Laos: The Mekong River, Luang Prabang, and the Plain of Jars
- We couldn’t decide if American policy during the Vietnam War had succeeded or failed. According to a variety of sources, Laos boasts the distinction of being the heaviest bombed country in human history. A devastated land after the 1970s, when USA bombers turned the areas along the Vietnamese border into a giant practice field of destruction, the Lao people have made an astonishing comeback from the wanton Armageddon visited upon them by the arbiters of democracy and freedom, namely the American military establishment.But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In 2007, my wife Diana and I took a boat down the Mekong River, after crossing the border to Houeisay from Thailand. This is an interesting backwater. We saw one backpacker get arrested upon entry into Laos, for reasons unknown but possibly related to his lack of funds and obvious intoxication. He was summarily returned to Thailand, where I am sure he was made welcome. Very sure.Photos by Kit and Diana Herring1) The river crossing, as seen from the Lao side. The vessel in the foreground serves as a petrol station
The boat we boarded took two days, stopping overnight at a lodge in Pakbeng. Since the Mekong has been a transportation highway in Southeast Asia for untold millennia, the region is not the place to look for wilderness and untrammeled rain forest, but along the river banks are many interesting sites, from small farms to teak plantations.
2) River life
The river is also famous in the Thai-Lao border region for giant catfish. Specimens have been caught that exceed 3 meters (10 feet) in length. Alas, none of the underwater critters put in an appearance for our sake. But in the small hotel we spent the night in on the Thai side before crossing the border, a picture hung on the wall depicting Vietnam- era American soldiers holding one of the fish they had caught. The thing was truly huge.
As the boat journeyed downriver, with the pilot and his assistant carefully watching the current for underwater obstructions – the river was low and ours was the first trip of the season – we noticed that as we left Thailand behind the river became less populated. Clearly the Mekong had once supported many more inhabitants, but Laos was depopulated in the wake of the American war. The government is still Communist, at least officially, but Southeast Asia is now safe for the despotic version of democracy the States spent so much time and blood fostering. We should be grateful for small (and large) favors, I suppose.
The lodge at Pakbeng where we stopped the first night was an attempt by the tour company to join the ranks of eco-tourism operations, and it was a nice place, with shingled bungalows and a hewn-wood common dining area.
4) The Pakbeng lodge
Only problem was, the place was at least a kilometer from the town, so we had no contact with the locals. I tried walking the dirt road into Pakbeng proper, but didn’t have the time to get far. So we contented ourselves watching the river roll by from our private bungalow. A lodge that inhibits contact with locals does not do much to encourage multi-national relationships, but perhaps the owners had overlooked that aspect of enlightened tourism.
5) Our riverside view
We set off early the next day toward Luang Prabang, stopping at a few villages where locals brought out gaudy modern weavings to sell to the tourists. I didn’t object to their attempts to make a few dollars and better that they produced new fabrics of inferior quality than to sell their heirlooms, but I imagine the antique tapestries had already been traded to earlier travelers for a song, the patrimony of the country disappearing into the collections of Western tourists long since, much as has happened around the world. In one town, a weaver obliged Diana for a photo. Like women everywhere she wanted to look good for the picture and so removed her glasses before the portrait session.
6) Village weaver
The villages were poor in the extreme and belied the poverty that is so prevalent in Laos. Quaint to the eyes of Western tourists, the locals were probably desperate to escape to the larger towns in search of jobs and the money that would enable a more modern lifestyle.
7) Lao village – at least the thatch occasionally gives way to stronger tin roofs
Every village had a Buddhist temple. On the doorways we saw many examples of exquisite folk art. So one old tradition had yet to be extinguished.
8) Temple artwork
The area used to be a major opium-producing region. This trade has been mostly stamped out, but likely opium is still grown, away from the prying eyes of government officials and Western drug enforcement agencies. While walking around one village, a local kid showed me a broken tool that was used to slit the opium poppies and extract the sap. I asked, through our interpreter, if a better example of the tool might be available for sale. Immediately the kids who were listening ran off, and soon returned with two or three more of the devices. The initial asking price for a good one was $30 US, an astonishing price considering that the amount probably represented a farmer’s monthly salary. I am not one to try to chisel my way into picking up valuable antiques for a song; of course tourists such as myself possess wealth in nearly incomprehensible terms compared to the rural Lao. But I finally settled on a price of $5 for an exquisite opium pod-slitting tool. It was made from hand-forged bronze, I believe. I figured if Customs found the thing and gave me a hard time when I returned to the USA – drug paraphernalia and all that – I’d call it a crochet needle. But the officials at the Los Angeles airport never searched my luggage, so I arrived safe and sound with my souvenir at the end of the trip.
