#10 Laos, (final) March 20, 2007

Dear Everybody,

The Plain of Jars at Phonsavan was all I had hoped for. Each jar is carved out of a single boulder—mostly limestone, and it is thought that they may have been carved 2000 years ago. Speculation is they are funerary urns but they haven’t found skeletons in them; however, since most of the stone covers are off lying broken on the ground, that would not be surprising. The largest of them are over six feet tall and weigh six ton. I visited three sites on a minibus tour and enjoyed interesting conversations with the nine other tourists from several countries.

The sites had from 90 to 150 jars helter skelter over the areas, although grouped together in clumps. There were several 15 foot bomb craters in the areas, and of course the bombing had broken some of the jars. On site Three there were trees that had grown up and out of some large jars, breaking them apart with their growth– big trees with 30 inch trunks. I did stay within the prescribed areas and so did not inadvertently set off any bomblets.

We also did the obligatory stop at a village that makes Lao-Lao whiskey from sticky rice. It appeared we were obligated to try some and I will say it was smoother than what I had tried in a restaurant several weeks ago. I dutifully photoed the working still and then we moved on to lunch.

 

At the end of the tour we stopped to look at a rusting Russian tank. It was huge—much bigger than I imagined tanks to be.

But earlier I had been gathering information about going to see Suan Hin, which is a ‘stone garden’ from 2000 years ago. I got conflicting information but I realized that if I were to go to see this site, it would be a two day excursion.

So, Thursday morning I set out by going to the bus depot (a euphemism) and finding a truck/bus going to Nam Neun. I had been told the day before that the truck/bus would leave at 8:30 AM. Luckily I got there early as it left at 7:50. I was told it would take four hours, but it took six. That included a long stop at a market where we loaded a huge satellite dish on the top of the truck. Inside the truck, taking our foot room, were a big barrel and four jerry cans of gasoline, six cases of Beerlao, and a big box containing a color TV, plus all the individual bags (like mine) belonging to the passengers. One little girl got car sick and vomited out the side of the truck a few times—poor thing.

The next stop was for lunch (10:30 AM). All the men got out, washed at a spring, and then gathered around on their haunches sharing food. The women mostly stayed on the truck.

Off again, this time onto a road that was under construction—phew, what dust! It was slow, bumpy and miserable for quite awhile. Finally we got back on poor narrow pavement. All of this was in steep mountains with lots of twisting and turning.

Another stop—this time to buy things that looked like hearts of palm or something related to that. Most of the passengers bought lots of these; in fact they bought out the whole supply.

 

 

 

 

 

The last stop was to load on a full grown billy goat. They tied him onto the back bumper where he lay bleating  pathetically until we arrived in Nam Nuen.

Nam Neun is a small rural village but I had been told there was a guesthouse. I inquired where by laying my head sideways on my hand, closing my eyes, and saying the word, ‘hotel.’ I did this several times with various people until I found the guesthouse which had no sign of any kind. I doubt that saying ‘hotel’ was of any help at all as I did not encounter one word of English in this town.

The guesthouse was a rough board building with small cubicles, each with two little beds, an unglazed window and a tiny light in one corner of the ceiling, proudly pointed out by the proprietress. The toilet was out in back and the only washing facilities were a pail and a water spigot, also out in back.

I said, “Suan Hin” to the proprietress and she understood and repeated it, nodding. I pointed to a motorbike and pantomimed sitting behind her on the motorbike, saying “Suan Hin?” She asked her husband who apparently said no, and so I indicated driving a car. She nodded and I pointed to her, and to the village. She was obviously very bright and nodded yes, and off we went to a restaurant where she apparently told them I wanted to hire somebody to drive me to Suan Hin. The family was eating and the young man indicated he would drive me after he finished eating. I made the sign for ‘how much money?’ and the wife wrote 350,000 on a piece of paper. I took the pen and wrote 250,000. They conferred and then she wrote 300,000 and I agreed. This is a little over $30. Then I indicated that I also wanted to eat and the woman brought me pho (noodle soup).

I didn’t know how far it was to the site. The LP guidebook showed about 80 km; one person had said 40 to 60 km, and two people had said 15 and 16 km. On the tiny LP map, it looked like 15. Well, it turned out to be about 50 km each way—too far for a motorbike, which is no doubt why the guesthouse man didn’t want to do it. The drive in a truck through the mountains was beautiful, with many blooming trees that look like frangi pangis, but the flowers are more orchid-like; then some that I am calling flame trees— no leaves and lovely orange-red flame-like blossoms.

The site itself was a bit underwhelming although certainly interesting because it’s thought to be 2000 years old and possibly related to the Plain of Jars. There were about 50-75 stone slabs standing upright, as tall as eight feet, and typically two feet wide.

More interesting were huge (six feet in diameter) round, flat ‘tables’ or ‘covers’ throughout the site. We had a half hour lookaround and then drove back to Nam Nuen. This excursion took four hours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a Beerlao and some fried rice, I headed off to bed. I could not see any switch for the light so it remained on all night, shining into my eyes. Next morning it was the water spigot and bucket so ablutions were minimal. I did manage my contact lenses with no mirror—I learned how to do that in Mongolia, sleeping in the gers.

 

 

 

 

Waiting for the truck/bus to leave, I perused the market.

 

 

 

 

A woman brought in a dead, wild cat-like animal and there was also a dead pheasant with bright red legs lying there. Later a woman carrying a guinea pig (?) walked over to the market.

 

 

 

The truck/bus finally left for the return trip to Phonsavan at 10:30 and all went well—for awhile; then we developed some mechanical problem and so sat by the side of the road for a half hour while the driver fixed it, finally arriving back in Phonsavan. The excursion was a big success for me, as the journey is the goal, not the (underwhelming) site.

The next morning (my last in Phonsavan) I had breakfast with two educators whom Art had put me in touch with. One described his ‘life skill’ training classes that he had developed for children, and showed me the curriculum booklets on cleaning and dressing wounds, avoiding bombs (UXO again!), and hygiene—a very nice encounter.

I flew back to Vientiane and met Art with wife and son for a beer along the Mekong before Art left the next morning for the south. Then I had a day and a half of just hanging out.

I’M HOME NOW, after four planes and 33 hours of traveling, and look back on a most rewarding and lovely ten-week trip. Until next time—-

Carol

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