Laos P.D.R. People's Democratic Republic. Or rather, as they say: Laos, Please Don't Rush. Crossing the Mekong from Thailand's Chiang Khong to the other side is where the chaos in Laos begins.
A slow boat takes you in two days downstream to Luang Prabang. No life vests, smokers sitting on gas bottles. That's the safe travel option. The not so safe option is a fast boat that gets you there in a day. The captains of the fast boats wear helmets. The passengers don't as they speed down the Mekong which is during the dry season now full of rocks peeking out of the water. Accidents waiting to happen...
|slow boat on the Mekong, no rush|
|Mekong, please don't rush.|
|boat people, they don't rush|
|chicken run, Pak Beng, what's that rush?|
|Mekong girls, never rush|
|4 monks join the slow boat ride on the Mekong, they don't rush|
|sun sets over the Mekong, Luang, no need to rush|
Luang Prabang is a laid back town on the Mekong. Coming from Thailand this is the first place where you can get a decent glass of red wine and proper bread. oui, c'est vrai, les Français étaient ici. merci! I took another cooking class with the Tamarind restaurant and cooking school. Laos cuisine is slightly different from Thai cuisine, less spicy, balanced textures, sourness, spicyness and salt. No coconut based curries. The menu consisted of sticky rice with Jeow Mak Len (Lao tomato salsa), Mok Pa (fish steamed in banana leafs), Ua Si Khai (stuffed lemongrass with minced chicken) and Khao Gam (purple sticky rice with coconut sauce). Flavours exploded in my mouth...
|Laos kitchen equipment|
|Fish in banana leafs|
|Chicken in lemongrass|
I moved on to Phonsavan, home to the Plain of Jars, sites with huge jars, no one really knows who left them here, estimated to be older than 2000 years.
|Plain of jars|
It was in an Indian restaurant where I met a friendly bloke in a Joe Strummer t-shirt working for one of the NGOs. He suggested I take a look at the Mines Advisory Group centre in town. The MAG supports the people of Laos to clean the country from the explosives and save lives by educating the locals in how to act when UneXploded Ordnance (UXO) is found and giving on the job training to teams so that they can defuse them or blow them up in a controlled way.
During the secret war between 1964 and 1973 the USA dropped about 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, although the country has been declared a neutral nation at the 1954 Geneva convention.
What remains of it today are still around 30% of UXO that will take ages to clear. It's advisable to stay on the beaten path.
More bombs were dropped by the U.S. on Laos than the U.S. dropped on both Germany and Japan combined during world war II. And while the Vietnam war was probably the most televised war in history thus far and everyone heard about Cambodia, the bombings on Laos were not known to either the public nor the U.S. congress at the time (hence the name: the secret war). During the Vietnam war, when planes coming from airbases in thailand or southern Vietnam could not drop their load in Vietnam due to enemy fire or weather conditions they would detour and drop it on Laos instead since no pilot would want to risk landing plane loaded with bombs.
The fact that the country is still littered with bombs slows the building of even simple infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals down and kept Laos among the poorest countries on the planet. Most of the bombs used were cluster bombs, spreading small explosives (they call them "bombies" here) that are too small to cause damage to tanks, but their only purpose is to kill or injure people. They are of the size of a fruit or a ball, some are coloured and have nicknames like "pineapple". In Laos it is a common game between boys and girls to throw balls to each other. Kids are curious if they find a ball shaped object in the fields. That's why there are still many accidents happening today.
Let's hope that the work of MAG helps to clean the country at a faster pace of UXO. Laos, just here, please do rush.
If you're interested this is a clip of a good documentary: bombies
|Areas that were cleared of UXO are marked white. Always stay on the white side of life...|
|Mines Advsory Group|