Saturday, 22 January 2011


Thursday 20th January 2011

MP3 track of the day: Jah Work - Ben Harper

Weather: Bitterly cold in the morning and evening; very warm in the middle of the day.

I woke up early after a terrible nights sleep. I worry; I know I worry and usually it's over stupid things and last night was no exception. I had two worries going through my head; firstly whether the tour today – as we were only going to one Jar site – was going to be any good, whether it would have been better if I went alone. My second worry was the withdrawal of money; am I going to be able to withdraw money, will my cards work. Both of these worries where pretty stupid; firstly the ATM's here all said that they accepted Visa and MasterCard which I had one card of each. The tour only cost 130,000 kip (£11.00) so if I did want to see the other jar sites I could easily afford to. Even with the logic above I still couldn't stop my brain from worrying and so I got up, got ready and waited for the rest.

The tour started at 8:30am; we were all ready and heading out for breakfast around 8am. The weather was bitterly cold and so, yet again, I found myself wearing my coat and hat; for breakfast I had a bread roll with butter and jam, which was the tastiest bread that I have eaten within South East Asia (must be the French influence). We then all made it to the tour office by 8:30am where we met our driver and our tour guide (the tour guide was called 'Me'; he was a very nice chap, although he had a mole on his lower right-hand side of his face. Within the mole there were three long strands of hair which, every time I looked at him, I could not help but notice) and off we went. As we drove our tour guide explained the itinerary for the day which all sounded good, apart from the fact that the time at 'The Plain of Jars' had decreased, yet again, from two hours to one hour and thirty minutes … that annoyed me.

Just before reaching the first attraction of the day - 'The Plan of Jars' site one - the driver left the vehicle and the tour guide took over driving. We were told that we would be picking up the driver on our return journey (maybe he doesn't like Jars?). It only took us twenty minutes to reach the site; we drove up a small hill to reach a small gravel car park. It was 9am by the time we got out of the van and it was still freezing cold. We walked over to the information office where we saw a big notice board explaining about UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) within the area. The USA dropped more ordnance on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined in World War Two; most of it hasn't been cleared and so, as this sign made perfectly clear, you had to walk within the white markers. After a little information from our tour guide we set off.

Within site one there were five areas which are located on a spiral-shaped walking path, with a small hill to start, and then a larger hill at the end. The clouds where low and the mist was all around making the site quite eerry, but no good for photos. We walked up the smaller hill to the first area where our tour guide started babbling on about something or other however I wasn't really listening. With the short amount of time at site one I wanted to get on and explore it. After another five minutes of chatting we were allowed to roam around the first part of site one, which contained the largest jar within the whole of the plains. Apart from this jar there wasn't many others and so we headed off to the second part of site one which, from our elevated position, we could see had plenty of jars.

Before reaching the second part we took a left turn into a small cave (which had a beehive above the entrance ... that wasn't supposed to be apart of the tour). Archeologists think the cave was used to cremate bodies as there where three chimney holes located within the roof. I wasn't that interested and so I had a quick look around and then headed back out and onto the second area.

The time was now 10am; the clouds where clearing, leaving beautiful blue skies, and the sun was also making an appearance. Before allowing us to roam free our tour guide pointed out the only jar, within the whole area, that had a carving of a human on (the rest of the jars had not been decorated in anyway). After this we were allowed to roam for quite a while, taking photos of jars after jars after jars trying to get the perfect shot (which was quite difficult as the blue sky was in only one direction). We continued to walked further around the spire, stopping to take photos of jars as we past them. We made it to the final site, on top of the larger hill, where the tour guide explained further about the jars however more effort was put into the importance of the area within the second Indonesian war (the Vietnam War to you and me). There where quite a few trenches located within site one.

We then headed down the hill and towards the car park; I was at the back of the group as I was taking even more photos. I got to a fork in the road; the group had headed right and down to where the van was parked however, to the left, was another hill located strategically within the center of the spiral. I reckoned it would have given a great position to get a birds-eye view of the whole area however, when I shouted down to the group if I could head up to take a look, I was told that we didn't have the time. That annoyed me as well. I reluctantly walked down to the van only to wait around for ten minutes for everyone to be ready. So at 10:30am my trip to 'the Plain of Jars' was over. This site is as important as Stonehenge and it would have been nicer to have spent longer, maybe even visiting one of the other sites, however, for today anyway, it wasn't to be.

