Saturday, December 31, 2016

Weaving Silk and Stories in Phonsavan

Ruth: Happy New Year! We are enjoying the first rainy day of our trip by sitting around the fire at our guest house. The fire pit is made from the casing of a US cluster bomb dropped on Laos in their Secret War on the country. As the fire starts to heat up, our host tells us more about the War and its continuing aftermath for the Laotian people. As a young boy he lived in a village located near a location where the Americans had a CIA base during the War.  This is still not officially approved information, but his family and village were all well aware of the base. The area around the base is still closed and completely off limits to the public. He told us that he and his friends would find and play with the "bomblets" that were peppered across their community.  After witnessing a number of tragic accidents in the village, his father moved the family to Phonsavan where they would be safer. He described how he was the lucky one, as his two best friends who remained in the village were both killed by unexploded ordinance (UXO).

Yesterday we visited an organic, fair trade silk farm that trains local village women in all aspects of silk production. Even in the morning the ladies had the Laotian music cranked and were starting their New Year's Eve fun. 

We are  slowly collecting a clan of cyclists and are now a group of six. We all met for dinner at an Indian restaurant before heading back to the fire pit for the evening. Gord and I celebrated the New Zealand New Year and went to bed early, but the fun went on without us. Fortunately we missed the beer showers around midnight.

Today I went for a wonderful massage. My masseuse was a former farmer who lost both eyes from UXO.  With the support of a local group he retrained in massage and now works with another blind man in their massage clinic. I have been told that at least one percent of the population of Laos is missing arms or legs from the War or UXO.  If we factor in the fatalities and the other injuries the scale of the ongoing tragedy is frightening. 


Gordon:  The regional capital of Phonsavan, where we are spending three nights, is well-known for two things: the Plain of Jars, and unexploded ordinance (UXO).

The Plain of Jars is an area with clusters of carved stone vessels.  Although little is known about the culture that created them, they are believed to date to the Iron Age (3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D.)  They come in a variety of sizes, the largest being about 2.5 metres in height.  Their function is unclear, but it is believed that the recently deceased may have been placed in a jar until the body was reduced to only bones.  At this point the remains may have been removed from the jar and buried or cremated.

During the Vietnam War Laos was heavily bombed to assist the government forces in their civil war with the communist forces (the Pathet Lao), and also to impair movement of personnel and materials along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  This "Secret War" saw, on average, a B-52 load of bombs dropped on Laos every 8 minutes for 9 years.  An estimated 30 percent of the munitions did not detonate, littering the country with millions of devices that are still explosive.  Twelve thousand people have been killed by this UXO since the end of the War, and they continue to die at the rate of about three per month.  Many more, 40 percent of them children, have been maimed.

Damaged jars beside a bomb crater. 

We visited the offices of Mines Advisory Group (MAG) an NGO that trains Laotian to clear UXO.  Later we visited the Plain of Jars Site #1 and saw the results of their work on the ground.  The edges of the paths at the site have concrete markers set into the ground to indicate that the area is safe.  Only a few of the jar sites have been cleared so that they may be visited.  UNESCO World Heritage status for the Plain of Jars is on hold until more of the sites are cleared.  More significant to the local economy is the arable land that lies fallow due to the fear of UXO.

Many of the hotels and restaurants in Phonsavan are decorated with bombs and other war material.  The guesthouse where we are staying, for example, uses a 2 metre long cluster bomb casing as a fire pit for the morning and evening fires.  Cluster bombs, the most common type of bomb dropped on Laos, are particularly odious.  The casing opens in mid-air releasing several hundred tennis ball size anti-personnel bomblets.  They are attractive to children and have caused most of the ongoing carnage.  The U.S. is one of the countries that has not signed the international convention to prohibit the use of cluster bombs.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Phoukoun to Nong Tiang, Nong Tiang to Phonsovan: Hmong New Year

Ruth: Overnight the Hmong villages in the mountains between Phoukoun and Nong Tiang were transformed into a colourful display. It was the first day of their multi-day New Year celebration, and we were lucky enough to be passing through. Everyone was wearing their very best outfits with no two alike. 

Hmong are the third largest recognized ethnic group in Laos. The majority of Hmong follow both animist and ancestor worship. We could hear shamans ringing gongs in a few houses as we passed and later learned that this was to summon back all the ancestors to help bless the house. In every village boys were playing with large wooden tops and the girls were playing a ball tossing game. Cock fights were also a big attraction, perhaps drawing too many of the young men and boys away from the ball tossing game, which traditionally was an opportunity for courtship. 

Our ride yesterday was another tough one, with the biggest climb at the end of the day. Accommodation at Nong Tiang was a very basic bungalow with a large bucket of cold water and a squat toilet. When Gord asked if there was a shower our host just laughed. It would have been OK, but it was a particularly cold and windy night and the gaps in the siding let the wind blow right through. 