9) Opium pod-slitter: notice signs of wear and cool yellow string used to bind the three parts together, so the instrument would make three slices at a time
Interestingly, when I showed our group my purchase, most of them were quite pleased at my find, but a couple from Scandinavia became quite angry. I believe the man of the couple was a cop of some sort, and therefore did not approve of any trade in drug-related goods. No sense of humor, I guess. Perhaps he was on the payroll of Interpol, or even the DEA.
Our boat also stopped in a village that is famous for its “whiskey” production. As a teetotaler, I declined the offered beverage, but judging from the primitive distillation apparatus, the drink resembled the aguardiente stills one finds around Latin America.
10)Village famous for its moonshine: the rest of the tourists seemed to enjoy the tasting session
Our final waypoint was the famous Pak Ou Buddha Cave about 20 kilometers upstream from Luang Prabang. This is a well-known and must-see stop for all tourists traveling in the area. Over the centuries the locals have placed literally hundreds of Buddhas of varying provenance in this riverside cave. The place is not quite a tourist trap, but one encounters there voyagers from all over the world. One method the locals use for making money is to sell small caged birds for the tourists to release in the hopes of providing good luck for themselves. The practice is an abhorrent one, as the birds are abused and maltreated as they wait in their tiny prisons for release. We saw a backpacker who had bought one and let it out of the cage, only to have the creature die right there on the spot. She was understandably tearful and we hoped this did not bode ill for her future kharma. Nonetheless, the business of torturing birds for the amusement of paying travelers ought to be stopped.
11) Buddha statues at the cave entrance
Above the main cave is a larger grotto with some interesting carvings made from the living rock inside. Quite a treat.
12) Me beside a carved happy face in the upper chamber
An across from the caves, at the confluence of a tributary and the Mekong is an impressive cliff face, which I understand is popular with the rock-climbing set.
13) Cliffs near the caves
And so, at the end of the second day, we arrived in the former royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang. Now a World Heritage site, the city has been compared favorably with Cusco and Kathmandu, a tropical version of an ancient, laid-back city of ancient origin and great beauty.
But like its sister cities in South America and Asia, it is fast becoming a victim of its own charm, and deluges of tourists are rapidly changing its character. Already rents are becoming too high for local residents to live in the old quarter, and its quaint palm-fringed streets have transmogrified into a collection of backpacker restaurants, tour agencies, and internet cafes.
14) The old city from above: temples and coconut palms, a delightful combo
We first stayed in a small hotel overlooking the Mekong River, but the street was noisy and the place lacked the proper ambiance. A television blared in the lobby – shades of South America – and the structure was a modern affair of personality-deprived concrete. But the riverside was pleasant nonetheless; a number of tourist restaurants promised relaxed dining.
15) Riverside restaurant
Of the great many temples and monasteries of Luang Prabang, words fail to describe their beauty and grace.
16) Just one of Luang Prabang’s amazing temples
17) Another view from above
Home to hundreds if not thousands of monks, common Lao who as young men typically spend a period of their lives as devotees in the shrines, the city is unparalleled. Every morning processions of monks walk through the streets in a ritual ceremony of alms-collecting. The tourists, naturally, appear in droves to take photos of the event, often intruding themselves into the solemnity of the occasion. Such is the lot of these Buddhists; Westerners again thrust their selfish desires ahead of spirituality.
18) Alms-collecting as seen from our hotel room balcony – a non-obtrusive way to observe the ceremony
19) A local man giving alms
We finally decided to change hotels and found a reasonable place across from one of the city’s major temples. This decision proved to be an auspicious one. We had a bird’s-eye view of the morning alms ceremonies and also of the daily routine of the temple.
While we were there, the head monk of the temple suffered a fatal heart attack. Dignitaries from all over the country arrived to pay their respects. In a creative mix of old ritual and newer technology, the monks set up a memorial to the great man that included a life-size duratrans image.
20) Memorial to the late holy man, head monk of the temple
22) The memorial at night
The owner of the hotel, himself a devout Buddhist, told us that the monk’s body was placed inside the temple so that his followers might see him for a last time, resting “in State.” To our surprise he said that we would be welcome to enter the temple and view him, so long as we dressed respectfully and followed proper protocol. So Diana and I dressed in our finest clothes – her with a shawl covering her shoulders and me in long pants and a button-down shirt. Shyly we entered the temple and sat for a time by the body, meditating on the fleeting span of mortal life. It was an experience I will not soon forget.
