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Oops, we did it again!

It’s 0400. Yes, that’s four o’clock AM and we’re meant to be meeting someone named Uncle Mike, the driver, and the ever patient mountain guide, Juan (pronounced Joo-Ahn, “I’m not Spanish”) in a flash new black 4-wheel drive. I wonder why we’d need a 4X4 just to drive up to a parking lot. The map shows that 2,200-meter Mt. Sibayak isn’t far but with the condition of the roads in Berastagi everything takes several times longer than it should. I do know why we’re doing this in total darkness though. It was presented to me as “a quiet walk on a forested mountain path up to a large volcanic caldera for a romantic sunrise with a view over the beautiful village nestled in the valley below.” Sounds nice but my legs have barely stopped shaking from the orangutan jungle trek thing.

It’s 4:30 and we’re off. Do we have flashlights? Oh, of course it’s going to be pitch black the whole way up but all we have is a tiny usb rechargeable. Juan offered us a loaner. In the car bounding over the broken, potholed pavement my head had occasion to intercept Uncle Mike’s doorframe which was on its own crazy random orbit. Shaken and rudely stirred we crept up to the car park and gladly escaped Uncle Mike’s brand new black torture machine which I suspect won’t look so new for long. We’re glad, that is, until we could fully appreciate the steepness of the grade, one lane of crumbling macadam pitched up at 20 degrees or more. I pulled hard till we hit the first switchback, turned, legs quivering, to admire our progress. Really?

So dear reader, picture three faint circles of light, barely illuminating six shoes on the dark side of the moon, accompanied by an unearthly gasping sound. I think that was Marce. Might’ve been me.

We paid money for this.

It got very quiet in between the gasping. There are no photographs for obvious reasons so you’ll just have to imagine us plodding up and up the short steep switchbacks in total darkness. Cue the Volga Boat Song.

That’s when things turned for the worse. Just when I thought this can’t go on much longer Juan stopped and said, “Ok, we’re about half way up” — (met with disbelief) — “and we have to be careful because now we climb the trail.”

Wait a gosh darn minute, this is not as advertised! Sure enough, now we found ourselves doing age-adjusted clambering up and over boulders and rocks with a delightful little stream running over the middle of it making it slippery in spots. Evidence of past attempts to build concrete paths or steps lie in crumbled ruin, making the footing all the more difficult. Sibayak mountain is a volcano, after all.

Finally false dawn began to lighten the frigid thick fog. Juan said he expected the wind to blow the fog off the summit. It didn’t look good.

We sensed a slacking of the relentless climbing and off in the distance we could imagine a foggy smear of color of a few tents. There are people camping here?!

We were suddenly hit with the stench of sulfur and the hiss of hot steam vents. I’m pretty sure I saw Marce glance over at me suspiciously.

We stopped to add our puffy jackets to the mix even though we’re less than three degrees from the equator, then carefully picked our way through the rocky debris field.

Suddenly over a sharp rim we were staring down into the caldera. The wind was fierce, and biting cold.

We took shelter from the wind behind a couple of large boulders to await the dawn which we knew we’d never really see due to the thick clouds scudding over the summit.

Juan, ever patient, lobbied for an assault on the summit which would mean another half hour of stumbling around in the clouds. Given the low visibility we knew there’d be no romantic sunrise view, so we were just not interested. I know we disappointed him.

On a clear day, sure. But this day had a stark bleak beauty all its own, with the wind shredding clouds over the summit peak, hissing yellow sulfur deposits smeared here and there, the moon a faint smear above, and the bubbling caldera just below us. It was otherworldly and almost intimidating.

There was nothing left for it but to start back down.

If anything it was more frightening seeing the terrible terrain we had just traversed in the dark.

By this point my legs were not giving a proportional response which is unfortunate considering the situation.

Gaining the car park Juan pointed out the butcher bill for hiking Sibayak area. It was a list of hikers lost on the mountain. Most found dead.

Sobering. I don’t know, maybe they should show the sign of lost souls before you go up. Uncle Mike informed us that the exit road was so bad that we would have to walk down to a safer place while he inched his now not-so-shiny new car down without the added weight.

Bad timing but at least we spotted this creepy foot long centipede.

