one of those days we did manage to get some exercise and went bicycling around town to various Wats and markets. We tried not too stay too long because as the dollar was getting worse the rooms weren't getting any cheaper. The same goes for the food, but it's so darn delicious it was hard to resist!
Midway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang lies the backpacker mecca Vang Vieng. This place reminded me of a Spring Break town that had more of a sedated feel to it. One of the highlights of this place is tubing down the gorgeous Nam Song River surrounded by splendid karst limestone mountains and being pulled in by a bamboo stick from the various bar shacks that line the river to drink a bucket of Coke and Lao Lao (rice whiskey), then jump into the water via rope swing. I only got to try it once before it broke. After that Mel and I just floated on down the river with beer in hand. It was a fairly slow river and we had to get our tubes back by 6 so it was nice of these kayakers to let us hold on to their boat. Talk about being lazy! Then after tubing all day you stop at any of the various restaurants to indulge in pizza, barbecue or pancakes while you watch old episodes of Friends, The Simpsons or The Family Guy.
After tubing, eating at the tasty Organic Farm Cafe, shopping and getting several Lao massages for almost a week we decided it was time to leave this place.
From there we went to the unspeakable temple town of Luang Prabang. The formal royal capital of Loas is littered with dozen of wats, interesting colonial buildings and trading houses. In fact, I was really taken back by the amazing architecture here with it's fusion of traditional and urban structures it felt like you were stuck in between centuries. There is a lot to do in Luang Prabang and the surrounding area. We skipped out on the caves, kayaking and minority villages. We felt we have seen enough.
But the hour scenic drive through rice fields, mountains and dusty ethnic minority villages to the beautiful Kwang Si Waterfall was a lovely time. The clear water cascades gracefully over limestone formations gathering into layers of stunning turquoise pools where you can swim in if you want. We didn't take a dip as it was later in the day, but I was very tempted to because it looked refreshing. Also, Phet the tiger and her three Asiatic Black Bear companions, rescued from the hands of poachers, are in large enclosures just before you reach the falls. As I was walking towards the tiger's cage, he was pacing back and forth, but abruptly stopped and made eye contact with me. It stunned me as I stood there frozen for a few minutes until I realized that maybe it was my banana and coconut pancake that he smelled. Seeing this tiger was one of the coolest things I've ever done. Don't know why, but I just found it to be very intriguing that this animal was right next to me. Holy cow!
We also hiked up Mount Phou Si, where there is a temple and you can take in the view of the town as well as the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. And of course we visited several of the wats. There was plenty of shopping to be had here, whether it be the local shops or at several of the markets on the streets. I was bummed out that we didn't get to participate in a cooking class because it sounded fun. But that's what we get for waiting until the last minute. We managed to leave without spending too much on clothes and gifts (unfortunately for you), but between our most expensive hotel and the cost of food I'd say this place was like a European city. It was a nice visit, nonetheless.
We decided to take the road less travelled to the friendly town of Phonsavan in the Xieng Khuang province. The windy road to get here was packed with stunning views of the rolling hills and sparse pine trees. I would love to see this place during the rainy season. I bet you it's plush green! What this town is famous for is not for it's scenery but for two reasons. Firstly, the area was one of the most heavily bombed in Laos, and that's saying something in the most heavily bombed country in the world. Today the region is littered with unexploded ordinance (UXO) and the evidence is everywhere. The resourceful locals use bomb casings and other remnants for every purpose imaginable: as fences and parts of their housing, as tools, vegetable planters, decoration and barbecue fireplaces. Secondly, the province is the site of the mysterious Plain Of Jars. The centre of Xieng Khuang Province is littered with clumps of large stone vessels, believed to be ancient funerary urns. The origin of these enormous jars is unclear, inciting international debate.
We visited four sights of the Jars. It was an interesting and informative tour. I did a lot of scenery beholding of the surrounding area; it made for a great photo op!
But as we walked through the designated paths that were cleared by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) you couldn't help but notice the massive bomb craters. And I started to think about the previous night when I was talking to a local guide who gave me the inside scoop on "The Secret War" called by many due to the U.S. denial of any involvement. Most people are very aware of the war in Vietnam, and America's involvement there, but fewer are aware that a very large part of the war was fought in Laos. 
Here's a little bit about "The Secret War"...
The Communist forces in Laos were building, and the US was threatened by their ties with Vietnam, so it moved in to help protect the royal family from falling to the communists. It enlisted the help of the Hmong people, a hill tribe group who lived high in the mountains. It is now widely known that the CIA's 'Air America' air force were used to transport the Hmong people's prime crop: the poppy from which both opium and heroin are derived. This was then sold overseas to raise funds to fight the war.
