Monday, 30 January 2012

Phonsavan and the 'Secret War'

By Sanne

The main reason for coming to Phonsavan for most tourists is to see the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars describes an area in the Xieng Khouang province of Laos that is scattered with thousands of so called megalithic stone jars and dates all the way back to the Iron Age. Archaeologists are still puzzled as to what exactly the megalith stone jars were used for but evidence suggests that it could have been an ancient burial site and people used to get buried in the jars. They remain one of the most important archaeological sites in all of Southeast Asia. More than 136 sites exist however only about 7 of them can be visited because of the amount of UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) left over from the 'Secret War'. UXO's are bombs and landmines that did not explode when deployed and to this day still pose a severe threat of going off.

Laos is the most bombed country in history. More than 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 by the US Army. The main goal was to prevent pro-Vietnamese forces from gaining control over the area. It is estimated that approximately 30% of this ordnance did not detonate on impact. The result is that 80 million UXO or locally referred to as 'bombies' contaminate the country. It has devastated the Laos people as it continues to injure and kill people every single day and it keeps people poor by preventing them from using the land in fear of losing their lives. Laos is a very poor country - about half of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. The land in Laos is actually very fertile and perfect for farming but many people have lost limbs or lives while working on their land. Children often find bombies and as they are similar in size and shape to a tennis ball they mistake it for something to play with. Many children have lost their lives this way. This poverty has also created a dangerous trade in scrap metal from the bombs. This means that many people are digging for these bomb remnants so they can feed their families.
To say that what the US Army did to the Laos people was appalling is an understatement. What they did was indiscriminately bomb one of the poorest nations in the world into the stone age for more than a decade.
More bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 than the US dropped on Japan and Germany during WWII. More than 350,000 people were killed. It remains the most covert operation in US history as it was a secret to the rest of the world, hence the name the 'Secret War'.
Some of the most brutal bombing raids were done out of spite, with no planning. When US bombers couldn't find their targets in Vietnam due to bad weather, they just dumped their load on the Laos countryside, as the airplanes couldn't land with the bombs on board. After the end of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, the U.S. military decided to simply use its old bomb arsenal (by dropping it on Laos) accumulated in Southeast Asia, instead of carrying it back home. The value of human lives, of the Laos people, was never taken into consideration and they are now left to deal with the aftermath.

Even monks want to be photographed with us

MAG (Mines Advisory Group) warning before entering the Plain of Jars

You are advised to stay inside the white markers 
as this is where the land has been cleared of landmines

The ground in between the jars is full of reminders from the war - here a massive bomb crater

Just a reminder not to step outside the path...

Cave in which the communist Pathet Lao would hide during the war

The MAG office in town that has very useful information on landmines

 A Japanese funded bomb clearance site

Lookout over Phonsavan town from the Laos War Memorial

Party in Phou Khoun

By Sanne

When we rode into Phou Khoun - a small town in the mountains of Northern Laos - we passed a party by the side of the road where music was pumping and people were dancing like crazy! We were quite intrigued so after checking into a guesthouse we went for a walk up to the party to see what was going on. A guy came up to us and with his limited English invited us to join the party. It was more like: "Come. Drink Beer Lao!" So we went and from that point on we were passed Beer Lao in copious amounts.  It wasn't long before local guys and girls came up and pulled us out onto the dance floor. People were dancing like there was no tomorrow. Even Mark, who doesn't usually dance, couldn't say no and danced with I think every single woman there, young and old they all wanted a piece of him! At one stage I even had a baby thrust into my arms to dance with (for some reason Asians love to hand you their babies). We're still not sure what the party was for exactly, the guy there with the most English, Pik (I swear that's his name, only Danes will find that funny) explained something about it being held once a year and also something to do with a house being built. It didn't really matter either way as we seemed to have become the centre of attention. People were all over us like they were our best friends. We barely had a free moment to catch our breath before we pulled out onto the dance floor again. At one point I looked over and this guy was gyrating up against Mark like a pole dancer; seeing Mark's surprised look upon realising that he had become the pole was pure gold! 
Lots of cute little kids were hanging around too. Like ALL kids they were of course fascinated by Mark's dreads and ears. There was a row of about 7 children who put up chairs behind him and just sat and stared at this Alien. Once in a while a kid would gather enough courage to get up and gently touch a dreadlock. Very funny and very cute :)
Had an awesome night. Laos people sure can party.

The party

The dance floor is going off :)

Mark is busting some sweet moves

As is everybody else

The one man band

Mark with his new found friends

And me with mine...

One word: Adorable!

Kiddies playing in the dirt

Lao kids have got to be the most gorgeous kids on earth!

