Farewell Laos

I have spent my last night in Laos in a cabin in the southern jungle. I am sitting on a bench overlooking this waterfall absorbing the early morning sounds of cascading water, humming insects, screeching birds & leaves disturbed by a general, fresh breeze.

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Today it is across the Mekong border to Thailand & then home. Memories like this that I take back with me – sunrises & sunsets, lazy rivers & dusty lands, high forested peaks & tangled wet jungles, wriggling leeches & cool water buffalo, the class & sophistication of Lubang Prabang & Vientiane & the relentless challenge of harvesting & working the land elsewhere, modern crew cab trucks & 2 stroke tuk tuks & scooters & small Honda motorbikes, waterfalls & wide sandbanks. Thank you Laos for your tapestry of life in your hard but beautiful land.

A day exploring the Mekong’s 4000 Islands

Today it is boat, tuk tuk, boat, tuk tuk, boat, bus, walk & electric buggy, followed by bus as the day is spent exploring the Mekong from dawn to dusk.
The sun comes up over the jungle-lined far bank drawing out the first fishermen on the still water and the procession of grave monks, intent on their ant like progress collecting sticky rice from their followers, on the awaking land. The early rays give the river a classic mirror surface, disturbed only by the widening wake of a longtail or the growing circle of a thrown net. The saffron of the monks absorb & reflect a glorious golden sheen.

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Then into the longtail boat and downstream to explore the lower part of the river. At its widest point the Mekong is 20 km wide. The area here is called 4000 Islands made up of sandbanks , collections of rocks & trees & larger, inhabited islands several kilometres across, linked by bridges & even a railway built by the French. There must be fish around the arches of the new road bridge as 20/30 thin boats collect there like small leeches wriggling their bodies from a single anchor point on a mirror clear surface. Their occupants twiddle their small paddles to remain stationary & lay out a line or an arching net.

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The bank flashes past accompanied by the roar of the longtail ‘s open engine. Jungle, palms, stilted houses, banana trees, satellite dishes, moored boats, fronded shelters merge together in a mosaic of colour & texture. The raised dwellings provide shade & coolness during the day, storage & living space & protection above if the river ever floods.

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The engine slows its roar to more of a snarl & we offload into a riverside village of stiled homes, general stores, free standing fridges, farmsteads & the occasional guest house. Children play, women work around the homes & men pull & cut & tug & hack as they harvest the rice & straw in the fields. Conicalled figures make small clusters of animated activity amongst the patchwork of dried paddy fields.

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Now a new form of transport is chosen in which to cross this island. This must be the gaveyaard of all large tuk tuks. Lined up, ready to go in order like Oxford cabs down George Street, are the largest selection of rusty, dusty scrap iron vehicles you could imagine could transport people. These would be credible extras in any Mad Max movie. My favourite is this mechanical elephant with one tusk missing – ivory poachers missed one?

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Sadly he is not next in line so another beast is chosen – one which crunches & grinds its way through its antiquated gear box. Gear box is a bit of an exaggeration as it goes no further than second where it roars & branches & howls in protest as the engine growls & cranks against the metal cogs. 7 km takes about an hour through the dry countryside. At the end boats await & we take to the water to spot Irrawaddy dolphins (look them up if you interested!).

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Lunch is taken in another riverside village. During the heat of the day most locals flop about between the stilts of their homes in the shade as heat & sun beat up the land.

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The Khong Phapheng Waterfalls are the widest in SE Asia. A huge, jagged, horizontal lightening bolt slashes its way in the normally glass like progress of the Mekong to the sea. Here, the waters have scarred a drop through 15 metres as they cascade in a crescendo of foam & fury from the tranquility of the top level to regain its peace down below at the bottom level.

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Dusk brings down the curtain on the day. The goldness returns to the landscape. The clouds billow in never ending structures of water vapour & the reflected glory of the sun gives the river a purple sheen as it returns to its mirror-like flatness & clarity.

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Out come the evening fishermen in their leechlike boats. Paddles doodle, nets curl through the air, lines are set out – the world returns to its proper state of calm contentment.

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The day ends, helped by a Beerlao!

Life on the Mekong

Bus, plane, bus, boat, bus, boat, walk, boat, bus south from Vientiane to spend time down on the lower reaches of the Mekong where the river is at its widest and the flow is at its slowest. Heavy with silt from the north and waiting for rain upstream to refresh & invigorate & re-energise these slow grinding waters, the river flows sedately downstream.

