Phonsavan: Opium, bomb craters and huge jars.

I jumped off the bus from Vieng Xai and onto the back of a packed tuk tuk to go to the bus station on the other side of Sam Neau. I was hanging off the back, standing on the platform, holding on for dear life. We pulled into the station and I boarded the clapped out no air-con, dust covered bus two minutes before it left for Vang Vien. I was on my merry way, a day earlier than planned. Impeccable time management Mr Craig. Thank you backpacking gods. I salute you.

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The bus journey was hot and painful. I’m used to it. The old lady wearing traditional Hmong gear, sitting in front of me was obviously not. She was continually sick for the entire journey. In Laos, the locals use buses instead of goods vehicles to transport their goods. This means that when the luggage compartments under the bus are full, they chuck their bags of veg and rice into the middle isle. Getting on and off the bus now involves climbing over 35 bags of food stuffs. I love a challenge.

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I was spat out of the bus at 10.30pm on a deserted road in Phonsavan. I remember the place was decorated creatively with bomb casings. Only a couple of hotels were open and the restaurants were closed. The open hotels were fully booked out. Just my luck. I search the local area high and low but only managed to find a night club and a Ferris wheel in a car park. The first one I’d seen in Laos. I eventually found Mr Kong’s Guest House down a back road near the club. A wacky and wonderful place, with a few drunk tourists sitting around a fire which was burning in an old bomb case, playing the guitar and singing out of tune. They were celebrating women’s day. I’d found my home for the next two nights.

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The next day was spent relaxing, eating a solid breakfast and making a decision on which tour to go on to see the Plain of Jars and the bomb craters. I suddenly felt very alone. The town was very quiet and no other tourists were around. Booking a tour may prove expensive without a bigger group. As usual, it all fell into place. I love this interior.

DSC05246I rented out a cheap bike and went exploring the town. In all honesty, Phonsavan is not the most beautiful place in the world but it has its charms. It relies on a grid system and the houses and buildings are nothing short of dull but there were a couple of war memorials to climb with half decent views and a lake on the outskirts of town. I took my children’s, one gear bike everywhere, up hills, down dirt tracks and on the near-empty roads. I won’t lie, it was a physical challenge in the 32C heat but I’m hardcore, so I loved it. At one point I even found myself riding my bike through a mine and over a small stream. UXO and bomb casings were scattered everywhere and used for decoration in the most unlikely of places. A grim reminder.

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The main attraction for me was the lovely people I passed, the children that waved as I drove my bike through their street games and the lovely lady I met at the SOS Children’s Village. During my exploring of the town, I came across a newly built school and orphanage. The lady, Mary, who greeted a hot and bothered me, showed me around the grounds and explained to me how the orphanage was run. The village was built to house the orphans created by the death of family members from UXO. Two million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos by the Americans in The Secret War from 1964 to 1973, a third of which did not detonate. Unfortunately, Laos still pays the price today. One person is injured everyday due to UXO. I was sad to see so many orphans but happy to see that something positive had been done for them. I saw a wonderfully run orphanage with happy children playing. The grounds are well looked after and the family houses surround a huge sports field/garden. There is a lot of space and freedom for the children to be children. Each of the 15 families, consist of 12 children of various ages and an adopted Mother and Aunt. There has been considerable funding from a now deceased Austrian man who paid for both the orphanage and the school next door, drumming up international and corporate support to help fund children who needed help. I was touched by his generosity and by the now smooth running machine that is the SOS Children’s Village. Mary, who showed me around was a pleasure to talk to. I was truly touched by the story of their struggles and successes.

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As I rode my shoddy bike around the town, I noticed a lot of construction and renovation taking place. Most of the buildings here were flattened. Even 40 years after the last bomb was dropped, the town is still recovering.

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Before I returned to my hostel I noticed the MAG information point was open. MAG help safely detonate UXO and make land safe to live on in Laos and around the world. The Mines Advisory Group is a neutral and impartial humanitarian organisation. Their vision is a safe and secure future for communities affected by armed violence and conflict. The information was useful and clearly labelled. A few facts were harder to digest than others. Here’s some…

  • Lao PDR is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.
  • There were more than 580,000 bombing missions on Lao PDR from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War.
  • That’s equivalent to one bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.
  • More than 270 million cluster munitions (or ‘bombies’, as they are known locally) were used, of which an estimated 80 million malfunctioned, remaining live and in the ground after the end of the war
  • Approximately 25 per cent of the country’s 10,000+ villages are contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO).
  • From the end of the war in 1974 to 2008, more than 20,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents.
  • There have been approximately 300 new casualties annually over the last decade.
  • Over the last decade 40 per cent of total casualties were children.
  • Rural families search for bomb casings to sell as scrap metal
  • Some farmers detonate bombs by accident while farming

