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27th Feb - 5th March

Got up early in the morning - 6.30 am - very early for me, for the Monks Alms gathering in Luang Prabang, quite an institution these days. Then it was off to Nong Khiaw, a sleepy market village on the Nam Ou River, but with an impressive backdrop of soaring karst mountain scenery. Stay in a bungalow overlooking the bridge and forested slopes. Walk to Tham Pha Thok Caves, where villagers lived in the Second IndoChina War. Up wooden steps, bamboo ladders and then a steep slope. Very picturesque setting with the limestone peaks juxtaposed with rice paddies and bamboo huts. Another large spider in my room, but not as big as the tarantula in Guatemala.

To Muang Ngoi Neua by boat, to see if its changed that much over all these years. Still no road, so no motorbikes or cars, that's good. A bit of piece and quiet. Sand and dirt pathways lined with coconut palms. And guest houses and restaurants. Pleasant walk to caves and Huay Bo and Huay Sen villages through forest, across rice paddies and rivers. These were even quieter and some guys were staying overnight there. Ended up pretty filthy. More majestic karst mountain scenery.

For those who haven't read my book, generators go off in Muang Ngoi at 0930/1000 pm - then silence and darkness. Though you may hear some music coming from speakers from afar. Then you realise how much we all rely on electricity and how important a torch is. And no more noise until the cacophony of roosters and some monks banging on their drum at the nearby Wat. Yet another large spider in my room, but no rats as mentioned in LP. Where have they all gone?

Back to Nong Khiaw by boat, but we had to get off half way and walk over some sand bars, so the boat could negotiate shallow water. Then it was on the bus to Luang Prabang, courtesy of some very uncomfortable plastic seats we had to sit on. Decided against going to Sam Neua - by all accounts its a pretty hellish - and very long - journey. Maybe another day.

The trip to Phonsavan was pretty hairy at times, what with all the hair - pin bends, up and down, round and round. But it will never match the Trans-Flores Highway. A lot of slash and burn devastation. As well as the degraded environment, destruction of habitat and soil erosion, also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Uncle Sam's Secret War

Between 1964 and 1973 1.36 metric tonnes of ordnance dropped on Laos, the equivalent of 14 Aircraft Carriers or 2 Golden Gate Bridges. Up to 30% did not detonate and as a result 13,000 people have been killed or maimed since the war ended, mainly children. Laos is the most bombed country in history - the north to stop the Pathet Lao Communists, the south to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Cluster bombs - bombies - were used, with exploding ball bearings. One villager said 'The bombs fell like a man sowing seed.' Watched a couple of interesting DVD's on the subject - history of the war and bomb disposal teams. Check out http://maginternational.org/ for details. (Mines Advisory Group).

Cluster bombs have also been used in Lebanon, Kosovo, the Gulf War and Afghanistan. See also my book pages 48-62 on Laos.

Plain of Jars

The plain consisting of a plateau with hummocky hills is some 1000 metres above sea level, so quite cool at nights. The jars, of varying sizes, carved mainly from sandstone boulders, but some granite, are said to be over 2000 years old. They could have been used as sarcophagi, wine fermenters, or for rice storage. One contained a bronze human statue. The largest jar weighs 6 tonnes. Went to 3 individual sites and also saw the remains of a Russian-built tank. The plain itself is rather denuded of trees, exposing bare red soil, and with the few gum trees that have been planted making it rather reminiscent of outback Australia.

At sunset went for a walk to the Lao and Vietnam War Memorials, the stupas containing the bones of the soldiers who were killed. 6th March - to Vang Vieng.

N.B. Kip banknotes (Lao Currency) are a real hassle. The 2000 and 10000 notes (worth about 16p and 80p respectively), blue in colour are almost identical, as are the 20000 and 50000 (1.6 and 4), red in colour.


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