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There is a calmess about this journey. The occasional fisherman doodles with his paddle & plays about with his net. Other than that, nothing disturbs the surface except for a swirl or two which hides an underwater obstacle or a clump of weed or foliage which protrude through the shallow waters, both of which the boatman skilfully avoids. The banks are so far apart that one has to turn ones’s head 180° to observe them both. They are lined with jungle with the isolated flashes of colour to suggest hidden villages or temples.

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A sand bar indicates a long island. Don Daeng Island is 7 km long with a Mohican haircut of jungle down its length. The local Low Lao people make a living from fishing & growing sticky rice. The long fishing boats are tethered in the shallows awaiting their owners to take them out in the afternoon coolness, like dogs eagerly anticipating their evening walk.

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The cross-river ferry terminal is a wonderful collection of jumbled up timber, rope & corrugated iron – vessels & pontoons & buildings. Several ferries cross the Mekong at this point. Each one is numbered. Each ferry has a superstructure constructed on 3/4 metal boats – a bit like a catamaran but there the likeness ends. From each side of the planked floor a ramp is suspended from two vertical poles so the vessel can dock facing any direction. A shabby wooden hut painted blue seems to offer passengers some shelter whilst the captain drives this contraption from an open, single cabin. When the engine starts up to move away from shore a huge plume of black smoke spurts up from one side suggesting that this is the back and the crab/dragon splurts & farts its way into20151120091451_IMG_2839

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movement. Heath Robinson would be proud of the whole enterprise. The shadows lengthen, the silhouettes of hills & vessels & poles & cabins intensify and the Mekong starts to settle for the night. The river will carry on its perpetual movement, gliding past like a mirror reflecting some glassy surface.

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Everyone wants their photo taken in Vientiane, the Lao capital

It’s now a short flight south west to Vientiane the present capital of Laos. Destroyed by Siam invaders in the 15th century it was only rebuilt by the French colonialists in the mid 19th century when it was used once again as the political capital of Laos. 800,000 people live here on the banks of the Mekong opposite Thailand. Like most capital cities grand buildings, reflecting those who control power, mix with temples, small businesses & international franchises on leafy wide streets choked by traffic, fumes & dust. There are three sights of interest in this functional city.

The That Luang Stupa – said to house a bone of Buddha.

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Inside, the monks with their iPads & their colour coordinated iPhone cases are busily clicking away with the stupa in the background. Even the tuk tuk boys are happy to get involved. Cool one, boys.

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Victory Gate was built 50 odd years ago to commemorate victory in the war with the US.

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Rather than climb up the 190 steps I take photos of the local boys taking photos of the tourists. There are 30 or so of them who, having clicked off a few images, rush to their scoters where a digital printer sits on the back pillion. They print out A4 images and rush back to sell to gleeful Chinese &, I think, Lao visitors. I share my images of the guys with the guys & jokingly try to charge 5000 kip. Great fun. Here are a few.

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Others just want to do it themselves. Which pose do you like? Well I will decide for you – this one! I have about 15 different ones but have only posted one to save you endlessly scrolling between them all.

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I changed my mind. Here’s a second so you can really judge the quality of the poser.

Wat Sisaket is the oldest temple in Vientiane and houses thousands of images of Buddha. It is a calm, peaceful place, in amongst the embassies & grand houses. He seems completely unperturbed about who is taking his picture.

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Buddha Park is at the other extreme, about 25 km outside the capital. Constructed in the 1950’s it houses 200 images of the man himself in a field of glorious tat. The representations are built using brick and cement. Absolutely, tackily gorgeous.

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The Mines Advisory Group clearing the Plain of Jars

Sorry, folks. My figure of yesterday was over exaggerate. The true figure is still just as appalling. Since 1974 there have been 20,000 casualties from unexploded cluster bombs – children or farmers.

The Plain of Jars mixes the old with the new. Scattered across hillsides & open countryside over 300 of these stone vessels lie at different angles. They date somewhere betweeen 300BC to 300AD. Their original purpose is in dispute but consensus says that these were, in some way, to do with the death ceremonies of local tribes on the trade route north from Vietnam & Thailand. Bodies may have been stored or ‘processed’ in these stone containers which range from 30 or so centimetres tall to some that are over 4 metres.

