Monday, 4 August 2008

Wednesday 11th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day Five

Good Morning Vieng Xai
A very early start this morning, my alarm clock read 5:30am. By 6 I'd packed up all my worldly goods into one small ruksac, watched the mist rise inbetween the limestsone karst that had provided refuge to the Pathet Lao for nine years and took a couple more pictures of this beautiful little town.

Vieng Xai to Phonsavan
The journey took from 6am to 1pm, so seven hours, including a couple of pit stops, numerous camera stops and a million and one near misses of chickens, goats, pigs, water buffalo, cows, landslides, and I even nearly hit a road repair worker who was taking a nap in the middle of the road. You've got to see it to believe it you really do! Rather miraculously I managed to avoid all the thunderstorms that were firing off everywhere but on me. Each time I looked to be heading directly into one the road kindly twisted around and took me towards the only glint of blue sky on the horizon. When on the bike I try and go slowly enough to take in the landscapes. At the same time the weather is so unpredictable that I do try and make good progress in dry conditions as the roads become treacherous when wet. Most of the journey consisted of sealed roads which follow the contours of the hillsides through mountainous terrain with thick jungle on either side, punctuated by the odd village consisting of about 20 or 30 bamboo huts lining the road. On the outskirt of each village are paddy fields that the villagers spend most of the day tending. By 5pm they clock off for the day and walk home in groups of two to 10 people, carrying various implements or perhaps a bag of rice slung over their shoulders, or baskets full of wood. The children muck in too and I often see them walking with little baskets on their backs. Quite often they have babies clinging to them too, so you might get a five year old carrying his or her baby brother or sister along the road. They all carefully run out of the way when they hear the angry buzz of the Baja. Then they turn and smile and wave. After walking home the villagers then share the village tap to have a wash (if they have a tap, many villages don't have access to clean water). It's more like a standpipe, they stand under it and clean themselves off trying to be discreet about having a shower in public. Some villages are close to rivers, I would often see the locals bathing together in the river on their way home from working in the fields.

I failed to find the Nam Neua waterfall after several attempts and one slight crash on some slippery single track, no damage done, except a bloodied knee, the sort that looks worse than it is. Did manage to locate breakfast at 'The Dan' in Sam Neua, and then maybe 70k's south of Sam Neua I blasted up a 6km dirt track and had a look at the menhirs or 'standing stones' that are high up on a ridge. No one seems to know what their purpose is or who dragged them up to the top of the ridge but chances are they are either grave markers or of some religious significance. Took a minute to have a quick photo shoot with a couple of wandering children dressed in nothing but rags.

Back onto Route 6 as it meanders all the way south to Muang Kham. The views from above Muang Kham are noteworthy. The valley below opens up into a large flat lowland plain surrounded by mountains on all sides. Muang Kham nestles quietly in the plain and has a sign in English that points left to Vietnam, right to Phonsavan. One refuel later and it was thunderstorm-dodging time again. Hammered it for 51kms southwest into Phonsavan, I don't think Foggy in his prime could have done that section any quicker!

First Impressions
A little achey and generally feeling a bit drained from sleep deprivation I all but collapsed into a plastic chair in Phonsavan high street. Phonsavan isn't the prettiest place on earth. Yet again I was made to feel like a fair ground attraction as the locals began ogling me and the bike, we were both showing signs of damage. After ordering a Laos coffee and beef and vegetable noodle stir fry in my best Laotian accent, a smartly dressed man approached me and began a little chit chat. His English was very good and I immediately suspected he was a tour operator looking to make a few kip out of the only farang in town. First impressions can be wrong, and as it turns out the fella is actually a government education advisor. He teaches English at the local secondary school too and invited me to his school teach some of the students English. I shook off the tired achy feeling and agreed to meet him at the school at 6pm. He turned out to be a mine of information, getting me cheap rates at the Maly Hotel (which is excellent by the way), and advising me on the local sites of interest and the timings and distances for my onward journey.

After checking into the Maly under the guise of a travel writer (well, I'm writing a blog!) - as recommended by the government education advisor and securing cheap rates, I hot footed it over the the Plain of Jars 'site one'. The guide books claim you have to have an organised tour and a registered vehicle to visit the three sites. This is none sense. You can rock up as and when you like to any of the three sites and pay the 10,000kip or so charge for each site. The government advisor assured me this was the case and so it proved to be. This chap was saving me a fortune! The curious collection of vessels are basically large (the biggest is 2.5m in diameter) empty stone jars that are about 2000 years old, no one knows what they were for, the best guess is funeral urns. The jars were randomly strewn about on hillock which had been cleared by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) a British led mine clearance initiative. The jars were not very remarkable in my humble opinion, a curiosity at best. The surrounding area was pock marked with bomb craters as this area took some of the heaviest bombardment during the secret war.

Relics of War

The Maly Hotel had an impressive collection of lethal devices kindly left behind by the USA - rockets, mortar shells and so on, they made use of the empty shells used as troughs to provide flower displays along the hotel frontage. A fitting symbol of turning swords into plow-shares I thought. Inside the hotel were countless rounds of ammunition attached to automatic guns of various calibre. The most poignant sight for me though was not the weapons display but a collection of pictures by Laotian children who had lived through the nightmarish nine year bombing campaign. It's a disgrace to human kind that we can do this to each other.

