Thursday, December 17, 2009

Plain of Jars and UXOs

Phonsavan - Dec 13 to 15, 2009 (by Swiss)

With our pizza cravings satisfied the previous two nights, it was time to say good bye to Luang Prabang and head to Phonsavan, a windy 6-8 hour drive south west of LP. Jason wanted to see the “Plain of Jars”, and frankly, I did also. Besides the plain of jars, Phonsavan doesn't have all that much to offer, so our plan was to just spend one day there before heading onwards to Vang Vieng.

♫♪Rolla coasta, of Laaaooos ♫♪
After briefly consuming a breakfast sandwich with, um, strange ingredients but a long line (good sign), we were picked up from our guesthouse at 8am on Sunday morning. We were then promptly transported to the local “minivan station”, think bus station with about 15 minivans. Passengers and bags were unloaded and distributed among 3 different minivans depending on the final destination, with large bags wrapped in tarps and loaded on top of the vehicles. Our van included a French couple, a couple of Lao folks (incl a kid), and a British lady. The first act of said lady involved the killing of a couple of gnats by use of bug spray in our stationary van, i.e., an enclosed, non-ventilated space. After my 10 minute coughing spree as a result of the gnats chilling in my general direction, she had successfully managed to earn a top spot on my shit list.

I already alluded to the ride being six to eight hours long. As most of us know, for a fixed distance, time is usually a function of speed. Travelers get to enjoy the eight hour ride if they opt for the public bus option, whereas minivan riders get the six hour treatment. It became very apparent why the van is 25% faster – we booked it through the very, and I mean very, windy roads up and down the mountains towards our destination. When we weren't busy holding on for dear life, the passengers got to enjoy absolutely gorgeous scenery along the way. Some pictures below.


We had two stops along the way, the second being a random smoke and bio-break on the side of the road. It was during break #2 when I sarcastically asked Jason “Are we here?”, to which my favorite British lady just had to chime in and say “Of course we're here. 'Here' is where you always are. We're just not in Phonsavan.” Thanks lady, although you are technically correct, I could really have done without that commentary. On the flip side, congrats, you now have solidified that #1 spot on my list. We finally arrived in town at 15:45 and were off to seek some lodging.

Phonsavan, UXOs, and an oft-not-discussed topic in the US
For guesthouses, Lonley Planet only listed one “interesting” option, Kong Keo, where we decided to book a bungalow. This was a budgetary decision in lieu of the “Nice” guesthouse. In hind sight, although it had character, we would have been better off forking over 10,000 kip extra to stay at the much nicer “Nice.” The reason for this is that the beds were the hardest we've encountered thus far, the room became freezing cold at night, and we had a special guest, Mickey, who tried (unsuccessfully, initially) to help himself to Jason's granola bars in the middle of the night. In all fairness, it could have been Minnie, we didn't have a chance to check. The mouse was more successful the next day, when we found two of the three bars missing. Bad Lonely Planet, bad.

Goal #2 after checking in was to book a tour at the plain of jars (or jar of plains as I kept calling them to the amusement of the folks around me.) We started out at the tour booking place next to “Nice" guesthouse, where they quoted us 160,000 kip to view all three main sites, an whiskey village, an old Russian tank, including a free lunch. Being the stinking capitalists we are, some price checking was in order, and we quickly found better deals offering the same tour for as low as 120,000 kip (~USD 15) . We booked with a place diagonally from the first tour company, and satisfied with the price (they asked us not to tell other people on the tour what we paid), headed off to dinner. I had some beef with Latang rice, whereas Jason chowed down on bacon wrapped chicken with sticky rice.

With food cravings satisfied, we decided to drop in at the UXO (UneXploded Ordinances) info center, where they have information on UXOs and show three different documentaries at 16:30, 17:45, and 18:30, the last of which we managed to catch.

Unbeknown to some Americans, UXOs are a huge problem in northern and southern Laos, crippling and claiming lives of many locals around this area. They are predominately leftover bombs from the Vietnam and Secret war era (60's and 70's), where the US tried to halt the spread of communism by bombing the crap out of northern (keep Chinese out) and southern (cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail) Laos. According to Lonely Planet, we spent somewhere around USD 2.2 million a day to bombard these areas with over 2 million pounds of bombs. The problem is, some did not explode, and thus pose a significant hazard to people now trying to cultivate the land. Exacerbating the problem is that the folks here are very poor, and risk their lives harvesting the bombs to sell to scrap metal dealers in exchange for roughly USD 2 per kilo of metal. Kids are a good percentage of victims, in part due to the harvesting for scrap metal, in another part because the roughly tennis ball sized cluster bombs, called bombies, are fun to play with. For more info, check out the 2001 documentary Bombies. There are currently efforts under way by organizations like the Mines Advisory Group, MAG, to clear the area of these threats.

We spent one hour watching the documentary, "Bomb Harvest" on how MAG is currently working on clearing UXOs and the challenges involved in training locals to disarm and destroy them. Jason would re-visit the center the next day to watch "Bombies" (showing at 16:30), while I was out playing soccer (er, football) with some local kids. It was a very enlightening visit.

Jars of Plain
After an absolutely freezing night interrupted by Mickey/Minnie, dogs constantly barking, and a rooster driven awakening at around 5am, we groggily hopped in the shower (one by one, not together) around 6:45 am before dressing as warmly as we could to head into town. It was a fog filled morning, and our breaths were steaming in the cold morning air.

We headed to the local internet cafe for a quick email check, where I learned that Comcast now has sent a collection agency after me for owing $95, despite me having two documented chat sessions with customer service dating back to September concluding that I owe nothing. My Mom is currently dealing with them (Thanks Mom!), and she informed me that Comcast outsources their customer service and apparently the link between customer service and their accounting department is a giant FAIL. So note to all readers: Avoid Comcast like the plague. They SUCK and are completely incompetent. /Rant over.

After our little email check we headed next door to have some breakfast. It is there that we ran into the French couple (Natasha and Bertrand) from our minivan ride to Phonsavan, and Jason promptly busted out his French language skills to converse with them. I think they were quite impressed that an American could speak French that well. I gathered about 30-50% of the conversation, courtesy of my 4 painful years of French lessons back in Switzerland. They were super nice, and since they ended up on the same tour as us, we (well, Jason) would be chatting with them for the majority of the day.

Next up was a quick 30 second walk (the town is very small) to our tour company, where we boarded a minivan and met our tour guide. The van did a couple more pickups, where to my delight the British lady from the previous ride managed to board our vehicle. Great.

We also met a nice girl from Holland, Anne, as well as a couple of middle-aged guys from Finland who were on a 13 month journey. We learned from them that the government in Finland has a program that allows people who have worked for a company for 10 years or more to take a full year sabbatical. The company is required to keep their position open for their return, and during their absence, an unemployed person is brought in to make up for the head count. A pretty interesting system, and quite awesome for folks who can take advantage of it, especially since a fraction of their former salary is paid out monthly to the people on the sabbatical. But on to the plain of jars...

There are three main (out of over 400) sites, aptly labeled site 1, 2, and 3, where visitors can check out the jars and UXOs have been cleared. The purpose and source of these jars (some weighing up to 13 tonnes [wiki]) is somewhat of a mystery, as our tour guide Wong, explained. The most scientific study was done back in the 1930's by a French archaeologist, Madeleine Colani, who, after studying the samples for something like three years, decided that they likely were used as funeral urns as part of a caravan route from northern India. She estimated the age of the jars to be somewhere around 2000 years, but confirmation of age is tricky due to the lack of organic material. They are literally carved out of rock (sandstone and granite), and they are massive. One of the jars also has a faint image of a person carved into it.

Wong informed us that there are various Lao legends, one of which is that the jars were made for rice wine brewing purposes during Khun Cheung's reign to celebrate his victories. This version isn't generally accepted; for one, because they claim the jars were molded of clay and other organic materials, which doesn't jive with the evidence found today. But it's a nifty story.

Throughout the day, we managed to visit all three sites, so enjoy the pics below. Site 1 also had a cave, which we checked out in the morning. It was found to have remains of smoke and bones, which Ms. Colani speculates may have been used as a crematorium.


During our tour, we were constantly reminded of the bombings that happened here during the 60's and 70's. All sites were marked with brick MAG markers indicating which areas were cleared of UXOs. Bomb craters were witnessed on a couple of the sites, one of which was close enough to shatter one of the jars.


♫♪Whiskey River, take my mind♫♪ 

In between the visit of site 1 and 2, we stopped by whiskey village, a community that specializes in the production of Lao Lao, a local rice based spirit they affectionately call whiskey. We stopped by one house, where the lady pictured below produces gallons of the stuff. She was also accompanied by a cute little puppy dog (this one's for you, Selah):

Our guide explained to us the fermentation process, filtering, and eventual distillation resulting in the final product.


For you geek and process folks out there, check out how they go about distilling this stuff. They first start by putting the product in a barrel, which is fired from the outside. A concave bowl, which is filled with cool water from a nearby well, seals the top of the barrel. This provides a cooling/condensing surface.

Inside the barrel, located at the circumferential center, is a drip pan and spigot that allows the condensed alcohol to leave the barrel and be captured by the producers.

Crude, but hey, it works.

After walking us through the process, we were invited to sample the local fare. Two free shots served out of an old glass Pepsi bottle, the second being for good luck according to Wong, were consumed. The stuff actually wasn't half bad, although it did burn a tad.

...and the Leftovers
Besides the jars and whiskey village, we were treated to a very filling lunch of Lao chicken noodle soup, where conversation was had in English and French. We were quizzed about various things in America, and somehow ended up on the subject of Las Vegas. It was at that time that we learned that there apparently is a gambling town/casino in the south (nick)named Lao Vegas. Brilliant.

The tour wrapped up in mid-afternoon with a visit to an old soviet tank disabled during the war. Nothing impressive, to be honest, but pictures were taken nonetheless.

Upon return to Phonsavan, Jason joined team Holland to go watch Bombies, while I noticed kids playing football on a very dusty field outside our guesthouse. I therefore decided to see if I could join the action. ~90 minutes later I returned looking like this:

We met back up with Anne for dinner before heading for bed. Plan was to catch the public bus the next morning, which required us to catch a tuk tuk around 7am.

Off to Vang Vieng
We managed to pack and catch a tuk tuk to the bus station, 10,000 kip each, at 6:35am. This got us to the bus station at around 6:45 am, where we bought public bus tickets for 80,000 kip. Interestingly enough, we could have booked a minivan with in-town pickup for 100,000 kip, so the savings were pretty minimal. The upside, however, was more space and a slightly less hectic ride. The bus was loaded with passengers and goods...

… and off we were for a 7 hour ride to Vang Vieng.
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Selah said...

Thanks for the puppy picture! Jason looks so cute with a tiny little dog baby!

Also, the plain of jars is so freaking cool! I totally want to see that someday. I love that nobody knows what they were for!

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