Monday, November 23, 2009

The Road Untravelled: Laos

I haven’t done a Toffeewomble photo essay in a while, so here’s a new one, describing the weekend I just had, and from which I am now recovering.

You can click on the photos to get the detail, they are quite high-res.

What I Did This Weekend in Laos

So it’s Friday and I’m driving through the remote Asian country of Laos, to one of the remoter parts OF Laos: the so-called Plain of Jars. This plateau in the rugged centre of the country is famous for two things.

Firstly, strange and large Neolithic jars, carved from single boulders, that are scattered around the meadows near the provincial capital of Phonsavanh. The jars date from maybe 2000BC, maybe later - no one is quite sure. Absolutely no one has any idea why the jars were fashioned.

The second reason this sequestered part of a sequestered land is famous is because of bombs. To put it bluntly.

Per head of population, tiny impoverished Laos is the most bombed country on earth. Some of these bombs were dropped by Russia, China, and Vietnam; the vast majority were dropped by the Americans. Between the mid 60s and the mid 70s the Americans spent $2m A DAY, every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year - bombing Laos. The Yanks dropped more bombs on Laos than they dropped in the entire second world war on Japan and Germany combined.

And most of these bombs fell on the Plain of Jars, which is why the local peasants now use shell cases and old mortars as gateposts. Or flower pots, or pillars in rice barns.

The bombs – especially the millions of cluster bombs, “bombies” – kill hundreds of Laotians every year: even now. A walk in this countryside can very easily be lethal.

The bombingness of the Plain of Jars adds to its mystery, its air of troubled menace. As I drive along the horrible roads, I am starting to regret the fact I left backpackery Vang Vieng, where my hotel room had precisely this view.

The place I am headed is much colder, higher, darker, foggier.

Night is falling and some of the people here are so poor they don’t have running water, let alone electricity. So they have to wash in gutters, or from parish pumps. Also, they don’t have chimneys in their wooden huts - so to keep themselves warm they light fires outside.

It’s thus a Dantean scene as I cross the darkling plateau. The flat and lethal countryside is twilit and smoky and speckled with thousands of tiny fires, occasionally I glimpse a half naked crone, garishly lit by red flames, bathing herself at the roadside. It could be a Hieronymous Bosch painting, but hard to capture on camera: so here are some more bombs.

The yellow ones are the bombies. Laotian children think they look cute - like toys - so they pick them up when they seem them in the maize fields. And they lose a hand, or an arm.

In the morning I go into town and take in the market. I like Asian markets, the exotic foods in particular. This one is a doozy: you can have rat. Porcupine. Dried rat. Living guinea pig. More rats. Fermented swallows. Insect grubs. Toads. Polecat. And hornets pickled in vinegar.

As I wander the market, I am offered a big fat juicy bee larva by the friendly bee man. Once he has scraped off the wax and bee exudation and bits of hive he hands it over. I take the little bee larva, and eat it. It is cold and squidgy.

I head for the main street to buy a bucket so I can puke. But the first thing I see is a girl in a black and white turban. Then I see another. And another. There are girls in white stilettos and the most outrageous hats wearing costumes that jingle with silver piastres on strings.


A quick visit to the Museum of Unexploded Ordnance tells me why: the helpful man there explains that these are Hmong women – the Hmong are an ethnic minority, possibly immigrated from Yunnan or Tibet, or (some say) Lappland, now scattered across northern Indochina.

They are animist and highly traditional. They are also fiercely independent, even now some of them are still in the mountains near here, refusing to surrender to the communist Laotian government – three decades after the end of the Vietnam war.

And, it seems, this is their Lunar New Year, a chance for all the Hmong in the world to wear their finery and party on down.

The man directs me to a disused airfield at the edge of town – “you’ll see a few more of them there”. No kidding. Five minutes in the car and I find there are fifty thousand Hmong gathered, in a big big space with lots of tents and fairground rides and impromptu dried rat restaurants, enjoying the biggest weekend of their calendar. There are no westerners apart from me. In fact there are no non-Hmong apart from me. The girls are fabulously overdressed.

I notice many of them are playing a strange and boring game: lobbing tennis balls at each other. There are long lines of girls and boys, slowly, laboriously, chucking tennis balls at each other. That’s it. How exciting is that? No wonder they look forward to their big New Year knees-up, when they get the chance to slowly toss a Chinese-made tennis ball at someone else, for seventeen hours.

I’ve had enough Hmong, now it's time to see the jars (I’m gonna speed up the narrative here cause I’m bored so you must be too). I jump in a car and rattle along horrible roads to "Jar Site 1". It turns out the jars are sombre, dignified, large, enigmatic, and slightly dull.

I like them. And yes that's me by the jars, just to prove I made it.

Another hour brings me to Jar Site 3. There are only 3 jar sites you are allowed to visit because the rest are all too dangerous, because of unexploded bombies. Thanks, Uncle Sam. Here’s a photo of a man taking a photo of a bomb crater at Jar Site 1.

Even at the designated jar sites you have to tread carefully between small blocks marked MAG – Mines Advisory Group; step over the blocks and ka-boom. Possibly.

Jar Site 3 is the most remote and the prettiest. I nearly get lost on the dirt roads home but the views are serene.

When I hit town I unearth an old book about the Hmong.

Ah. It turns out the boring tennis ball game is in fact... a mating ritual. This is how the Hmong choose their husbands and wives: there are ways of catching a ball and/or deliberately dropping it and then singing a song which all means, apparently, you have accepted the marital overtures of the person chucking the ball at you.

