Uncovering Secrets in Laos

Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-2: Mekong River boat ride
  • Days 3-5: Luang Prabang
  • Day 6-7: Vang Vieng
  • Day 8: Vientiane

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: September 27 – October 4, 2014

Our Odyssey:

Laos has been one of the most interesting countries we have visited this year- not so much for the standard “tourist” attractions, which are, frankly, lackluster, but for the history and culture (always our preference over tourist attractions anyway). The country is comprised of various ethnic groups and tribes, each often having their own dialect and distinct culture. The country is enormously poor- one of the 44 most impoverished nations in the world, and it is a poverty you can feel everywhere- from the delapidated condition of buildings and housing, to the desparation of children uncovering unexploded bombs in hopes of selling the scrap metal.

Our entry into Laos, via slow boat on the Mekong River, seemed worlds away from the Laos we came to know. Peaceful and scenic, the river carried us for two days from northern Laos, near the border with Thailand, Burma and China, to Luang Prabang. The surrounding hills were lush and green with teak forests and water buffalo that drank by the shore.

On the first day of the cruise we stopped at a small village to get a glimpse of village life. While it was interesting to learn about this community (they eat everything, from dogs to bugs, and they make a potent moonshine rice whiskey), I left with mixed feelings about our presence there. Something about “people tourism” (my verbiage for when a group of tourists comes to a poor town to take pictures of the people with their huts) really rubs me as rather exploitative. Our group leader Gung said they don’t mind since they get paid for letting groups stop there, but even so, I can only imagine what the children of the town must think when a group of mostly white foreigners comes in, snaps some photos, coos at their livestock, and leaves. I doubt it is a very favorable impression…

That night we stayed in a small town called Pak Bang along the river. Our guesthouse was adorable- with its bright colors and balconies. I didn’t notice until after Tim took an enthusiastic photo of me in front of it that part of the construction of the building used bomb casings. This was my first exposure to the United States’ “secret war” in Laos during the Vietnam war- our air raids have made Laos the most heavily bombed nation on the planet, and the number of unexploded ordnance left behind has killed or injured over 20,000 innocent people since the war. But I didn’t know about that yet.

After checking in to the guesthouse we visited the local market, which was a small street up a hill lined with mostly children and some adult women selling various foods- live frogs and cat fish and even wild cat, apparently a delicacy. Gung saw a pregnant cat fish still alive for sale, and bought it to release back into the river. She said this would help her “make merit” and earn good luck for having saved an animal and her unborn babies.

The next morning it was back to the boat. It was a stormy morning and we had to anchor near the shore for about a half hour to wait it out. It eventually cleared up and turned out to be a beautiful day. For lunch, the wife of the captain of the boat made us a homemade meal of fried chicken, stir fried vegatables, and yellow curry. It was delicious, and felt good to contribute to her little side business given that the average per capita income is around $300 USD per year.

That evening we arrived to Luang Prabang, the old royal capital of Laos before France colonized the region. You can still see the French influence in the architecture and in the signs of buildings. When we got in that evening we checked in to the guesthouse then headed out to dinner at a great spot called Lao Lao Garden. The restaurant had a nice atmosphere with hanging lights, a foosball table and a pool table. They also had a good selection of Western and Asian food- admittedly I was more than happy to eat a burger that night. Most of our 10 person tour group, plus Gung, joined for dinner, and Jennifer, Anthony, Tim and I stayed out later for a few more cocktails and enjoyed good conversation and some competitive games of pool.

The next day, Tuesday, we went on a walking tour of the city, which was very small. Afterwards, we went about 45 minutes away to visit Kuang Si Falls- a natural park with nice waterfalls and swimming holes. My favorite part, however, perhaps for the uniqueness of it, was the sanctuary for rescued Asiatic black bears. Each bear in the sanctuary was saved from poachers who want various parts of the bear, including the bile from the stomach which is used in some Chinese traditional medicines.

That evening after dinner several of us attended a cultural fashion show focused on the traditional garments of the various ethnic groups in Laos, notably that of the Hmong people.

The Hmong have an interesting history in Laos. They generally live in the mountainous regions in tribes and practice a religion that is both Buddhism and animism. During the Vietnam War, the United States used some of the Hmong people to fight on our behalf against invading Vietnam. The US promised certain protections and compensation after the war, which never came to fruition. In the 1970s, Laos had a formal policy of genocide against the Hmong people, who had to seek refuge in other countries. The US offered little support and was even slow to accept them into our nation as refugees. Today, they are still considered an ethnic minority in Laos but their culture is more accepted and even celebrated in events like this one.

