It's been a while - again!

I cannot believe it is 11 days since I last wrote a message to post on the blog and so much has happened, some great fun, some thought provoking and some plain tedious. I am now in Vientiane, the capital of Lao and back in touch with my beloved Mekong River. It will please those of you in the grip of winter to know that it is absoultely tipping down with rain and no sign of it letting up, altohugh I am still only wearing a T-shirt as it is pretty warm.

I believe I left you in Luang Prabang, where I had gone expecting to spend about four days and ended up hanging around for over three weeks, altohugh this is not a problem as I extended my visa there which allows me to stay until 07/02/2010, and this morning I applied to the Cambodian embassy for a visa for there so that will take me until early March before heading to Vietnam.

Back, however, to Luang Prabang. Although I could have happily stayed there longer, things had run their course a bit and I knew I had to move. Theng and Noo, the two girls at Teacher Training College that I was helping with English, were both going home for a weeks break and I had done most things round town I wanted to. The exception to this was the Red Cross where you can give blood, this being in short supply in the country. Three successive days I went there and each time the Doctor had been called away elsewhere so my attempts at altruism came to nothing. I suppose this is what happens in a country with so few health professionals.

I didn't bother with goodbyes or anything although I made a few good friends there, I simply woke up even earlier than usual one day and decided this was a good opporunity to get the bus, which leaves early, so I packed up and headed to the Station. The ride itself was long and tiring although occasionally hair-raising due to steep curves, precipitous drops and potentially suicidal lorry drivers, most of whom I believe are on amphetimine anyway to let them drive long hours. The scenery was stunning although a combination of the jolting of the bus and the grimy windows precluded any decent photographs, you'll just have to take my word fror it. We arrived in Phonsavanh in the late afternoon in one piece and I headed off to the guesthouse I had picked from the guidebook. The room was like a cell, one small barred window looking onto a panoramic vist of a brick wall about 18 inches away, there was no TV and the bed was hard. Abolutely ideal, and I loved it there.

Now, consider my position geographically. I have just travelled voluntarily to the most bombed province of the most bombed country in the world where people are still killed and injured at the appalling rate of about one a day. Sounds like a good spot for a holiday, doesn't it? Actually, it is a wonderful place and I had a great few days there. When I started out on this trip I had no real plans as to what I wanted to do other than visit the Plain of Jars, finally get to Vietnam, and possibly visit the 4,000 islands in Southern Lao if I could. I have now ticked off the first of these.

Phonsevan is the jumping off point for the Plain of Jars and the principal reason for it's tourist status. Although there are any amount of travel agents offering guided tours I opted to go under my own steam and hired a scooter. Actually, next time I visit this region I am seriosly thinking aobut buying one and selling it when I leave. They only cost about $700US to buy and resale value is pretty good. I think it would work out cost effective and also give you a great deal of flexibility as to travel. Off I went to the Plain. For those of you not familiar with the Jars, there is an area of about 50km East to West that contain literally thousands of huge stone jars, stone discs and arranged stones which have archaeologists completely baffled as the jars are dissimilar to any other Indochinese pottery. For those of you who watch the excellent "Time Team" on TV, the presenter Tony Robison has a theory that archaeologists attribute anything they don't understand to "ritual" and such is the case here. Current thinking is that they are funerary urns, although I prefer the local legend that a mighty army coming from the North used them to brew industrial quantities of loa-lao, the local rice whisky. If that is the case there must have been a monumental hangover as the largest of the jars weighs over six metric tonnes and stands over two metres high.

