Category Archives: Laos

Vientiane

I woke up at four in the morning to the sound of rain beating on the roof of my hotel and I cringed because in an hour or so I had to get up and walk to the bus station. I tried to sleep again, but I couldn’t. The rain had stopped and around a quarter to six I left the hotel. It was just getting light and the monks were walking through the streets to collect their alms. It is an old tradition and while I walked to the bus station I passed many women that were sitting on their knees on the pavement with baskets of rice to give the monks their due. Every now and then the monks stopped and chanted during which the women kept their heads demurely bowed.

natmuslpgimp

Van Gogh in Laos…

 

The bus to Vientiane was a classic chicken bus, only there were no chickens on board. To compensate this we had children that were vomiting all the time, so that was alright. I was sitting close to the door which was the only reasonable seat for me because my legs wouldn’t fit anywhere else. The only thing was that every time the door opened it knocked against my knees which the Laotians thought was exceedingly funny.
I sat next to Jacky, the only Laotian who spoke a few words English.
I go to Vientiane, he said.
I go to Vientiane too, I said. The whole bus was going to Vientiane, I thought.
Then to Bangkok by flight, he said.
To Bangkok? I asked.
Yes, and then to Ho Chi Minh City. This seemed odd.
Really? I said.
He said something to the driver and then he turned back to  me.
I smoke? he asked.
No, I don’t smoke,  I said, you smoke?
No… he laughed as if I had made a joke.
Then we stopped and the door knocked against my knee. That sent the whole bus in a laughing fit, except for the children who were busy vomiting on their parents.
To my surprise Jacky got up to leave. He gave me a hand an jumped out of the bus. Bye…. The only person who spoke any English had left the bus. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference though.
The door closed and it hit my knee again. The other passengers were rolling with laughter.

Vientiane had changed a lot since I last visited the city and much of the charm was gone. Its quiet streets had changed into three lanes of traffic and the sleepy banks of the Mekong river were turned into a modern promenade. The ramshackle food stalls that once lined the mighty river had disappeared and had made place for a soulless night market that sold mainly Chinese junk.

 

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English is wildly spoken…

vientiane

Big important building

Northern Laos

The Viet Laos bus would leave at 5.30 in the morning. It was a small bus that stood in the corner of the muddy bus station. It was raining and I sat in the dark bus mumbling to myself which was alright because I was the only passenger. Something stirred behind the steering wheel. It was the driver waking up. We left at 5.30 sharp but at we drove very slowly. I was still the only passenger but we had a lot of cargo stowed in the back of the bus. After 15 minutes or so  we picked up  a man who bought sandwiches. He gave me half a sandwich. The only other passenger before the border was a woman and we now somewhat resembled a bus. Then we stopped again to put some of the cargo on top of the bus. Maybe we were expecting a surge in passengers shortly? It was nearly seven o’clock and we had done 15 kilometres.

The Vietnamese border was easy and I changed my last few Vietnamese dong into Laotian kip. The Lao side of the border was rife with small frustrations. The visa cost 35 US$ and a ‘service fee’ of 20.000 kip because it was Saturday. I had to pay another 30.000 kip to get my visa stamped. I simply paid. I had given up the fight against these kinds of petty corruption when it is clear I cannot win. They have the stamp and I have the money. No money, no stamp.

Muang Khua, a village at the banks of the Nam Ou river. Nothing here, except a riverside balcony from where to lazily watch the  muddy river float by. I eat noodle soup at the small local market. Sometimes women from the hill tribes  come to trade. They leave red stains of betel nut juice on the street.

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River view from my balcony

One morning I woke up at six in the morning with an astonishing amount of noise that slowly morphed into loud music. Then a woman started talking. Then  more distorted music. There was nowhere to hide. I put my head under the blankets. It was horrible. Then, after twenty minutes, it stopped again. Silence. Blissful silence.

Later I learnt the reason for the racket was President Obama who had visited Vientiane, the capital of Laos. He had said he was sorry. Not for the noise, but for the bombs. The US has thrown more bombs on Laos than on any other country. Ever. In the years 1964 to 1973 the US flew 580.344 missions and dropped 260 million bombs which is 8 bombs per minute on average. Said the BBC web site. When I divide 260 million by nine years, then by 365 days, then by 24 hours, and finally by 60 minutes, I get 55 bombs per minute. Trying to find more statistics only obtained more bewildering results, so I gave up on that… More interesting was the fact that most of the bombs were anti-personnel cluster bombs. Thirty percent didn’t detonate and remain a hazard to this day . Another astounding fact is that the bombings caused 50.000 casualties of which 29.000 deaths. This means that it took more than 5.000 bombs on average to eliminate a single enemy….
The Convention of Cluster Munitions is now adopted by 108 countries, but not by the US.

According to the website of the U.S. Department of State:
Cluster munitions have demonstrated military utility. Their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers and those of its coalition partners at risk. Moreover, cluster munitions can often result in much less collateral damage than unitary weapons, such as larger bombs or larger artillery shell would cause, if used for the same mission.

The Convention of Cluster Munitions was signed by the Holy See in 2008, which effectively limits the pope to the use of unitary weapons. He doesn’t care about collateral damage apparently.

The US did however, help with the clean up. From 1995 to 2013 the US spent roughly 4,9 million dollars per year on the clearing of unexploded ordnance in Laos, which is less than what they spent per day during 9 years of bombing the country. I stop here. Browsing through these statistics is really depressing. Maybe I should add that in the end none of the objectives of the bombings have been met. The US had to leave Vietnam and the Pathet Lao took control of Laos.

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sticky rice, that is rice with glue, is very popular in Laos

From Muang Khua I travelled by bus to Nong Khiaw. The views here were rivers with forest clad hills (see photo above) and occasionally flocks of white birds flying around. The scene was reminiscent of Jurassic Park.
In a restaurant I ordered dinner and a blaring television was screaming for attention. The people love game shows, Thai soaps and violent American movies. Before my dinner had arrived I had witnessed 6 killings….

Northern Laos is not an exciting place and I have kept myself busy reading Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi. Being not very inspired meant no new watercolours or sketches. Hopefully more of that once I reach Luang Prabang, the next centre of civilisation.