We drove back into town, picked up the driver, and headed out of town in the opposite direction of 'the plain of jars – site one'; to our next destination ... the location of an old Russian T-34 tank. Our tour guide must have thought we had noticed a change of pace within the driving as he felt that he had to tell us that our driver liked to drive slowly. Our tour guide then proceeded to tell us that the area of Phonsavan had the highest road traffic collision rate of any area within Laos ... he went on further. Apparently yesterday his sister in-law was in a bus that crashed; when we asked how she was he said dead ... she ended up being crushed between the wheels. It wasn't the fact that the incident sounded horrible that made me cringe, it was the fact that 'Me' explained the situation so calmly like this thing happened everyday ... that it was apart of life here within Phonsavan. He even smiled (not nastily) whilst explaining. I quickly located my seat belt and put it on.

It wasn't long before we had reached the site of the tank. The Russian T-34, built in Vietnam apparently, was only a shell of it's former self; the main hull, turret and weapon remained however the tracks, doors and everything else had been removed by the locals ... presumably to sell the metal. We took a couple of photos but didn't stay long.

The next site required a further small trip within the mini-van. We stopped at the entrance to a field and proceeded to walk through it. This was an 'Unexploded Ordnance field' and we stopped numerous times for 'Me' to point out UXO's, which he was happy to inform us that they were all still live. We mostly found cluster bombs (small bombs, that looked a bit like a British World War 2 hand grenade, but where filled with hundreds of small round pellets) however we did also see a few other shells lying around. When the Lao people find a UXO they spray it blue to indicate where it is and so others can spot it easily. When the authorities have the time, and resources, they use dynamite to blow up the bombs in it's current location as its too risky to move them. We then found one cluster bomb with the case completely rotten away yet 'Me' was there to point out that the dynamite, and triggering mechanism, still worked perfectly fine. We only walked around one field for twenty minutes or so and found six or seven UXO's; for a country as poor as Lao how on earth are they supposed to clean up this mess. Forty years on one person a day dies within Lao from UXO's ... it's quite sad. The latest victim was 'daisy' the cow who ate a cluster bomb (thinking it was a large stone to help with her digestion of food) and blew up at the beginning of January this year ... I suppose for a cow it's certainly a novel way to go. As we walked back to the mini-van we all pinned our eyes on the ground that we walked over. We then headed to our lunch stop.

Over looking a lake we where served the traditional South East Asian soup which we all ate pretty quickly. I was one of the first to finish and so I left the table and took a few photos. Having had a really bad nights sleep I wasn't in a talkative mood today and so the time spent here, on my own, was very refreshing. We then got back in the mini-van and headed to a group of caves.

The weather was becoming very hot indeed and I was back down to my usual atire of a t-shirt. We climbed up a set of stone steps to the first cave. The complex of caves situated here were used as shelters when the Americans where bombing the area; the labyrinth of tunnels and halls within the cave were vast ... however for me I wasn't really that interested. Just like the temples within Thailand and Laos I'm a bit 'caved out' and I've yet to see a cave that has beaten the one (that I can't remember the name of) located within Derbyshire with huge stalagmites and stalactites. Never-the-less I looked around and enjoyed the military aspect. Once we got to the end of 'cave one' we where given the option of either leaving the way we had entered, or going the adventurous route which involved a bit of crawling and pulling yourself through tight holes ... of course I opted to go back the way I had come, along with three others. As we waited for the others to appear we chatted; it wasn't long before the adventurous lot appeared covered in dust and dirt. After a quick patting down 'Me' took us to a second cave which was a lot smaller. This cave was used as a hospital and there were thousands of broken morphine bottles scattered all over the ground. Again I wasn't massively interested and so I had a quick look and then waited for the others; the final cave wasn't that impressive either.

We where back in the mini-van and off again. Our next stop was an old airfield which, when we arrived, you could barely tell. In fact I would go as far to say that you had to take 'Me's' word for it as the land he presented to us was a grassy, sandy strip of very uneven land. Yet again I wasn't that impressed. Around said airstrip were farming buildings (used to keep livestock) that where certainly more interesting than the airfield. On first appearance the buildings looked perfectly normal however, on a closer inspection, I could tell that, what I thought where wooden pillars holding the building up, where in fact old shell cases. When the Americans bombed Laos they packed the smaller cluster bombs within larger shells; these shells were dropped from a bomber and opened mid-flight to scatter over a large area. It was these larger shells that the Laos people were using as building material, and to quite a good effect.