It was a great party - thanks to everyone who invited us

Not a bad view to wake up to

Sunday, 29 January 2012


By Mark

We finally made it into Laos a day later than we had planned. This was due to some Thai authorities who thought they would like to make the lives of two travellers a little harder. It was all over some documentation needed which could only be filled out on the day of travel. This just happened to go against the local ferry schedule and opening times of immigration. Ferry leaves at 8am, immigration at 8am and customs at 8.30am. Please someone tell me how you get on the ferry on time??? Just take a look at the photo of  the line up for immigration! We took it in our stride as you just have to do. Customs cleared, immigration next and then a wait for the ferry as they forgot to mention the ferry goes nowhere until there is a full load.
When we rolled off the ferry in Laos everything fell into place quickly, bikes cleared by customs easily, next we had to get insurance which was the first for us on the trip, our motto, If they don't ask we don't buy! No luck getting around this one but being so cheap it wasn't too bad. From the beginning we found everyone helpful and friendly so we had a great feeling straight away. It is always exciting also to enter a new country. Now we just had to remember to ride on the right hand side of the road.
We headed out of the border town of Huay Xai wanting to head north. Straight away we were struck at how good the roads are here. Our map must be a little out dated as it was marked as a 4x4 track which we found was a sealed road all the way as is much of the country so far. The going was easy and the scenery beautiful, only thing to watch out for is the Chinese! They come here in conveys around the Chinese New Year and drive like they own the road not caring for anybody else on the road and happen to drive at warp speed. That aside you don't see many vehicles on the road.. We went far north to the town of Boten which is another border town, this one to China, I was quite excited by the fact that we had ridden as far North as China, if only making it to the border as the Chinese Government don't like motorcycle riders too much so they make it very difficult and also very expensive to enter. So we just took a couple of happy snaps to commemorate our achievement before moving on. From there we headed back south weaving our way up and down the incredibly beautiful mountains. We found at night that high in the mountains you really find how cold it can get. Makes for great riding weather in the day though. Back down closer to sea level it warms up again and we found this in Luang Prabang where we had bad memories brought back to us with the problem of trying to find accommodation. Either everybody was full or way over priced. Eventually we found a place, cheap and cheerful with a safe place for the bikes for the night. Feeling hot and sweaty the first thing we needed was a cold beer. The local beer, Beer Lao is not too bad a drop and cheap. This town was really busy and even though it is known as a World Heritage City we didn't think much of it. Maybe I have that wrong, the city was fine with large markets and many temples but was over run with tourists. So we stayed just one day and hit the road to where we really feel at home again, especially with how we are greeted by the locals. The kids are the best, they hear your bike coming through the small villages and they seem to appear from all sorts of places and greet you with huge smiles and big waves. The elders of the villages seem to stop what they are doing also and are just happy to see you ride by. Having such an interest taken in you always makes you feel good no matter how bad a day you are having, which is usually only caused by the Chinese drivers of course.

Th line-up for immigration!

Finally on the barge to Laos (it's just over there!)

Almost there

We're here!

The Chinese border at Boten

Stopping for a break at a village

 Little bush ride we did

Another little village

Beer Lao!

Sometimes the roads aren't so good

Women drying grass fronds by the roadside which is used to make brooms

The landscape is stunning

This elephant took a guy for a swim 
(and almost drowned him while doing it!)

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Golden Triangle

By Sanne

The Golden Triangle was coined to denote a huge opium-producing area spreading across Burma, Laos and Thailand. Apparently the yields here are second only to the ones in Afghanistan. Despite this we never did see any opium fields, maybe because the Thai government has been cracking down on this and most of the production is now in Laos and Burma.
We started off from Chiang Rai and headed North for about 60kms until we reached the Burma border at Mai Sai. We stopped for a few minutes to watch the hustle and bustle and take a photo. Then we had to turn around and get on our way. We then rode to the Golden Triangle which is where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet only divided by the Mekong River. Took a few snaps and ran into an American couple who were on motorbikes bought in Vietnam and touring South-east Asia. The very first thing the girl said was: "Laos sucks!". Well honey, that's your opinion. We have noticed this with a few travellers we have met. Some people are so black and white about places they have visited. They might have one bad experience and that's it - the whole country and its people are bad. Travel is very subjective and a place you hated might be paradise for someone else. On this trip Mark and I have certainly been some places that we were looking forward to leaving (Java - hello!) but that doesn't mean we think the place "sucks" nor will we warn others not to go there.
We are so excited about going to Laos, if we ever get there that is! We are currently in Chiang Khong where the boats depart from and go 5 mins across the river to Houy Xai in Laos. Have been running around all day between the Immigration office and Customs to sort out paperwork and try to get a clear answer from somebody as to when the boat is leaving. With no one speaking barely any English nor being very helpful it is not easy! But we hope to be on the boat tomorrow morning and be riding on Laos roads in the afternoon!

The blue gate ahead is the Burma border but unfortunately a no-go zone for us

Buddha at Golden Triangle

The exact spot of the Golden Triangle where the Ruak and the Mekong rivers meet

A quick stop to rest our sore butts next to the Mekong

 That's Laos right over there!

A group of drunk Thai fishermen we ran into and shared some Thai whisky with.
The guy on the left had clearly had his fair share!

They let off these colourful fireworks in the occasion of the Chinese New Year

So close but yet so far...