The next day was a free day without any organized or planned activities. Tim and I walked around in the morning and in the afternoon we went to the National Royal Museum to learn more about the history of Laos. Unfortunately, this museum is not particularly informative and we were rather bored strolling through the small exhibits. That said, the throne room was interesting to see, and we also got to see the most important Buddha statue in all of Laos, which is housed in the temple on the palace grounds. This Buddha statue was given as a gift from Sri Lanka and is the statue that brought Buddism to Laos centuries ago.

That evening we went with Jennifer and Anthony to Mount Phou Si, on the top of which is a small temple and a great view over the city and the confluence of rivers. Afterwards we went for dinner nearby and then walked through the night market, which featured handicrafts from the nearby tribes.

The next day we had a long 7 hour drive down a windy and bumpy road to the town of Vang Vieng. Even though we were on the main highway in Laos, it was narrow, with barely room for two vehicles to pass one another, prone to landslides, and covered in pot holes. It was the equivalent of a poorly maintained country road in the US.

Vang Vieng has an interesting reputation for tourism in Laos. As recently as 2012, it was considered the party-minded backpacker’s best place to party. The town is situated on the Nam Song river, where partyers used to go tubing and drinking at the bars along the river. Many restaurants also sell items marked as “special” or “happy” to tourists- meaning that these items have opium in them. All of this debauchery lead to, understandably, many deaths (as many as 22 in one year) from drowning, injuries on rocks from jumping in the river, or opium overdoses. In response, the government cracked down on the party culture and these riverside bars are now ghosts of their previous lives- generally empty and quiet. You still see tubing, but it is a much more relaxed sport. In general, the town has geared its tourism more towards outdoor activities and less towards partying, though there is sill a strong backpacker crowd just looking to escape in a small town in Laos.

We had only one full day in this town, and I would have liked more to explore all the area has to offer, but with our one day Tim and I went on a kayaking trip that included a visit to a temple cave and water caving. The water caving was interesting. We sat in inner tubes and held on to a rope going into a cave that was filled with water. There were some tight areas where you had to squeeze yourself around rock but mostly it was fun. The afternoon was spent on about 3 hours of kayaking down the river. It was my first time kayaking and so I was grateful to have Tim, who is very experienced, steering us along. It was a really beautiful day with amazing scenery surrounding the river.

Our last stop in Laos was to the capital of Vientiane. A local guide took us on a brief orientation walk through the city, visiting the presidential palace and Wat Si Saket (which is now a museum and the oldest temple still standing in the city). The last stop on the city walk was to the Victory Gate, a replica of the French Arc de Triomphe. It’s a symbol of the French colonial period and elicits mixed feelings from locals- some view the French as having done good things for the country, and many others resent French occupation in Laos.

After the walking tour we piled into tuk tuks and rode to the COPE visitor center. COPE is a charity organization in Laos that conducts outreaches to villages to educate them about unexploded bombs, as well as supporting victims of these bombs by supplying prosthetic devices. This is where Tim and I learned more about what is referred to as the “secret war” in Laos. During the Vietnam War (called the American War by the rest of the world), Vietnam forces invaded Laos and wanted to spread Communism to the region. In order to prevent this, according to the theory promoted by the “domino effect”, the United States heavily bombed the country of Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (near the border with Vietnam). The US air strikes made Laos the most heavily bombed nation in the world ever. While air strikes were also used in Vietnam, there were some ground rules, such as avoiding residential areas and temples, that made the bombed areas more precisely selected. In Laos, however, there were no such guidelines. While most of the bombs explode upon landing, many did not. This means that today, in many villages and towns in Laos, locals still find large bombs and smaller cluster bombs that they call “bombies” that have not yet exploded. This poses a serious danger as the slightest touch to these unexploded bombs could cause them to explode. Many villagers, and especially children, have lost limbs and lives this way. To make matters worse, there is an illegal scrap metal trade that pays generously (in Lao terms) for bombs. This means children and adults will often dig up these bombs and try to sell them- injurying or killing themselves for the equivalent of $20 USD. Locals also use this scap metal in common household items- as pillars in their homes, for example. This makes them dangerously desensitized to the risks they pose when they find unexploded bombs in the street or by the school.

While Tim and I clearly had nothing to do with this secret war, we felt guilty nonetheless for what our country has done to others. What is especially shameful is that we never even learned in school that this had happened. It was not in our history text books, and no one ever talks about it in the States, much less takes responsibility for it. We never knew this happened.

With the current air strikes against ISIS taking place in Iran and Syria, and with the cluster bombs we dropped over the past ten years in Afghanastan and Iraq, I wonder if we will find ourselves in this same position 50 years from now. Will the grandchildren of today’s Syrians come across unexploded bombs near their schools and homes? Will the United States ignore its culpability in having put them there? How much more ethical are we, really, when our past and recent actions meet our definition of terrorism? It is unsettling to think about.

Today we leave Laos for Vietnam, where I am sure we will be faced with even more challenging questions about national pride, culpabilty, ethics, and guilt.

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