February 28th, 2012: Phonsavan, Laos
I have 2 million Laotian kip in my pocket, a wad of cash a little less than an inch think. It’s early morning and I’m sitting at a street side cafe reading a book and drinking coffee. It’s hot and the sun is already beating down before 9 AM. Over my coffee and book, I’m admiring old women pushing food carts up and down the street at the beginning of another day. That’s when I hear a blood curdling cry. I look around for the source of the scream and see everyone around me pulling their heads out of conversations and breakfast in confusion and alarm. The scream sounds again and then a desperate plead of “Stop them! You can’t do this!”
A few of us stand up and move closer to the commotion. I see a middle aged Laotian man punch a middle aged white guy in the head, the dull clunk of the blow can be heard and he falls to the ground in the street. He’s on the pavement, on all fours and clearly out of it. Another Laotian man comes around from the side of a pickup truck and kicks his head like he’s punting it. A third Laotian man restrains the woman as if to say, “Don’t get involved. He deserves this.” There are at least 40 people hanging out of windows and shops or stopped on the sidewalk. Someone else breaks free and gets the man on his feet to take him into one of the nearby shops. He’s staggering badly, looks barely conscious and has blood running down his face. A pool of blood has collected by the fender of the truck and our punter walks into the shop with a nonchalant yet malevolent air. He’s making that motion with his hand that people make where their thumb and four fingers chomp together mimicking a shadow puppet talking. “Yeah, keep talking.” Somehow, I think the conversation is over. I don’t stick around much longer to find out what’s happening.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to abhor violence and the small mindedness that comes with it. This scene could be anywhere in the world, today it’s in Vientiane, the capital of Laos and head punters. I’m ready to take my 2 million kip to another town.
It’s not that Vientiane is that violent, an unfair and brutal street fight can happen anywhere, it’s just that there’s nothing to really do here. The fight was just the last straw for a boring town. It does have really good French influenced food, though (because Laos was a French colony for 60 years until 1953). You pretty much get a baguette with anything you order and they are awesome. You also pretty much get mayonnaise with everything you order, and that’s not so great. But a couple days was enough so I left Vientiane behind, traveling a little ways north to Vang Vieng in a minivan that Laotians wrongly and stubbornly call a bus.
Vang Vieng has stunning views of jagged mountains that rise straight up out of the earth with barely a transition from the rice paddies they tower over. I was excited to see mountains again and these were a different breed than I’ve ever seen. Modest in size and nearly every inch covered with thick jungle growth on what looked to be sheer cliffs in some places. This alone would be enough to make my day but I was happy to note that every Laotian I met was friendly and engaging. Not all of them play football with heads. But there’s always a downside and one of my special abilities is finding it. Vang Vieng would be amazing if it wasn’t for the hordes of young backpackers swarming like locusts over the town. The Saysong River, which is smaller and gentler than the Mekong, runs through the town and attracts 18-20 year olds with the promise of tubing down the river and getting blindingly drunk. The town caters to it for the tourism dollars, with drink specials called “Super Wasted Time!” and other terms that could have been coined by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And this critique is coming from a big fan of drinking. Almost every restaurant has multiple TVs mounted on walls with Friends or Family Guy playing on constant repeat at jet engine decibel levels. It’s still not loud enough to drown out the conversation of one guy explaining the significance of his tattoo “Live your dreams.” I wonder if he’ll see the irony of his tattoo when he’s a certified public accountant at an insurance company. I’m jaded on these people and a little concerned that I was that vapid once.
I decided to avoid the tubing and head for the mountains. I found a map for sale at a store and made some vague plans to trek up into the mountains and find some caves that were labeled all along the higher elevations. I optimistically set off in the morning thinking I’d do a 12 mile round trip circle, hitting 3 or 4 caves and getting up to some of the summits on a few of the more remote trails. After 4 hours, I made it up to a set of caves on one of the southern mountains and then up to its summit. It was over 100 degrees and I had already drank 3 liters of water. My plan of a more involved and adventurous exploration ended there. Getting up into the caves was fun but scaling the mountain in the heat was grueling. In some places, where the trail ascends very steeply, bamboo bridges and ladders have been constructed for assistance. They are scary. I used them and managed to get away fine, but that was the end of my trekking. Heat exhaustion wasn’t part of my plan. Maybe the drunk tubers had the right idea.
