Luang Prabang. It has rhyme and rhythm in its very name.
The most gorgeous, and UNESCO World Heritage listed, laid back old royal capital of Laos was definitely the best place to start our Laos travel. We hadn't made more than a draft plan of how we were going to arrive from Bangkok, how we were going to get around, or even exactly when we were going to leave, but everything fell in to place once we took a ridiculously cheap Air Asia flight to Luang Prabang and fell under her spell.
Strolling the ancient cities most "un Asian" like streets and riverside boulevards was an absolute pleasure thanks to French colonisation. No gaping pavement holes, no uneven concrete, no trip and fall risks, just beautiful old brick paving that the Laotians sweep and hose clean. Every meal we took "al fresco", people or river watching, and sinking further into the relaxed vibe of Luang Prabang.
We gave a little back, too, in Luang Prabang. We read about "Big Brother Mouse", a crusade by a Laos born American Publisher to enhance literacy by bringing reading for pleasure to Laotian children. Prior to 2003 there were no story books for children in the Laos language, only school text books. Imagine! Now through this, privately run, publishing initiative "book parties" are held in remote villages where children can learn about books, have them read to them, and books are given to the teachers of the schools. Big Brother Mouse also runs English conversation practice and asks for volunteers. For three evenings we attended the two-hour sessions and absolutely loved talking with such motivated teens, young adults and novice monks. It opened our eyes to how hard the English language is to learn.
An information Centre on UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) in Luang Prabang shocked us. The devastation wrought on the country by the Vietnam war is astounding. More bombs were dropped by USA on Laos (2 million tonnes) than were ever dropped in all of World War Two by both sides and it wasn't even Laos' war! The untangling of the results of this atrocity is a mammoth task as so much UXO remains and constantly blows up unexpectedly, maiming and killing. It has been labelled the secret war.
What further exacerbates the problem is that in the heavily bombed areas, the people are subsistence farmers and any money that can be gained from the salvaging of bomb scrap metal makes it seem worth the risk of digging up unexploded bombs and hoping they won't go off. An estimated 80 million cluster bombs did not explode on impact. Most of these are orange and the size of a cricket ball. Just a perfect plaything for a child who doesn't know about bombs. It is estimated at the current rate of locating and removing of UXO, it will take up to another 100 years before Laos is free from the risk of being blown up by bombs or agent orange contamination, dropped by the USA some 50 years ago.
Our next stop in Laos, after an arduous 7 hour local bus trip, was Phonosaven.
We came to see the archaeological riddle that is the Plain of Jars but found also first-hand evidence of the pain and scars to the landscape and people from UXO.
The Plain of Jars sites are littered with thousands of huge stone jars thought to have been there since 500 BC. Not much is known about them but a French researcher in 1930 concluded they were associated with prehistoric burial practices. Tragically this area was heavily bombed by the United States between 1964 and 1973, and in looking at the sites we are urged to be mindful to only walk on the path. Active searching for UXO was being carried out on a nearby hill when we were viewing the jars and one pathway we took to a burial cave had only been cleared of bombs three weeks before!
Bomb craters pock the landscape and it is common to see people with limbs missing and horrific burn scars.
Our final city to visit in Laos is the current capital Vientiane. After a 9 hour bus ride (strangely, a sleeping bus in the day time!) we knocked back the taxi's high price quotes and hopped on a "sorngtaaou" a kind of open truck/bus thinking we would soon be at our hotel. Two hours of driving around dropping parcels and people and we still weren't at our hotel and it became clear the driver didn't even know where it was. We got off, and, with our backpacks hoisted walked 3 & ½ kilometres asking along the way until we finally found our hotel. People were very helpful, with one girl googling it and then taking my phone to take a picture of her google map. (we didn't have internet working ourselves).
Later, showered, refreshed and enjoying a fabulous meal with a (hard to find anywhere in Asia) decent red wine at "Tyson's Kitchen", we got into conversation with the Canadian born owner, whose parents had fled Laos during the 70's. Telling our transport story, he said transport here in Laos is run by the tuk-tuk mafia. Love that!
Our last day in Laos was spent relaxing with a lazy lunch overlooking the Mekong River with a litre size jug cocktail to share, then final Laos massages to spend our last kip (local money).
Laos is a beautiful country with beautiful gentle people. It's a place that makes you feel like you need to come back, check on it, see how it is doing. Have they made progress with UXO removal? How is Big Brother Mouse doing with the book program and English conversation programme? I think we will come back one day.