Thursday, August 17, 2006

Visiting the "not so Plain" of Jars in Phonsaven!

August 17th. Up early (yup i'd call 6:30am early!) today, said my fond farewells to the girls - and then headed off to meet Adam and Kathryn to catch our bus to Phonsavan (a mere 8 hour journey) to see the famous Plain of Jars!

The bus took us through incredible windy roads, very scenic with lots of lush jungle all around, alot like the Ho Chi Minh trail in Vietnam. We passed many villages on our way, some of them looking very very poor. Arrived in Phonsavan around 4:30pm... funny place that really builds its "infamy" on these strange jars that can be found in a number of sites outside of town, but also for its bomb craters and live ammunition that scatter the landscape here, as part of the aftermath of Laos' "secret war".

Met Mr TV (hey, that's the name he likes to go by 'cos his Lao name is too hard for us tourists to pronounce apparantly!)... who would be taking us on our tour tomorrow. Mad as a hatter but very informative! Went out for dinner and saw our first child begging here (hadn't come across it before..) very sad to see. Met a bunch of pretty wierd people who had clearly stayed in this town too long and wanted to take us to the local nightclub - if you had seen this town, you would have been very surprised that it had a nightclub! We managed to say thanks but no thanks and headed home for the night!

August 18th. What a day! Started really early around 6am when we met to start the tour. We had decided to visit Plain of Jars site 1 (with the most jars..), then on to the bomb craters and then to visit Mr TV's family in the recycled war village, where they use remnants of the war as part of their building materials.

The Plain of Jars is a very interesting phenomenon. It is a 500-square-mile, diamond-shaped region in northern Laos, covered with rolling hills, high ridges, and grassy flatlands. It gets its name from the hundreds of huge gray stone "jars" that dot the landscape. About 5 feet high and half again as broad, there are many theories about these containers; most now think they were created by people in the iron-age culture and probably served as burial urns. Exactly who created them, and why their culture disappeared, is not known.

Moved on to visit some of the many bomb craters that litter the landscape here (some of them are huge as you can see!). Mr TV showed us two live cluster bombs just sitting in the field - what, we cried! Shouldnt we tell MAG (Mine Advisory Group) in town about it - or do something to cordon it off. Don't worry they said, the local people will see them and keep away. Funnily enough they couldn't find the third bomb for a while then "aha" as we were walking right along the path our jeep had taken, there it was! Just sitting right there in the road.. anyone could drive over it and potentially set it off! Seriously crazy stuff... We were a tad cynical and asked Mr TV - hmmn how did you know there were three bombs just in this area. Did you put them there to show the daft tourists? He said that would be very dangerous for a) the villagers who would all think the bombs were harmless and b) the tourists would think the very real danger from these cluster bombs was being made up just for them! So no, the bombs appear of their own accord, especially during the rainy season! These bombs are quite sickening. They are dropped from a plane in a bomb casing with about 200 of these small ball-like bombs inside. If the pilot drops them too low, they dont turn enough on their fall, and dont go off. Cluster bombs work as follows - they have to turn approx. 100-150 times before they go off. So if they haven't "turned" before falling, they lie in the ground and seem somewhat harmless, especially to the local children who play with them, or farmers who tilled the land where they may have been last year but didnt go off. The problem comes when they are turned that last 100th time and then they do go off, killing and maiming innocent victims all over Laos. This is still a very real problem today and in fact, Mr TV has lost 2 cousins and a friend to cluster bombs going off in and around his village. Horrific stuff.. and there are thousands of them categorized as UXO's - unexploded ordanance -in Laos today!

After the scary bomb scenario and hearing about the depressing UXO situation, Mr TV lightened things up a bit by taking us into his village where we all had lunch - best noodle soup! Next stop - we visited TV's village (technically he calls it the "recycled village" due to the local people using the leftover bomb casings for a number of things from stilts for houses to flower pots)! Met his family and visited his house.. and of course had to taste the proverbial lao-lao again (yuk! but you cant be rude!). This is Mr TV and his assistant guide (whose name ive unfortunately forgotten but who was quite lovely)!, They LOVE their lao-lao! Oh yes, and on our way out, we passed quite a well kept garden of "marijuana" plants that apparantly everyone is allowed to grow a wee bit of, not enough to deal to others, just to keep you happy!

