Slow boats, fast trains, and aeroplanes

We arranged for a songthaew in the morning to continue our highspeed train journey south to Vientiane. True to form we were dropped well short of the train station but this time we were prepared and Vang Vieng’s parking lot is quite a bit smaller. It was obvious that news of our contraband scissor infraction had not followed us here and hopefully has not been entered in our permanent record.

We’ve found that the trick to traveling in Laos is to avoid anything that has to directly interact with what they refer to as “roads.” It’s not necessarily the distances but it’s the wretched condition of them, the mountainous terrain and lack of safety barriers that lead to so many traumatized travelers. We were closer to our ultimate goal in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, but the famous mountainous circuitous nine hour bus trip has left backpackers with stronger constitutions than ours weak-kneed and shattered. So our overall plan has featured two days of floating down the Mekong River, two one-hour high-speed train runs to finally reach Vientiane and the only flight to XiengKhuang Province, which is where you find (fanfare please) the Plain of Jars. We have a date for a forty minute flight tomorrow and a quick overnight sleep to catch our breath tonight.

We hardly knew how to act when our taxi dropped us right at the front door of the airport terminal. This is a sizable airport and we were in the air right on time after a long hike to the plane which was parked far out on the runway.

On arrival we had to check in with Immigration, a first for us on a domestic flight.

There was a bit of a wait in the terminal for a tractor to pull the luggage cart into a kind of garage where everyone was milling about on a raised platform. We were encouraged to reach in and pull our duffel out of the pile. Think of it as an old school luggage carousel.

We clambered into a minivan and followed a meandering route through a sad and dirty little town where, after turning into what can only be described as an alley, we quickly intersected with another alley and our driver stopped abruptly, pointed at a sign far enough away that I couldn’t read it, and said, “There’s your hotel.”

Marce gave me the you-must-be-joking look, and asked why the driver wasn’t taking us all the way to our lodging. He made some gestures that we interpreted to mean it would be a burden for him to have to turn around again to go back. It wasn’t a one-way street. There was no traffic. We didn’t understand and I wasn’t picking up that friendly Laotian vibe.

One hot 100-meter dusty schlep later we were checked in, shown to our cabin, and handed the key on a bullet fob.

We went for a reconnoiter of the rugged one-street town. We’d had a strong recommendation for a bakery/sandwich shop that was close to us. Always on the lookout for decent cheap food, it was the first place we checked out. Here you are confronted with a large pile of white bread buns with four pots of unidentifiable plop as filling. No English, not a chance.

Then we dodged a stampede of water buffalo down Main Street.

We stopped in for a sobering afternoon with the wonderful MAG people (Mines Advisory Group) an international aid organization dedicated to clearing places of land mines, cluster bombs and unexploded ordnance (UXO.) They are a huge presence in this region of Laos.

Laos was the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of the world. During the American War (what we Americans call the Vietnam War) more than two million tons of cluster bombs were dropped on Laos — a neutral country — an estimated 30% of which failed to explode, leaving huge swathes of land uninhabitable, unusable for agricultural use or infrastructure development, and more important, dangerous to the inhabitants, particularly children. Five decades later people continue to be killed or maimed by UXO.

We learned that between 1964 and 1973 on average every 8 minutes a B52 crossed Laos, dropping ordnance to the tune of 270,000,000 bombs, some of which were cluster bombs filled with thousands of bomblets the size of a tennis ball, painted a cheerful yellow. Many failed to explode but they’re still ready and waiting for a small child to find.

This map shows the areas bombed and the density of the bombing. The southern region was targeted to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply route for the North Vietnamese.

The northern region was bombed because it was the training grounds for Lao Communists. It’s an area referred to as the Plain of Jars, and it’s where we are now.

The legacy of the American bombing is ubiquitous in Laos, and particularly in the Plain of Jars region. It can lead to this conflicting image, American bombs and an American soft drink.

Every night our open air hotel lobby is warmed by a wood fire burning in a cluster bomb casing. But tonight it’s early to bed for the Escapees because tomorrow morning we adventure seekers are off to see the other side of the Plain of Jars.

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