I was so exhausted I forgot that we were to enjoy a sulfury hot water spa courtesy of Sibayak Volcano. We spent almost an hour soaking our weary bones in progressively hotter pools in full view of the mountain we’d just climbed until it was time to return to the guesthouse and breakfast.

On the way home I found my head intersecting Uncle Mike’s door frame more often. I can only assume that I lacked the core strength to care.

New Rule. #4: No More Sunrise Treks. This time I mean it.

Travelers tip: Sulfur does bad things to silver.


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We’re not done yet

We stayed in Bukit Lawang another couple of days to enjoy the comings and goings of travelers from all over the world who come to see the orangutans. Most of the younger ones go on two or three day treks; older folks opt for one day, as we did. Regardless of the time spent in the jungle, we felt a kinship with all the other travelers. Bukit Lawang is not easy to get to, and the jungle is hot and challenging. But we can now count ourselves among the intrepid few for whom the rewards are worth the effort.

I had the same feeling when we dropped anchor in Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas in 2015. There were 18 other boats in the bay when we arrived after weeks at sea and I knew that every one of them had also crossed the Pacific Ocean in their own boats.

The other reason to stay a little longer in the jungle was to assess the damage after what was, for us, a difficult physical effort. We were fine, we discovered. Not even a little sore. Just tired.

I planned another adventure that I assured Jack would be a walk in the park by comparison, at least judging by the reviews I read online. And so we were off to Berastagi, a small town even closer to the equator but much higher in elevation. We looked forward to cooler weather and a break in humidity.

We again booked a car and driver, and after schlepping the kilometer back to the road we embarked on our second bone-jarring, stomach-churning, nerve-jangling Sumatra road trip into the mountains.

We’re always sad to see the miles and miles of palm oil plantations. I know it’s a profitable cash crop for many tropical countries but it’s also the reason orangutans and other species are critically endangered. I don’t know how you reconcile poor countries’ need for development with the first world’s commitment to protecting wild places, especially when the parts of the planet we want to protect are often the places other people are dependent on for their livelihood. It’s a dilemma.

We arrived in Berastagi under threat of rain but we quickly learned that here in the mountains the clouds roll over the peaks and through the valley all day long. It might rain, it might not. Wait an hour and the clouds are gone.

We got settled in to our guesthouse and walked into town to reload our wallets at an ATM.

Berastagi is a town of about 50,000, with a majority Christian population because of the history of Dutch settlers.

I was keen to visit the famous fruit market and it did not disappoint.

This is snakefruit, a new one on us. I’m not a fan.

We were both starving for fruit. Unlike Thailand, Indonesian restaurant food doesn’t include much fruit and we bought mango, passionfruit, mangosteen and tamarillo. We had a nice chat with our chosen vendor who kept adding more fruit to our bag. She also slipped us a box cutter so we could slice the giant mango.

On our way back to our digs we were approached by a group of high school girls who asked if we had a few minutes to speak with them for a class assignment. They were adorable and very shy and they “interviewed” us to practice their English. We experienced this the last time we were in Indonesia, and it would happen again and again during the rest of our time in Sumatra.

We finally got a good look at our coming challenge. This is Mount Sibayak, a 2200 meter stratovolcano. We’ll be climbing to the top.

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Jungle Boogie

Trekking day came and our guides Yahya and Putra checked that we had what we needed and enough water, and instructed us to pull our socks up over our trousers to prevent leeches from burrowing into our feet and ankles. Then we spritzed ourselves all over with insect repellent before heading off.

We walked back through the village to a swing bridge and crossed the river to the steep mountain ridge on the other side. Take note of the turmoil in the river. It comes up later.

We started to climb. And climb. And climb. Sometimes there were steps, sometimes just toeholds carved into the slope, but it was up all the way. I had to stop several times because my heart was pounding out of my chest, but the guides and Jack seemed not to be bothered by the climb at all. And I remind you that Jack is sporting two stainless steel knees. My original equipment is still in operation so far, thank goodness.

Along the way we passed two men carrying a 55kg block of raw latex out of a rubber plantation. They were about to start down the steep steps we’d just come up and I felt sorry for the downhill guy. He would bear most of the weight of the unwieldy load.

We continued to climb and the path grew more and more uneven. We were both mindful of where we stepped; it wouldn’t do to turn an ankle here.