Back to the guest house around 3pm (passed some relaxed buffalo on our way) and met "the man whose name we cannot mention". Long story about the owner of a guest house who gave us an amazing insight into Laos, its history, its current situation and his thoughts for the future! Now of course what he discussed with us was just his opinions and knowledge but we were on the edge of our seats for about 3 hours just listening to him. Incredible stuff so of course i felt i had to share some of it with you!

During the "secret war" in Laos from 1963-74....over $2.5 million was spent every day on bombs dropped by the US; 56 million bombs over 9 years - 1 bomb every 9 minutes - shocking shocking statistics! At this time, according to the man whose name we shall not mention (Ok - i'm paranoid but don't want him to get into any trouble!).. over 60% of the local hill tribe people were conscripted into working for the CIA to send opium to the US. In Laos, was the most secret airfield in the world - and a secret city too, built in the 1950's by the US to house all the CIA involved in the drug industry. You could only fly in and out of this city, and at its peak it was the biggest city in Laos! Many people worked for the US and lived here at this time. Over 3 million tons of weapons were dropped on Laos. The real reason is different from the "official" information...Not 'cos the US were trying to drive out the Viet Cong and Communist influence in southern Laos, not because they had to get rid of their bombs that they hadn't managed to drop in Vietnam due to weather, so dropped them in Laos on their way back to their bases in Thailand. According to our friend, the real reason was to keep control of the drug industry that was feeding the US opium trade and increasing habit and dependancy. When the war ended, the US couldnt hide their drug industry any more so decided they had to come out against any and all drug business in Laos. They became very annoyed when the local Lao people then began to benefit from the drug industry set up by the Americans (there are some huge houses in Phonsaven!) but without explaining their initial involvement, couldnt really say anything! Mr No-name explained his frustration with most NGO's in Laos, saying the majority are corrupt and any money that does come in in grant form etc. is not funneled down to help the local people - e.g. New Zealand have given $1.3 million to MAG to help clean up the land mines surrounding the Plain of Jars. But hardly any additional areas have been cleared and "the man whose name we shall not mention" got so frustrated that he contacted the NZ contact and told them to come and make MAG accountable for their actions. He has been to over 30 countries, tried to publish a book about the real history in Laos with Boston University but then the govt's on both sides caught wind, and now he cannot get a visa to get out of Laos or to get into the US. He said that even today, people in Laos get by by keeping their heads down and not asking questions.

In addition, Agent Orange was dropped heavily on Laos as well as Vietnam. Also, there has been a bandit story circulating for some time now in the traveler community regarding the danger of taking the bus from Luang Prabang through Vang Vieng to Vientiene. Our friend asked us an important question - if there are so many tourists traveling that road every day (the road we took!), why are only the local buses being bombed? That doesnt harm the tourists, just the local people. The reason - the government are trying to control the hilltribe people who now live a very poor existence along the sides of the main road from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. These people were told they would receive great medical care, new houses, and a better life if they came out of the forests and moved into newly made villages for them. That didnt happen so they wanted to go back to their old lives but the govt. wanted their land and therefore needed to control them, so used explosions on local buses to keep them in check. Now these mountain people have lost their culture and way of life and live a subsistence living along the roads - very depressing.

Our friend also said he wasnt sure if the positive effects of tourism outweighed the negative for the people of Laos. The positive being alot more money being brought into the country.. people getting wealthier and having a better standard of living. The negative was the erosion of their traditional cultures, and seeing westerners sitting drinking, taking drugs (primarily in Vang Vieng - more on that later!)and looking to the local people, as having this amazing, decadent lifestyle. What they dont know is that people save up for years to take these trips, and what they do on holiday is quite different from their boring, routine lifestyles in "the real world"... but young Lao people look at westerners and say "thats the life i want".. and then begin to reject their traditional systems and beliefs and thus the erosion of their culture grows. Interesting point - and a interesting few hours. The reason i dont say our man's name - he can only talk as he did with us in Phonsaven where he is safe, if he spoke so openly in Luang Prabang or Vientiene, he would get into a lot of trouble.. well, more trouble than he has been in in the past (he has been in jail a few times for being too honest about his opinions.. ).

So intriguing to hear all of this from someone so involved in his country's politics. We asked him what people thought about the Iraq war and he said, there are so many things still to be sorted out with Laos, and their chequered history (war brought to their doorsteps not by them, but by so many other countries.. US, Vietnam,) that they didnt have the energy or interest to take on the horrors of someone else's war!. Wow - my head and hand couldn't keep up with all the info he told us...this is only a snippet but definitely food for thought!


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