Sweet. No wonder they are taking their time over it all.

So, where was I? Getting lost. Yes.

The fact I nearly get lost on the way back from Jar Site 3 should maybe provide me with a warning but, fuck it, next day I decide to drive back to lovely warm not-so-weird Vang Vieng on a more “adventurous” route. My Lonely Planet guide to Laos deliciously claims there is an eastwards loop to Vieng from Phonsavanh, “but we haven't tried this route yet”.

I always like to try something that the Lonely Planet people have been too pussy to attempt themselves. So this it. I’m going to take the back route home. It looks like it should take five hours or so, judging by the map.

All begins well. The roads are dirty and rubbled but I am in a four-by-four. I feel intrepid but safe. The countyside is gorgeous. The sun is out. Hmong people are standing in fields playing their tennis ball mating game.

Look: that guy playing the game has got a crash helmet on, maybe he expects to get balls HURLED at him.

Then the road deteriorates. Then it deteriorates further. The hours pass. I experience fog, dust, traffic jams of loggers trucks, and washouts.

The countryside is staggeringly remote. Here are three children carrying wickerwork baskets home to their Hmong village on the hill. The kids are the dots.

As I drive past, people stop to stare at me – kids and adults alike. They seem stunned, astounded, wholly gobsmacked. They gaze my way, mouths hanging open. I guess they are all Tom Knox fans, literally amazed and gratified to see that the famous thriller writer is passing through their tiny electricity-less Laotian hamlets.

Then the road ends: it is blocked by serious people making a better road (hurry up guys) – it will be closed for two hours.

As I wait here I learn several things from a friendly Laotian English teacher on a tiny motorbike. He tells me that I am going the wrong way: and have been for several hours. He tells me that I have a lot of jungle to go through to reach civilisation – he adds that the road is ”quite dirty”.

He also explains the faces of the villagers. “They have never seen a foreigner before, ever”.

That’s quite something. How many places in the world can you still get that experience? So I’m not just the first slightly famous Cornish thriller writer to traverse these rugged trails, I am the first non-Hmong.

Wow. No wonder the Lonely Planet guide says this route is "untested".

It is also about to defeat me. The road finally reopens but night is falling, cold and dark and chilling, like a sickness. The jungle shivers.

Where the fuck am I going to sleep? I have hopes of the “provincial capital”, Tha-Thom, this turns out to be a series of teak-stilted shacks, and a pig.

Now I am worried. My car nearly gets stuck in deep mud. I have never driven myself really offroad before, in a 4WD – I am learning the hard way. A friendly bunch of Hmong locals in a muddy minibus help me unfuck my car. Their driver keeps insisting we should drive on “together”. As I have no fucking idea where I am, or how I’m going to get out of this mess, or where I’m going to sleep, I’m cool with the notion of collaboration. But what’s in it for them?

Over the next few hours, as total devil-black darkness descends on the misty jungle, I realise why they are keen to have me along for the journey. The “road”, such as it is, disappears altogether under THREE FEET OF MUD. At this point I forget to take photos for a while cause I am freaked, and also concentrating on Not Dying.

I have never experienced mud like this: literally waist deep in the big muddy. My car skids and veers all over the jungle, in the darkness, sometimes nearly tipping over cliff edges. But at least my brand new 4WD Ford pick-up “moves”. Their minibus is vanquished by the mud.

So I have to tow them out. Again and again. Every few hundred metres I have to chain my car to theirs and tug them free, in the blackness. Half of them jump in my car to even the load. I now have a load of giggling Hmong girls and nervous Hmong women watching a guy who has never really driven a 4WD before try and pull the minibus with their menfolk through the squidge in the darkness and the jungle at night in the mountains of one of the most remote countries in Asia.

I try not to panic. The ordeal goes on for hours - and hours. Grinding, reversing, swearing, despairing. More mud. Then another entire Hmong family emerge from the dark. What the?

Yes, that's them, packed in my car like Hmong sardines. Hmongous sardines. Hmongdines. They jump in the back of my pick-up, granny and granddad, baby and all.

I am now rescuing half of Hmong society it seems – but of course they are rescuing me, too. There is no way I would have been able to make it out of these mountains and forests alone. At night.

But are we ever going to get out? I have now been driving for twelve hours solid. TWELVE HOURS. Here’s my Hmong friend Pow, he seems cheerful despite it all.

I drink whisky to “stay awake”. The baby cries. The car complains. The chain snaps. I am rechained. The fireflies twinkle in the dark.

Without warning, the misery suddenly abates, and concludes. The road returns! The air warms. We are descending to the riverplains of the Mekong. Thank God.

At one mosquitoey dark sultry corner everyone hops off my pick-up. My friend the Hmong man Pow tells me he “loves” me. I think this is his way of saying thankyou. The girls laugh and smile and wave. The old granny salutes me. I an touched. We have been through all this together. *sob*

I drive on alone. I miss them already. At midnight I pull into a Vietnamese hotel in the seedy frontier town of Paksen, and a yawning but amiable receptionist makes me Pot Noodles. Because I haven’t eaten all day. I just forgot.

Monday morning. The sun is out. I have Bach and Moonbabies on the car stereo. The road back to Vientiane is GOOD. I feel about 120 years old, I look 156.
But who cares - I fucking did it. I DID it.

Yes, Lonely Planet people, you really can “take the eastwards loop from Phonsavan”. But if anyone out there plans to do it, I’d advise you to bring a good car, a bottle of scotch, a lot of time, and an entire Hmong family to help.

Kharb jai.