Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

The long-winded-niest travelogue on the internet!


Phonsavan, Laos

Posted on May 10th, 2005

I'd say these vehicles would be perfect for a Road Warrior movie if they didn't have a top speed of about seven MPH.

The main thing people notice immediately upon entering Laos is how much more chilled out everyone is here compared to the rest of SE Asia. Indeed, their Cambodian neighbors just to the south are polar opposites, wound up and spaz-prone like a cat after a piping hot coffee enema. However, the Laotians suffer a very profound identity crisis when it comes time to hit the road. When they get behind the wheel, the people of the PDR (Please Don’t Rush) of Laos slam it into gear, tear off in a cloud of dust and blue smoke and suddenly it’s like you’re in an episode of “Speed Racer”; the velocity turns the landscape into a blur, turns are taken on two wheels and if you aren’t taking a daredevil risk every two minutes then you’re just not applying yourself. Keep in mind that this Theatre of the Kamikaze is set in the mountains of northern Laos, where blind turns are a constant, roads are crumbing, guard rails are a foreign concept and rather than stick to one’s lane, drivers avert a possible head-on collision on a blind curve by leaning on the horn the whole way. Though with everyone blaring the horn constantly I don’t see how it’s possible for one to hear anyone else’s horn over their own. And yet, I never saw an accident. Strange, but true.

Aside from the perceived possibility of a violent death during your average bus ride in Laos, what’s even more worrying are the odds of being barfed on. This distinct likelihood forces you to leave your book in your bag and instead keep your eyes squarely on your neighbors, looking for any signs of motion sickness. With the unrelenting, hard, high speed turns that the drivers careen through and the resulting way people are tossed around inside the bus, it doesn’t take long before the ol’ vomit starts flying. Strangely, other than one instance, the up-chuck floor shows I’ve witnessed have been exclusively comprised of Laotians, people who grew up on this mode of transportation who you’d think should be accustomed to it by now, like Americans are accustomed to having a president that can’t speak English. I have only been on three Laos bus rides so far, but each one has featured no less than five pukers. The driver’s assistant is usually pretty quick on his feet to get barf bags to people when they call for them, but unfortunately some people just don’t gauge these things very well and they inevitably end up having to lunge for an open window (or in one case, the neighboring bag of a British backpacker), thus by the end of the ride there’s always a fair amount of puke decorating the side of the bus.

I have never gotten motion sickness, even in the worst possible conditions, however I’m dangerously susceptible to the Puke Domino Effect. Seeing, hearing and smelling other people retching is a surefire way to get my stomach dancing. The key to combating this sensation is to find an all-consuming distraction and the wondrous spectacle of the Laos mountains (along with an MP3 player cranked up to ‘11’) is just what the doctor ordered. These mountains are so gorgeous and inviting that you are tempted to “accidentally” miss your bus when it leaves the rest stop, so you can just march right into the hills and bond with whatever exquisite combination of nature’s elements that made them possible (and maybe score yourself some complimentary opium poppies). These vistas aren’t quite on a the same level with the mountain views in New Zealand (which are greener) and Norway (higher), but they are uniquely stimulating all the same. And that’s not all. When you don’t have an amazing sheer drop view into a valley or a mind-bending expanse of distant peaks to ogle - unobstructed by any pesky guardrails! - you have the arresting sight of the countless roadside tribe settlements, where people are continuing subsistence lifestyles that have probably endured for centuries. These ubiquitous thatch and bamboo huts built on short stilts sit isolated on hillsides in groupings of 10 to 30 shelters or perched along cliffs every few kilometers throughout the mountains. You would expect to see these people doing everyday tasks like hauling wood, cooking or taking bucket showers at the community well, but usually they are simply sitting out on their porches or staring out the windows at the horn blasting traffic going by. It’s very surreal and you are forced to wonder about the lives these people lead. Namely; A) why are there always only four people visible in settlements with 20 dwellings or more B) how do they sleep with a 24 hour a day horn orchestra going on three feet from their doors and C) why are they never doing anything other than gazing back at you? As I hung my head out the window to suck in the sweet, puke-free air, these questions tormented me.

