Friday, June 18, 2010


The bus ride to Phonsavan was quite interesting. First, after about an hour of driving we turned around and backtracked for 30 minutes to pick up another passenger. Soon after this we stopped to pick up three Laos passengers. This made the van quite full and every seat was taken. Somewhere along the way we dropped our Laos friends off (in a small village with a bunch of children who stared at us with blank curiosity) and an hour or so later picked up some new people. It went on like this the whole way. The scenery we drove through was incredibly beautiful. Phonsavan is located up in the mountains and those mountains are just gorgeous. When you imagine a lush, green rainforest, you are imagining the scenery we were driving through. Swaths of banana trees were nestled among the more typical trees of the forest with vines hanging over top, so thick in some places that it looked like a bouncy net. The jungle itself, vines and trees, were all so thick that I can imagine trekking through it probably requires a machete. And because of the mountain contours we frequently had these great views overlooking deep valleys that rose up into rounded mountain tops before disappearing in the distance. It all looks so remote and untouched, but as you might imagine, these mountain jungles were definitely inhabited. We passed by village after village, each made up of a collection of wooden and bamboo houses topped with large, palm fronds. Some houses were stilted and others not. Some were falling apart and others looked pretty nice and sturdy. Children and dogs could be seen playing or relaxing throughout the villages while the adults tended to be busy setting out chilies or roof-leaves for drying, washing clothes, or burning their fields. The burning fields really did a number to the air quality - not just during our drive but all over Laos. Our trip coincided with the annual slash-and-burning of the fields to prepare for the crops. This made the skies gray and dirty. We passed by a few big blazes, each being controlled by a collection of Laotians wearing long sleeves and pants, with a cloth wrapped around their heads to cover their mouth and nose. One fire was quite big and I could feel the sudden heat through the door of the van as we passed by. Eventually we arrived in the city though, where we were greeted by representatives of the various guesthouses sprinkled through the town each trying to convince us to stay with them. We chose one we had read about online and knew had wifi internet. Since we had been chatting with a German guy and an American girl who were traveling with us in the van, we all made plans to meet up for dinner in town later on. We parted ways to our hotels from there, although the American girl ended up at our hotel with us. The hotel was a nice wooden building that stayed cool naturally, meaning we didn't have to pay for AC which was nice. We just relaxed for a few hours before meeting up with our new friend and walking into town. We made a quick trip through the market, which was shutting down with the setting sun, and continued on down the main road to see what restaurants were around. The town seemed quite small and reminded Chuck and me of India, with it's concrete, garage-like buildings. When we finally met up with the German guy we all decided it would be fun if we went on a tour to see the famous Plain of Jars together the next day. The guy who had driven Chuck and me to our hotel had done a fairly good job of convincing us that he had a good tour package, so we went to the little tourist shop that he had pointed out along the way where we found him singing along with his buddies, bleary eyed and a drink in his hand. He was more than happy to explain the tour and prices once again, though. His five friends were hanging out ten feet away drinking, singing, playing guitar and drumming on the table. One of them came over with a big bottle of beer and poured out a small glass for the German guy. After a few sips and some encouragement we figured out that he was meant to down the whole glass quickly. So he drank it all down and handed it back with a "Thank you" and a smile. The glass was refilled and handed to the American girl next. She downed it like a champ and the gesture was next extended to me and then Chuck. Once finished, the guy went back to his drumming and singing. Our guide moved into other stories, telling us with genuinely wide eyes about the time he went into a dark cave that had been used as shelter for a bunch of refugees back during the Vietnam war. He had a nice camera with infrared capabilities along with him and swore up and down that he had videoed a ghost man. An Asian ghost man. With half his face torn away. He could tell he was Asian because he had long hair. He was quite serious (if not a bit sloppy) as he told us this story. After a good 30 or more minutes with him we had managed to book ourselves a tour and get a recommendation for where to go for dinner. We easily found the restaurant he suggested because it was on the same main road that ran through the center of town. It ended up being quite good and the company of the other two travelers was a nice change of pace. Before long we were tucked away in bed getting rested up for our long next day.