When we woke up in the morning it was only 4 degrees and very foggy. We decided the only way to stay warm was to start cycling.  Two kms down the road we saw a much nicer guesthouse that had solid walls and, I'll bet, even hot water. The ride to Phonsovan was only 50kms, but after only 7 kms my hands were going numb. We pulled into a yard with an open fire and joined the family to warm up. Houses here are often open to the elements and so on a cool morning most families will be found around an outdoor fire.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Luang Prabang to Kiewkacham; Kiewkacham to Phoukoun: Up into the Mountains

Ruth: Even if we had wifi or cell yesterday, which we didn't, I had no leftover energy to blog a single word. We have set a new personal record for vertical climbing in a single day: 1900 meters! Fortunately the road was well graded and stunning. By the time I rolled into the guesthouse at Kiewkacham, stuffed my face with noodles and soup I could barely stumble back to the room. I slept like the dead and was pleasantly surprised to find that in the morning I had mostly recovered.  

At each Hmong village that we passed we were once again greeted by every single child under the age of 10 yelling "Sabaidee" and waving. I am no longer playing the high-five game, as some of those lads wind up and hit hard. Many want to try out their English words on us as well. I had several wish me a good morning and two 15 year old boys said they love me! 

Our second day had some climbs, but nothing like our first day. We have seen four other cyclists in the last two days, including an Austrian cyclist staying at the same guesthouse tonight. Yesterday we met a Spanish guy who had lost his front and back brakes and was trying to brake by pushing his fender onto his tire.  We met him at the top of a 12 km downhill grade - I sure hope he made it safely down to Luang Prabang.

Our record breaking profile. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Slow Boat on the Mekong


Ruth: On our third day in Luang Prabang we decided to take the slow boat a few hours up the Mekong River to visit the the Buddha Caves at Pak Ou. The Mekong is still a major transport route for all the countries along it, and perhaps the only flat ride in Laos. Of course, as soon as I got on the boat I needed a washroom, so I tried the on board facilities. It was not only a squat toilet, but a stoop as well. The doorless corner at the back of the boat was only about 4 feet tall. 

On the return trip we stopped at a Hmong village known to tourists as  the Whiskey Village.  Gord was given two large swigs of the stuff with the hope that this would inspire him to buy his own bottle of rice based fire water. Many of the bottles came with an added bonus of a pickled baby cobra or scorpion. Gord was also offed some opium by a sweet old lady, but he declined both the cobra juice and the narcotic.

Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas in Luang Prabang

Gordon:  Like a number of other travellers we have met we made an effort to be in Luang Prabang for Christmas.  This small city is certainly the most popular destination for foreign tourists in Laos.  And for good reason, as Luang Prabang is a charming town on the Mekong River with a laid back vibe.  It has UNESCO world heritage status for its fusion of traditional Lao architecture, including an amazing density of Buddhist temples, and 19th and 20th century colonial architecture.  No doubt partly because of the UNESCO designation, and accompanying funding, the town has avoided many of the less attractive features of other cities in the region. It is truly like being in a comfortable colonial town of the mid-20th century.

Another factor in the state of preservation of Luang Prabang is that it was not bombed in the Vietnam War.  As a Royalist rather than a Pathet Lao centre, it avoided the destruction from above meted out to most cities in Northern Laos.  This came as a surprise to me.  Although I was only in my early teens, I, and everyone, knew that President Nixon was lying when he said that American forces were not bombing Cambodia.  However, I had no idea that missions were regularly flown hundreds of kilometres into Laos to bomb cities.

We are relaxing and spending four nights in Luang Prabang in a very nice guesthouse metres from the Mekong River.  The days have a pleasant rhythm of watching the almsgiving ceremony at dawn, eating breakfast overlooking the Mekong, walking around town and taking in a few sights during the day, and wandering through the night market in the evening.

The almsgiving ceremony is a feature of daily life throughout the country, but in Luang Prabang it has become a must see (and perhaps participate) event for tourists.  Starting before dawn, the monks from the various and numerous wats troupe through town with their begging bowls to receive gifts of sticky rice and other food from members of the public.  Those giving alms earn merit through their offerings.  The ceremony is conducted in silence, and away from the throngs of tourists, and in the cool, early morning, it has a quiet dignity that has us going back to observe each morning.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Nong Khiew to Naham: Making Nori

Ruth: So what do you call sea weed that is not from the sea? The villages along our route this morning were busy producing a nori like river weed product. Women were working the river collecting the greenery that was later slapped out into a uniform layer on a drying mat. Tomatoes, sesame seeds and slivers of onions were sprinkled on top before more slapping with a rattan brush pushed the additions well into the layer. This step also appeared to be carried out by women.

Finally, women set the finished product out to dry in he sun. 

It does appear to us that the women and girls work very hard in this country, and yet in this traditional society most major decisions are made by men. What's more, in Lao Buhddism women are viewed as spiritually inferior to men. In their cycle of rebirth they must be reborn as a man before they can achieve nirvana. I don't think so!

We did try the dried river weed at one of our guesthouses and it is quite tasty. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Pak Mong to Nong Khiaw

Ruth: Nong Khiaw is only a 30km detour off our route to Luang Prabang, and well worth the additional distance. The Karst landscape provides a stunning backdrop to this lovely town squeezed between mountains and the river Ou.  We visited a nearby cave that sheltered the Pathet Lao, the communist revolutionary force, from American air strikes during the Vietnam war. The former regional capital was so damaged by bombing that it was moved to Nong Khiaw.  In 1975 the Pathet Lao took power folloeing their defeat of Royalist forces in a civil war that had been going on since the French left in 1953.

We have been dining our hearts out here. There is an excellent Indian restaurant were we experienced my new favorite treat: chocolate &  banana paratha.