For the children in these settlements the daily bus going by is the by far the best entertainment on hand. When the bus flies through their village, they come tearing out of their huts and stand by the side of the road, unsettlingly close to the speeding bus wheels, jumping up and down and screaming like we were the Laotian Beetles. And Buddha help them if we stop in their settlement, it’s ape-shit time! Of course the only reason we would stop is to either pick up a passenger or for everyone jump off for a group piss on the roadside. There’s nothing like having an audience of 40 half-naked, spellbound children to give you urinary stage fright.

As our driver hunched over the steering wheel, with a Red Bull in one hand, focused on breaking some unspoken land-speed record between Luang Prabang and Phonsavan, I climbed on some sacks of rice and tried to hang out the window with my camera in an effort to capture some of these mountain views and stilt hut settlements for your enjoyment, but the effort was mostly a wash. The fantastic speed, the constant rattling from the potholes and dips and the G-forces from the fierce turns made even the quickest exposure shots distorted and virtually useless. Also, getting out of your seat at any time while the bus is in motion puts you in jeopardy of being unintentionally delivered head first to the front of the bus during the frequent hard stops performed in the effort to avoid flattening livestock. Farm animals are not the brightest sentient beings in the world and in their defense, they don’t have a whole lot of roaming space on the slopes of the mountains, so they spend a fair portion of their day standing in the middle of the road. As cows, pigs and chickens are wont to do, when a giant, looming piece of metal on wheels comes their way, horn blazing, they dutifully, if slowly, move to the side of the road and then at the very last instant they change their minds and dart across to the other side just under the wheels, forcing the driver, who would never think to slow down a little in the face of 20 cows and 37 chickens, to stomp on the brakes with both feet. If you’re standing when this occurs it’s curtains for you.

Check out the dish!

Even if we were at a stand-still and I had two hours to monkey with a tripod, doing justice to these priceless views is a daunting challenge due to the irksome and baffling proliferation of satellite dishes. I don’t know if dishes are just phenomenally cheap or if perhaps someone is giving them away, but even the most remote, lonely slap-dash shack with no door or running water has a picture sullying satellite dish mounted on it. And these aren’t the tiny, gray dishes that decorate the sides of every apartment building in the west, these are the old school, giant, spider web dish cast-offs from the Russian Space Agency. Yes, these villagers have every right to watch “Big Brother, Thailand” just like the rest of Laos, but why didn’t they think of me when they put up those eyesores? What about me????

As promised, Phonsavan turned out the be a dusty, forgettable hick town. Though the amazing number of expensive, brand new or under construction European style houses was perplexing. Even Vientiane didn’t have digs this swank. No one I asked could explain how or why all this money came into Phonsavan, but after several comments I heard over my first 24 hours in town, it eventually dawned on me that it’s probably opium money.

So why come to Phonsavan? Yes, the town is a hole, the food is terrible and the Internet is more expensive than anywhere in SE Asia and slower than a group of Italian construction workers, but the greater Phonsavan area has plenty to see, with the help of a guide and a driver, including the unsightly results of the handiwork of the American military who gave Laos the bragging rights of being the most bombed country on Earth and the less guilt-provoking Plain of Jars. But first let’s get that guide and driver, eh?

One of the few perks of Phonsavan is that the people in the guesthouse industry know that their town is a hole and so they go to great lengths to make the precious few people who stop in their town to feel at ease. In a grand departure from the rest of SE Asia, representatives from all the notable guesthouses were waiting to meet us at the bus station located, as usual, several kilometers out of town so that the tuk-tuk drivers can make a living. Yes, them meeting us at the bus was partially to harass us into coming to their places, but the trade off was that they provided free transport to their guesthouses, versus everyone having to engage in a test of wills with the collected tuk-tuk drivers. I spotted the representative from my intended guesthouse, Kong Keo, while I was still waiting to exit the bus. A cute young woman, holding a small sign with the guesthouse name and “Recommended by Lonely Planet” proudly written underneath. I pushed through the gauntlet of the more aggressive guesthouse guys and grabbed onto her and didn’t let go until I was in her van with a half dozen other backpackers.

