Saturday, September 03, 2011

Toasting the New Year on the Plain of Jars

December 30-31, 2009

...caught a minibus bound for
Phonsavan. An overcrowded vehicle pulled away to reveal another one with ample space, allowing for a peaceful ride but for the driver and his morose humor. Every time our vehicle would chase an animal off the road, he'd make a chopping motion with his hand and say, "Laap! Beer Lao!"

The road snaked along mountain ridges, the valley floor dropping further and further away, with higher, prouder, peaks rising up on all sides. I remembered how incredible Laos had looked from the air, and now I was riding over some of the same unbelievable shapes I'd seen back in 1997. Closer in, things were equally fascinating. Hmong village followed Hmong village, each of them at the highest point of their respective mountain. Many people were hard at work digging a trench beside the road. Others were taking a bundle of reeds they'd gathered, then smacked them down with great force. These would become the roofs of houses, or the mats within. Nearly everyone seemed to be at work, from the aged down to the youngest kids.
Nearly all of the women were busy doing something, including pre-teen girls carrying wood on their backs, counterbalanced by a strap around their foreheads. The only people I saw idle were the men, lounging under bamboo shelters, or leaning against pillars playing guitar. A few new homes were going up. The one's we'd seen in the lowlands were raised above ground by posts, but up at this height they were flush to the ground. Where all the wood came from was a no-brainer. The Hmong are infamous for their slash and burn approach to agriculture, with the entire region devoid of trees, completely picked clean. I saw one restaurant being built at the edge of a hilltop whose sides had been cleared for the wood to build it. I can picture the entire thing sliding away with the return of the monsoon.

In one town, we passed a long line of schoolkids heading home. In another, a man, badly injured on his motorcycle, was carried off and loaded into a car. An Italian guy who had helped now washed the blood from his hands. We stopped for lunch at a
sizable town that had sprung up at a T-junction. Here we picked up a Swiss bicyclist who, upon reaching this spot, had found himself out of money. Bicycle touring through Laos seems to be quite popular. I'd already seen two women riders earlier in the day. The Swiss joined us for the final 3 hours of our drive.

Phonsovan was a one street town built upon a high plateau. At night, the only lights to be seen were spilling out of the open fronts of restaurants, or from the passing vehicles, dust swirling up through their beams...

...had breakfast at Crater's Cafe, located beside the UXO museum. At nine, we joined some new friends (including the Italian with bloody hands) for a one day tour of the area. We started at a Hmong village that sat atop a red earth mountain high in the clouds. The guide seemed bemused that our biggest reactions were to the animals. Pigs and dogs ran everywhere. A few buffaloes were tied to stakes, including one with an immense set of shoulders and a gnarled ear, the blood from it still staining his upper right flank. There were pigeons in coops, and a monkey on a chain. The latter was connected to a defused bomb ringed by a tire. This village is famed for using bomb casings as fencing, or as the support beams for structures. A few were also used as planters, or as cooking implements. This is unusual in itself, of course, so our finding greater enthusiasm in the monkey was highly amusing to the guide, his high pitched giggles heard frequently. Carlo, the Italian, mentioned that there had been more bomb casings on his visit here 5 years ago. The guide said that the Vietnamese had bought much of it for scrap.

I was greatly impressed with the visit to the shaman's house, with its immense spirit altar of origami paper and light, beside an ancient poster of Bruce Lee in 'The Big Boss. " Outside, a small girl seemed absolutely terrified at the sight of us, bawling in tears and clutching tightly to her older brother. Other kids were less bothered, including two boys who pushed bricks through the dirt like they were race cars, and one girl with a curious shock of blond hair. (I saw two others while in the area, complete blondes framing dark Asian faces.) As we left, a small gang of kids walked through the village, playing war games with their water machine guns. I found it chilling, since up to a few years before, boys not much older than they had been robbing and killing bus riders with arms of a similar type. Having ridden through their villages up along the ridgelines, I could see the ease with which they could.

Our next stop was the Plain des Jars site 1. We wandered the jars that spilled across the grassy hills, taking care to stay on the paths. The dozen or so bomb craters were reminders of the perils which still exist here. After lunch, we went to site 16, opened just 2 months before. There was a real sense of danger as we walked the trail through the quiet forest. Our guide chose this moment to make a phone call, and we weren't exactly sure which places were safe. (His call seemed rather important--he showing furious and manic body language as he pleaded with his 15 year old sister's boyfriend not to elope with her.) I set off alone up the trail in order to pee, and nearly shit myself to see that I was standing amidst a group of holes where UXO had been dug from the ground seemingly days before. Carlo yelled to me that he'd found a safety marker, one that I had strolled 20 meters past into the red.

Our final stop was at the Old City of Muang Khoun, which the American Air Force had flattened in a single night. It reminded me a lot of Ayuthaya. We visited a large Buddha seated on an open brick platform between two broken pillars. A group of Thai were up here, the girls posing like supermodels, the camera toting boys down on one knee in search of the perfect angle. A short drive away was a single stupa that rose like a missile into the sky. It had been hollowed out by Chinese thieves, revealing an older stupa within. A trio of girls were sitting on the grass outside, playing a game where they'd throw a stone into the air and pick up as many sticks as possible before catching it again. An older woman sat with them, laughing at everything.

Back in town again. As Phonsovan is close to the Vietnamese border, that language can be heard everywhere, particularly in its Vietnamese restaurants. We chose one near the UXO museum, me enjoying my first water buffalo meat in over a decade. Some street kids were stealing food from the plates left behind by foreign tourists. We took a portion from our own plates, put it in a bag, then gave it to them conspiratorially. This didn't endear us to the owners. Then off to bed at 10, trying to ignore the karaoke and fireworks that counted out the last hours of 2009...

On the turntable: Richard Hell, "Time"
On the nighttable: Earl Ganz, "The Taos Truth Game"

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