The day was drawing in, I was really tired by now however we still had two more sites to visit. Our next port of call was a quarry where the jars where made. To reach the quarry we had to drive very slowly, along a rocky dirt road however I didn't mind ... at least I would see more jars. We were all thrown this way that as we plowed our way along the road (and I use the word 'road' loosely) gaining height was we went. Eventually the roller-coaster ride finished and we where allowed out. We walked along the sides of the road where we saw jars that where in the process of being created. There were jars that only had a tiny hole in the top, some with holes in the bottom and some that hadn't even been started. As I looked around the area I could see the jars and the road in front of me and then, as I turned to face the other direction, a beautiful view into the valley below with rice fields scattered all around ... a very beautiful sight indeed.

We walked a little way down the road stopping when we saw a jar; we got back in the mini-van and headed to a village that we past on the way. Once out of the van and where immediately approached by three village children. This village, consisting of around 500 people, aren't on the usual tourist route and so I don't think they see white people often. We asked if we could take their photos which they said yes, however I don't think that they were too sure about it ... certainly one girl looked a little scared. We took a few photos to start with and showed the children; they laughed a little and it broke the ice, making them a lot more relaxed for other photos. Through 'Me' translating for us we asked the villagers a couple of questions; it was at this point that one boy came running up to our van and sat on the floor with a crisp packet in his hand. He put the crisp packet out on the ground and put a stone on top of it to weight it down ... he then proceed to look through the windows of our van. There was something odd about this boy that made me feel uncomfortable; I had already got my bag on my back however my coat was within the van. I went back to the van to pick up my coat and hold onto it whilst the boy was inspecting the drivers-side wing mirror. It wasn't until we drove away that 'Me' explained that the local villages have a high proportion of mentally ill people, due to there isolation, and that they aren't really cared for. It was a bit of a sad ending to our tour, however this was the end of the tour and I was pretty glad when we arrived back in Phonsavan.

We arrived back at the tour operators office around 5:00pm. At that point the tour operators young children were watching 'Finding Nemo' however there was a film called 'the CIA's secret war' which we were all invited to watch. I felt a little mean turfing out two small children, but turf them out we did. With 'Finding Nemo' turned off we all settled down to watch the one hour and twenty minute film. It was all about the CIA's fight against communism within Laos. During the Vietnam war Laos was declared independent however, with it's inability to protect it's own borders, the North Vietnamese where using Laos territory to move troops into the south (Ho Chi Minh trail). To add further cause to the Americas decision to start a secret war within Laos, the country was turning to the communism cause. As Laos was independent the Americans had to tread lightly in Laos; they used Thai mercenaries to train Lao fighters, who were against communism and backed democracy; this was so that, if any questions were asked, the Thai mercenaries could be hidden and passed on as Lao people. The only real American impression, within Laos, was it's air superiority which it used, in my opinion, in a greater role than necessary.

The film was excellent, it explained a hell of a lot. However, just like most historic accounts created, they usually tent to be one sided. Considering Laos is a communist country the film certainly was bias towards the communist cause, nether-the-less it was also very factual. I don't think the Americans were wrong to have attacked Laos; you have to remember that, at that point in history, communism was on the up rise and you never know what might have happened. Without American influence in Vietnam and Laos maybe all of South East Asia would have fallen under the red banner and who knows, the cold war might not have been so cold.

It was 7pm by the time we had finished the film. We all went for something to eat before having a little slide show of the photos we had all taken throughout the day. I would say for me the tour was a seven out of ten. It was very interesting however there was too much driving, I didn't think 'Me' was especially brilliant and I wouldn't have minded seeing more jars. The others were leaving for 'Vang Viang' tomorrow whereas I, and Patrick the Swed, had decided to stay one more night. My plan for tomorrow is to have a look around Phonsavan, – which won't take long – catch up with the world on the internet before finally getting myself ready to leave for Vang Viang the following day. If any time was left I may hire a tuk-tuk to take me to 'the Plain of Jars – site two' however that would cost a lot. For now it was time to sleep, I was shattered.

Toodle Pip!

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