Though Kong Keo offers ridiculously cheap single rooms for US$2 a night with no bathroom, no furniture, a single 40 watt light bulb and several monstrous, unidentified exotic specimens from the insect world on the walls that looked like they just escaped from the Mars Museum of Natural History, I chose to spring for one of the bungalows for US$8 a night, with bath, solar-powered hot water and no evident pests that were bigger than my thumb.

The next step was getting organized for a tour. Now if you’ve been paying attention, you know that there’s nothing that I hate more than being ferried around in a van with a bunch of other Pinkies, robotically paraded through sights and getting the sensation that in fact I’m the attraction when the whole village comes out to watch the farangs take pictures and give their patronage to the guide-approved businesses (i.e. his uncle’s wood shop, his brother’s convenience store and his mother’s restaurant). However, in the interest of not having my ass blown off by a UXO, I was willing to make an exception just this once.

Being the most heavily bombed country in the world isn’t all fun and games. Laos is literally carpeted with Unexploded Ordinances (UXO). That is, cluster bombs, land mines and missiles that plopped to earth and didn’t detonate and kill innocent villagers like they should have. Between 1964 and 1973, during the “Secret War” in Laos, the U.S. flew 580,344 missions, dropping over two million tons of bombs – that’s a ton of explosives for every man, woman and child in Laos at the time folks! God bless America! – in their effort to wipe out people that might be Commies and protect the CIA’s opium interests. Curiously, and by “curiously,” I mean “pure evil,” a large part of these bombs weren’t bunker bombs or anti-vehicle rockets, they were the aforementioned cluster bombs, meant only to kill people. And by “people,” I mean villagers who could have potentially been persuaded to side with the Commies and why wait for them to turn to the Dark Side? Better a villager with one eye and no arms than a Commie, after all.

OK, bitter sarcasm aside, something like 30% of this unholy amount of bombs never blew and ever since farmers, fishermen, ladies coming home from the market, kids and hapless water buffalo have been stepping on, driving over or picking up and playing with these UXOs and having them go off in their faces. This happened about 11,000 times between 1973 and 1996 and it’s still going on to the tune of about 300 accidents a year. Since a situation like this makes a walk in the woods impossible, much less agricultural development, Laos has understandably had a bit of a tough time economically. The British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and the United Nations sponsored UXO Lao have been doing clean-up since 1994, making reasonably safe tourism in the hardest hit regions feasible only since 1999. Though they’ve cleared over a quarter of a million UXOs so far, at the rate they’re going, it’s going to take over 100 years before Laos is completely safe.

How did I get on that tear? Oh yeah, so fearing an epidemic of tourists blowing themselves up, the Lao government doesn’t allow unsupervised touring in certain parts of the country which means you either submit to a tour group or hang out in downtown Phonsavan. Twelve water buffalo and 17 chickens couldn’t have dragged me out of that damn van.

Unfortunately it wasn’t all that smooth. Kong Keo organizes tours with “group discounts” – there were seven of us from the guesthouse going out that day - but they conveniently hem and haw about the final price of the tour until 10 minutes before you’re supposed to leave. They wanted US$10 per person to tour the Plain of Jars, a bomb site, a village, and for some reason they tacked on a visit to a waterfall for a dip. In any other country in the world, this tour package would be a steal, but in Laos the money they would have made off us that day could have funded construction of a second guesthouse. There was an ugly, group rebellion. The guide, apparently one of the owners of the guesthouse and a proud member of the popular Asian-based “Freakishly Long, and I Mean Like Three Inches Long, Never Trimmed Mole-Sprouting Facial Hair for Men Club,” threw a hissy fit, calling us rude for backing out after he’d already arranged everything and paid for some supposed permit to take all seven of us out of the city. It was a bit shocking to have this come from the Kong Keo people who had been nothing but angels up until that point, but I have to commend them, they hooked us with devilish expertise. The reveal-the-true-price-at-the-seeming-point-of-no-return tactic is all too common in SE Asia and we were all hardened to this scheme, so none of us were having it. The guide hotly offered to come down in price while threatening that this would dramatically affect the quality of the tour that he was willing to give (read: I will show you nothing good, give you no details about the things we see and treat you like shit). Just as we were about to all parade into town and hire a better tour for less, a desperate renegotiation took place and we came to an agreement (dropping the waterfall from the tour and therefore US$2). Though everyone was happy after that, I remained bitter and never let my guard down around those Kong Keo people again after that, going as far as to pay them with exact change when I left so there wouldn’t be any short-changing or “Gee, we don’t have enough change right now” bullshit five minutes before my bus left.

