Now, the boats used for this right of passage are ancient, hole-ridden vessels with questionable buoyancy. All the same, anyone who wants to experience Laos through the north western border must defy their brain and go with their heart, hopping in with all the other brave souls to hopefully land on the Laos banks. Within minutes, the boat saddles up to the shore, people embark, and the arrival and departure forms are filled in. For each country the Loatian government has set up different price points for a visa-on-arrival: US $35, Canada $42, Cuba $20. Weird! I guess a lot of it is based on the country's ties to the French because just three decades ago the country was under French control. I'm not sure if that's the reason though, so don't quote me. After being awarded a beautiful Laotian sticker in my passport, I look up towards the only street of Houay Xai, Laos. With its glass showcases of perfectly browned baguettes, slow boat advertisements, and backpackers sharing travel secrets along the dusty path, I get an overwhelming sense that I am going to love Laos. As I walk up to a group of backpackers, I am immediately welcomed into the conversation. One random American is passing out flyers for a local NGO working with women empowerment in nearby hilltribe villages. I kindly accept an invitation to dinner and inquire about where to stay for the night. An overwhelming response was "Friendship, right down the way". I saddle up for the stroll and head off to book a room and get my pack off my back.
That evening I booked my ticket for the two-day slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang and enjoyed a lemongrass and herb stuffed fish from the Mekong at the women's empowerment restaurant. Thoroughly impressed.
2-Day Slow Boat Down the Mekong
What a beautiful ride. Six hours the first day, one night in Pakbeng, then eight more hours the following day, to Luang Prabang I go. Just a few years ago the 2-day slow boat was more of a barge system with very basic long boats floating up and down the Mekong on their normal trade routes. Now, this stretch of river has become a tourism hot spot. The boats now host mainly just tourists and converted car seats are set up in rows on either side of the wooden vessel. Every boat has its own characteristics from a luxurious state room with bathroom to a grassroots kitchen and smoking engine (the latter describing mine of course).
One thing I have learned about Laos people in the tourism industry is that they will tell you whatever they have to to get you to purchase their product or ticket. Most of the time there is a scam or at least a price mark up. So, before you travel or buy, you should do your research and know what it should cost an d if there are other options. For example, if you are about to hire a tuk tuk and you ask if the destination you want to get to is walkable, of course they are going to tell you no. The driver is running a business and is hurting for customers. Another example is my slow boat ticket to Luang Prabang. I purchased the ticket from my hotel, "Friendship", in Houay Xai, and was promised a front row seat. So, just before getting picked up from the hotel I was handed my ticket with the seat #3. "OK", I thought, I actually didn't get lied to. Well, little did I know and possibly little did the owner of the hotel know (I'm sure he knows the ins and outs of the business, but I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt), but the boats don't ever know how many tickets they have sold until people start showing up. Then, as you are boarding the boat, seat numbers are written on the back of a recycled receipt and placed quite randomly among the seats. The first number I see is 83 and it is at the very front of the boat. I ask a boy working on the boat where seat 3 is and he ventures to drag me towards the back of the boat, past the smoking engine and into a small, cramped, stinking enclosure encompassing the very butt/stern of the ship. I shake my head and follow him back to the front, realizing I am going to have to take matters into my own hands.
I find the perfect spot and settle in a seat that allows me to prop my feet up on the ledge in front of me. Ah, heaven on a slow boat. As time passed, more and more people boarded, filling up the seats to capacity and then some. Backpackers who were slow on the draw kept coming down the stairs and passing over their packs. Soon everyone realized there were not enough seats on the boat. The Laos deck hands started pulling more cad seats off the roof of the boat and stuffing them in spots that didn't warrant the extra space. People were agitated and demanding another boat. Our boat was over packed and more people were coming down the stairs. Soon, the head boat handler hollered out, "We take a second boat."
People were cheerful and thankful to the crew for complying. Apparently the boat owners have no idea how many tickets are sold because all of the guesthouses on the Thai border including Chiang Khoing, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai plus the Laos border including guesthouses, restaurants, travel agencies, etc. sell tickets without calling a booking office so they don't know how many until the people show up to board.
Soon enough, we pulled into a small town with rural hilltribe charm. Guesthouses lined the edges of the one road town and owners were begging for us to stay with them. I found a quaint room for $4 and headed off to grab dinner and to retire to my room early.
At sun up I was already roaming the streets for a sun rise pic along the Mekong, but somehow I found myself in the rural village market just up the street from my guesthouse.
Oh Canadians and Slow Boats
Local markets selling bats, rats, and baby chicks.