We saw our first orangutans about an hour into the climb but we didn’t get any good photos. We decided right then and there that we would be present and enjoy what we saw and not worry about photography. Most of the time we needed two hands for safety on the trail.

After an hour and a half and 1300 feet of elevation gained we finally reached the entrance to the national park and the protected area. Our guide presented us with our park permits and after a photo op we forged ahead.

Once we entered the park the trail deteriorated dramatically. It’s still rainy season and it had rained all night long so the footing was slippery and often puddled. Both of us went down several times in the mud.

We started seeing more orangutans, including a mother and baby. They were much harder to spot and photograph than in Borneo because there aren’t feeding stations in open clearings. We’re in dense rainforest on narrow pathways and these are wild orangutans fending for themselves.

Our guides never hurried us. When we spotted animals we all stopped and watched for as long as we could see anything, then we moved on.

We were there for the orangutans but we also saw plenty of macaques, which we’ve had our fill of after living in Langkawi for so long, but eventually we saw Thomas leaf monkeys, a species only found here in Sumatra.

Despite the many people trekking through this park at any given time we rarely crossed paths with anyone else. The guides were good at giving us all our own experience.

Our trail lead us up and down, again and again, and as we crested another slope a large male orangutan came out of the forest right in front of us.

“Back, back, back,” said Yahya, and we quickly backed away from the animal. This individual is a known rogue who has learned that humans sometimes have food and he’s not afraid like the others. Our guides held us back until he saw that he wasn’t getting anything from us, and he moved off into the trees.

This is why we chose an ethical company. We’d heard that some guides call to the animals, or lure them with food. Our guides respect the forest and the animals and are dedicated to leaving no trace.

After a few more sightings our guides found a quiet spot to rest and within a few minutes we had a delicious lunch of nasi goreng and fresh fruit.

It was a welcome break before the long trek back. Even though the food was served in banana leaves, the guides gathered up the leftovers and fruit peels and packed it all out again. We left no trace.

As it turned out, we didn’t go back. Yahya gave us a choice: an easy uphill, then downhill to the river, or a more difficult up and down then up and down with the possibility of more animals. We hemmed and hawed. We were tired but we also knew we’d probably never be here again. Yahya sensed our indecision and suggested “the middle path,” and as a Buddhist I seized on that.

In the event, the middle path was a killer. The phones went into our pockets, not to see the light of day again until we reached the river because it took every ounce of strength on all four limbs to move forward and maintain balance.

At one point we climbed hand over hand up a near vertical rock face. Halfway up I stopped. I couldn’t do it. I had a long conversation with myself. I questioned my life’s choices and wondered where I had gone wrong to be in this situation. I wondered if I could call for an airlift. I wondered if I could just sit down and wait for a miracle. I couldn’t go on. But I had to go on.

Yahya talked me up, pointing to where to put my foot next, often taking my hand and hauling me up to the next foothold. I looked back at Jack who was doing just fine. He told me later his only thoughts were that he had no knee pain like before, and he wished he were in better shape. Yeah, me too.

As we rested on a narrow ledge before tackling another steep climb, Yahya asked us how old we are. When we told him he and Putra both gasped. When their parents and grandparents are that old, he told us, they can no longer come to the forest. They stay home.

“But we are here,” I said. Yahya grinned and nodded approvingly.

“Yes. You are here.”

We finally descended to the beach. We would return to the village by tubing down the river which was swollen and foaming over the rocky riverbed.

We knew ahead of time we’d get soaked. Jack had worn his swim trunks under his trousers but I had to duck into the forest to change into shorts. I found a rock to sit on and with hands shaking from exhaustion I pulled off my shoes and socks, then peeled off my sweaty trousers, all the while mindful that leeches were eyeing my veins. I dislodged one just as it started to attach itself to my leg. I hoped there weren’t any on my bum.

It took awhile to get recombobulated with shorts and reef runners and I returned to the river where Yahya helped us dislodge the remaining leeches from our ankles. It turns out our socks were no deterrent to a determined leech.

Putra laid out a spread of fresh fruit that we barely had the energy to eat. A third member of our team showed up with our tubing rig. He will guide us through the whitewater.

Once again we said goodbye to our phones and any possibility of photos, as everything got packed into plastic bags for the whitewater adventure ahead. I took a few photos of other rafts to give you an idea of what it was like, but they don’t come close to conveying the turbulent water we navigated on our way downriver.