To be fair, though I gave him palpable hate vibes the entire time, the guide turned out to be all right and I had more or less forgiven him by the time I left the hostel. He was full of information about the U.S. Secret War in Laos, though at times his information was conflicting and embellished, but in general he knew his stuff and, if you believe third hand word-of-mouth, he knew angles that have not been widely released before now. (In lieu of the sketchy nature of these details, I have decided to not repeated them here in the interest of not spreading possible mis-information, but if you’re really interested, there’s supposedly a few tell-all books coming out soon by former U.S. military pilots about U.S. involvement in Laos.) Indeed he happily explained not only how America deceived their own soldiers into committing atrocities in Laos (e.g. flying or marching them in blind and telling them they were in North Vietnam), turning the country into one of the leading illicit drug producing areas in the world – fun fact: the people in the opium growing areas of Laos didn’t have to grow or provide their own food for seven years, not even rice, as the Americans air-dropped all the food they needed, so they could focus all their efforts on producing opium – and arbitrarily dropping bombs “like rain” for eight years straight. It boiled down to the American Guilt Trip tour with some candid side information on how the current Laos communist government is still screwing the people in the interest of living like kings and trying to enforce a ban on talking politics or taking action in the spirit of Myanmar.

Our first stop was a field about 20 minutes out of Phonsavan that was peppered with bomb craters. Some of the craters were huge, big enough to accommodate a western house, still sitting brown and lifeless as the day they were made. From the rim of some of the craters, you could see unexploded cluster bombs laying on the bottom, though they seemed a little too conspicuously placed and I wonder if they were laid there for the sake of us tourists. Taking pictures of these field cavities only provided 10 minutes of distraction. The rest of the time we were enthusiastically lectured at about how devious and evil America was. Still pretty huffy about the tour price thing, I wasn’t too receptive to his exaggerations and questionable facts, but I managed to keep my mouth shut.

UXO, cluster bombs

After a very long time of having my country vehemently bad mouthed – it’s no secret that I’m no fan of the U.S. but there’s only a certain amount of trash talking that I can take in one day, which seemed to be echoed by the others in the group (a German, two Dutch, two Aussies and a Brit), as only one guy was still listening at the end - he finally loaded us back into the van and we headed for a nearby village that had collected and incorporated missile casings, fuel tanks, bomb pieces, plane parts and whatever else they could find into constructing their homes, fences, knives, forks, spoons, bird houses, garden planters, everything. Nearly every structure in the village utilized military trash in some utilitarian way. Even 30 years later, there’s still so much junk strewn across the Laos countryside that collecting and selling scrap metal is a legitimate profession. A crashed U.S. plane and a Russian tank that are mentioned in LP as being side attractions to the Plain of Jars as recently as 2003 have been completely chopped up and hauled away since that information was collected.

