Laos

 Having spent 29 days of my 30 day visa here, including a birthday, Christmas, and a New Year, I feel quite attached to lovely Laos.

Best bits:

1)      The Night Stars. Clearer, brighter than anywhere i’ve ever seen. Even the International Space Station :)

2)       Veggie Samosas that Claire, Lindsey and I became slightly obsessed with. Only $2000kip from the ‘sells everything’ shop next to Marlena’s. Don Det, we salute you. Add to that misc bakeries and wine (Scandinavian Bakery Vientiane & JoMa in Luang Prabang. Good work guys.)

3)      Incredibly fun things to jump off at incredibly beautiful spots. Laos has the old water/rope swings Tarzan fun covered, be it Blue Lagoon Vang Vieng or Big Waterfall Luang Prabang.

4)      Xmas cheer. It’s not a holiday you celebrate Laos, but you made a bloody good effort all the same with xmas trees/santa hats/turkey roasts. Top marks for getting involved.

5)      The last one goes for Vietnam/Cambodia too. The small genius that is having a coinless currency. God bless you for meaning us girls can go our purse-less with our money hidden in our bras.

Could do better Laos:

1)      The 11pm curfew. Bars/nightlife all closes (unless it’s xmas/NY and the owners pay off the police). Although I understand it’s quite a responsible approach to tourism growth and a preventative measure against the ‘Ibiza effect’ so fair do’s.

2)      The legacy of UXO’s. Of course. Not that anyone is going to ‘like’ landmines and cluster bombs and all.

3)      Long distance minibuses. The painstaking agony of balancing your weight to not bounce off the window/your neighbour whilst shoehorned into a 10 inch space on Laos’s rollercoster roads. Second only to the bizarre double bed VIP all nighters. No Laos, just NO.

4)      Laos is for life. I know it’s communist. I know it’s tradition. But some of the conversations I had about divorce not being an option/no sex before marriage make me grateful for choice & freewill. Aungry (the guesthouse owner from Vang Vieng) was telling us about how he met a girl at the market. They ‘dated’ for a few hours on the phone. 3 weeks later they were engaged. 3 Months later married and her pregnant. He was telling us why/how that is a recipe for disaster, in case we all couldn’t have guessed.

5)      The Plain of bloody Jars.

Where I stayed:

Marlena’s Guesthouse DonDet, Vilaysing Hotel Pakse, Mixay Vientianne, Nine Nois Vang Vieng, Dokkhoune Hotel Phonsavan, Spicy Backpackers Luang Prabang, Dauwe Home Huay Xai.

Huay Xai, Laos

There are skills all girls should have; baking a cake, parallel parking, explaining the off side rule. As of yesterday I can now add another to the list: plastering a mud hut.

It all starts at 5am, fresh off the 14h night bus from Luang Prabang, with only a random urban myth about a voluntary project that some Oz guy Matt told me about…

Daauw home, was founded by a Dutch-Laos couple. They are building a centre at their home on the Laos Thai border town of Huay Xai, to encourage the empowerment of local women through cultural exchange, education and support in selling their art and craft work.  The set up is you that you can  homestay with the couple & their extended relatives, eat meals together, play with the kids etc, so it’s instantly like being part of a family. The cost is just $10 USD a day, 75% of which goes towards the project.

Hannah (UK) and Josh (OZ) are both long term volunteers. Josh’s is unofficial gaffa in the construction of the main house. He’s a carpenter in real life, and so knows a thing or two. Hannah has been there since the mud hut was built from scratch. It’s her baby, and she’s vowed to stay till it’s finished.

Today Matt and I are on mud duty. Bet you thought you would never hear from me the secrets of how to plaster a mud toilet. Well here you are. Just in case you wanna get creative in B & Q.

First we sift 3 buckets of sand, then we hack out and sift 1 bucket of clay from the earth nearby, then we mix in one shovel of concrete & some chaff (no one is sure what this is really for). Now, when I say ‘sift’ and ‘mix’ I don’t mean in a mixer, oh no no no. I mean by hand! We sift like old miners would panning for lumps of gold; back and forth with a giant net. We are at it an hour and make just enough to fill a few buckets worth. I over dramatise of course, but it’s what i imagine it’s like to being a cave women. A modern-ish one that has to help the boys and work.

The structure of the hut is already standing with sandbags underneath. Now im an expert, I can get away with sentences like the following. Now, the thing about mud is that a) it’s painstaking work, all layer by layer and has to dry in the sun b) it’s incredibly messy c) the whole thing is like a giant game of Jenga. if you do it wrong it all come crashing down and you lose a few hours of blood sweat and tears.

Our only real objective for the day is to cover the few inches of sandbags still bare by the door. We are there 6 hours without ANY real progress, it’s honestly a lot harder than it sounds! In this time Josh manages to drill up an entire roof structure, and then takes 10 secs to ‘render’ (I learnt a new word – it means ‘smooth over’) a patch that had taken me an hour.  I have a new appreciation for anyone that can actually build/make stuff for a living! Especially in Laos/Asia it’s such a useful talent to be able to share.

We break for a really tasty lunch of sticky rice and salty fish, which we eat with our hands. So of course, I consume a fair bit of the concrete that we have been mixing all morning from under my nails. At 4pm, moral is low. Matt’s doing an only slightly better job than I am, and Josh gave us permission to go ahead and experiment with anything we think will work. In a fit of innovation, I tip a bucket load of water into the mix. Matt siphons it off as an attempt to fix it, and low and behold, between us we’ve only accidentally hit upon the exact right formula. Everyone later agreed it is a true breakthrough for the Mud Building world and surely the blueprint for all future endeavors. We were almost delirious, and in that last hour covered more space than we had all morning. Yes this involved the incredibly messy ‘smeer the gunky stuff or just lob it into the high roof part at times,’ but to hell with neatness, it worked. If I never achieve anything again, it will be ok leaving Huay Xai knowing there is a toilet there for years to come (or probably till it next rains) that I helped to build!

Luang Prabang, Laos

What a difference a year makes. It’s gone from ‘everyone loves LP’ to ‘oh my god it’s so touristy.’ Or so say all the ‘too cool for school’ traveller types.  Newsflash: You ARE a tourist. Just try to like some places for what they are!

I’m guessing its travel trends that have changed not  Luang Prabang itself. I’m pretty sure they didn’t build all the pretty European architecture overnight. It still has cool trinkets stalls on the night market (silver bracelets, ethnic bags, cute baby bibs.) Basically it’s all about lazing in Starbuck-esq coffee shops & organic delis-come-bookshops. You can buy ingredients like feta and smoked salmon bagels for christ’s sake. I know it’s not typical Laos but come on, what’s not to like.

The famous activity of the day here starts at sunrise. At 6.00am some locals (and mostly voyeurs) gather close to the night market for the daily tradition of Alms; the giving of rice and other food to monks. Locals sit on whisker mats and spoonfuls portions of rice to a line of over 100 novices.

Yes it’s become a clash of sacred good will v’s the ogling lenses of  our tourists cameras. But the sight of glowing orange robed monks processioning along colonial streets at dawn is, too touristy or not, an intriguing sight. Homeless charities would arguably kill for this kind of interest in soup kitchens at xmas, so sorry Luang Prabang, your secret is a good one, and it’s out.

One of the other highlights of my day, and perhaps also of my travels so far, came to me in the form of a random poster for a project called Big Brother Mouse. Not a reality tv show for rodents, but  a charity set up to provide books to remote areas of Laos, and increase literacy levels and English ability for kids and adults.

Here I met Lae. Lae is a Laotian monk, aged 20. I volunteered to teach English so was expecting to be teaching ABCs and playing games with kids perhaps.I magine my surprise when I sit down next to a monk. After my morning at the arms giving it felt like good karma. We sat for 2 hours and had without doubt one of the most interesting and moving conversations of my life. We started with families/food/music and ended up him teaching me Korean, and him talking about his parents divorce. This was all done through an eclectic range of annotated scribbles, mimes, and broken English that would wipe the floor with any Pictionary champion. I have gained, probably my most unexpected pen-friend too, as it turns out even monks have hotmail addresses.

Xieng Khuang Province,Laos

Yep, I’m going all Amnesty on your asses again. But some of this really is shocking, and that’s quite a statement when the last country was Cambodia.

So technically Xieng Khuang covers Phonsavan and the surrounding area, but is worth a post of its own purely for the two harrowing documentaries we watched at MAG; the Mines Advisory Group; one of the main Government organisations in Laos which runs a local community cinema in Phonsavan to educate, raise awareness and run outreach projects.

‘Bombies’ and ‘Harvest’ both about The Secret War and Laos’ UXOs. (unexploded Ordinance = bombs)

They were 2h docs, but I’ll keep it to the five most shocking bits we took away:

*Laos still remains the most bombed country in the world, with over 2 million tons of bombs dropped by the USA between 1964 – 73. This is despite the US breaking every rule of the Geneva Convention – whereby Laos was declared a neutral nation, in the neighbouring war with Vietnam, hence The Secret War. The bombing of Laos was widely denied by the US Government and undocumented for years. They still refuse to offer anything but minimal aid in the clear up operation.

*Around 30% of bombs never exploded, meaning 40 years on, the country is still plagued with unexploded cluster bombs that mame and kill.

*Although North Vietnam was often the primary target, weather and their defence strategies often means attacks couldn’t go ahead. This meant US aircraft often couldn’t lose face by returning to base with ‘un-dropped amo’as safety checks were too much admin, so they simply off loaded bombs into Laos villages just to save on the papwerwork, as well as sometimes finding secondary targeting with the supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail which extended into Laos.

*A third of all UXO casualties at present are children, who often know the risks but are actively encouraged by their parents to hunt for and dig up ‘bombies’ as the skyrocketing process for scrap metal can feed a family for 3 months.

*Despite the essential work done by organisations like MAG & COPE, If clean up carries on at current rates, it will take Laos 100 years to be clear of UXO.

Phonsavan & The Plain of Jars, Laos

Pick up a pillow, this first bit is going to bore you senseless. Stick with me.

I chuck a 7h North East detour from the Northern road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang to visit the Plain of Jars. Described by lonely planet as ‘enegmatic’ which is a euphemism if ever I read one. The jars are….zzz no I can’t do it. Click here if you even want to know. The short version? They are a bit like Stonehenge.

However you know how they say it’s ‘the journey not the destination?’ For once this was actually true.

Site 1 of The Jars is located 10km out-of-town. It’s a $30,000 bike ride, which we deemed to expensive. Yes that’s $4 dollars but in Don Det/Vang Vieng bikes were $10k. Or even more extortionate it’s a $150,000 day tour or $50,000 tuk tuk.

There are 5 of us girls, including two blond, scantily clad Swedish girls. I’d like to pretend this wasn’t integral to the story but I suspect it is. You’ll see why this is important in 2 seconds. Not really willing to ride a bike or pay a whole $7, we are debating our options on the pavement of our guesthouse when some Lao character who is minding his own business agree’s to take us for free in his truck. This pleases us grately. He just has a few ‘erronds’ to run first. These seem to be ‘cruising all over town delivering packages’ (“the first rule of being a transporter is to NEVER open the package/ask what’s in the package”) That and driving to weird places like the Forest Fommission to show a gaggle of Western girls off to his mates. It’s sunny and this only takes 20 mins or so, so we don’t mind too much.

Then the fun starts. We get about 5km down the road and he pulls over, says he’s too busy to go to the Jars but we can get a tuk tuk. Rolling our jaded eyes we jump out, muttering that we knew it was too good to be true etc.

What happens next is just shocking. He only goes and redeems our faith in random acts of kindness by apologising to us profusely and actually paying for our tuk tuk ride the rest of the way!? No catch.

We see the jars. (I’ll edit the whole 10 mins it took out of this story) and have to head back 2.6km walk along a dirt track to the main road. The drivers aren’t officially allowed to pass this way, it’s all monopolised by the tour touts, and taxis get fined by the police. Therefore if you arrive with no transport, you leave the same way, as there’s no one waiting. Spurred on by our earlier luck however we are bad little feminists and flag down the next passing vehicle, which happens to be a nice Lao couple, in a massive shiney 4×4. She smiles and ushers us in. We gesture to the end of the 2.6 dirt track but then she throws out the words ‘Phonsavan?’ and we all nod and say why ‘Cop Chi Li Li’ (thank you very much). Now pretty as the Swedish girls are, and grateful their blondness has gotten us this far, they are not the smallest of girls which means 5 of us squeezed on each other’s laps on the back seat. We giggle and laugh away saying we’ll have no chance if the police come, when the Lao lady laughs back at the word ‘police’ and repeats it back to us. Oh. We all go quiet. We take a second look at her husband at the wheel, and for the first time spot his blue uniform.

Now kids, don’t hitchhike, it’s dangerous. But if you are going to hitchhike do it in style with The Laos People’s Democratic Republic police squad!

Previous Older Entries

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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