Unfortunately, of the 136 docunebted sites, visitors can only access three, prosaically named Sites 1, 2 and 3. Unexploded ordnance and incomplete research by experts keeps the other sites closed although maybe some day................... Site one is the site nearest to Phonsavanh and is the most impressive in terms of scale with about 250 jars there. You have to walk on a path cleared by the MAG bomb disposal people but that is sufficient to get a good look at the place. Almost as impressive as the jars are the monstrous bomb craters everywhere. It is difficult to overstate the devestation wrought on this area by a nation they were not even at war with. Site 2 is smaller but has the most scenic location. If these were funerary urns indeed, the ancients certainly picked a lovely place to spend the afterlife. I had the whole place to myself and the silence was complete, it really was most beautiful. Eventually my ears picked up the distant clanking of a cowbell on the plain far below. You really had to be there. Onward and upward, well downward actually, to Site 3, the smallest of the three. To get there you walk along the dykes between the rice paddies and you come on the site, which is rather compact.

I suppose, in retrospect, the sites were not exactly what I was expecting. I think I had some idea in the back of my head about vast expanses covered with the jars but it is not like that. I am still really glad I went and saw them though, it has been a long-held ambition now fulfilled.

If you were to go on past Site 3, you would eventually come to the old provincial capital of Muang Khoune which I had visited the previous day. It is no longer the capital as the Americans reduced it to rubble during the war. If you visit there looking for something like London after the Blitz, you will be diappointed as the resilient Lao have rebuilt the place entirely and a very nice little place it is too. The only remnant is of the bombed remains of the Doctor's House which was in the hospital complex and a dismal sight it is, see the photo taken by a friendly local. After visiting it, I went on one of my offroad junkets, bouncing aobut on an unpaved road on a small scooter and causing complete chaos everywhere I went as children ran out to wave at me and shout. This really is not tourist country but it was great fun.

I know I keep mentioning bombs whilst talking about this place but they really are everywhere. Last Saturday I suppose it must have been, I came in before curfew and the owner of the place and the family were watching Premiership football. I was invited to join them and share a bottle of beer. I had a cigarette going and the man very helpfully put out the ashtray for me. It took me a moment or two to work out that it was a de-activated anti-personnel mine, at least I hope it was de-activated! People living in stilt houses build them on bombs, can you believe that? The poshest restaurant in town is called Craters. There is just no getting away from them.

The day after my Jars trip, I managed to acquire a proper motorbike, well a 125cc Shineray (Chinese) thing anyway but at least it had a 5-speed manual gearbox and brakes that worked which was a pleasant change. It was so new it did not even have number plates yet. Proper riding. I stopped first at the old cemetery, which really is an odd place. There are animist (Chinese) burial monuments, Buddhist monuments and Christian tiled graves all side by side, and again I was reminded of the religious tolerance here. It was very peaceful and afforded lovely views of the town and the surrounding countryside. On down the road through a few (H)mong villages with the brightly dressed ladies at market stalls and eventually to the main town of Muang Kham where I branched off, my destination being Tham Piu (Piu Cave).

I don't know how many of you, if any, have heard of Tham Piu although what happened here deserves to be remembered. Due to the saturation bombing of the area by the Americans, many people took refuge in the numerous caves afforded by the limestone hereabouts. They came out to tend the rice fields in the dark as there was some respite from the attacks then. On 24/11/1968, two T28 bombers took off from Udon Thani in Thailand to target the cave. Subsequent investigations suggest they were targetting what they thought to be a hospital run by the Pathet Lao, the pro-Vietnamese militia in Lao. I will leave the reader to draw their own conclusions about the morality of that action, but I suppose international conventions on war do not apply if you deny you are at war in the first place.

The rocket from the first plane took out the rudimentary wall the locals had erected and the second scored a direct hit wiping out the 374 men, women and children (mostly the latter two groups) in an instant. Standing in the cave with it's roof still blackened and the complete silence, I was reminded very strongly of a place in London called Stainer Street, which runs under the railway close to London Bridge Station. Many people died here sheltering from the Blitz in the Second World War. You can just imagine the sheer blind terror of the people in Tham Piu as the wall disintegrated, and they could hear the sound of the second bomb screaming towards them with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. It must have been appalling.

