Monday, February 18, 2013

To Phonsavanh and back again

Wednesday 13 – Friday 15 February

Phonsavanh is about 250 km south east of Luang Prabang, but the journey there was long and tedious. It took about 9 hours on a long and winding road through some very steep country. On the way we passed through a number of villages, many occupied by the Hmong people. They are strong believers in the spirit world, have a large thatched overhang at the door to keep out evil spirits, and live their life simply in the mountains. They do have an interesting traditional musical instrument with tuned bamboo pipes and they sell many of these for significant sums to members of the Hmong communities now living in USA.
Some of the steep country we travelled through

Local Hmong man playing their traditional musical instrument

The villagers who inhabit this mountain area rely heavily on agriculture and the passing tourist trade for their income. A few enterprising people have installed western style flushing toilets for tourists, but most are Lao style – stand and squat if you are female. Pay to use 2000 kip, or 50c US – not much really, as they have to cart water.

Back to agriculture, away from the necessities of a travelling lifestyle. The majority of farms rely on a shifting agriculture, slashing and burning in an attempt to maintain soil fertility. They grow rice, corn, pineapples and bananas among other things. The land is extremely steep, and the houses cling precariously to a small area immediately adjacent to the road. Some more affluent families have homes made of concrete, but most are timber, gradually replacing traditional bamboo and thatch homes. Their lifestyle is vastly different from urban dwellers with considerably fewer creature comforts. Many have television, acquired by satellite, and mobile phone coverage is good but I’m unsure how many have phones.
Children carting water during their lunch break from school

Three small girls play pick up sticks, while the eldest looks after her baby brother on her back. Their mother is nearby preparing roof thatch

The road along which the mountain people live is extremely winding and dangerous, inducing a degree of seediness in many of the group. We were very fortunate with our coach driver who did an excellent job. We didn’t dwell too much on the baldness of our tyres though. We passed one vehicle that wasn’t so lucky. A Toyota Hilux had gone down the mountainside and rolled his vehicle, the rescue totally blocking the road for over an hour. Without too much discussion we all agreed it was the most interesting event of the 3 day trip.
Vehicle recovery from the side of a steep hillside
Our reason for undertaking this trip was to see the Plain of Jars, an area which  has hundreds of very old stone jars, some over 3 metres high. Their purpose is not fully understood, but their most likely use was for burials. Many of these jars were destroyed by US bombing in the Indo China War of the 1970s.
In front of the largest jar

Guys fooling around in the jars

Laos became the most heavily bombed country in the world, a situation not fully realised or recognised until recent years. Other buildings bombed at this time include the hospital and the temple in the old city of Phonsavanh.
A very small collection of unexploded ordnance found locally

Remains of the bombed hospital

Remains of the bombed temple

Bomb relics abound in Laos, and MAG (Mines Advisory Group) is still removing unexploded ordnance. One village which has utilised the bomb debris is the “Spoon Maker’s Village”. Here families smelt aluminium and create spoons and other items. This village also has a whiskey  distillery, but at 35% alcohol it’s a fiery brew.
Spoon maker's village sign
On our return journey we also passed by a small but fairly attractive lake, and visited a cave called “Buddha Cave”, which in typical fashion contained a selection of large and small Buddhas. This cave was also used as a hospital during war time.
Some of the artifacts inside the Buddha Cave

A small local lake, which would have been more attractive if the sun was shining

Our return trip took almost 10 hours and everyone was fairly tired on our return to our lovely Luang Prabang hotel.

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