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Monday, April 17, 2006


... again for something completely different - a Beakerlude!

'Golden Daze'

'Veakerovski Lenin'

'Beaker Lee'



... same Beaker-time, same Beaker-channel!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

"I pity the fool ..."

The final night in Phonsavanh proved to be one of the most exciting things to happen while we were there! Not what you might be thinking, but rather, an evening of non-stop thunder and lightning! The flashes and booms continued for hours on end with only two or three seconds between house racking rumbles and forks of blinding white light! Myra acted tough while I whimpered in the corner.

The following morning as we sat eating breakfast, sheltering from the persistent drizzle, I noticed a large săwngthăew pass by, packed to Sri Lankan legal limits and destined for Xam Neua. "Ah, the early bus", I thought to myself and then to Myra (in a Mr. T accent), "I pity the fool who takes a săwngthăew to Xam Neua!". You see, we were on our way to catch the 8:00 standard bus to Xam Neua.

Half an hour later, standing in the drizzle at the local bus depot, the ghostly image of Mr. T apparates before me laughing "Ha! I pity the fool who pities the fool who takes a săwngthăew to Xam Neua!" ... Bah!

The good news though is that the journey turned out to be a bit of a picnic and plenty of good olde fashioned oirish craic as we ended up sharing the trip with two other Irish backpackers; Finbarr and Kathryn.

Eight and quarter hours squished into the back of a 8 person vehicle with 15 others, with the last hour spent sitting on a travel pillow (ah, the relief!), and we arrived into dusty Xam Neua. Looking in the mirror a little while afterwards and I discovered that I'd become a panda thanks to the grimy roads - my best tan of the trip so far!

We'd only just managed to change back into being polar bears before we'd bumped into Tony, the local N.G.O. worker for the region, who, as it turned out, only lives a couple of miles down the road from Myra in the Kingdom. Over a few brewskis he filled us in on just about everything you could wish to know about Laos and Viet-Nam! We even found out that the guy who wrote the Laos section of the Lonely Planet has never even been to this region, despite writing a very indepth review of all there was to do - we weren't surprised!

The main tourist oriented trip in and around Xam Neua is the caves at Viang Xai which were used by the Lao resistance forces during the war. The caves themselves are huge and at any given point during the bombardment up to 23,000 people were living in them!

Within the caves are offices, hospitals, housing, shelters and any other conceivable thing that you might need to mount a resistive movement. Well worth the short 40 minute săwngthăew trip advertised in the Lonely Planet - which somehow actually took an hour and forty five minutes to do!

Jars of Friendsombies

Surrounded by hordes of circling Friendsombies we fled for the local bus stop on the far side of the airstrip. In the distance the low rumbling engine of the Louang Probang bus could be heard. Slowly it wound around the village hillsides. Just moments from certain zombification and it braked frantically, the driver pulling us aboard - we had escaped the zombifing curse of Vang Viang!

But not the machine gun wielding bus conductors; we weren't long coughing up the dough for the trip! The mission for Louang Probang, and we chose to accept it, was to visit some of the local temples and plan a route through China and the various sites we wanted to see; apparently they have a rather large wall there or something that's worth visiting.

Temples, wats (including one with a disco ball elephant's head!) and another visit to the yummy Joma cafe and we'd ticked all the boxes on our todo list - it was time to venture into 'The Plain of Jars' (PoJs)!

The PoJs is located around 8 hours weaving and winding from Louang Probang in a wee spot called Phonsavanh. The jars themselves lie in the heart of this region, which was the most heavily bombed area in Laos. As a little bit of scary trivia: More bombs were dropped on Laos by the United States than over Germany in the whole of the second world war; averaging one plane-load of bombs every eight minutes for nine years.