Today there is little at the cave itself. Local people have made small cairns of stones inside and placed candles and incense there. There is a small museum containing some frankly horrific photos and a blackened human skull relating to the war here. The photgraph of the monk lying decapitated on the ground after a bomb hit his temple I found particularly disturbing. I think the whole place is best summed up by the statue (pictured) of the soldier carrying the body of the dead child from the ruins. I was wondering on my way back whether the pilots ever found out what they had done and, if so, what they thought about it. I must research it when I have time.

In somewhat sombre mood I began my return journey and as usual here things happened to lift my spirits completely. I had heard about the Tam Dai weaving villages and saw a sign for the Tam Dai Cultural Centre. Down an unpaved track and into a village which could easily have been from 100 years ago except for the Centre mentioned. The Cultural Centre was closed, but the village and the culture associated were most definitely open for business.

I was wandering about, followed by a curious gaggle of kids, and took an interest in an old woman spinning thread. Usual greetings and smiles and then a man came out of the adjacent house and propelled me inside. The first thing he did was to stuff the pockets of my cargo pants with maklam (tamarind) which I love. I wasn't quite sure what he was up to but they later proved delicious as I shall explain. Next I was dragged into the back yard, where half the village seemed to be assembled and offered a seat. OK, I am always game for a little interaction with the locals, it's why I travel. The centre of attention was a large oil drum sitting over a fire which was being periodically fed with the centres of eaten corn cobs as fuel. On top of this was a wok filled with cold water from a nearby tap. At the side was a small pipe out of which a clearish liquid was dripping into a bottle to be then decanted at regular intervals into a jerrycan. Yes, I had managed to find a working lao lao still.

You know what is going to happen now, I am sure. I was pressed to sample the goods. I protested that I was riding a motorbike with much miming of me falling off and hitting my head which seemed to amuse them no end, but to no avail. I said I would have a small one. The jerrycan lid served as a rather large shot glass and I lashed it down me. Now I have drunk some pretty rough stuff in my life in various countries but this really was "firewater" with a kick like a mule. I resolved to take a while before I got on the bike and to take it nice and steady on the way home. I knew I would be OK as I had had quite a large lunch.

The fun had only started though. The usual mimed questions about had I a wife and family were trotted out, and when I replied neither there was the usual amazement. In Lao, the concept of being my age and unmarried is unbelievable. One of what I took to be the daughters of the house had been quite unselfconsciously washing her delightfully long, black hair under the tap in the yard, but in an instant, another daughter was summoned from inside to "look me over" it appears. I know hand signals differ from country to country but I was left in no doubt as to the offer being made, much to my huge embarrassment which caused even more hilarity. She was a pretty enough little thing (that is her in the photo) but having avoided the mantrap of marriage thus far I am not going to make that mistake. Time to make a tactical withdrawal, which I did in good order.

Once at a safe remove from the potential in-laws shack, I stopped to watch a woman doing the weaving for which the village is famous. You cannot believe how intricate it is. In the fifteen or so minutes I watched her she managed to weave about four rows or whatever they are called. I can see why the work is so highly valued. I had read in the TEAC centre in Luang Prabang that a traditional wedding dress can take up to a year to do. None of your mass-produced rubbish here. Feeling much better I took off back to town.

There was more to come. Quite near Ponsavanh and judging the lao-lao to have worn off I fancied a sunset Beer Lao and saw a delightful little restaurant sitting on stilts over a small lake, so in I went. The whole clientele consisted of three Lao girls and one man eating and drinking beer. I sat down by myself but was soon joined by the one who could speak English whose name was Nop and then was invited to join them. What a lovely evening. They kept ordering food and insisted I join them, which I did and it was gorgeous, proper Lao food. I dug out the maklam earlier given to me, which were pronounced seep lai (very tasty). I kept my beer consumption down but contributed a couple of parting bottles for them, as they refused all offers of payment for the grub. I made it safely back to town and deposited the bike at the travel agency.

