The mysterious Plain of Jars
The last deed in Vang Vieng was to have my shoes repair that had been destroyed by the rubbish trek in Cambodia. The job the guy in Vang Vieng did seemed to be really good, but I decided then that Asians now have absolutely no comprehension of the wealth of westerners. Almost the whole time in Asia people have treated us like cash machines; prices are often inflated for us, although in China and Vietnam they were prepared to drop their prices a lot (I believe more-or-less to local prices) but in Cambodia, especially, and also Laos the people seem to be too racist: whites pay more. I suppose they just think we have unending reserves of cash. This shoe repair was a perfect example of this: the first price the guy suggested for the repair was more than the original price I paid for the shoes brand new!They really think that we are infinitely wealthy and we pay a fortune for everything. Clearly they don't know about the modern realities of closing down sales and Primark! Sooner or later they'll realise that the West is getting poorer, while prices have been rising in the East, so the tourist industry will be badly hit... unless the Chinese replace all of the westerers, which seems a distinct possibility. In the end, I agreed to be extorted out of 60% of the original price of the shoes. He promised to do a good job and said if I didn't like it I didn't need to pay; presumably he would then sell my shoes to someone else instead. Maybe I should have told him to forget it, but it seemed to be the lowest he was prepared to go and I didn't think I'd be able to buy such a good pair of shoes as cheaply, although I hadn't checked any prices, so who knows? He did do a good job and, although I'd paid for over half my shoes twice now, I felt happy to have extended their lives and preserved resources.
Clouds, water, and buffalo
We then spent the most of the day on an epic of a bus journey. The road was through very mountainous terrain, so wound left and right an awful lot, as well as up and down; all very very slowly, which I suppose I should be glad for, but I just wanted it to be over. A Japanese guy near the front of the bus took photos of the, admittedly very nice, scenery for the few bits he stopped his video camera from recording the entire trip. Apart from the hills we were also blessed with the sight of albino buffaloes, which seemed to become more common the higher we went: yellowish white hair over pink skin, which seemed very odd on such huge beasts, better suited to a mouse or something like that.
When we arrived in Phonsavan it seemed to be very cold, so I changed into what seemed necessary: long trousers, long sleeved top over my t-shirt, fleece over that, socks and newly repaired shoes. A search online revealed that the reason it felt so cold was that we were now enduring 26C. Criminally cold! There was almost nothing in the town and all the other tourists confirmed that they were also going on a tour of the Plain of Jars the next morning. Taking inspiration from the dubious source that is the Lonely Planet, we decided to seek dinner out in the place they describe as winning the prize for atmosphere, since it seemed to be sadly lacking in the town. They seemed to be upholding their side of the LP description when we arrived, but were far too drunk to make any food. We sat down next to the bemused guests at the guesthouse, and helped the proprietors and friends polish off their lao-lao, whilst listening to them crooning / playing guitar / playing an Casio keyboard from the 80s, before excusing ourselves in search of food.
Plain of Jars site 1
In the morning we joined a small group of people on a minibus to visit the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars is actually the plains of jars, as there are several archeological sites. We were visiting the imaginatively names PoJ sites 1 to 3. Our guide told us that, once they had finished the UXO clearing work, he hoped that the area would become a UNESCO site and bring far more tourists and their money to the region. This whole region was utterly bombarded by (guess who!) the USA during "the Secret War" which ran for many years without the US public knowing a thing about it, despite (the guide book says) Laos being "the most bombed country in history", (almost) all by the USA.
Searching online for specific reveals that it's "only" per capita that the USA made Laos the most bombed country in history, running sorties on average every eight minutes over nine years! Vietnam wins in absolute bombing apparently... and who was it that dropped those bombs again? It cost the US tax payer about $7 billion, but it's OK as, to pay for the clean-up and training for UXO-clearers the USA has contributed more than $10 million! Anyway, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which kept the North Vietnamese run through this part of Laos, and also here the "Secret Army" (Hmong people playing the part of the CIA funded "contras" in this particular conflict) battled it out with Ho Chi Minh's forces. So most of the area is still considered unsafe for exploration. Even these sites they hope will be endorsed by UNESCO still have narrow "safe" paths marked out, beyond which you are not supposed to tread.
Plain of Jars site 3
Anyway, the Plain of Jar are certainly mysterious, but many of the group felt that they were not worth the epic bus journey out of the way to Phonsavan (and the return journey most of the way we would all have to make). I liked it, but going to all three of the main sites was maybe over-kill. There are apparently a few theories for the purpose of the "jars", but I think the only serious one is that they are funerary urns, although they apparently found no organic material in them, which also means that the 2500 year-old date they give is a bit of a guess. The guide suggested that they may have been used to brew rice wine, which I think was a joke, but it's obvious nonsense anyway. I think collecting water was another suggestion, but I don't know why you would go to that much bother (they are each carved from one single piece of stone), nor why you would then have lids for them (which they all did originally). I'm pretty convinced of the burial theory, as I was reminded of my first year Celtic History and Institutions class at university where we were told of a proto-Celtic group known as the "Urn People" because they buried their dead in urns. Surely this is the same thing, although nobody in Laos seems to have heard of the Urn People. You heard it here first!
How the still works
To break up the monotony of jars, between sites 1 and 2, we went to a village where they made rice whisky (lao-lao), which I found quite interesting, as I have a lingering interest in taking my home-brewing one step further. Disturbingly the guide told me that the don't throw away the first part of the distillate (the "heads") which as I understand is mostly methanol. I bought a litre of it for 10000 kip and hoped it was from somewhere near the middle of the batch. They just poured it into one of the bottles you buy cheap drinking water in, which I loved. During the tour we'd got talking to a fellow Scotsman from Falkirk then Dunfermline and he offered to go halfies on the whisky with me, although nobody else liked the sample we were given, and some people even refused it altogether. Unthinkable! It's actually really nice stuff: sweetish like sake, but much more potent (this one about 50% they reckoned). Between site 2 and 3 we went to see an old Russian tank given to the North Vietnamese then bombed by the US.
That night, some of the tour group met up for food, while others went to see a film about the history of UXOs in Laos at the Mines Advisory Group, but I didn't need any further convincing about the evil of the USA and I didn't want to be made angry, so Davie and I just got stuck into the lao-lao. Unfortunately we got rather too stuck into the lao-lao and between us, with the exception of one small glass to Joanne, we drank the entire thing: one litre of 50% hooch! The next day I had one of the worst hangovers of my life.
Big Davie is a punk
The Happy Couple
on April 2, 2009
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really looks like a Scot, doesn't he?
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