On the 25th we woke up nice and early for our tour. The van ended up being 20 minutes late, but since we were in Laos it was all good. Laos' official name is Laos PDR, the PDR standing for "People's Democratic Republic." There's a popular joke throughout the country that the PDR actually means "please don't rush" though. The late van fit this philosophy perfectly. When it arrived I saw that our tour guide was a different fellow than the man we had organized the tour through. At first I was a bit worried that maybe he would be no good, but as the day wore on I was happy to have him as our guide. He was quite a good guy - not just a good guide but a good guy. That's always a nice quality in your guide I think. First stop on the tour was the tourist center where they had a bunch of old bomb casings and other old war stuff (for lack of a better word). We learned that Laos is officially the most bombed country in the world and that the area we were in up in the mountains was the most bombed part of Laos. That's quite an accomplishment. And can you guess who did most of the bombing? Ding ding ding! That's right. America. I mean sure, it was during the Vietnam war and Laos was being used by North Vietnam to send supplies around and attack the south, etc, but it's still a bit embarrassing, being an American myself and all. Although, I wasn't even alive during that time so I have nothing to be embarrassed about personally. Either way, it's left the country with an awful lot of land mines, even still today. There are quite a few orphanages throughout the area devoted to children who have lost parents to old land mines while working fields, or other support groups for kids who have lost limbs to land mines themselves. After learning some of those basics we piled in the van again and headed out to the Plain of Jars. This area is the site of an an ancient...well, they're not 100% sure what it is. The most accepted idea is that it's an old burial ground. The dead would have been buried in the big stone jars that are scattered across the plains, half sunk into the earth due to their massive weight and the passage of time. Some are pretty huge (the biggest weighing 9 tons) and others are just big enough to fit a small adult. Although a lot of them are broken or tilted over, there's still enough that are upright and unbroken to make it interesting. I think a lot of that damage is from the bombing that occurred in the area. There were a few bomb craters here and there as well as a number of signs indicating where trench lines had been located. In fact, there were signs warning us to stay on the trail that ran through the fields because of the possibility of old land mines still inhabiting the scrubbier parts of the land. I suspect the whole area is mine-free now, but it's probably a good idea to stick to the trail, just in case. I read that at least one land mine a day is triggered in Laos. I'd hate to find the daily land mine. The Lao people have a few nice stories to explain the Plain of Jars though. My favorite was that the land was inhabited by giants and that there was a big giant battle. When the King giant won he made the jars in order to brew a bunch of lao lao (the national wine made from rice - a potent drink) in celebration. Another is that caravan travelers used them to store water for when they passed through the area. That doesn't explain how they were made, though. Our guide told us that the stone quarries that match the make-up of the stone jars were quite a few miles away. It's pretty impressive that they were able to transport the huge vessels that far. I know it can be done (I mean, take a look at the Pyramids in Egypt) but still. Impressive. After walking around the jar site we took a rest at the little cafe by the entrance. Although it was a comfortably cool day, it was nice to get out of the wind for a bit. In fact, it was a lot cooler than I would expect for March in SE Asia. Thank goodness for that. We had some watermelon and discussed with some British folks who were on our tour how they were weird for pronouncing certain words the way they do (debris, privacy) and they in turn claimed we were weird for numbering everything (superbowls, presidents). After some extended Laos PDR time we finally headed off to our next destination: an old landmine site. I have to admit that I found the yellow bamboo trees to be the most interesting thing here. We all got a scare though when our guide stepped into a roped off area with a sign saying "Live Land Mines" in order to better point out the specifics of the contraptions. I don't know if they really were still active, but somehow I doubt it. Next we went to a typical small Lao village with simple wooden houses on stilts. The best part was that every house had a four foot satellite dish out front. Even in rural Loas people can't get by without their cable TV. I've also noticed this same trend with cellphones - almost everyone seemed to have one. Strangely contrary to what my mind would expect from a Lao village, but kinda cool that they are able to have some of those "luxuries" that we find important in our lives as well. He showed us a barn and some fences that had substituted wooden planks and beams with the 5 foot long shell of a bomb or an old plate of metal from a plane. The best part about the village was that our guide's grandfather lived there and we got to visit him. His home was pretty large, but very bare. There were no divisions of the inside space save for one 10 x 10 foot room next to the front door. I took it that that was the bedroom as I didn't see any other place that a person might sleep or store their clothing. There was only one significant piece of furniture in the house: a weaving loom. Our guide laughed as he tried to show us how to use it, but he wasn't quite sure how it worked seeing as weaving is more of a ladies thing in Laos culture. The loom belonged to grandpa's second wife (his first had passed away). After checking out the loom we sat in a circle on the floor and his grandfather brought us a pitcher of slightly brown, boiled water. We drank and asked our guide questions about Laos and whatever else we were interested in. His grandfather didn't speak any English, so if we had a question for him our guide had to translate. I asked about the small TV and a DVD player in the corner, the only electronic devices in the room. He said that the village had gotten electricity the previous year, and with a bit of extra money he was able to get the small entertainment set-up. We also learned that most village folks own some cows or water buffalo that wander the nearby country side by day and come home to their daily grain-feed in the evening. People might also eat pigeons and use a bit of opium in water to keep them addicted and coming back to their house day after day. Opium is no longer legal in Laos, though, so it's not as common these days. Eventually the conversation led to lao lao (the rice wine stuff) and whether or not we had all tried it yet. Since some of us had not, our guide asked his grandpa if he had any lying around. At first he thought it was locked away in the bedroom out of his reach (apparently his wife had a tendency to lock the room and take the key - we all had a laugh at that for some reason) but he found a bottle tucked away in a pile of stuff in the corner of the main living area. The bottle wasn't what we expected. It was an old Pepsi bottle filled with a clear liquid - loa lao. Our guide laughed at called it Laos Pepsi (you may have noticed me switching between using Laos and lao so let me give you a brief history lesson: back when the French came in and colonized Laos it was three separate kingdoms. Under the French rule they came together and France, in their infinite wisdom, thought that it would only make sense to call this unified group of the three kingdoms Laos, or Lao pluralized. So Laos tends to be used in reference to the country, whereas lao is other places I suppose. I'm no expert though - I could be completely stupid in my reasoning on this one). So, the Laos Pepsi came out and we all took turns taking a gulp from a little shot glass. It was certainly strong stuff, reminding me of tequila, but with a bit better flavor. It burned as it went down and made your chest feel all warm and tingly. When everyone had had a taste, our guide proceeded to pour another shot! We were all a little "Woah, let's not get crazy now - don't want to get carried away," but he won us over with the oh-so-logical argument that we have two legs, so we ought to have two drinks. How can you argue with that?? After another round of Laos Pepsi and some more chatter it was time to move on. We said thank you to his awesome grandpa and shuffled outside. Mr. Guide led us along a trail out of the tiny village and across a shaky, bouncy suspended bridge (it was like a trampoline) where we sat by the stream and had a lunch of fried rice. Our guide was missing his plastic spoon, so he borrowed someones pocket knife and cut himself a spoon out of his empty water bottle. I thought it was pretty bad ass. I obviously need to get out more. Which is funny... Anyways. After lunch we moved on to another village, this one bigger than grandpa's. There were more examples of how people had incorporated old metal scraps from the war into the building of their barns and fences. The coolest use, I thought, was the old airplane door that was being used as a gate. We visited a couple of houses, whose owners were down with the whole tourist thing and happy to let us poke around their yards. One woman had an old, split-open Bomby (I have no idea if this is how it's spelled), spilling its load of little bombs all over her yard. Apparently her husband used to like deactivating them or something. She also had a few deactivated land mines that were being used as ash trays. I embarrassed myself at this part of the tour. We were all standing around in a circle just after being shown these old ashtray mines. I picked one up and suddenly the focus of all eight people were on me. I examined the little thing, flipping it around in my hand, wondering how it had worked. I slowly pulled back a little metal plate on the side. When it suddenly hit its release point, the band holding the springy shape of the mine together popped off and it sort of exploded in my hand. Well, because of it's nature as an old land mine, my mind interpreted it as an explosion. It really just popped open. Everyone was startled, especially me. I'm sure my face was a funny sight. But as quickly as it happened we all chuckled