A Travellerspoint blog

February 2012

Phonsovan

One of the most mysterious and dangerous places on earth...

rain 14 °C

This area in the North Eastern Laos to the Vietnamese border in considered one of the most dangerous places on earth. This is not because of natural disasters or because of axe murderers as fortuately both are very rare in this area. When passing the prison in fact, the driver informed us that the worst crime regularly committed is stealing someone elses buffalo. As we have no buffalo (yet!) then we were unlikely to become victims of this prevelant crime as we stopped for three days in Phonsovan.

The reason for the danger is the amount of unexploded ordinance and artilery in the area left over from the American campaign against Laos in what is termed the 'Secret War'. During the Vietnam war, the USA were worried about Vietnamese fighters using Laos to set up bases or travel through to get to different parts of Vietnam without meeting USA blockades. The USA therefore carpet bombed Laos as a way to root out the insurgents. We were informed that there was more bombing in Laos during the period than were dropped on the whole of Britain during the Second World War!

At the time of the bombing locals were forced to live in caves under the mountains to avoid the sheer amount of force being plied down on them by American caves. These bombs were not dropping on amunition factories or on major ports but were falling on villages and farmland leaving the survivors greaving and unable to provide food or sustinence for their families. When in the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) readng room I read a really poignant quote from a journalist during this time which I will paraphrase here.

"Talking to the refugees who had fled the bombing to Vietiene all had stories of loss and death. Each refugee, without exception, asked me, 'Why are they bombing us? Who are they? Do you know?"

Normal people were losing their lives without any knowledge as to who was committing these atrocities or why they were being targetted. The pain and fear that this must have caused is terrible to contemplate. Add to this that the whole bombing campaign was an entirely illegal act by the USA as it contravened a treaty which stated that Laos would remain a neutral country, and the whole campaign was kept as confidential and under strict secrecy in the USA and hidden from the world at the time.

All these years later, people are still suffering at the hands of this campaign. It is estimated that 30% of all explosives dropped on Laos during this period failed to detonate when it hit the ground and instead remained buried in farmlands, forests, hill sides and under homes just waiting for the day it would be disturbed and explode. What this means is that cluster bombs, or 'bombies' as they are locally termed, are waiting around the living areas of a rural population and are most often found when children are playing and lose their lives or farmers are ploughing they own land with a hoe and lose an arm. The week before we arrived a child lost their legs when they were hitting a stake into the ground to tie their buffalo and hit a 25 year old US cluster bomb that exploded.

A British based NGO, Mines Advisory Group along with other partners are currently working in Laos to clear as much land as possible and other measures to avoid further damage from the UXOs. They organise training for local children on the dangers of appraoching unexploded ordinance through puppet shows or art work, they train teams of bomb disposal experts from the local communities and provide them with top notch equipment, knowledge and support in order that once identified, bombs that have been located can be carefully made safe. Talking to people in the communities around the area it is clear how much impact this charity is having in the area, not just through the practicalities of making more land available, but also contributing to creating employment and sustainable communities in the area. I urge anyone who comes accross this charity to support the work they do because the money you give really does support the people who need it most!

As we were in the area and had done our research in the visitor centres we decided to head out and see some of the remnants of this campaign ourselves. We hired a guide because, when considering everything stated above, wandering without a guide in this part of Laos is unsafe and stupid. We drove up to a plateau amongst villages and farm land where the land had been left unfarmable due to the bombing. The area had just been demined and what was left that was not explodable had been ravaged by the scrap metal collectors; another dangerous activity that many villages are driven to by poverty, collecting metal with a metal detector in a landscape punctuated with active bombs. The size of the crators left by the bombs brought home the damage that had been caused and the power of these explosives. The freezing wind and fog on the plateau created an eerie and macabr atmosphere that etirely matched what we were there to learn about.