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This area also saw some of the heaviest US bombing of the war. Large craters, about 4/5 metres across punctuate the ground amongst the Jars. Jars have been split apart by the explosions. For safety, locals hid in caves when the bombs started to fall. Some of the statistics are horrifying. During the Indo-China War, as the Laotians call it, 580,000 bombing missions were flown by the US with 2 million tonnes of mainly cluster bombs dropped. These are designed to kill personnel. Between 1964 & 1973 270 million bombies were dropped on Laos and up to 30% failed to detonate meaning 80 million plus bombies remain undetonated.

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Here is the open casing of one cluster bomb. You can see inside some of the small bombies. Most will contain up to 180 tennis balls from hell. The casing splits open and these balls of doom are released spinning through the air. The force of that spin should denonate each one a few metres above the ground releasing 100 or so ball bearings to tear through flesh & organs. If not denonated on their journey to the ground they may have a soft landing in a paddy field or the grasping fingers of as bamboo. There they can wait hidden by foliage or grasping mud until a child picks it up or a farmer makes contact with a hoe. And they are everywhere.

MAG, Mines Advisory Group, are a charity that trains locals to educate villagers & townsfolk to the dangers of handling these horrors and equip local teams to identify and destroy such bombies. Look them up online and help save lives.

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The past still haunts large parts of Laos

I have come east now to Phonsavan, a town of 150,000 people. I have put up images of the journey through the mountains & life in the rural parts of the country. Hugely impoverished these communities farm small bits of land growing rice or wheat to feed their families

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New building is going on in the towns but it is only the 20% who work for the government who cah projects and who receive a decent wage, a pension, free schooling for their children & health care. The rest work hard scraping a living for an average weekly wage of $100. Weaving in a silk farm or driving a tuk tuk are two ways for families to support themselves.

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Over here in the east and south of the country there is evidence of the traumas that hit this land during the Vietnam War. The US dropped millions of tons of cluster bombs on this small country in the biggest bombing campaign on any country in history. Muang Khong was the old capital of Laos. The Americans completely flattened the town with only the 18th century stupa left standing. The temple took a direct hit.

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30% did not explode and are a real danger to children and farmers who will disturb them when playing in, or tilling the fields. Each cluster bomb contains over 300 ‘bombes’, the size of a small rubber ball and each of these contains hundreds of ball bearings which every day kills of maims people. It will take decades to complete the work of clearing these killers of innocent people. When walking through the Plain of Jars we had to stick within the white markers and were warned that outside these mines and bombs would be hidden. Every year 100,000 injuries & deaths are caused by unexploded ordinance and the farms & fields & homes & streets show relics from this time.

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The start of the daily grind in Luang Prabang

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Early morning in Luang Prabang and the monks snakes out in different directions to collect their alms. Their devotees line the streets from five. The alms traditionally consists of a handful of freshly cooked sticky rice supplemented by anything from bananas to chocolate bars to packets of crisps.

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At the bottom of the street the river flows, muddy & brown. The cafe on the corner is busy and the tables outside on the street & the small terrace overlooking the waters start to fill up. On the menu is fresh coffee, freshly baked baguettes, fresh sausages & noodle soup. Groups gather to chat about the day or last night’s events. At the bottom of the steps the boats drop off women with empty baskets from across the river and takes off the few with full baskets who have already completed their shopping.

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In the market jaded stallholders are still yawning behind their neatly displayed goods & produce. Their customers, at this time of day, are mostly tourists, snapping away, capturing images of local life for private consumption back home. Sadly, I have to include myself in this group. I can engage with the locals if there is an opportunity for a laugh & a bit of humour. But it is no fun with so many Canon & Nikon being slung around. The locals lower their gaze from the clicking lenses, just like the little chicks captured beneath the wicker frames & ready for sale, and wait for us to get tired & go back to our hotels & guesthouses for breakfast so they can get on with their day. I capture a couple of images & slide away to a good cup of coffee and feeling slightly embarrassed.

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Some factoids about Laos:
Smoking is not permitted in the streets of Luang Prabang.
All towns & city have a curfew. In Luang Prabang this is midnight with bars & clubs closing at 2330.
Westerners are not allowed guests in their rooms.
It is illegal for a Lao woman to have sex with a westerner unless they are married.
Lao is a one party state. Only party members and their families & descendants are able to vote in local & national elections. The rest of the population are unable to vote.
In the jungle bamboo grows at the rate of 3cm a day.
If you serve a jail sentence your family & friends have to provide all your food.