and I attempted to put it back together. Luckily, it did go back together, although it didn't quite look as nice. I felt bad. I ruined the old lady's nice little land mine ashtray... Another person's back yard had a cool, mesmerizing water wheel made of bamboo. It slowly spun around and around, dropping load after load of water onto a bamboo waterway that ran in the big pond in the backyard. We all stood there staring at it for about five minutes before moving on. Along with all the old war relics and water contraptions, I enjoyed the ducks and chickens that wandered around everyone's yards. The ducks were especially cute when there were 20 ducklings faithfully following mama duck around. After all this, we moved on to our next stop: the Mulberry Silk Farm. This wasn't originally included on the tour, but I sort of insisted that we stop by when we were making our booking. It was very cool of the guide to be able to so easily include it. By the time we arrived, the wind had gotten noticeably chillier and anyone who had brought long sleeves with them was now putting them on. Our guide at the mulberry farm was a lady who explained that the whole place had been set-up in order to help village women to be able to contribute to their families via income from weaving. We were first shown the mulberry fields, where all the mulberries are grown. If you're like I was when we first arrived, you maybe don't know exactly what a mulberry is. It's just another raspberry, or blackberry. A little bundle of fruity, flesh-wrapped seeds. Since the fruit wasn't actually used in the silk making process (beyond dying the silk perhaps), we were encouraged to go ahead and taste a few. This left me with a red mouth and finger for a bit. Actually, for the sake of getting a good picture I went ahead and squished a berry on my teeth, which turned out not to be as good an idea as I had originally thought because it left me with a particularly frightening smile. While gorging ourselves, the guide explained that the fruits that aren't eaten by hungry tourists are turned into jams and wines, while the leaves are used to feed the little mulberry worms. She led us to the worm house where we got to look at, poke, and pick up the wiggling worms. There weren't as many as I would have expected, but as I quickly found out, it wasn't just the wiggling worms that were being housed there. Hanging from the ceiling were these wooden frames, each one gridded into 200 little squares, and each square containing a rough looking cocoon. There were over 20 of these frames, and even more cocoons being created by maturing worms in what looked like a table-top maze. Some were yellow and others white. We were told that this difference was as simple as different hair color in humans. There was also a tray of tiny white eggs, waiting to hatch and join the bigger try of writhing worms. I'm not exactly sure what happens to the moths when they pop out of their cocoons, but there's an obvious cycle of life that thrives in that warm, temperature controlled little building. Next we headed to the spinning room where there were all sorts of wooden, hand cranked contraptions and a few larger, electric machines. From what I could gather, they boil 100 little cocoons and when soft, pull a tuft of the coarse silk from each into a little bunch. They attach this bunch to the...giant bobbin (for lack of the actual term) and spin, spin, spin until all the cocoons have been pulled into one long strand of silk. Then it's spun and washed a few times using the various other equipments in the room in order to soften it. I was surprised at how un-silky it is to begin with, but after a few rounds of treatment it looks pretty nice. We moved on to the dying area, which at this particular silk farm was all done with natural products: indigo plant, mulberries, turmeric, dried yam, some sort of red rock, etc. They didn't have any fancy sinks or vats for dying - they just dumped dye and silk into a plastic garbage can and let it do its magic. Across the sidewalk was the drying station, where a few beautiful hanks of pearly white and pink silk were blowing in the chilly breeze. There was a giant mortar and pestle here that was so heavy it could only be operated by standing on the foot lever. They used it for grinding some of their tougher dye materials. The weaving room was the inevitable next stop. There were only a few women there that day, but it was still impressive. Each loom consisted of a wooden frame about the size of a single bed, hung and stretched with what looked like a tangled mess of silky strands. Each one seemed to belong to a particular woman, her current weaving project permanently attached until it was finished, which could take up to a month or longer depending on the complexity. Some designs were repetitive and simple (although the weaving process looked anything but simple), while others were swimming with colors and shapes. The women worked quickly, tossing the shuttle (I think that's what it's called) between the separated strands of silk, switching the strands positions with the wooden foot petals, tossing again, switch, toss, switch, toss, etc. The most complicated patterns required the weaver to stop between each toss in order to add in the extra colors manually. It all looked