Fuel tanks

Cluster bombs

Missile stilt birdhouse

Missile fence

Fuel tank planter

We stopped in a private home in the village which turned out to be inhabited by the guide’s aunt and her nine sons. It was a dirt floor, two room shack with wood-slated walls and a thatched roof. All of the kids were in filthy clothes and covered from head to toe in dirt. Kids are often charged with looking after their younger siblings in SE Asia, but this practice goes to ridiculous lengths in Laos. Five year old kids walk around all day with their one year old sisters and brothers slung on their backs, running around and playing without a thought to the delicate thing they’re carrying. And the odd thing is that these babies just sit there contentedly, never making a sound as they are roughly bounced around all day, a stark contrast to the discipline-free, devil spawn kids in Laos cities who can’t go 10 seconds without screaming or crying or breaking something (or throwing a shoe at a farang), running around pantless with shit smeared on their asses and basically demanding constant attention. There was no husband/father in the house, because in the Laos Hmong community it’s acceptable to have two or more wives, but for some reason the alternate wives live on their own, only occasionally receiving visits by their betrothed to get knocked up. The aunt wasn’t looking too good so the guide decided to load her into the van with us and take a side trip to the clinic. With the aunt in his seat in the front, the guide sat in back, directly in front of me in one of the fold down isle death seats, with his two tufts of three inch mole facial hair flapping back at me in the breeze and making me wish I had a tweezers.

MAG warnings outside the Plain of Jars

Old Commie trench line. That's Laos' only airforce base in the background with a few sorry Ruissian Migs.

After a stop at the clinic we finally headed for the Plain of Jars. There are three jar sites that have been cleared of UXO thoroughly enough as to be safe for tourists. Each one has it’s own appeal. Site One has the most jars, while Sites Two and Three reportedly have better views. Since Site One was the closest and no one was up for being nickel and dimed for the extra gas money to get to the others, Site One was where we headed. After handing out 7,000 more kip for the entry fee, we were on our way, being careful to walk between the white MAG safety markers. The Jars are still largely a mystery. While it is believed that some date as far back as 2500 BC, most Jars are only about 2,000 years old. The jars range in size from three to seven feet tall (above ground), weighing from 600 kilograms (1,333 pounds) to one metric ton (2,200 pounds). Since written history in Laos only started in the 14th century, there is nothing to go on as far as to the meaning of the Jars. Since human bones and some valuable have been found underneath some jars, it is thought that they may simply be grave markers. Unfortunately this revelation sparked a desperate period of time when people tipped jars over to loot the areas underneath, but it turned out not a heck of a lot of them had any lootable items. Also, the material that the jars are made from raises serious conundrums. Though they appear to be fashioned out of stone, studies have revealed that many of them are carved out of volcanic rock. There are no volcanoes in Laos. So where did these things come from and how and why the hell did people drag them such great distances thousands of years ago? Unless new details come to light, it will remain a frustrating rhetorical question forever.

Stay in between the white markers or KABLOOIE!!

From the Plain of Jars we got a bonus trip to the Phonsavan food market, the most filthy, bug swarmed, rat infested market I have ever seen in any country, ever. Live pigs were for sale, bundled in tiny bamboo carrying cases the size of hand bags, live frogs were in open tubs, unable to hop away as their legs had already been broken and raw meat sat uncovered, acting as a home for colonies of flies. We were universally put off and didn’t linger long.

Pigs for sale.

Finally we were delivered back to the hostel. I was sour. Insomnia had made me irritable, contact lens that I should have disposed of a week earlier were making my eyes burn and giving me a headache, despite normally being an outspoken anti-American discontent, having been verbally bashed all day made me grumpy and all I had to look forward to was more work, an expensive nasty dinner, 30 minutes of wildly over-priced Internet business to tackle and another night of sleep on a mattress as thin as two chopsticks. With only six days left in Laos and two buffer days to get back to Bangkok and rest up for intense of touring, schmoozing with important people and writing my ass off in Hong Kong and Sapporo, I realized that drastic recuperative measures were in order. I was going to have to sacrifice two cities in Laos in favor of some rest so I wouldn’t arrive at my paying assignments looking like I’d just walked out of a POW camp. My intention to risk my life on two domestic flights in order to race south and visit the universally loved Si Phan Don area on the border of Cambodia was dropped in favor of a slothful six days in two cities as I made a loop back to Luang Prabang, where I would take mercy on my ass and fly straight back to Bangkok. I will undoubtedly kick myself for this negligence of duty a year from now, but it’s either dedicated rest or be refused entry to the five star Shangri-La Hotel in Hong Kong on the basis of me looking like a methed out hobo.

Back to the travelogue index


©Leif Pettersen 2012