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Check out this website for more information:

http://www.maginternational.org/where-we-work/where-mag-works/lao-pdr-/#.Ub23G_k3BNM

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Many of the shops and local restaurants used UXO casing as decoration and many bars showed videos to help educate us foreigners about the Secret War. I was sickened but intrigued by the documentaries on show. How could I have not heard about this before? Then again, America did bomb Laos for five years before the international media got hold of it. That night, I found an Indian restaurant and fed myself on vegetable masala, burnt roti and a three lovely cups of chai before booking up a place on a tour for the next day. I decided to go with Mr Kong’s young guitar playing mentalist, Bam Sai.

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The followed morning, I was woken by the sound of loud buzzing. It sounded like bees had set up camp in my room and were repeatedly flying into the ceiling. However, I couldn’t see any. Maybe they were stuck. Then after twenty minutes, they stopped. Later on that morning, I was to find out what the beasts were that woke me up.

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Ban Sai, our tour guide for the day, is mental. He swears like a Brit and is unpredictable, rude and erratic. I liked him immediately. He was a little hard to stomach at 7am and if I’m honest, he didn’t get much better through the day, but I’m left with fond memories. He brought the group a bowl of huge flies with hard shells. He’d caught, seasoned and fried the beasts for us to eat. At this point I realised what had woke me up this morning, and why they had gone quiet so suddenly. I put one of the fella’s in my mouth and chewed him down. I won’t lie, it wasn’t a pleasant taste. I prefer scorpion.

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Ban Sai took us to the local market. The group were a mixed but good bunch, together we tolerated Ban Sai. The market was a standard Laos affair, the pick of the animal wrongs were the live pigs imprisoned in small wicker baskets. The usual arrangement of fish, skinned birds, rats, fermented meats and fishy sauces were on offer. The stench of raw meat attracting flies from all over Laos. I picked up some fruit, doughnuts and some bread for lunch.

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Ban Sai then starts our day’s activities. We drive to a field where there are huge bomb craters.  On the way, Ban drives like a lunatic, chatting casually to his friends on his phone and imitating everyone’s accents, offending the Argentinian dude at the back. These bombs were dropped in field that used to be farm land, nowhere near military targets or enemy lines, just pointless violence. The craters were massive. My confusion to the Americans aim of this mindless bombing was growing.

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Next up on Ban Sai’s Magical Phonsavan Tour was the waterfall. Now, I’ve seen a fair few beauties in my time in SE Asia so I wasn’t expecting to be amazed. However, this waterfall was different. We parked up and trekked for half an hour to the bottom of the waterfall, a multi-tiered beast. We then took off our shoes and proceeded to climb the waterfall. Steps had been cut out of the rocks, pathways made and some pools were perfect for having a dip. We spent the next two hours navigating our way through and up seemingly impossible routes in this beaut of a waterfall.

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We dried off, jumped in Ban Sai’s Magical Life Defying Bus and went to a Hmong village, where they have made creative use of the bomb casings. We played a game with some kids. It’s amazing how much fun these kids could have with a stick.

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Ban also showed us a creative way to make money in these parts, opium. A small, out of the way garden housed a few plants, something I’d heard about but never actually seen before.

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Situated around Phonsavan, are the mysterious Plains of Jars sites. There are hundreds of huge jars carved from stone, some with lids. Some are perfectly intact while some are badly damaged. How they got there and what they were used for has got the historians baffled. They date back to the Iron Age and were thought to be used in some kind of burial practice, this however, is merely a guess made by archaeologists. The site is truly bizarre. MAG has announced most of these sites are now safe after clearing the UXO. There are MAG markers on the floor to show the safe path around the fields.

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My word of advice, go to see one site. The rest look exactly the same. I’d predict a boring day if you wanted to go see all of them.

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I had a long but extremely interesting day. I was shattered but had a bus to catch. I’d met some truly nice people and made some good contacts. The forever mental Ban Sai dropped me at the bus station. Next stop Vang Vien for some relaxing and maybe a couple of drinks. Fancy a massage?

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After 30 minutes on the tightly packed bus we crashed into a van. No major damage done so after a brief argument with a confused driver, we carried on our journey. The bus then overheated and needed to stop to cool down. The roads were long and winding, the bus was hot and smelly. Needless to say I arrived in Vang Vien late. Laos adventures have been hardcore. My body is caving in. I need to rest.

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