It was there that I had another stroke of luck. I had planned to get the bus the next day to Vientiane and mentioned it to the guy there who told me that he had to go there next day for a business meeting and was taking his own 4x4 which was parked outside. I knew this would be a damn sight more comfortable and quicker than the bus which takes 12 - 13 hours and he was only asking the same as the bus fare for petrol, so job done and we aranged a meet at 0830 next day. In the end this turned out to be a really good move, of which more later.

You would think this was enough travel experience for one day but not a bit of it. A few yards further on I stopped to watch a game of petanque played literally in the dust at the side of the road. A good crowd had gathered to watch what was obviously a big match between two teams of three. The floodlighting system was provided by one of the guys from my guesthouse with a torch and his girlfriend was doing duty as hostess pouring the beers into the communal glass and handing it aorund as seems to be the custom at games. No Health and Safety nonsense about fresh glasses on the Lao petanque circuit thankfully. I contributed a bottle to the kitty and then told my friends I had to go and eat (still hungry would you bedlieve!) and off to the Nisha restaurant which is a wonderful Indian place run by a nice family from Tamil Nadu in the South of India. I know I always go on about eating local but the food here really is first class and I defy any but the most ardent garlic lover to tackle the garlic chicken and garlic na'an at the same time.

Meal over and back to the petanque which was now in full swing amid much shouting, laughing and drinking. They really do take it very seriously. I was introduced around and more beer was taken, then this old guy produced more bloody lao-lao and it was a great laugh to press it on the farang (me). I have to say I was just a little bit wobbly on the way back home.

Despite the carousing of the night before I was up with the lark next morning, showered, breakfasted and ready for my lift, who appeared bang on time. My whole lifeatyle has changed considerably here. I quite happily go to bed before 11 and get up really early which is totally alien to me normally, and I even find myself eating breakfast which I virtually never do at home. Still, when in Rome.............

My driver had an excellent Ford 4x4 with good suspension and we really needed it, the road is a cpmplete switchback and the surface in places is appalling. The bus would have been murder. Because of this, I am going to continue my journey in a series of short hops. Got to Vientiane about half four and he dropped me right at the guesthouse I had picked. It is pretty basic to be honest but clean and central enough. As I am only going to stay a couple of nights it will do. Had a quick walk and a bite to eat yesterday evening and then off for another early bed. Up this morning and walked to ht eCambodian embassy where I spoke to the most helpful consular official on the planet, deposited my ppt. $20US, two mugshots and a couple of forms and have to pick them up at half four this afternoon. Tomorrow, I am out of here.

I remember I didn't really like this place last time, probably totally irrationally, but I find nothing has changed except the damn tuk tuk drivers have become more annoying than ever. "Hello, you want smoke?" "Bo (no), "You want opium?" "Bo". "You want lady?" "Bo." Eventually, as an afterthought they might ask you if you want t tuk-tuk. Doesn't sound like a major deal but when it happens every 10 yards, literally, it becomes wearing. I have developed a couple of ploys for dealing with it, both fairly effective. The first is when they offer you a smoke, you look offended and say, "Do I look like a drug addict?" They will mutter something, so you repeat in a louder voice, "Do I look like a junkie to you?" When two or three passing tourists look over they will scuttle off fairly sharpish. The second one is when they say hello, you pre-empt them. You say, "I don't want a smoke, I don't want a lady, I don't want a little boy and I don't want a tuk-tuk, now what did you want to talk to me about?" Again, a hasty retreat ensues.

I know there are a few worthwhile things to see as regards temples and so on, but in this weather and in this frame of mind I cannot be bothered. Saying that this area (the tourist bit) of Vientiane is typical of Lao is like saying Soho is typical of England.

I shall spend the afternoon coconed in an internet cafe posting this stuff and checking emails and then I shall be off on the bus to Thakhek tomorrow and back to the country I do love. I really could see me spending a lot more time here in future. Perhaps I could convince them I am a bona fide writer and get an extended visa. We'll see.

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