As he was informing me of this, I could hear the anger and resentment in his voice. And I couldn't help but feel ashamed and guilty. When I asked him what he thought about America the things he told me I completely agreed with, but at the same time I don't think people should hold innocent bystanders like myself accountable for my government's actions. As an American citizen I had to stand up for myself, but everything that he told me and everything that I saw on the following day really got a hold of my heart. I don't think we realize how badly we effected these people and their country.
Did you know that from 1963 to 1974, the equivalent of one bomb was dropped every eight minutes. Two million tons of ordinance was dropped on Laos, more than the US dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II?
Bombs were dropped on this area for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because it was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where troops, supplies and artillery were smuggled out of northern Vietnam and through the mountains on the eastern edge of the country, and into southern Vietnam. Secondly, American aircraft flying out of their Thai air bases were sometimes unable to launch their bombs at the 'primary target', due to bad weather or other circumstances. Unwilling to land safely back at the base while still carrying bombs, they dropped them on Laos.
The most common bombs at this time had a rocket shaped outside, filled with up to 600 small 'bombies'. The rocket casing split open as it fell, launching the smaller bomblets, which in turn were filled with hundreds of ball bearings. Up to around a third failed to explode on impact, leaving up to 30 million bombs lying on or beneath the ground to this day. Bombs lie under houses and roads, in school playgrounds and rice fields. These bombs were not designed to maim, so there is not an enormous amputee rate in the country. Instead there is a disproportionately large death rate from the exploding bombs, as inquisitive young children find them lying around and whole families work to hoe their land for farming. In 2001 there were more than 12,000 casualties
And now there are de-mining teams who are doing what they can to clean up the area, but I want to know why little effort is being made by our government to clean up this mess we made and more so by other countries around the world?!? I'm baffled by that really. You might not be a big deal to us because what's out of sight is out of mind, but these people live here and it's their everyday reality. They have been pushed out of their own habitats into smaller areas giving them little land to farm on, which means they don't make very much money so they don't have money to pay for their child to go to school. And when farming is out of season, they risk their lives trying to take matter into their own hands by using cheap machinery to find the bombs and detonate them themselves so they can sell the scrap metal. It's just a never ending battle for these people and I find it to be rather repulsive how we handled the situation. Plus the fact that our government is probably doing it all over again in Iraq. Eventually, our selfish acts of greed will catch up to us if we don't get involved into what our government is really doing. Hey, it happened to the Romans. What makes you think it can't happen to us?
Anyhoo, after a day of sightseeing we grubbed on some yummy local food, played badminton with the local street boys and fell asleep to a wicked rain storm that was long overdue! The next day we donated some books we bought in Luang Probang to the local orphanage, as well as some old clothing. Most of these kids lost their parents to UXO's (once again the guilt sinks in) so there are about 10 children to one mother. 12 mothers total. It's actually a nicely developed housing unit. Guess who came up with the whole idea? Did you say an American? Guess again. It was a German. Why would we do an act of kindness such as that? Ha!
While we were waiting for a tuk tuk to take us there, we were chatting with a local guy who was looking through the books. If you could have seen the way his face lit up when he was reading. It was priceless. Then when we went to the school where all the kiddies were, they were so stoked to see us. And they crowded around me like I was a celebrity or something. I think I will miss the kids most when I leave this place, but I'm going to encourage my older sister to teach English here so hopefully I will be back. And maybe by then I'll even take one home with me. They really have a hold on me. It's weird, I know!
Okay, well, that's all the rambling I'm going to do today and probably our last Blog, which is unfortunate for you, but lucky for me. We decided to cut our tour of Loas short and headed back to Vientiane last night on a 10 hour V.I.P. bus ride that was probably the worst. (I say that every time don't I?) But definitely our last so I'm not going to sit here and bitch about it anymore! *shoots off fireworks*  Tomorrow by 3 pm we should be in Kuala Lumpur to watch the Grand Prix. Woohoo! Yes, we will be in Malaysia the next 12 days. If we have time we might hit up Singapore as well. I will try to post more pictures to keep you up to date, but as I said this is probably the last Blog I will write for our Asian tour. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I didn't. Just kidding.




Courtney, thanks for the history lesson on the countries you've visited, it's been interesting to learn about other peoples! Keep in mind that there has always been war since the beginning of time and it is never pretty. Women tend to think that there should be another answer other than war. Women rock.
Love you, Mom

  your mother Mar 20, 2008 2:18 PM


Great blog! I agree about war, including Vietnam and Iraq. Too bad we don't control these things. Sounds like you are still having a good time and learning and seeing a lot of cool things. I'm so glad you've made the opportunity to do this trip and you and Mel had the courage to go! Not just anyone would undertake this adventure. You rock! Take care of yourselves and I'll see you, hopefully one day soon!
Love you!

  Stepmom Mar 29, 2008 1:10 PM

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