BOMB CRATER

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Next stop was a local village in the area most affected by bombing. Villagers, struggling in the aftermath of the bombing and unable to farm their lands for fear of explosives, had taken to collecting the scrap from the bombing to sell or use. Fragments of gigantic bombs made up parts of houses, ffences, cow sheds, and even planting boxes for onions! The ingenuity and desire to just get on with what they had shows the resilence of the Laos people and their flexibility to work with whatever they have and survive despite their hardships.

BOMB VILLAGE

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Next stop was slightly more cheerful as we headed to another waterfall. The guide insisted this was a trek and had decided not to warn us before we set off. Luckily we were dressed appropriately for what turned out to be an ideal walk for Andrew and a real test of self for me! A clumsy child, my sense of balance has not improved significantly since I was about 18 months old. I tend to stumble through rather than gliding and I have come to terms with that. So the walk down a steep and narrow dirt track along the side of the waterfall was a challenge to me but I survived. After a lunch by the foot of the waterfall of fresh fish and sticky rice it was time to return to the top. However, on the way up we used a different route... up the four tiers of the waterfall itself using only the rocks to climb under the rushing water and occassionally using a fallen tree trunk to walk across! I have seen this done before, if only by Baloo in the Jungle Book, and I will admit I was absolutely terrified of real risk of death halfway up. Andy jumped and pranced through like a mountain goat. However, we both made it to the top and I was proud of myself! Although Andy asked if he could have another go, I was ready to be back on dry land!!

The real incentive for our trip to Phonsovan was to visit the 'Plain of Jars'. These are a collection of over .... stone jars and lids of various sizes that scatter accross the hillsides of the nearby mountains. These jars are said to date from between 200 to 500 BC but there is no conclusive evidence as to what civilisation built these jars, how they constructed them or for what purpose they were constructed. But stuff the historical evidence! The local residents will tell you a collection of tall tales as to the answers to all of the above questions. From 16th Century wine jars to 12th century burial jars to alien intervention, each guide, guesthouse owner and man in the street will give you his definative answer! We tried out a few of theories with the jars and we can give you our perception that these jars would be very difficult to drink wine or whiskey from!
The jars themselves are strange and mysterious but it is the sheer scale of how many litter the hillsides and the impressive backdrop of mountains and rice fields that make the experience of visiting so spectacular.

PLAIN OF JARS SITE

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As we boarded our night bus to Hanoi it was time to say goodbye to Laos. This is a lovely country with some spectacular things to see and impressive places to visit. The people are friendly and travel is inexpensive. Although for me it did not hold as much charm as Cambodia I have definately been more impressed by our time in Laos and would reccommend a prolongued stop in this country rather than a rush through the main cities.

Sabaidee Laos! Good Morning Vietnam!

Posted by Annie Thornton 05:04 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfalls plain_of_jars phonsovan bomb_village Comments (0)

A Tale of Two Cities

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang

sunny 28 °C

VANG VIENG AT SUNSET
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Now when you meet anyone who has headed to Laos they tend to have the same itinerary, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Both have their assets and their attractions and after our exploration of the South we decided to get on this tourist trail and see what everyone raves about. It is clear why that this route is followed by the traveller, easy transport options, airconditioned busses and pleantiful guesthouses at reasonable prices. Each location is packed with all the facilities required to 'make easy' the travellers day; cheese and ham toasties, cable television, stalls selling Pantene and internet cafes. However, both have embraces the term 'tourist friendly' in very different ways which, in turn, entice a different kind of traveller.

There are many types of traveller treading the route in South East Asia but the by far most frequent found in Southern Thailand and Central Laos is what we have termed 'The Tubing Victims'. Other types of tourists in the area include 'The Rich French Retiree' and 'The Sex Tourist' which may appear in this blog somewhere in the future...

