Laos, February 2009

Yes, the introductory picture is indeed a festive tree adorned with pieces of military hardware and shrapnel. For Laos still holds the unenviable record of being the most bombed country in the history of the world. 2.5 million tons in the US campaign of 1964-73 or more than were dropped by the Americans during the whole of the Second World War. Whichever way you try to interpret these figures, they stagger the imagination and various international projects are still working to clear the vast amounts of unexploded ordnance that litter the countryside with heartbreakingly predictable results.

So what was I doing in Xieng Khouang, at the very heart of Cluster Bomb Country, early in 2009?

It had begun more than a year earlier when my much-travelled friend Sylvia had suggested Laos as an interesting destination for the joint venture that had been floating around in our pipe dreams for a number of years. I should really gloss over the pre-departure mix ups and rescheduling that very nearly sunk our Peregrine trip to Laos and Cambodia before it even got started. But I must just say that it was all highly stressful, particularly as I had recommended this Australian company to a seasoned traveller who had never used them before. In the event, we received a hearty apology and substantial discounts on our next trip. Although Sylvia hasn’t taken up the offer she quickly entered into the Antipodean spirit and even accepted the moniker “Sylve” with good grace. She did draw the line at being known as my mum, though.

The itinerary once we arrived was as marvellous as the photographs will show. After arriving in Vientiane we set off for the Plain of Jars in the aforementioned Xieng Khouang region. This amazing neolithic site cannot be granted World Heritage status while the bomb clearance proceeds so slowly but, suffice it to say, when the signs tell you to stick to the path between the white markers, you Obey. At the little hotel in Phonsavan, where breakfast was cooked on open fires around the back, I was served with an unexpected extra cup of tea which turned out to be a ginger and honey concoction specially prepared for me because the staff had seen me miming a sore throat.

This is a picture book country: the spine of South East Asia, with breathtaking landscapes and gentle, affectionate people whose current brand of Communism-lite appears (to the casual observer anyway) to enable them to welcome visitors while maintaining a certain amount of dignity. Buddhism is practised freely, education is available to rural communities and the protection of the environment is at least on the agenda. Laos has enough hydro-electric potential to power a great swath of Eastern Asia but the construction of the necessary dams would substantially alter the landscape. In the meantime opium cultivation in the dangerous north eastern region and deforestation of the country’s precious hardwoods are pressing concerns. Indeed, I saw not a single elephant on this trip as they were all away in the hill country, hard at work with the logging that takes place during the dry season. Considering the original kingdom of Lao was named Lan Xang, which means a million elephants, this was something of a disappointment.

I have decided not to caption my Laos pictures. They may not be up to professional standards but they are very personal and precious and I don’t particularly want them to be found on the general search engines. I have had to “borrow” a photo only once (116) because I did not have the nerve to snap the “Gap Yah” youngsters lazing in the Vang Vieng cafes watching re-runs of Friends while they waited for the next round of watersport activities (115). Nowadays I would just point and shoot.

To summarise I can only repeat my remark of our final meal (126) before we left Laos for our next destination. “I am so in love with this country”.

1 – 15      Vientiane

16 – 36    Xieng Kouang

37 – 96    Laung Phrabang

97 – 120  Vang Vieng

121- 126  Vientiane

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