Unfortunately the legacy of this blanket bombing lives on as approximately 30% of the bombs did not explode on impact, effectively carpeting the landscape in a layer of mines. You see, most of the ordinance dropped were cluster bombs which open while descending and scatter tens of mini-bombs which arm themselves after they've dropped a certain distance. The trouble is though that the Americans often flew low due to heavy cloud coverage but proceeded to drop their payload regardless of the fact that the bombs would not have sufficient time to arm prior to impact, meaning they arm after crashing to earth and lie dormant until disturbed.

To further add to the tragedy, the Vietnamese are offering (a paltry sum of) money for the retrieval of scrap metal thus encouraging the locals to scour the land for UneXploded Ordinance (UXO). The week before we arrived four children were killed while searching for metal fragments, all too common an occurrence according to our guide.

That the jars themselves remain mostly intact is no small miracle. There are hundreds of them scattered around several sites in the region, although only three of the sites have been sufficiently cleared of ordinance to be opened to the public. Even these three are only sub-surface cleared along narrow paths lined with M.A.G. (the British Mines Advisory Group) markers.

It's quite an unusual experience to be threading a path through a potential mine field and it's hard to forget that straying too far from the M.A.G. white and red brick road could lead to a grisly end.

The jars are really worth seeing though, with some of them towering several feet over our heads! Careful examination of the jars and their sub-surface suggests that they were used as funerary urns, though the people that created them and their history have long since been lost to the passage of time.

Next stop: Xam Neua and the heart of the Laos resistance movement!

The River Mild

After several nervous hours of continuous subtle glances over my shoulder to the back of the bus, where our machine gun wielding conductor sat, followed by renewed checking of the validity of my ticket, it was with a sigh of relief that the dusty disused airstrip that heralded Vang Viang rolled into view. Back up on top of the bus to retrieve our bags from amongst the chickens and pigs strapped to the roof and off into the heart of the village to find some accommodation.

Dust devils and possibly a couple of Tazs too abound throughout the village as they've recently decided to pave the country! In fact, Vientiane, the capital, has only had fully paved roads in the central district for the last 5 years. It makes for some interesting late night strolls through the village though; avoiding open sewers, cauldron holes, trenches and the occasional specially prepared tourist hole (usually with a complimentary tourist at the bottom!).

The village itself may well be the set of an Asian version of 'Shaun of the Dead'; tourists lying semi-conscious in a zombified state in front of massive televisions watching repeat episodes of Friends non-stop. All that can be heard above the rumble of the television is a 'waaaww...' - there's definitely a Sumatran Rat Monkey to be found somewhere in the Village.

Deciding that the village wasn't safe for prolonged exposure, one nibble by the zombies and you're nobbled (doomed to Friends-itise for the rest of your days), we packed our daybags (more of a plastic sac really!) and headed for the hills.

Two days of trekking, caving and rafting ensued. Along the way we were thwarted by some rather huge oxen (Dr. Evilox and mini-Evilox) and were forced to do a wee funky traverse around a rock face to continue to the summit.

The region around Vang Viang is full of really special rock formations; spinning around you'd think that a foul mooded Zeus had hurtled hundreds of limestone chunks at the land. And where you have limestone you usually have caves!

Climbing aboard an inflatable tractor tyre we bobbed our way into the opening of a kilometre deep cave tunnel. Splashing along using our flip-flops as paddles we explored the underground maze for an hour; occasionally stopping for a quick game of soak the other cavers!

We also visited three or four other caves on our journey; some having separate entrances and exits, others having 30+ metre high stalagmites and stalagtites! Vang Viang is a potholers paradise and I'm sure that in years to come the whole area will be a mecca for cavers and climbers the world over.

The final day of the expedition saw Myra become Meryl Streep and me a kind hearted Kevin Bacon as we hit the River Wild! When I say wild, I of course mean relatively tame, but still lots of fun none the less! After working out how to stop ourselves continuously paddling in circles we faced all the dangers the river had to offer: rapids, tubers, swimming tourists, sky-diving swing jumpers and offers of Beer Chang!

A few swishing, swoshing hours in the kayak later and we were pulling into the shore beside the local bus driver, who was busy hosing down and scrubbing the bus in the very same river!