You can identify a 'Tubing Victim' by a series of signs. If male, they are generally wearing a vest which is emblazened with either 'Full Moon Party' or a local brand of beer. Their wrists are full of bracelets and bangles which you are sure they would never wear at home and will probably remove very quickly when they have to go back to the office or the pub with their mates to avoid ridicule. They generally have have had a terrible tattoo in a 'tribal design' when have been trashed on the Thai Islands somewhere. And, with few exceptions, each is headed to Laos "to go Tubing in Vang Vieng" or has just had an "awsome time Tubing in Vang Vieng". As with all steriotypes this is a very simplified view of what can be very complex and interesting people and on the otherside what can also be pissed up idiots who are generally unaware of what country they are in at the time. Now the 'Tubing Victim' can be found in their greatest numbers in their very unnatural habitat of Vang Vieng and the best time for spotting these interesting specimins is either at sunset when they go out in search of food and drink or at sunrise when they lollap home to sleep through the heat of the day.

After meeting a large number of Tubing Victims we were naturally quite sceptical when heading to Vang Vieng to try and understand this Tubing phenomenon. Tubing in Vang Vieng can be summarised as floating down a river on a giant pumped up tractor inner tyre. Lining the river are wooden bars on stilts accompanied by a young chap with extroadinary hand eye coordination who can throw a plastic bottle on a rope with brilliant accuracy to you as you float to catch to be pulled into his bar. The town itself is very set up for this type of tourism, and as such is a combination of bucket bars and guesthouse restaurants playing endless reruns of Friends DVDs.

However the grotty town centre is set in an absolutely fantastic scenery as floating down the river amongst mountain cliffs rising up above you on both sides cannot be matched. The ride itself is fantastic and can be seen from either boat, kayak or tube. As we were on the job to fully understand this tubing malarky we decided to get fully involved and partook in the stopping at bars, the free food and shots as you jump out of the water onto the deck (or if you are Annie, fall out of the tube into the water, splash to the deck whilst nearly losing tube entirely and then scramble without any grace at all onto the deck side). Andy was very enthused with the multiple rope swings, zip lines and giant water slides that accomany some of the bars and teaming up with a Kiwi couple we didn't see the blokes that much as they ran from getting out of the water back to the top of the water slide for another go. Andy was less enthused with this the day after when he was covered in bruises but maintains he has no regrets!

You drop your tube off as you go into the bar at the 'tube park' and then pick one up on the way out. My highlight was Andy getting left 'Tubeless' at the final bar and having to float the next 3km down the river on a childrens tube which rather than lazily float on with enough room to hold a beer, he had to fit the bottom of his bum in the middle and adjust his balance to avoid being captsised all the way down. It gave people on the shore a good laugh as well.

After the decadence of Vang Vieng and its water adventures we took to the road to Luang Prabang. Suddenly the Tubing Victims were no longer the major force on the street. This town in the stronghold of the Rich French Retiree which means less Friends DVDs but an equal amount of Cheese and Ham toasties (le croque monsier is the national French fave after all!). Where Vang Vieng is all about convenience and crass, Luang Prabang is set up for pure class. Listed as a Unesco Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is famed for its Oriental and French architecture and meandering boulevards set along the Mekong River. The city oozes character with mahogany pannelled and floored colonial villas set against palm trees and beautiful decorative temples. Luang Prabang is also home to expensive resteraunts (by Laos standards) and posh bars. Both are things I did not expect of Laos at all.

After exploring the streets of the city by foot, we wandered up to the peak to look out over the town and see the Buddha's of the Week. A Buddha for each day lines the walk to the summit and all were impressed by the view. NB. Not all were impressed with my rendition of Craig David's 7 days edited to include Buddha... "Buddha went for a drink on Monday, Buddha took me for a drink on Tuesday..." and so on. Relaxing in a herbal sauna after our walk around the city we planned our next day's activity to head out to the Khon S Waterfall.

WATERFALL PARADISE

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Now Andy accuses me of being a waterfall sceptic. He says that since I went to Iguazu Falls I am unable to appreciate any falling water without being dissapointed. However, the waterfalls outside Luang Prabang are beautiful and impressive without being the overwhelming and powerful force that was Iguazu. Wandering into a 'jungle water park' we were unsure what to expect but any park that involves walking through a bear sanctuary before arriving at the main attractions has got to be a winner. There are about 15 black bears who have been rescued from poachers and cruel captivity kept at the sanctuary by donations. The waterfalls almost fell by the wayside when we started watching the bears who incidentally have a great love for lying in hammocks, much like me and Andy!

We dragged ouselves off to the green-blue pools and drops of the waterfalls and spent the day basking in the natural coves and pools created by the water. The effect of sitting under the waterfall as it bumps into the small pools is a bit like being in a cold jacuzzi. Luckily we could always retreat back into the sun to warm up. Hearing splashes and screams Andy went again on search of a jumping point or rope swing (in the excitement his Vang Vieng bruises went forgotten) and he was not dissapointed to find a swing right out into the heart of the natural pool. I missed the first attempt on camera so whether he liked it or not, he had to go again to get this shot!

WATERFALL ESCAPADES

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All in all, both Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang are orientated by the rivers at their heart. Where in Vang Vieng this is for decadent recreation, Luang Prabang it is for quietly sitting by at sunset and sipping a cold drink. Andy took up his pencils and paper to capture the peaceful river scene as we prepared to leave and get back off the beaten track to Phonsavan and the mysterious Plain of Jars....

Posted by Annie Thornton 04:48 Archived in Laos Tagged waterfalls rivers sunset laos luang_prabang tubing vang_vieng Comments (0)

Exploring Laos

Savannakhet to Vientiene...

sunny 26 °C

Savannakhet

After our adventures on the pig/goat/duck/chicken bus, we arrived in Savannakhet quite late on the Monday. Savannakhet is a trading riverside town with an international border to Thailand and has a whole host of touristy activities which are scattered around the region. It actually looks quite buzzing on an evening here with plenty of cafes, bars and clubs to go to, along with a plentiful supply of sex tourists. Swings and roundabouts after all!

In true style we sought out our own little adventure on the outskirts of town. We hired a scooter and went for a ride eastwards towards a turtle lake. The sun was shinning, the air was clean, the roads were pretty decent and we had a decent responsive scooter under our legs. The ride was fine until I felt a slight balance issue with the rear of the bike (its a man thing), so I took it slow until the next garage (also in plentiful supply). We disembarked the two wheeled motorised scooter to find the rear tyre as flat as a pancake. Thankfully a gleaming smile from a local grease monkey greeted us saying that he could help out for a measly sum of only 10,000 kip (50p)! As Annie and myself looked on with much en-trepidation, the nice mechanic flipped off the wheel and popped out the inner tube in a jiffy, then got to work on fixing the puncture. Back on the road with a fully inflated tyre once again, it occurred that we might be becoming a stereotype of our own – perhaps motorised two wheeled vehicle enthusiasts (I'm not allowed to call it a motorbike apparently because its an automatic!) or maybe just those type that like to see the real world from their own eyes.

Without knowing what to expect from turtle lake, it was set on the outskirts of a small town in the middle of nowhere! The lake wasn’t much bigger than the lake at Platt Fields Park in Manchester, or perhaps the size of a football pitch, but there was an elevated platform across to the centre of the lake which was full of tourists feeding the turtles sticky rice and prawn crackers. The turtles were huge, about the size of a car tyre - to a bus tyre (I like to be accurate with my estimations!) I reckon some of them must be a 100 years old! The turtles were impressive and liked the apparent attention, but they were incredible ugly creatures!, with warts, blemishes, green goo in their eyes and wonky unsymmetrical shells!

On the way back to Savanakhet we popped into a temple which had been heavily bombed by the Americans in 1972. A sign on the wall read ' MAG SAFE SITE', so we knew it was a safe place to walk free from bombies. All around Laos (and Cambodia) are UXO's (Unexplodeded Ordinances) which the locals call 'bombies' and basically are unexploded missiles and bombs dropped by the Americans. Apparently a third did not explode on impact and continue to kill, maim and injure thousands of people each year, so walking around places which are not cleared is just a big no no.