Luang Prabang Buffets
Bike Ride to Villages
Heading out on the Town
Market of same same: tourist junk.
This is how they sell piglets. Handwoven cages.
Tad Sae Waterfall
The following day we hit up the Tad Sae waterfall that offered elephant rides. We kindly declined because of the fact that the elephant was tied up with about two feet of slack and one of the handlers was holding a bull horn. Instead, we fed him sugar cane which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy.
Kuang Si Waterfall
That night my new Canadian comrades and I hopped on the most luxurious night bus ever in Laos and headed south to the popular Vang Vieng.
Once (just last November, 2012) this sleepy town was a backpackers' heaven. It's popularity came from tubing the river and being able to stop at all of the bars along the way. After an average of 28 people dying each year from drinking/drug/stupidity reasons, most of the bars have closed and 'happy' (drugged drinks and food) things are harder to come by. Either way, my friends and I still had a blast tubing the river, biking to the blue lagoon/cave, and rock climbing. What better way to spend three days in central Laos?!
I parted ways with my new found friends and backtracked north to see the Plain of Jars near Phonsavan.
Our van broke down right in front of a school.
So I made friends with the school children. Go figure.
Plain of Jars
My beautiful guesthouse in Phonsavan, Laos: Nice Guesthouse.
Although brochures and information on the internet claims that the purpose of the jars could have been for rice wine, it is highly unlikely that a group of people would go through so much trouble to make such large jars out of stone just to make alcohol. Also, after walking the plains, there is an eerie feel as if it is a sacred place, not a party zone. Initial research of the Plain of Jars in the early 1930s claimed that the stone jars are associated with prehistoric burial practices. Excavation by Lao and Japanese archaeologists in the intervening years has supported this interpretation with the discovery of human remains, burial goods and ceramics around the stone jars. The Plain of Jars is dated to the Iron Age (500 BCE to 500 CE) and is one of the most fascinating and important sites for studying Southeast Asian prehistory.
On our way out to Site 3, Plain of Jars.
Can you see the craters in the hillside and in front of the house? Bomb Craters.
Secret War and Bombing of Laos
Laos was originally part of the Khmer Empire and was later absorbed into the Kingdom of Siam. In 1893 the French incorporated Laos into "French Indochina" . The 1940's were years of major change in Laos, although hindered by a Communist movement. In the mid-1950's the French were engaged in the Indochina War, after which Laos had gained its independence from France but was followed by a subversive militant Communist uprising that drew the country into an agonizing civil war.
Every Tribe was somehow effected by the war, or involved in the war, during the 1960's. Especially when the elements of war arrived on their door step, leaving them no other option but to flee, suffer, die or resist. Due to the wide geographic dispersion of villages, some tribes became separated and ended up supporting opposite sides due to the distance between their people at the time of the wars.
So, in some vicinities, allegiances also attributed to lasting perplexity of everyone concerned. Tribal identities were also sometimes confusing, especially to 'outsiders' hearing similar sounding Tribal names and then assuming them to both be the same but only pronounced slightly differently, as was the case of the "Hmong and Mong".
During the 1960's some village locations, of the same Tribe, supported the Royal Lao Government (RLG) while other village locations of the same Tribe may have supported the Communists, as well as other village locations may have shifted sides occasionally depending upon who had control of the area where they lived, or who had the most to offer them for their support.
Some of the more noteworthy Tribal names, who supported the Royal Lao Government and who were supported by secret American involvement, include the Hmong (Meo/Miao), Khmu (Kmhmu), Lao and Mein Tribes. These, and other honorable Tribal identity peoples of Laos, produced self-sufficient men, women and children of great courage, who survived the hardships of poverty, drought, isolated lifestyles, who sacrificed and suffered the attributes of generations of war-after-war thrust upon their peoples by other Tribes of their own countrymen, and even by other Clans of their own Tribe, and by hundreds of years of foreign invaders. One of those Tribes was then and now noted for providing the highest numbers of manpower supportive of their Royal Laos Government and supportive of our American Government objectives. That particular Tribe consisted of people respectfully then known to Americans as the "Meo" (Miao), but who in recent years prefer to be called "Hmong".
The secret war in Laos began with a few occasional hill tribe employees but by the late 1970's had turned into a U.S. intelligence agency supported 30,000+ member 'Secret Army' of irregulars who secured villages, fought invaders, defended against civil war enemies, protected secret U.S. installations that 'officially' didn't exist, and rescued downed American pilots from places they didn't 'officially' fly over. Meanwhile, Laos Hill Tribes also produced manpower for a 'Secret Air Force' and countless other manpower help provided to covert U.S. operations which kept around 100,000 invading North Vietnamese troops preoccupied while destroying tons of enemy military supplies that otherwise would have made their way westward deeper into Laos killing more innocent Laos villagers, and southward into South Vietnam to kill more Americans stationed there with related allied personnel.
Now, that is just one side of the story. I watched a video in Phonsavan that interviewed American CIA who worked in Laos during the secret war. From the documentary's point of view, the war was fought behind the pretence of "humanitarian efforts". The CIA owned Air America which was flying in rice and other needed items to rural villages. After a short time, the planes began sending in 'other' items needed for war. US pilots were unable to land their plains with any bombs, missiles, etc. still intact. So, because Laos was between the North Vietnamese target and the Thailand landing base, Laos was the recipient of over 2 tons of ammunitions.
Why A Secret War in Laos?
Every year the summer dry season in Laos served to invite unwanted intrusions by War Lords, bandits, looters and military forces from neighboring nations. Such annual intrusions left Laos suffering and in turmoil.
Most of the warfare problems in Laos were the result of combatants being supplied by or recieving support from War Lords, bandit gangs, neighboring nations or military hardware delivered from distant global powers.
By the late 1950's Laos was falling into a grave Civil War. Situations inside Laos worsened in intensity during the late 1950's and early 1960's when The Soviet Union and Red China sought to establish worldwide Communism by stimulating anti-government revolution in nations around the world, where weapons, warfare training and other support was provided to fuel rebellion.
As a result of the aspirations of global oriented Communism, warfare broke out in nations around the world with countless innocent people murdered by Communist rebels, newly armed bandits and power mongers who were provided guns, training and psychological stimulation to become focused angry anti-establishment pawns inside their own nations to compliment the Communist objective of world conquest headed by the Mainland Communist Chinese and Soviets.
Resulting political and economic problems sprang up around the world. So to seek peaceful solutions for various international problems, the major world powers met at Geneva, Switzerland in 1954 and again in 1962. At Geneva those world powers agreed on many global issues, which included the 1962 agreement that Laos was to remain neutral of foreign military intervention. ......But in the meantime covert and overt participants only pretended to honor that neutrality.
The warfare in Laos only got worse! Village disputes, regional conflicts, and other problems, to include the armed turmoil of the Communists, which led into a horrible Civil War for Laos.
As the Civil War progressed in Laos it was generally characterized by dry season Communist advances (November - April), and with an emphasis on counter-offenses by Royal Lao Government forces in rainy seasons (May - October). Situations inside Laos deteriorated to the point that our U.S. government was asked by the King of Laos and Prince Souvanna Phouma, for urgent assistance.
There was a dire need for a Laotian ability to counter the Communists, but due to Geneva Convention Accords of 1954 & 1962 (signed by world governments) made it illegal for foreign military powers to intervene in Laos situations ; to provide combatants, etc., so all such assistance and related aid should NOT have any obvious U.S. military 'combatant' connections.
The CIA with USAF Air Commandos got the job of setting up air & ground operations, which were secretly under the authority of the U.S. Ambassador at the American Embassy in Vientiane, Laos.
The recruited U.S. Air Force Pilots, Maintenance people, Weapons Troops and other personnel originally served Temporary Duty (TDY) assignments originating from Hurlburt Field in Florida, then later more manpower was needed and brought TDY from George A.F.B. California, then later personnel were assigned permanently to Udorn and to N.K.P. Royal Thai Air Force Bases, Bien Hoa A.F.B. in South Vietnam, and covertly TDY to Air America, and to bases & operations inside Laos.
Bombing Facts from the Secret War
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians during the nine-year period.
Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased. The wounds of war are not only felt in Laos. When the Americans withdrew from Laos in 1973, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the country, and many of them ultimately resettled in the United States.
List of names of people who have been hurt by Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) in the past year near Phonsavan.
Mines Advisory Group (MAG) trying to clean up the mess.
Other startling facts about the U.S. bombing of Laos and its tragic aftermath:
Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 million more bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate.
Nearly 40 years since, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed. More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.
Each year there continue to be over 100 new casualties in Laos. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children.
Between 1996 and 2012, the U.S. contributed on average $2.6M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $17M per day (in 2010 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
The U.S. spent as much in three days bombing Laos ($51M, in 2010 dollars) than it spent for clean up over 16 years ($51M).
Examples of how bomb shells are being used.
Scenery along the way.
Town on the way to Phonsavan
"I don't need a science museum, I have all I need right here."
Cutest little thing.
These may be black magic or witch trinkets. Not sure really.
This is one way of purchasing gas.
Looks like Texas!