International Writers Magazine:Laos
Mai in Laos.
Travelling down the Mekong for two days in a narrow wooden boat
provides plenty of time to contemplate ones future; I instead listened
to The Doors and imagined I was Captain Benjamin L. Willard on route
to find Colonel Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now.
For hours we saw
no signs of civilization, just dense jungle on each side of the river.
At one point we passed a young boy perched on top of an elephant and
five minutes later we spotted his likely destination. The small riverside
villages are made up of no more than ten timber houses raised up on
stilts built on slopes that roll down to the slow flowing river. From
the banks of the river or in small wooden canoes, young men cast nets;
weighted at the bottom with stones and kept afloat at the top with old
plastic drinks bottles. Now and again Id see them bring them in;
the sparse catch destined for that evenings charcoal grills.
As evening neared on the first day, after seven hours on the river,
we arrived at our stop for the night; Pak Beng. As soon as we disembarked,
the heavens opened. Im not sure whether it was the Pastis Id
managed to procure, the damp post-rain smell of the jungle or the fire-flies
dotted about in the dusk sky, but I felt very content as I sat on the
balcony of our hotel watching the last of the suns rays disappear over
the misty hills that surround the one-street town.
The next morning we were back on the boat. Having exhausted my Doors
collection I moved on to: The Rolling Stones, Cream, Bob Dylan and Love.
All as a means of continuing to feed my Apocalypse Now fantasy. Lucy
followed suit, but being far more cultured, instead read The Heart
of Darkness. I should point out, that we were actually around 1000km
upstream form where Captain Willards journey took place. Rather
than heading from Vietnam into Cambodia we were heading through Laos
to the World Heritage site; Luang Prabang.
Although it doesnt feature in Apocalypse Now, Laos certainly
wasnt free from American interference during the 60s and
70s, in fact, quite the opposite. Determined to prevent North
Vietnamese influence in Laos, and in particular to halt munitions from
flowing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Eastern Laos, the US carried
out the largest sustained aerial bombardment in history. Between 1964
and 1973: 580,344 missions were flown over Laos, 2 million tons of bombs
dropped at a cost of $2.2million per day. Between 30 and 60 people a
year are still killed as a result of the 40% of bombs which failed to
detonate. Whats more, it was all in vain.
In 1975, Kaysone Phomvihane and his comrades emerged from the caves
in Northern Laos, from where they had sheltered form the American bombardment,
and took control creating the Laos Peoples Democratic Republic.
Today, the Party are still in power, however, recognizing
the short-comings of the socialist experiment, they have opened up the
country to allow private enterprise and foreign investment. Despite
this, cronyism is still rife and it is party members and their families
who are best placed to take advantage of the opportunities provided
by free-market capitalism.
the final track of Loves Forever Changes coincided with our
arrival in Luang Prabang. Tired, despite having been sat down all
day, we grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading to our hotel.
Before turning out the lights I decided to peruse the government
issued Accommodating Regulation. I was already aware
of the first couple of rules; for example, rule 1 states that there
is a 12:00am curfew, by which time tourists must be back at their
However, I was intrigued
by rule number 5;
"Do not any drougs, cruambling or bring both women and man which
is not your own husband or wife in the room for make love".
Wondering where I could find "drougs and cruambling" and whether,
if not both, it would be alright to bring one or the other into the
room for make love.
I moved on to rule number 6.
"Do not allow domestic and international tourist bring prostitute
into your accommodation to make sex movies in our room, it is restriction."
With that in mind I drifted off to sleep.
we left our hotel the next morning, I stopped to take in the beauty
of the temple (wat) opposite; its brilliant red roof lit up by the
morning sun. The street was quiet except for the sound of the birds
and an old lady sweeping down the path outside her house. We set
off towards the main part of town and then it happened
shot. He cant have been more than 7 or 8 years old but he
strode towards me with determination in his eyes and a slight grin
on his face, took aim, and pulled the trigger.
In my confusion
I didnt notice the two girls creeping up behind me. However, before
they had a chance to attack, there was a shout from across the street;
"get down!" It was the two Californians we had met on the
boat kitted out with the latest high velocity, rapid action water pistols.
The girls turned round in shock with looks of awe on their faces as
they noticed the weapons. The Americans opened fire and they scattered.
"That was a close call buddy; now clear the god damn street."
So it began; Bpee Mai, Laos New Year. Across Southeast Asia, in
Thailand (Songkran) and Cambodia (Chaul Chnam Thmey) New Year celebrations
were also beginning. The Buddhist New Year celebrations represent a
process of renewal which is preceded by purification. This purification
takes the form of dousing each other in water (hort nam) as a blessing.
Although I was aware of this, I imagined it would be mostly confined
to temples; perhaps only spilling on to the streets to a small extent.
Not so, Monday 14th April marked the start of three days of all out
water carnage. Running battles took place on the streets as truckloads
of locals travelled round town, singing, banging drums and bouncing
the vehicles on which they were crammed. Some were armed with ice-water
and others with cornflower (the purifying properties of which I was
unsure of). Every shop and house had hoses and buckets of water with
which to reload water pistols. There were many casualties. My favourite
were the old American couple who shouted at the locals to stay back
in a vain attempt to stay dry; they were promptly attacked from all
angles. Perhaps the sneakiest combatants were the novice monks who,
upon spying a victim, would hide behind the high walls of their temple
grounds before popping up and soaking the unsuspecting pedestrians below.
Only members of the party were protected from the water
assault. Every so often a police car would speed through the streets,
siren wailing, followed by two police motorcyclists blowing whistles,
who in turn were followed by a party 4x4 or limousine. The
shouting would quieten and water pistols would drop to their owners
sides until the motorcade had passed and then the carnival would resume.
The festivities didnt revolve solely around water fights and drinking.
The highlight of the festival is the nang sangkham parade, when the
golden Prabang holy relic is transferred from the old palace to Vat
May and back again a few days later. Despite the abundant alcohol I
remained sober enough to look out for evidence of the changes that had
taken place since 1975 when the party came to power. It
wasnt particularly difficult to spot the absence of the king who,
as in Thailand, was traditionally seen as the protector of Buddhism
in Laos. In April 1976, the last king, Sisaveng Vatthara had been forced
to abdicate and donate his palace to the state. In March
1977, the ex-king, his wife and two sons disappeared. Having had such
an important role in the parade, as well as the huge cult of personality
that surrounded him (as with Thailand), his absence from proceedings
since 1975 must have been strongly felt. Even 33 years later, it seemed
the largest amount of water was reserved for drenching the floats representing
government departments and their achievements which, unlike the party
members, were not immune. Although highlighting the simplification and
secularisation of the New Year ritual process, the beauty parade was
a particular highlight for me. Beautiful women had been selected form
villages across the country to take part and were resplendent in traditional
After three days, although exhausted, we still found time to indulge
in some of the pleasures that have made Luang Prabang Wanderlust Magazines
City of 2008; the first being the night market. Exceptionally
good quality handicrafts are laid out on mats, illuminated by lanterns
and on sale at very cheap prices. I was embarrassed to see some tourists
haggling over a few pence. We bought a fair bit from the market and
only bartered to the extent that we felt obliged. For me, the wonderful
products represented a fantastic opportunity to inject money into the
local economy. