Boats, Buses, and Bombs- Mekong River, Luang Prabang, and Phonsavan, Laos

A fun fact about Laos: it’s one of only 11 countries in the world with a four letter name. Can you name the other ten? The answers are at the bottom of this blog post!

Laos was a bit of a mystery for us. It’s probably the least known country in Southeast Asia, even though it’s sandwiched right in the middle between Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. Maybe its because the country is landlocked, so there are no amazing seaside beaches or hidden islands (although we find out this isn’t strictly true – but that’s for another post). Yet it’s becoming popular on the SEA backpacker route, so there must be something to it.

We entered Laos in the North, crossing over by land (well, a bridge technically) from Thailand and taking what’s called “the slow boat” trip from Houayxai, Laos to the city of Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s a 2 day ride down the amazing Mekong River, with an overnight stop in a little town called Pak Beng.  You may remeber the Mekong River from such movies as Apocalypse Now. And well probably most Vietnam War movies.

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Waiting to depart from Houayaxi.

The boat ride was fantastic, with incredible scenery for 2 straight days. It’s the dry season, meaning the river level is low and many huge rocks are exposed. The boat ride offers an interesting glimpse into life on the river. The Mekong is the lifeblood of much of Laos, and this was evident straight away.  Fishermen, farmers on the riverside, children swimming, and our boat stopping every once and a while to drop off some Laotians on a random part of the river bank, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But up they went, scrambling up the bank and into the trees, presumably to their village. The river is life here.

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Villages on the riverbanks for the Mekong.  The river level was low, exposing these huge sand banks (beaches?) in many places.

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Amazing scenery – it was like this for 2 days.

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You can tell how powerful the river is from how it moves. You can feel the eddies and turbulent water as it moves against the boat.  It actually looks a lot like the lower Niagara River, just not the same colour.  You wouldn’t want to go swimming.

The overnight stop is at a small town called Pak Beng, which seems to only exist for the tourists taking the slow boat.  Its a cool little town, though our credit card got overcharged for out hotel there and we are still trying to figure that out.  I guess that shouldn’t count against the town, right?  There is basically one bar in the town, called Happy Bar.  Everyone goes here at night at its quite the party.  They had an outdoor area serving food right beside the river, which was pretty cool.  Since it was our first night in Laos we thought we’d order some traditional Laotian food.  The cook asked if we wanted it spicy, and we said a little spicy.  I don’t know if this guy was trying to kill us or what, but the food we received was so incredibly (or inedibly!) spicy I can’t even begin to describe.  We should have taken the hint from his cooking. At one point he threw some chilis in the pan, and we got a waft of it in our direction and it literally made our eyes water from about 10 feet away.  I’m not sure if this was a translation issue or more of “playing a joke on the tourists”.  Either way, it was inedible for us.  So we bought some spring rolls while the cook laughed at us.

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The only street in Pak Beng. 

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The view from the sitting area at our guesthouse.  

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The calm of the morning on boat ride day 2.

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The rocks in the river make for some rougher patches, where the boat really picked up speed.  The captain really needs to know what he is doing. I didn’t see any life jackets on board, so you can imagine how a problem with the boat could be a disaster.

The boat ends at Luang Prabang, which has become extremely popular with backpackers.  Its been voted #1 backpacking destination in the world a bunch of times in recent years.  But this popularity has maybe gone to the town’s head, so to speak.  There is no Laotian culture here, just fancy restaurants serving western food and tour companies selling expensive day trips.  As an example of the over-tourism in Luang Prabang, one of the most popular things to do is to wake up early and watch the town people giving alms to the monks at 5am each morning.  This is an important part of Buddhist life.  But so many tourists have started going to watch, it has become a spectacle, with local “entrepreneurs” selling food to the tourists, so they too can give alms.  Which is a nice sentiment, but apparently some of food is bad and the monks are getting sick, so they wanted to stop participating.  But apparently the government is making them continue, or threatening to replace them with “fake monks” so the tourists have something to see.  We were told/read much of this, so who knows if its entirely true. But the sentiment remains that the over-tourism has impacted the feel and culture of the town.  I know I have to tread carefully when talking about “over tourism”, since we are tourists visiting the town just like everyone else.  We just want to try and observe cultural events with as little impact as possible.  Just like we wouldn’t want hordes of tourists photographing us going about our everyday activities at home, the Laotions probably don’t want this either.  Its a very fine line.

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The bamboo bridge in Luang Prabang.  Even though its overpopulated with tourists, its a very pretty town.

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The best thing to do in Luang Prabang is rent a scooter and go about 30km west, to the Kuang Si Falls.  They are an incredible blue colour, and they are full of little fish that eat dead skin off your feet and legs – just like a Thai fish spa.  Its a weird feeling!

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The hike to the top of the falls has this incredible stairway beside a waterfall.  Sometimes the water is flowing under or over the stairs as you walk on them.
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The water is very cold.  Really, really cold.  And there are fish nibbling our feet and legs while taking this picture.   

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There is an Asian Bear sanctuary on site.  All over Southeast Asia there is a problem with poachers catching bears and taking bile from their gall bladders, essentially torturing them. This sanctuary provides a home for the bears, and they are amazing.  They’re smaller than our Canadian black bears, but much more playful. And they get along, despite being so many of them.  Its heartbreaking to hear what these bears went through at the hands of the poachers, but they live a pretty good life now.

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Street buffet in Luang Prabang.  Fill your plate with local Laotian food for the equivalent of $1.60.

