Writing From Afar
Phonsavan, Xiang Khouang province, Laos
Welcome to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, where Harvard Square meets Southeast Asia and the hippie hipster 20something backpackers outnumber the local population 15:1. Those were the numbers, anyway, up in Luang Prabang, former capital and French colonial town — “the nation’s most enchanting city,” assuming you gauge enchantment by volume of dreadlocks, ankle beads and oversize camping shorts. “Duuude, are those, like, monks?” Wandering the wats and markets there, I felt shamefully elderly at 37.
And let us never speak of the three-hour speedboat ride I endured between Luang Prabang and the upriver town of Pak Beng. For the equivalent of about $10 you can strap yourself into what looks like a rural shrimper’s skiff — a long, shallow canoe with room for about eight people — except bolted to the rear end is a colossal (and completely unmuffler-ed) 16-valve Toyota engine. The rocket boats are a popular way to get around, but rumors speak of a wipeout rate (read: fatal crash) approaching one per month.
No, that’s not idyllic riverine greenery you see passing at ungodly velocity before your eyes, it’s your life. It was still a better option, or so I thought, than the tourist ferry, which is basically a diesel-powered cargo boat lucky to pull 10 knots. I’ll rank my Mekong sleigh ride among the four or five most ridiculously dangerous endeavors I’ve ever undertaken. It joins a host of similar waterborne misfortunes on my growing list of ill-advised travel adventures: the Zambezi (multiple rollovers in grade 5 rapids), the Niger (lost after dark with a drunken boatman), and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake (overbooked speedboat snagged on sandbar). Visitors here are known to shun the national airline, Lao Aviation, but don’t mind dodging water buffalo and floating clots of bamboo at 70 kilometers per hour.
I’ve seen a few signs in town that call Laos “the Land of a Million Elephants.” And so I started thinking: That’s a lot of elephants. There are only 5 million people in Laos, so that’s one elephant for every five people, or, roughly, one elephant per family.
However, other signs and brochures say this is “the Land of a Million Smiles.” So now I’m confused. Do you think that means only one in five Lao people are smiling, which doesn’t sound like a happy place at all, or that all of the elephants are smiling? And if so, why are they smiling?
That’s the trouble with travel, see: It brings up more questions than it answers, most of them idiotic.
Meanwhile, Lonely Planet tells me there are hardly a few thousand elephants in the entire country, never mind a million. Therefore somebody’s lying, and we must assume that if there aren’t really a million elephants in Laos, there probably aren’t a million smiles either. Thus far I’ll vouch for one in 10 Lao exhibiting anything close to a good mood, the vast majority being busy with more important things and doing what they need to do: sell overpriced tours and curios to hemped-out kids from Cambridge and Berkeley.
The backpacker packs thin out once you reach Phonsavan, a dun-colored, windswept city near the famous Plain of Jars. The plain takes its name from the mysterious fields of megalithic pots, thought to be funerary urns from a vanished civilization, that mark the rolling hills in several locations. The largest jar weighs nearly six tons.
The wide, dusty boulevards give Phonsavan a sort of Wild West feel — part Southeast Asia, part Oklahoma frontier town. Meanwhile the hasty ramshackle buildings speak to a wretched past, for Phonsavan, along with countless smaller hamlets here in the Xiang Khouang province, was completely obliterated during the CIA’s infamous Secret War of the 1960s and 1970s.
Beginning in 1964, U.S. forces spent the next nine years engaged in round-the-clock airstrikes over Laos. With more than 2 million tons of bombs dropped onto its soil, Laos became the most heavily bombed nation, per capita, in the history of warfare. Up to 40 percent of the munitions failed to explode, making Laos — and the Xiang Khouang region especially — perhaps the planet’s most deadly ground zero of unexploded ordnance (UX0), with thousands of civilians killed since the 1973 cease-fire. A body count that continues to rise.
Relics of war are everywhere — the tools of battle enterprisingly recycled into everything from flower boxes to fences. The local villages are a sort of munitions theme park — breakfast cooked over a charcoal-filled cluster bomb canister, kids playing with encrusted old mortars and RPGs — while one of the country’s most arresting sights is that of huts and shacks built on corner posts made from cluster casings.
The valleys around Phonsavan are pocked with craters. In the rainy season, the locals use the craters to catch swallows. This afternoon I had lunch at the bottom of one, listening to war stories and eating deep-fried pumpkin dumplings, the upthrown earthen rim blocking the wind.