But we had one more destination in mind to visit in Laos. I had heard of the Plain of Jars since the time of the American War in Vietnam. The eastern part of the country where the great archeological site is located was purported to be the most heavily bombed area of the entire planet. More ordnance was dropped there in the 1960s and 1970s that the Allied threw on the Germans during World War II. I had even read that bombers, returning from their usual missions, would release their excess bombs at random before returning to their home bases. Truly mind-boggling and thoughtless mayhem, paid for courtesy of American tax dollars thanks to our barbarian military leaders.
The Plain of Jars is so named because of the huge stone “jars” that dot the landscape of this high plateau of eastern Laos. No one knows who created these stone monuments, since rock cannot be dated. Human remains dating over a thousand years ago have been found in some of them, but scientists cannot say for certain that these were placed there by the builders or by a later populace.
The US State Department still placed warnings on their travel web site, proclaiming the region off-limits due to a few bandit attacks that had occurred some years previously, where disgruntled Hmong tribespeople had bushwhacked some tourist vans and killed the occupants. One can’t really blame the perpetrators. The hill people are looked down on by lowland residents all over Southeast Asia, and in a particularly heartless move, the Lao government had engaged in a scheme of relocation of these harmless folk, uprooting them from their remote mountain homes and resettling them along the roads, the better to control their movements and desire to live freely, unmolested by the central government, which was (and is) much more interested in dictating rules to the mountain people than leaving them alone.
But people in Luang Prabang assured us that the road was now safe. We arranged with a local travel agency to hire a van for the trip. The kind owner tried to find some other passengers to split the fare with us, but the Plain of Jars is not on most tourists’ itineraries, due to its remoteness and dicey reputation not only as a dangerous journey, but also because of the huge amount of unexploded bombs and booby traps that lie about the countryside like so many death-inducing party favors. One imagines that Afghanistan and Iraq will have similar issues for decades to come.
So Diana and I had this great, new luxury van to ourselves. The cost, which I bargained with the agency owner, was not that pricey, and he explained to me that a significant portion of the expense was because of the kickbacks he was obliged to pay to government officials, which goes to show that “communism” is no less subject to corruption and graft than capitalism. Nice to know that differing systems of government share the same pitfalls of human nature.
The highway, French-built and remarkably sound, passed through beautiful mountain scenery and villages that clung to ravines and hilltops.
23) Riverside village en route to the Plain of Jars
24) Balsa rafts in the river; similar craft to those of the South American Amazon
25) Hill town
We climbed into the mountains and were treated to spectacular landscapes of the rugged terrain that makes up central Laos. At the end of the day we arrived in Phonsavan, a new and nondescript town that serves as the local center of government. But the Plain of Jars was close, and we wasted no time visiting several of the sites that have been cleared of bombs and other wartime hazards. Markers clearly warned visitors to stay on the paths.
26) Warning signs at one of the sites
The Plain of Jars ranks as one of the world’s great mysteries. Words cannot do justice to the strangeness of these ancient artifacts. We stopped at three sites, and even got to slog through some rice paddies en route to the jars, all the while noting the ubiquitous bomb craters that pockmarked the land.
27) Bomb crater now used as fish pond
28) Walking through a rice paddy, watching for incoming from the treeline
Apparently the American pilots used the archeological sites as targets during the war. Kind of reminds me of the Taliban in Bamiyan. Here is one site that was bombed, and the smashed jars were everywhere.
29), 30) The jars
But plenty of them are still intact, some of which weigh many tons. The quarries are many kilometers from where they were placed; moving them would have been a chore.
31) The biggest one of all
32) The limestone formation in the background contains a cave. During the war Lao civilians took refuge here during a bombing raid; an American rocket was fired directly into this cave and dozens were killed
33) A jar interior
34) This collection escaped relatively unscathed
We ended our trip to the Plain of Jars in a town that was carpet-bombed by the Americans. Only this Buddha survived as the temple around it was leveled. The statue is now considered something of a miraculous object.
35) After the bombs: the surviving Buddha
A fitting end to a trip that left us with a lot to think about, both in terms of antiquity’s wonders and the horrors of the recent past. I felt embarrassed to be a North American during our visit and was continually astounded by the grace and hospitality of the Lao people who have suffered so much at the hands of the “democratic and free” World.