Back to Savannahket and the commencement of the annual Star Wars day on the laptop! Annie has never seen them before so I treated her to the whole lot in a day and a half! Now sufficiently versed in Star Wars references and quotes we set of on our bus trip to Vientiane. May the force be with you...

Vientiane

The largest city and capital of Laos, Vientiane is the French name for Viengchan. An impressive city with a charismatic feel to it. Patisseries, Wine bars, herbal saunas, monasteries and English Pubs line the streets of Vientiane. I have to say that we participated in all of the above in the two nights and three days that we were there.

The one thing we had to do in Vientiane that was of importance was to arrange our Vietnam Visa. Unfortunately and due to something called the New Year, the blimey commies were on holiday for a week – how dare they! With this in mind we skipped on to Vang Vieng for some tubing action!!!

Posted by Annie Thornton 05:21 Archived in Laos Tagged turtles scooters vientiene savannakhet Comments (0)

Return of Andy!

The Lost Night in Shinanoukville and the Lovely Pictoresque Si Phan Don

Return of Andy!

Thank you for all those letters of support who have missed reading my witty and insightful blogs. I can confirm that I am back with a vengeance to give you an up to date repertoire of Laos and that lost night from Sihanousksville in Cambodia for New Years Eve. Lost night you say?, well I feel that a small part of my brain has been lost there, as I'm sure most of you also lost a few brain cells on NYE too! I've had a little bit of the 'writers block', but the thoughts and wisdom are now flowing again since having a hot shower (which are few and far between)!

Sihanoukville 30th December 2011 – 4 January 2012
What better place than the beach for a new years eve party I said to Annie, which she quickly agreed as long as we could find a place to stay. The bus journey from Battombong was quite scary, not on account of the safety aspect, but from all of the stories that people were telling us how full Sihanoukville is over NY’s. Having arrived very late, the tuc tuc man brought us to a fine establishment called GMP (or something to that effect) and a room cost $10 for a double room –result! In fact the room wasn’t great on account of several rat sightings, but it was fine over NY’s. We met some new friends whilst in SHNKV called Lucy and Will, who were interesting people from London and we went on to spend the next few weeks travelling with them.

We were aware of a big party called the water festival , which included the presence of the Cambodian Prime Minister, but felt that wasn’t really our scene. Our scene involved mass quantities of Angkor Beer, hand held fireworks, buckets of spirit induced refreshments, and a beach party with lots of people! Well, it wouldn’t be quite right if we didn’t have a proper party. With all of these seemingly complementary elements in place, the night turned out to be a bit of a blur, including swimming in the sea at quarter past midnight 1st January 2012. To make matters even more blurry, a friend who we met in Siam Reap was working behind the bar, so that meant extra large servings! Ps, always drink responsibly (http://www.drinkaware.co.uk/) .... ahem...

Me and Annie didn't see the morning after, but we did see the outside world from about 4pm, just in time for sunset! We set our sights on the 2nd January as a more positive day and decided that it was better just to write off the 1st day of 2012 as a necessary consequence. It does seem that we’ve had a few written off days, but as they say if you are to make a cake, you’ve gotta crack a few eggs.

On the 2nd, we decided to go on an island hopping boat trip to partake in some snorkelling, beach fun and general relaxing. There are actually lots of little islands located a few kilometres of the coast of Cambodia. You can also see the massive island of Phu Quoc in the distance which Vietnamese. I love snorkelling and we were taken to a few diving sites with coral reefs. Unfortunately it looked like the coral had died, and was in the process of regenerating, therefore not much activity apart from lots of pesky sea urchins and a small variety of coloured fish and Annie was upset she didn’t find Nemo. It was so hot over these few days in Shinaouksville and you don't realise how hot it is when in the water, and yes I burnt all of my back, which really stung for a few days. So for the next few weeks, I have been a factor 50 suncream nazi, and also wearing a t shirt in the pool/sea; how attractive I look..

Welcome to Laos!!

Si Phan Don and the Four Thousand Islands. Date: 17th January 2012 - 22nd January 2012
Our first port of call in Laos was the Four thousand islands which are located in the south of Laos and in the middle of the Mekong River. The Mekong River is an absolute natural wonder of the world. In the rainy season, the Mekong can be up to 14km wide here in Si Phan Don on account of the many islands and some are a few kilometres wide and perhaps 10-15km long, and some are just bushes in the river (they have to make up that 4000 number some how!). The islands are pretty self sufficient, with an economy centred around tourism, farming and fishing. and roads, and some have hills and mountains.

We opted to stay on an island called Don Det, which is a little more touristy than the rest, however we managed to find a nice little bungalow which hung over the river front. Happy with our humble abode, we set off on our bicycles for an afternoon ride to the waterfalls and the southern tip of Don Khon.

What I like about the thousand islands was the ability to do absolutely nothing and not feel guilty for achieving anything apart from utter rest and relaxation. A few beers or ice coffees by the Mekong, a few game of cards, or perhaps a little sketch of the riverside was the epitome of relief and indulgence. What a way to live your life, or perhaps it is only short lived. However, back to the real world and we can only have a few days here due to our over stay in Cambodia by a week, so we have to reduce the amount of time in Laos and Vietnam by a week or two.

On our last day in Si Phan Don, we hired some bicycles and rode around the islands of Don Det and Don Khon. We visited an amazing array of waterfalls called Khong Phopheng which were amazing. It appears that all of the Mekong River water that surrounds the islands all ends up coming through the waterfalls into a massive basin. There all huge waterfalls everywhere, so very fierce and powerful. The locals deem that the waterfalls are sacred as they believe it is the location where trapped spirits live, in between worlds and to swim in the waterfalls is forbidden. My first thoughts of swimming in these waterfalls wouldn't be of a culturally insensitive nature, but more of thought that my body would be snapped in two! Regardless of this quandary, the waterfalls are beautiful to see. The locals use fishing techniques on the smaller waterfalls, by erecting large wicker baskets across the width of the channel to catch fish. Apparently within half a day, it can catch a ton of fish! No wonder why the Mekong is so over fished! After the waterfalls, we rode down to the southern tip of Don Khon to witness the most amazing scenery in Laos (a claim of the Lao tourist office). I have to say it really was breathtaking, the photos don't really do it justice because it must be viewed by your own panoramic eyes. You can see into Cambodia from this spot and also the deep pools where more Irrawady Dolphin live, also all of the many little islands, and the massive width of the Mekong. Cycling back truly and thoroughly satisfied with our days events we settled down back at our bungalow with a nice bottle of Beer Lao with our smug grins! Truly stunning. Incidentally, I've tried nearly all of the beers in southern asia and Beer Lao is far superior (http://www.beerlao.la)!

Back on the boat to the main land, we set off northwards to Thakek by bus. The journey started on minibus to Pakxe where we transferred to a larger bus with mainly local passengers. The bus wasn’t comfy at all, and we were concerned when our luggage was loaded on the bus with us and on the back seat, instead of the undercarriage compartments, or even the roof. After about 7 hours on the bus, we stopped about 50km from Savannahket where some very strange activities took place. We realised why our bags were inside the passenger area of the bus when lots of farm vehicles rocked upto the bus with live stocks of large pigs, piglets, goats, ducks and chickens. It was really shocking to see the many hundred birds thrown into netted bags and tied up, with no space to move, all on top of each other, then tied to the roof of the bus. Then the large pigs, loaded into the the undercarriage, and the small piglets squeeling and crying into more bags on top of the bus. We was more deeply horrified to see the poor goats tied together standing upright to the top of the bus. God knows, that most of these animals probably die from stress, or undesirable squalid conditions on a speeding over loaded bus. We couldn't carry on with this journey to Thakek for another 4 hours on a bus where you can hear the sound of struggling and dying animals, so we got off in Savannahket which was only about half and hour away. I know Lao is a poor country, and I believe human life should be first priority, but I cant condone what we saw.

Posted by Annie Thornton 23:34 Comments (0)

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