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The best part about Laos so far is the street food. They love sandwiches, made on incredible french bread. Its a cultural leftover from Laos being a French colony.  This chicken and bacon sandwich is something I could eat every day here.  

 We needed to get out of Luang Prabang, so we decided to go to a town 8 hours away called Phonsavan.  The bus ride was basically like being on a wooden roller coaster for 8 hours.  The roads were windy, in bad shape, and the cliffs on the sides of the roads were huge.  The bus was jam packed with people, goods, a puppy, and even a rooster on the roof in a small box.  We hope it survived the trip.  When the guy who owned it got off the bus, he was trying to get it off the roof and dropped the box.  We just shook our heads. Needless to say, we were both relieved when we finally pulled into our destination.

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Leaving Luang Praban on a small bus. Some guy wanted to take his scooter on the roof, so being the biggest person around by some margin, I was recruited to help get it up there.  Not an easy task.

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Our bus broke down about 2 ours into the 8 hours trip.  See that line of coolant that leaked out behind it? No one told us what was going on, but our driver left and then after about 45 minutes he returned on a scooter and had some parts to fix the leak.

We didn’t know much about the Phonsavan, other than it is known for an archaeological site called “The Plain of Jars”.  We had been told about this place from some other travellers back in Thailand, and it sounded weird and unique. And it certainly was.

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It turns out the Plain of Jars is actually over 50 sites, but only a handful have been cleared of unexploded bombs from the Vietnam war. More on that to come below…

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Some of these jars are huge.  Historians think they are between 2500 and 1500 years old, and were used to store bodies of the dead from an ancient culture.  Sort of like an above ground tomb.  
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The “jars” are all carved out of stone, from a quarry a long ways away. No one knows how they transported them to the various sites.
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The jars make for a spectacular landscape, and something totally unexpected for us. Its sort of like a Stonhenge-vibe. At least I assume it is, having not been to Stonehenge.
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You’ll notice pine trees in this area.  Phonsavan is high up, about 1100m above sea level. So its quite cool at night and the trees are a lot like home.

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This is Jar Site 1, the largest of them all.  Notice that hole in the ground in front of the jars? That’s  a bomb crater leftover from the Americans in the Vietnam war.  The landscape is scarred with thousands and thousands of bomb craters.

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Between Jar sites we went to visit a waterfall, but it was dry! So we could climb down it, over the rock worn smooth by the water over many years.

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The view of the valley at the bottom of the falls.

While the Plain of Jars was amazing, we were even more blown away by the local problem with UXO, which stands for “unexploded ordinance”.  I mentioned at the start of the blog that people aren’t all that familiar with Laos, ourselves included.  Well even fewer people know that during the Vietnam war, the US military dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos. Apparently that’s more than was dropped on Germany and Japan COMBINED in WW2.  And it gets crazier.  First, the American’s didn’t tell anyone – not even their own people – that this was happening.  Everyone knew they were bombing Vietnam, and Cambodia, but no one knew about Laos.  To top that off, many of the bombs dropped were LEFTOVERS from bombing runs into nearby Vietnam that for whatever reason (weather, heaving enemy anti-aircraft artillery, etc), could not be dropped.  So rather than land with the bombs, they simply dumped them over Laos as they flew back to their airfields in Thailand.  Absolute insanity.  Killing thousands of people simply because they needed to get rid of the bombs.

And here is the worst part of it all. Yes, it gets worse.  Over 30% of the bombs that were dropped did not even explode.  So now they litter the fields of much of Laos, laying in wait to explode years later when some hapless villager is working in the fields.  Thousands of Laotians die every year from UXO.  Many are kids, who don’t understand the danger.  We have visited a few information centres and learned the stories of some of the people affected by UXO, and its really hearbreaking.  This morning while we watched a movie about the UXO issue, there was a woman actually crying beside us. I’m not trying to sensationalize this, I’m just trying to convey how hearbreaking the situation is.  A war 50 years old, and people are still being killed by it.  Much of the land in this area cannot be farmed for fear of UXO.  Even at the Jar sites we visited there were signs warning to stay on the paths, and markers designating the areas that have been cleared of UXO.  Its a huge part of life here.  I keep saying the word “heartbreaking”, but I really can’t think of another one to use.  Its very difficult to see, and both Emily and I were really moved by learning about this insane problem.  I wondered if we might get some nasty looks from some of the locals, given that we look and sound American (more or less anyways).  But as far as we can tell, the locals don’t necessarily harbor anger about what happened (and is happening).  I would totally understand if they do.  From many of their points of view, the bombs just started falling and they didn’t even understand why.  But the people just want their fields to be safe, to be able to farm without risk of death, and their children to be able to play and grow old.

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When the signs say to keep on the path or keep out, its wise to pay attention.

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There are bomb casings all over the place, being use for everything from decorations to structural supports for houses, to planters for vegetables.  These are outside the rather morbidly named “Crater Restaurant”.  Quite a view while eating dinner.

So our first week in Laos has been pretty interesting to say the least.  We didn’t know what to expect, but Laos is certainly delivering.  We are now starting our way south, and eventually in a week or 2 towards Cambodia.  We hope the bus rides are a little less….mountainy as we go south.

Quiz answers:

Laos

Mali

Chad

Cuba

Togo

Fiji

Iran

Iraq

Peru

Oman

And….Niue. If you didn’t get this one don’t feel bad. I didn’t even know it was a country until I googled to make sure I got them all. Apparently its a small island in the South Pacific.

 – Doug / March 5, 2017 / Phonsavan, Laos @ Cranky-Tees Cafe / 8:52pm

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