Again I was back on a “bus” that could carry 7 passengers (if leg room wasn’t necessary) and rumbling north. It broke down halfway to my next intended destination, Luang Prabang. I spent a couple fruitless hours watching the driver stick his head under the van, pull it back out looking confused, and then bang on random components with a wrench. Some negotiations eventually went on that I couldn’t understand, but a new, similarly uncomfortable and cramped bus pulled up and I was on my way again.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has a charming old world feel. It’s located on a peninsula in north central Laos, contained by the Mekong river on one side and a tributary, the Nam Khan, on the opposite. The tributary has small wooden bridges spanning the narrow sections that link to tiny villages and beaches with young student monks in Saffron robes that resemble prison jump suits. All over Luang Prabang are Buddhist temples and monasteries, boutique shops, old French architecture, and quaint views. It’s not a bad place to spend some time.
I’d walk down the streets and stop at cafes for good coffee and baguettes from time to time or just admire the french colonial homes. I saw some sickle and hammer flags hanging in tandem with Laotian flags from houses and buildings. (I should mention by now, if you didn’t know, that Laos is a communist country.) This is the first time I’ve ever noticed a sizable number of people hanging flags off their houses. For some reason, 60% of people back home in America find it necessary to do this or, at the very least, put some kind of magnetized flag on their bumper. I don’t see the point in this, whatsoever. I wonder if there is a Laotian version of Toby Keith, singing about putting a sickle up someone’s ass. Ho hum.
Every evening in Luang Prabang, the main road in town is shut down, transforming each night with covered pop up tents and paper lanterns emitting warm glows in the dark. Strange foods and unsanitary open air buffets take over alleys and street corners, a glowing temple stands guard in the background. This is Luang Prabang’s night market. It’s fun to walk through; exotic smells, paper lanterns, local tobaccos and teas, all lined up and for sale next to expensive carvings and kitschy T-shirts. The market itself is conspicuously quiet, everything seems hushed or secretive. Bargaining is done at levels slightly louder than your church voice and with a smile. The whole market exists like a ghost, disappearing with daylight. I drift in and out, pretend I may buy something or ask about its history and haggle the price just to stay sharp. I’m not actually shopping, just looking. If I had any way to carry that 80 pound porcelain elephant umbrella holder, I would.
Outside of Luang Prabang, in the mountains and jungles that are everywhere around here, I spent a day at an elephant village. The elephants are indigenous to the region and are mainly used for manual labor. Some organizations have taken to using the elephants for more humane businesses, like tourism, so I guess it’s a step in the right direction. I was paired up with a friendly, hairy giant named Mason.
She was a former logging elephant, put to useful work removing her own native habitat for the Chinese building boom. The elephant reserve I went to only uses females since they are smaller than the males (smaller still than their big African cousins) and less likely to kill you. Sitting on her neck and moving along like a Mahout through the jungles was a lot of fun. I thought we were going to fully submerge in the murky water when we forded the river perched on her hairy back, but it didn’t happen. Mason raised her trunk out of the water like a periscope to breathe while marching over the muddy bottom. From the river we meandered up hills and through the jungle. Every 50 feet or so, she would wrap her trunk around a bush, shrub, or a small tree and yank it out of the ground to munch on. She eats 550 pounds of vegetation a day. I wonder what it would be like if elephants were carnivores, grinding up flesh and bone. I probably wouldn’t be sitting on one if that were the case. Instead of eating people, elephants have another curious dietary habit; they eat wood. Large roots, branches, bark. They are the only animals that do this. Of the 550 pounds of plant life that they consume each day, most of it exits the other end in giant lumps. The elephant dung is collected by locals and the plant fibers and mushy wood pulp are extracted to make paper.
After the ride, I trekked through the jungle for about half a day, making my way back to where I started. The rainy season hasn’t begun yet, so it’s relatively dry, for a jungle. The water that I do see is amazingly blue, surrounded by dense vegetation and crystal clear. After the trek, I hung around the baby elephants that they are raising. There is a sad chain around their legs and attached to a wooden pillar but I doubt it would really hold them back if they wanted to break out. The babies are 6 or 7 years old so I guess they’re more like young adolescents, but they’re still awesome. Elephants can live to be 70 or more years old so the young ones are only beginning to develop. They’re playful and extremely curious, jamming their trunks into my face and arms. I don’t think they realize how big they are and that they could easily kill me, so it’s a little unnerving.
My jungle and elephant guide is an animist. He’s a pretty young guy and comes from one of the small hill tribes in the northern reaches of Laos. As an animist, he believes that everything has a spirit – animals, trees and plants, even rocks and thunder. Some spirits are good and others are malevolent. The spirit of the tiger is malevolent and is feared by his people in the hills. Diseases and misfortune are believed to be the cause of these same spirits and as such, witch doctors (maybe shaman is the more appropriate term) are found in his village and all the others that adhere to and practice animism. He has a very positive outlook which he attributes to his beliefs and his desire to keep the tiger at bay. These practices are always fascinating to me but I fear I’ll always remain a skeptic. I’m thinking that if I got sick here, I’d seek out a hospital in a large city well before drinking strange concoctions and smearing blood on my face.