Our boatman was an expert driver, fending off the boulders that studded the river with a bamboo pole, and keeping us facing in the right direction as the current tried many times to spin us around. It had rained heavily the night before and the river was running fast. We got sucked into whirlpools and spat out the other side after scooping up a large share of river, which then dumped on our heads. It was an exhilarating ride, the water bracing but welcome on our tired limbs.

We finally landed downriver from the guesthouse and we crawled out of the tubes on legs like jelly. Our guides and boatman shouldered our gear and the tubes and hoofed it back to home base with the energy of youth, Jack and I dragging our tails behind.

It was, without a doubt, the toughest trek we’ve ever done. So far.


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Sumatra bound

Back in January 2020 we were due for a visa run from Malaysia and I suggested Sumatra, right across the Malacca Strait, to see the orangutans. As I researched I found that unlike our houseboat trip up the Kumai River in Borneo, this visit to the People of the Forest involves hours of trekking through the rainforest on uneven and often muddy trails. Just six weeks earlier Jack had total knee replacement surgery, and while he was doing very well, we agreed a jungle trek might not be the best way to test the new equipment. We went instead to Singapore where Jack continued his rehab by walking miles a day, but mostly on dry pavement. A month after we returned we were locked down by the global pandemic and we had other things to think about besides Sumatra.

Flash forward four years and a second knee replacement and we find ourselves with no plans and eager for a bit of adventure after a couple of relaxing months in northern Thailand. Sumatra is back on the agenda.

Indonesia travel can be challenging outside the tourist hotspots. Transportation is often uncomfortable, sometimes even dangerous. Roads are bad, many places haven’t come to grips with waste management, the local diet has very little variation, and the currency is one of those with way too many zeros so you have to carry wads of bills just to get through the day in a cash only society.

We flew from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur where we spent a week soaking up First World city life, then made the short hop across the strait to Medan, the largest city in Sumatra and third largest in Indonesia. It’s an unremarkable place, and we spent a day mapping out our time in Indonesia.

Bukit Lawang, the jumping off point for the orangutans, is only 90km away, yet getting there takes the better part of a day. There are several options for transport in various combinations of local bus, train and minivan but in the end we opted for a car and driver. Since there are two of us it’s only a few bucks more than public transit fare for two.

This turned out to be the first of four similar journeys in Sumatra and I herewith pass on my tips to anyone contemplating a similar itinerary.

The key to a successful journey in any vehicle in Indonesia is to remain loose limbed and refrain from looking directly out the front. Direct your gaze instead toward the side and appreciate the scenery as the driver veers around the most egregious potholes and, if you’re lucky, hits the brakes for the ones he can’t avoid. In general, expect the driver to have a lead foot both on the gas and brake pedals.

Try not to gasp every time your driver swerves away at the last possible second from a certain head-on collision with an oncoming truck while passing a motorbike overloaded with coconuts, timber, bamboo, market produce, or a family of six and learn to appreciate the musical quality of the signature beep-beeps your driver taps to warn vehicles that we’re overtaking.

Be mindful not to look down as you pass a section of road that has crumbled into the canyon below and save yourself the image of what it would be like to tumble into the abyss ending in a fiery Hollywood explosion at the bottom. You’re not wearing a seatbelt because either there isn’t one or it’s broken. The driver, you note, is buckled in.

Look instead toward the mountains ahead where in 45 minutes or so you’ll be flung left and right in your seat as your driver bosses the vehicle up ten or twelve tight hairpin switchbacks, many of them blind, then screams down the other side in an attempt to make up the time we lost behind a lumbering truckload of cement. This sequence will no doubt be repeated many times before you reach your destination.

I repeat, stay loose. Roll with it. I find deep yogic breathing helps.

We counted this driver as a particularly good one, or maybe the road was marginally better than expected, but all of our drives in Sumatra required a program of quiet recovery to bring our blood pressure back to normal.

We arrived in Bukit Lawang intact at the end of the road. Literally. The road doesn’t go through the village, or at least not for anything larger than a motorbike, and we still had a kilometer to schlep. Luckily a man on the street hoisted our duffle onto his shoulder and trotted along the river path all the way to our first night’s lodging at the far end of the village.

We had a hard time keeping up with him, and I stopped frequently to take photos and catch my breath. Bukit Lawang is a charming hippy village of guesthouses, trekking companies and restaurants, with a few bodegas and souvenir shops here and there. It’s as close as you can get to Gunung Leuser National Park where a lot of orangutans live.

The town has its own character and architecture and we loved the Jungle Inn, which I had only booked for one night.

Almost every guesthouse has guides and runs their own treks and we learned they don’t take kindly to booking lodging in one place but trekking with another company. That’s why I’d only booked one night at the Jungle Inn. I’d decided to book our trek with Sumatra Orangutan Explore because they’re known to be an ethical company, devoted to protecting the animals and the environment and we wanted to support them. Besides, the Jungle Inn was just out of our budget.

The next day we went to the chosen company and booked our trek. They found us lodging nearby and we reluctantly moved out of the relatively ritzy Jungle Inn (they have hot showers) to more modest but budget friendly digs. We have one more day to acclimate to the humid weather and explore the town before our trek.

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We’re bogged down with unwritten Ireland stories but rather than let the present drift further into the past we’re jumping ahead to get current. We’ll backfill the rest of our time in Ireland later, but for now, let’s get caught up. As always, check the dates on the posts. We always date them when the events actually happened rather than when we get around to posting. We also keep posts in date order, so scroll back if you’ve missed something.

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A stroll through Old Vientiane

The early sun rose gently through our old hotel’s shady courtyard trees. If it’s not Sunday morning, it ought to be. Truth is, after a whirlwind of travel to the isolated Plain of Jars, I don’t actually know what day it is, and that’s not far from the way I like it. As I linger over a cup of semi passable coffee, I smile thinking about the years spent locked down during Covid on a tiny island in the Malacca Strait. On a rare outing to Penang I even had a tee shirt emblazoned with my moto “Dolce Far Niente” meaning the sweetness of doing nothing. Too much dolce eventually brought us here, years later, to this lovely morning in Vientiane with nothing particular to do.

Now where was I? Oh yes. I read something about a 16th century stupa, near the center of the old city called That Dam Stupa. Just so happens I find myself in the vicinity of the old city center. The so called “Black Stupa” is said to house a now dormant, multi-headed naga. Legend has it that it was instrumental in helping resist the invading army of Siam. The question is, am I being set up for a possible rule #3 violation? It is heating up a bit now but it’s still very pleasant under the trees. And I’m such a sucker for old bricks.

With Marce on hiatus, I’m off to find the wizard at That Dam Stupa. Soon I was zig-zagging through old town, carefully trying to remember the zags and the zigs. On the way, I came across this supposedly significant French Colonial Mansion, so apparently a few are being restored. This one has a way to go.

Turning another corner I suddenly find myself face to face with the Black Stupa.

No multi headed dragons in evidence.

While trying to find this thing in the maze of streets of old town, I noticed Google was showing a large park beside our old friend the Mekong River and, you know, I’ve already come this far so what’s a few more km? On the way I ran into the president’s palace.

I’ll tell you what. It’s really heating up now and my little blue dot is not making much progress, but like in all stories, I eventually reach the pleasant leafy green park, with sprinklers on full chat, and find a few surprises. Like this non functioning fountain, signifying nothing as far as I can tell.

Not to mention this 8 meter tall bronze statue of King Chao Anougvong who led an armed uprising against the occupying army of Siam. He was captured and eventually died in a cage. Nevertheless, he is revered as a Laotian hero and just like the multi headed naga, at least they tried, which apparently is close enough in Laos.

Just like Buddhists every where, they really seem to enjoy lots and lots of tiny statues, the more the better, or huge examples of basically the same statue, the bigger the better, maybe in different poses, or maybe both at once. I really don’t get it. Can anyone help me here?

The following morning we queued up at the Asia Air gateway and followed the happy traveler ahead of us across the tarmac into a receptive airbus. In seconds we were waving goodbye to the Mekong River under our right wing.

After a four hour lay over in Bangkok we caught a nice highlight glinting off the winglets.

It’s good to be going home.

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A day to ponder

There’s only one flight per day to and from the Plain of Jars. That meant we had an extra day and a half to spend in Phonsavan until our flight out. We didn’t plan anything special. Our tour gave us so much to think about, between the mystery of the jars and the consequences of the bombing and the ongoing task of clearing the land of unexploded ordnance.

We revisited the Mines Advisory Group (MAG International) headquarters to buy a tote bag and leave a donation. They have teams out in the fields every day working to make the land safe again. We passed their vehicles and warning signs several places on our tour.

The rest of our time in Phonsavan we spent looking for food. For a vegetarian Laos is a challenge, especially away from the population centers. As veg-friendly as Thailand is, neighboring Laos is the complete opposite. The diet is basically rice and meat, and finding anything meatless is tough. After trying a couple of local places we settled on the only two restaurants that had any meat free dishes, Cranky-T’s, where I could get a salad, and an Indian restaurant with a variety of vegetarian dishes. I preferred Indian, Jack liked Cranky-T’s. Sometimes we ate together, sometimes we each went to our favorite.

We cruised the local convenience stores for healthy snacks but couldn’t come up with anything.

As usual I convinced Jack to visit the wet market. It was the most earthy market we’ve been to in a long time. Alongside the beautiful produce (why weren’t those fruits and vegetables in the restaurants?) there were tables and tables of dried sticks and other woody things. I tried asking people what they were but we had an unbreachable language barrier. Google Lens later told me many were medicinal plants, but I can’t be sure.

The creepiest thing we saw were wasp nests, complete with wiggly larvae. YouTube showed me how to prepare them but I think that’s a hard no for us.

By the time we got to the butcher tables Jack was itching to get out of there. I don’t think he likes to be reminded of what he’s eating.

I love the markets, all markets. I find them intriguing, inspiring (when I have a kitchen to cook in) and a great window into the culture. After seeing all this gorgeous produce though I’m still wondering why the restaurants couldn’t conjure up a vegetarian meal.

Once again we had to check out with immigration, even though it’s a 35 minute domestic flight. The plane parked way out past the runway. You can see from the mountains in the distance that we’re on a very high plateau and the difference in air temperature from the capital was a surprise. We wished we hadn’t left our warmer clothing in Chiang Mai.

And then we were back in Vientiane. Once again the flight connections meant we had an extra day to spend here. We have no specific plans, except for me. I’m looking for a healthy vegetarian meal.

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Plain of Jars

For Americans of a certain vintage like us, the news during our coming of age years was dominated by the war in Indochina. Words like Tonkin, Mekong, Saigon, Tet, My Lai, red tide, domino theory, Ho Chi Minh Trail, Vietcong, five o’clock follies, pacification, demilitarized zone, and so on, comprised the vocabulary of every day life. To this day the sound of any of these words makes our skin prickle.

Vietnam was the focus of most reporting, of course, then Cambodia and Laos entered our consciousness, especially when Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, then in ‘71 with leaking of the Pentagon Papers, when most of the country became aware of the secret bombing of Laos.

Of the two regions of Laos targeted by American carpet bombing, the northern focus was a 15,000 area of the Xieng Khuang Plateau called the Plain of Jars, so-called because it is littered with more than 2000 Iron Age stone jars. The area was bombed not because of the jars, but because it was thought to be the location of headquarters and training camps of the Pathet Lao, a homegrown communist faction. The US, with the initial lukewarm blessing of the ruling right wing Lao government, thought they should stop the red tide from flowing across the border and taking over Laos. Over a period of nine years they blew it to smithereens.

For the first time in our travel experience our inclination to bear witness to places and people who have suffered the atrocities of war and our fascination with ancient archaeological sites happen to occupy the same space. We’ve wanted to come here since we first heard of the Plain of Jars. We expect it will be both mysterious and disturbing.

There are about 90 unique sites identified in the UNESCO Plain of Jars archaeological landscape but most are restricted because of the continued danger of UXOs (unexploded ordnance.) Only seven sites have been cleared and we booked a guide to tour the three most accessible locations. We were joined by a pair of young English backpackers and an Aussie.

We began at the Visitor’s Center where we learned more about the ongoing effect of the carpet bombing. The sites we’re visiting are safe but we were warned to keep on the established paths, not just here but in most areas of Laos where the bombing took place.

Our first view of jars was of a flat plain that gave the area its name, but we’re told the rest of the sites are hilly and wooded. You can clearly see several bomb craters across the field.

As we got closer the size of the jars took our breath away. They are huge, even the smaller ones.

I should say here that historians and archaeologists who have researched the jars hypothesize that their purpose was in some way funerary, but there’s only speculation about the exact function. They do know that the stone came from a quarry some distance away in the mountains. How they transported the stone, how they carved the jars, and most importantly why, remain a mystery. You can read a summary of the historical research and current thinking here.

Some of the jars are broken, which we initially assumed happened during the bombing, but I learned later that in the late 19th century bandits destroyed many of the jars at this site. We could only guess whether a jar succumbed to a bomb or a bandit.

At the bottom of the hill at Site 1 is a cave which may have been used as a crematorium. The opening and the roof are covered with scores of wasps nests but we didn’t see many wasps flying around, thank goodness.

Site 1 was a good introduction to the jars but we were eager to move on to the next one, an hour’s drive away over the notorious Laotian roads.

We were fortunate the sky was mostly overcast because not only did we escape the brutal heat of the sun, but we had the sites nearly to ourselves. We learned later that the lack of visitors is more a continuing effect of the pandemic and that tourism at the Plain of Jars is only about 30% of the pre-Covid level.

As we walked to the site we were mindful again to keep on the paths through the fields.

There are so many jars, and we’re only able to see a small percentage of them. It’s mind boggling. All day, as we walked among them we shook our heads in amazement and muttered some version of, “What the—?” I think we touched every one and looked inside. They’re empty, of course, except for the occasional candy wrapper, which I fished out if I could and relocated to a rubbish bin. Some are filled with water or plant life.

The last site, another long drive away, was our favorite. The jars are huge, the trees are old and the setting made it all so much more mysterious. A couple of the trees grew right through jars.

We lingered until our guide rounded us up for the long drive back to town. We can say with confidence that the effort to get here was worth it. We still have no idea what these jars are all about; it’s always amazing to me how quickly knowledge is lost. The jars were made sometime between about 500 BCE and 500 CE; some maybe as late as 800 CE, and yet there’s no record, either oral or written, of their design, construction or purpose. Maybe future technologies will answer those questions. We’re grateful so many of them survive.

The greater tragedy is that the men who ordered the carpet bombing had no regard for the Lao people who lived here and the place they called home. Thousands were killed or maimed, many more displaced, and much of the land rendered unsafe. The secret war on Laos will forever be a stain on our history.

For further reading I recommend this.

If you want to support the work of MAG International go here.

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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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Craggy mountain high

The tuktuk pulled up a good half kilometer shy of the Chinese built highspeed train station. The driver hopped out, pulled our loyal rolling duffel out and deposited it on the side of the four-lane concrete road, smiled and with a flourish said, “Train.” We got out in the searing Laotian sun and realized that to go any farther he would have to cough up another 10,000 KIP (.50 US) at the guard desk. We turned back to protest but by that time he was already in second gear. Resigned to our sweaty hike, the guards smiled as we slowly trudged by. They’ve seen it before.

The station facade had an austere Chinese take on Laotian architecture. The expansive parking lot was nearly empty.

Barely through the front door we found ourselves queuing up in a pre-security passport check, the kind where they really stare at your picture then your face and then back and forth for some time. This is interesting because the train doesn’t cross a border. After that we were scanned and frisked.

Soon we were off to the X-ray machines where they found a small pair of blunt nosed scissors buried deep in our duffel. Truth be told we were warned they are wizards at finding sharp objects, confiscating them is job #1, and you can kiss them good bye if you bring them. For that reason, we had left every pointy item back in the van in Ireland, and figured these small blunt scissor would make it through. If not they were designated sacrificial. And they were sacrificed.

The security people proceeded to regard everything we had with suspicion but other than having to repack all of our belongings and losing those contraband scissors our record is unblemished on the Chinese highspeed train system. All this for an hour-long ride.

I’m not sure why we were advised to show up three hours before departure but from this moment on time stood still.

It seems the train operators don’t consider the traveler to need constant entertainment or retail sales temptations and experiences as do airports. This huge hall is nothing but business.

Suddenly we sensed a slight commotion, like when hundreds of birds in a tree go silent at the same time and suddenly all of those birds take to wing at the same time in a great whoosh. We found ourselves caught up in an avalanche of pushers and shovers and the lines broke down into more of a scrum gathered around the ticket takers.

Any discipline was enforced by the purple shirts with bullhorns and attitude. Of course we had no idea what they were saying or what they even wanted, but it soon became obvious to us that they would rather everyone line up like adults according to our assigned car number and stop creating impromptu lines. At least we found out what the purple shirts are for.

A young woman in a purple shirt with a bullhorn directly in front of us seemed quite angry. I just hoped she wasn’t yelling at us, but then again how would we know? I couldn’t look at her. Her barking instructions kept everyone in line until the train entered the station and came to a stop. As soon as the doors opened all hell broke loose and we were caught in the crush of fellow passengers with luggage clambering to get settled before the train took off again.

I honestly think they took pity on us as foreigners and soon we found our seat and we settled down for a nice scenic high speed ride.

The shiny pants train imperceptibly pulled out and we were plunged into darkness where we stayed for quite a while then suddenly we were blinded by bright sunlight for three seconds and then plunged back into darkness for a good while. This is the pattern of high speed train travel in this mountainous part of the country as we zoomed in and out of near continuous tunnels. The digital speed readout at the front of the car confidently read 145KPH (90+MPH) but the carriage barely jiggled for over an hour until we glided to a stop outside of Vangvieng.

Leaving the platform we were herded in a reprise of the earlier scrum just to prove to the purple shirts that we were in fact paying customers. Blinding bright sunlight greeted us while we instinctively searched for the taxi controller guy who always seems to have a clipboard. We were packed into a Hiace van jammed with young backpackers for the 30 minute drive into town, dropping off passengers along the way. Our first look at Vang Vieng revealed a rundown dusty town. Honestly, it could have been Tijuana but without the tacos.

Finally with no one left but us, we pulled up to our hotel. After four flights of stairs, schlepping the duffel all the way, we were shown our room with a balcony that had the most incredible mountain view that I could imagine. Score big for Marce, who worked hard to find the best room in town.

Directly in front of us were several dozen narrow long-tail boats moored side to side along the Nam Song River.

A few were sightseeing, running up or down the river and we could see the occasional motor glider lazily putting past our eagle’s nest.

The craggy mountain range filled me with wonder. I see us spending a lot of time absorbing all this incredible beauty.

Marce read about a Kiwi-centric restaurant located across the river not far from us, which is good because I was quite leery of eating at anything I’d seen so far. Sure enough, we found a rickety old bridge a mere two blocks from our hotel. Before stepping past some mementos courtesy of Tricky Dicky and his sidekick Henry the K, a man who deserves no peace, a woman told us, “Just stay straight in the middle, don’t stop, watch out for those damn scooters and pray.”

Turns out the bridge mainly consists of old rotten bits of left over wood and holes.

We didn’t fancy picking our way back across the bridge in the dark but Yours Truly sussed out a steel pedestrian bridge about three hundred meters further down stream. It even has lights and no scooters.

The following morning I broke out our Aeropress coffee works for the first time this trip and got busy. The day’s master plan featured a Jack brewed cuppa tableside out on the balcony and that’s just about the sum total of it. I opened the door to our balcony and almost dropped our carefully crafted coffee.

We knew there were hot air balloon excursions somewhere in the valley but this felt like our own private show.

Turns out Vang Vieng is an adrenaline tourist’s Mecca, from zipline or motor-gliding, to hot air balloons, caving and rock climbing, If you want to risk it, they’ve got it. The large number of bandaged young backpackers we saw around town attest to the willingness of youth.

Every morning after the sky show we make the rounds looking for an edible breakfast, but it’s always the mountains that drew us back.

One morning at our early show, we had a surprise guest drop in due a shift in the breeze.

Unfazed, they dropped lines from the balloon and with six men hanging on they dragged the rogue balloon back to the wharf where they could exchange new paying customers for those whose time was up. A tricky bit of ballon handling.

They turned up the wick and she popped up like, well like a balloon.

Our last night here we spent with slowboat friends Simon and Karen at a place they found tucked away a kilometer from our hotel. They were staying at a cabin on the island in the river so I showed them the steel pedestrian bridge that I discovered. It was dark and they were relieved to not have to negotiate the rickety monster at night.

In the morning we were continuing our journey on the early highspeed train to Vientiane in an effort to accomplish an adventure two years in the making.

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