Phonsavan Secondary School
Cruised 5kms or so back to the Maly and took a much needed shower. 6pm was rapidly approaching, it was time to head to Phonsavan Secondary School, which was just across the road from the Maly. I met Mr Boualin of the Xieng Khouang Education Service and two minutes later I was meeting and greeting 25 Laotian school children whose ages ranged from 13 to 17. The female teacher introduced me then simply left me to it. After exchanging names and ages and finding out where we were all from we began talking about how they got to school. Most walked, some had motorbikes. No buses, no cars and no one got the tuk tuk, which made them roar with laughter when I suggested it! They asked me which sports I liked, what job I did and how many people were in my family. I took them through all the names in my family, they repeated after me the correct pronunciation. I also asked them to say their ages in English. They were very good, if a little shy at first. It would have also helped if I knew more than two words in Lao. Forty minutes later I bid them goodbye, they did the same and I managed to grab a quick photo as a momento. Then I was whisked off to another class, this time it was the beginners, so we had to go slowly and start right at the beginning. A couple of children read out questions from their notebooks. 'How are you?', 'What is your name?', 'What is your favourite Laos food?' and so on. The time flashed by and Mr Boualin helped translate some words that the children did not understand. It was a joy to see these little ones trying to learn English. The children were dismissed, but not before quite a crowd of other students had gathered at the glassless windows and door to hear the falang speak his funny sounding language.

Their Country Needs You!
Mr Boualin and I chatted as he turned out the lights and locked up. He pointed out the modest staff room and the crumbling walls that needed rebuilding because they hadn't been built well enough in the first place, the science rooms that weren't actually laboratories and so on. He explained that the children were from different backgrounds and that some would stay on until 16 or 18 and some would quit and stay at home and work in the family business. 'Usually the girls' he said ruefully. 'They stay at home and help their parents'. I could see the look of disappointment etched in his face. We were both acutely aware that these children would be destined to eek out the same meagre existence as their parents if they failed to get a decent education. I began telling Mr Boualin what he no doubt already knew; the children of Laos are it's future. If they don't all receive a good education then they will too will spend their entire lives on the breadline, hauling and carrying, slashing and burning, wading through paddy fields all day for a pittance. Laos will remain the poorest country in South East Asia and economically will slip further and further behind the rest of the world. He nodded in agreement and thanked me earnestly for coming to the school. He has a hard job convincing the children that learning English is useful, relevant and will likely better their lives. When they actually hear a farang speak English it helps bring this message home to them. He urged me to try and think of ways in which I personally could help with this matter. He said that their are educational audio recordings of English being spoken but they are expensive and many schools do not have electricity or devices to play them. Mr Boualin also says that their is a dire lack of text books too. I can vouch for that, Boonthan in Sam Neau was using a tattered old thing printed in 1955. So my first step is to recommend to any English speaking person who visits Laos to find a high school and volunteer an hour or so of your time to speak to the children in English. It couldn't be any easier, it's rewarding from a personal point of view and most of all it gives these fantastic people a brighter future. Despite all the difficulties he faces Mr Boualin keeps his spirits high and can still muster that special Laotian smile as we thank each other for the time we have spent together. He's a pretty special bloke.

Phet Long - Diamond Geezer
On the 50 yard stroll back to my hotel from the school I decide to hop into a waterside bamboo hut that was bedecked with yellow Beer Lao flags. There is some sort of music being pumped out (this part of the world always seem to play music far too loudly using the worlds worst audio equipment resulting in a cacophony of noise that barely resembles the music it is supposed to be playing). I sit and sip my beer ruminating over the conversation I've just had with Mr Boualin, the last couple of days have certainly helped me gain a better perspective of my own problems. By now I'm getting used to being the only farang in town, this bar is no exception, across the table a group of eight Laotian friends of all ages seem to be having a good time. One third of my way through my beer one member of the group shouts over 'Why you alone?'. 'I'm travelling own' I reply, 'Ahhhhhh' he says, 'then you must please come sit with us if that is ok?', 'of course, yes, yes please'. The group open ranks and give me a chair next to my new friend who is an engineer called Mr Phet Long which means 'second diamond'. He explains that no one else is called Phet Long because let's face it - who wants to be the second diamond? He is a little upset with his mother for choosing this name. Phet Long introduces me to his friends, about five males and two females. He then hands me a drink and encourages me to knock it back. 'This how we drink in Laos' he says with a massive smile. It works rather like cards: one person is 'the dealer' and they must pour out beer into a glass for each person at the table. Depending on the dealers mood it can be a large, medium or small measure of beer. There is only one glass so everyone must share the same glass and drinkers take it in turns to have their wee dram. Now then, also dependent on the dealers mood is the speed at which you must drink. If the dealer instructs you to 'deum mut' then you have to down it in a oner, as it means 'drink it up'. Once everyone has had their turn then it's someone elses' turn to deal. All well and good Phet old boy, but we're going through Beer Lao like their is no tomorrow, we knocked back a whole crate in no time. Phet then explains my favourite part about drinking Lao style: the host pays for all the beer! So, this place is a public bar, but because I am now part of the hosts guest list all my beer is free, excellent! Obviously I insist that I must pay for at least *some* of the beer but Phet Long says 'no'. Whoever throws the party pays, they are obliged to look after you all night. Marvellous. Phet Long and I talk about all kinds of things, he wants to pratice his English and is grateful for me being there. We get on to the subject of football and before I know it we are gliding down the high street two-up on Phet Long's moped (no such thing as drink driving in Laos) and parking up at what appears to be the place to be in Phonsavan - it's some sort of nightclub. It has green lazer lights projected onto the industrial looking walls and a musty sort of smell with a mixture of Thai and Western dance tunes that I can't place, again being played so loudly they can hear it over in Vietnam. The club is not overly busy. We shout at each other over the music and to my great delight I find a TV showing the Portugal V Czech Republic game. Great day. Around midnight I am whisked home literally on a beer scooter and tuck myself up in the huge bed at the Maly. Must've been a good night as I woke up fully clothed and not actually in bed, more on it, with the TV still on, lights blaring and half a bottle of Beer Lao unfinished next to me.

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