Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Phonsavan, Laos

After a delicious breakfast along the Mekong river, I left Luang Prabang by minivan for Phonsavan to see the mysterious Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars are essentially Laos' Stonehenge, which are precariously scattered around the surrounding areas of the city. These large stones shaped like, well... jars, are a bit of a mystery. The origin of the jars are still unknown and, to my knowledge, questions as to how and why they were created have yet to be determined. Blake and Jessica joked with me when I told them my interests in seeing the archaeological phenomenon. They laughed and said how bored they got just by viewing the advertisements for the jars.

"Wow," said Jessica in a monotone voice. "Those are some cool jars. Woohoo."

I mean I had to agree with them somewhat, as the pictures of the jars that I'd seen from the advertisements didn't have much aesthetic appeal. Eh, but since I was in the neighborhood I thought I'd check them out and formulate my own opinion.

The ride to Phonsavan from Luang Prabang took about 7 hours to reach. There were only six of us in the minivan, four of which were just stopping through on their way to Vietnam. I guess the other tourists shared the same sentiments as of Blake and Jessica. And that was fine by me. The less tourists the better.

The road to Phonsavan from Luang Prabang is quite scenic with a mountainous landscape. One of the passengers - a girl, of course - got motion sickness. The reason why I said of course, is because for some reason it's always the women who have gotten motion sickness during my travels. Just an observation. When we were driving to Phonsavan a woman in the minivan informed us that the very road we were driving on was, up to a few years ago, the most dangerous road in Laos due to... terrorism! Gulp! We all looked at each other in horror. I always hate driving on roads that are heavily prone to terrorism. Dammit.

There's very little to see or do in Phonsavan. It was strange, I didn't feel like I was in Laos. The city had a different feel/vibe about it. Maybe it had to do something with the climate as it was quite chilly due to its altitude. It also looked as if the city was being developed rather quickly, as there was a lot of construction visible. The city also had an almost wild, wild west sort of feel to it too. I don't know. Eh...I digress.

After we arrived I got acquainted with Georgios (pronounced: Your-Ghos), from Sweden, who I'd met in the minivan. Georgios has that reggae backpacker look: he's tall, thin, with facial hair and long dreadlocks. Over dinner we decided we would rent a bicycle and bike our way to the Plain of Jars the following morning, that way we wouldn't have to pay for an overly expensive tour, plus, renting a bicycle is always a great way to see a city.

So the next morning we rented our bicycles and headed out to the Plain of Jars, located about 10 kms outside of the city. Georgios and I spent about 2 hours roaming around the jars, taking pictures and enjoying the scenery. The Plain of Jars are really an oddity. It was rather neat seeing the jars scattered all over the hillside. We were also the only tourists present, which was nice.

On the way back to town we stopped at the Lao/Vietnam War Memorial. When we first arrived the gates were closed; however, after about 15 minutes, some old brittle man (the gatekeeper) who looked as if he was homeless, opened the gates for us. I have to say: the memorial, well... it wasn't much of a memorial. There were a few statues and monuments that were pretty neat, but that's about it. It looked as if the memorial hadn't finished being constructed, and that we were the first visitors in about a decade to stop in and see it.

Later that night I went to the town's UXO-Visitor Information Center and learned about America's "Secret War" in Laos that occurred during the Vietnam War. Apparently from 1964 and 1973 1-2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, indiscriminately killing thousands of people, including children. There were two reasons why the U.S. decided to conduct "one of the largest sustained aerial bombardments in history." (1) Because northern Laos was controlled by the Lao communist movement, and (2) to disrupt the use of the Ho Chi Minh trail. This trail "consisted of a network of roads, paths, and rivers running through Laos and Cambodia, used to smuggle people and equipment from north to south Vietnam."

Here are 2 more harrowing statistics that are a direct result from the U.S. bombing in Laos:

The statistics I list below were provided by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a UK based non-governmental organization, which were featured in the UXO-Visitor Information Center located in the center of Phonsavan.

* Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), is the term used for both air-dropped weapons and battlefield munitions that did not detonate as intended. Up to 30% of some types of ordnance used in Laos did not explode, and remain dangerous.

*At least 50,000 UXO causalities between 1964-2005. Over half of all accidents over recent years involved children.

For information about MAG, visit there website here: http://www.maginternational.org/

[Below, watch the documentary, Bombies ]

[Here's another movie called Bomb Harvest]

After watching the documentary and walking through the exhibit, I inquired with one of the Lao employees if there is any negative sentiment among the Laos citizens towards the U.S.? He said there isn't any with the young/new generation; however, he said his grandfather and some of his uncles still resent the U.S. and are still vengeful over what happened. Apparently, many of his family members were killed by the bombing.

I was extremely happy that I decided to visit Phonsavan.

Georgios and I decided that 1.5 days in Phonsavan was sufficient, and bought a ticket for Vang Vieng (100,000 kip/ 5-6 hours). I've heard both positive and negative things about Vang Vieng. I was excited to see it for myself.

Next Stop: Vang Vieng


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