I made my way deeper into Laos via minivan, crossing the northern mountains on endless switchbacks before arriving in Phonsavan. This is one ugly, pock marked town buried in the hills and jungles in the north east region of the country. It looks like a town filled with people who would rather be someplace else. Its saving grace, and the reason I’m here, is its proximity to what is known as the Plain of Jars. Spread over an estimated 90 sites, ancient stone jars, some weighing 4 tons and dating back to 500 BC, litter the hills overlooking rice paddies. No one is really sure why they are here or what their purpose is. Locals think the jars were part of an ancient war ceremony and used to brew fermented drinks for celebrations after important battles. Anthropologists believe they may be grave sites because human bones have been found in some of them. The age of the jars and bones don’t match and most people just agree to disagree on the subject.
One thing’s for sure, for their age and relative mystery, dumb tourists like me shouldn’t be allowed to tramp all around them and add to their decay. Maybe Laos will figure that out one day. Of the 90 sites, only 3 are accessible. The rest are too dangerous to go near because of the millions of tons of bombs buried just below the surface across the landscape. Back before America hated Muslims, we hated communists. Laos was unfortunately a sympathizer to North Vietnam and had a porous border that allowed determined Viet Congs to smuggle all sorts of weapons and supplies to South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Even though the US and other countries declared Laos to be neutral, it didn’t stop JFK from sanctioning a secret war spearheaded by the CIA.
Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of the world. That’s the stat I got while doing some war tourism (warism?) in Phonsavan. With a population equivalent to the Philadelphia metropolitan area, this place had more bombs dropped on it than all of Europe in WWII. Sit back and think about that. Of those enormous amounts of explosives, about 30% never detonated because they fell into mud or never armed fully. Those 30% are exploding now and have been whenever farmers plough new plots of land, communities expand, or children venture farther from home as they grow and play. All around the jar sites I visited, huge craters mix into the landscape where they have replaced portions of an unknown and ancient civilization.
The legacy of the carpet bombings are the future of Laos. Strangely, or maybe not when you think about it, the people have embraced this sad history (as much as you can hug a minefield). A restaurant across the street from my guesthouse is called craters. The homes and decor of the businesses are decorated with UXO (Unexploded Ordinance). An ashtray at one of these fine establishments is a hollowed out shell of a cluster bomb that actually flared up when I put my cigarette out in it (you know these are recent finds, not just relics of a distant past). The region of Xieng Khouang, has made the tragedy into an educational tourist attraction. Admittedly, it’s not that attractive and few tourists come here.
I took a detour while visiting some of the jar sites and explored two villages intimately connected to the bombing campaigns of yesteryear. I bounced around on a dirt road in a minivan with the tour to a ramshackle grouping of huts. This is Spoon Village. Named so because the locals have hit on an industrious idea. They take the scrap metal from cars, building sites, and most conspicuously bombs, to melt down and make spoons and other items. In the back of a hut, a few Laotians are gathered around a brick furnace, melting down the aluminum tails and heads of decommissioned UXO and pouring it into wooden blocks that serve to mold the metal into spoons. I took a turn at the furnace and dumped molten aluminum into the mold. It didn’t turn out great the first time, so I remelted it and got a better result. I took a handful of the spoons as one of the few souvenirs of my trip. They aren’t great as spoons go, but definitely interesting eating utensils.
The second village is a Hmong (pronounced “Mung”) settlement that was displaced during the American rainstorm of democracy. The locals call it bomb village and it has existed for about 35 years or so. The bombs may have displaced them (the ones not incinerated in caves) but the moniker is derived not from the cause of their displacement but their practice of utilizing fragments of the shells for rebuilding. Huts sit on stilts of missile shells that once contained hundreds of bombs that spread out in clusters over the hills. These same shells are arranged to form fences, garden planters, ovens, and water collection systems. It’s surreal to walk through it all. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to live through those days. On average, every 8 minutes, a plane would fly over this region of Northern Laos and empty its whole payload, thousands of pounds of cluster bombs. This went on 24 hours a day for 9 years. I can’t comprehend it. Now the people take these fragments, reminders of a bitter past, and integrate them into their daily lives. There’s nothing about this place that I can fully grasp. It’s too tragic and just sitting right in front of you. I made my way back to my guesthouse to pack.
Sometime later, I crossed the border into North Vietnam.