really confusing, and I can't imagine the amount of forethought and planning that must go into setting up the loom for a particular pattern. But they obviously know what they're doing and are quite good at it. And using that natural silk, naturally dyed, it looks really beautiful! We got to see examples of the finished products in the little shop. One scarf was particularly beautiful, made more so by the small imperfections of the silk and hand weaving. I would love to have bought it, but at 650,000 kip it would have cost me $75. I'm sure that's a great price for the quality of product, but still too much for me to be able to spend at that point. Instead, we bought a bottle of mulberry wine for something like $6. Everyone piled back into the van and we made one last stop at war memorial on top of a hill. It was pretty boring, the sun was starting to disappear, and it was cold. I think we were all ready to just get back to our hotels by this point. Upon finally being dropped off we made plans with the American girl and German guy to meet for dinner again. Chuck and I opted to relax at the wooden shack-of-a-restaurant across the street from our hotel with a few beers and knock-off bugle chips. Seeing as we were both decked out in sweaters, we were astonished to see four or five kids trekking through the mud-hole (it was a dried up lake) behind the restaurant in just t-shirts and shorts. We never quite figured out what they were doing, but I think they were catching fish that were unable to hide in the mud. How any fish had survived up until that point, though, I don't know. After our drinks we met up with our new friends in town and all decided to go to an Indian place that we had heard was good. It ended up costing more than any of us would have liked, and wasn't quite the best Indian food we'd had, but it wasn't bad either. Chuck and I were happy to fall into bed at the end of all that.

We had no plans for the 26th. Chuck and I walked into town and ate at a Lao restaurant that we had been eying two days previous, but had been closed. It was open for lunch, though, and we had some tasty soup and noodles. We wandered around town for a bit trying to find dental floss. We never did find any. On the way back I decided the mangoes being sold at various fruit stands looked good and stopped to buy one. In the end, I came away with eight mangoes some how. That whole language barrier can really make things confusing. How could I refuse when she only wanted $1.20 for all eight? I mean, I would have paid $1.20 for just the one mango! But she bagged up all eight. Looked like we would be eating mangoes all day. Back at the hotel we sat on our computers in the lobby, enjoying mangoes and mulberry wine. There was no internet because the signal had gone out for some reason. Hey, it's Laos. Can't expect perfect internet up in the mountains in Laos. The mulberry wine was tasty, the mangoes were juicy, and the weather was cool and overcast. It all seemed to fit together perfectly in my head. For dinner we went back across the street to the wooden restaurant. We ordered some Laos BBQ which ended up being one of my favorite meals ever. There was a hole cut out of the center of the table, into which went a thick clay pot, topped with a sloped BBQ grill that had a little moat to catch juices around the rim. Then came a plate of veggies and a pitcher of hot broth. We weren't sure what we were supposed to do, so after some whispered deliberation we started to add some veggies to the hot broth. Apparently, all we were supposed to do was wait for the waitress to come back. When she did, with a plate of delicious raw meat, she giggled at us and took over. What she did was lay some meat across the sloped grill, add some veggies to the moat, fill the moat with broth, and had us wait until it was all steaming hot and soft. The juice from the meat flowed down into the moat, flavoring the broth to epic proportions. We had a big tub of this peanut-y sauce that we could dip it all in and oh wow, it was so very good. I was in heaven. And once again, the chilly weather made this whole grilling thing even more perfect. After dinner we sat around talking and scaring the crazy kittens that lived at the restaurant. Ah, good times.

The morning of the 27th we packed our stuff and checked out super early. The girl at the front desk helped get us to the correct bus station by talking to our tuk-tuk driver and negotiating a price. Once at the station, getting tickets for our bus back to Vientiane was a simple process of shoving myself into the crowd at the ticket window and doing my best to get the ticket sellers attention by waving my money around at her. I felt rude doing it, but that was quite obviously the way it was done here. I had lost my "place in line" a few times to other people using this technique before I went ahead and tried it myself. I have to say, I think I did a pretty good job. I got us our tickets and we hopped aboard our bus. It was a public bus, which meant no AC. Let me tell you, thank god, FSM, whoever, over and over, that there was a cold spell that day. Otherwise the bus ride would definitely have been the worst one of our lives. But I'll save all that for my next episode. Stay tuned!!

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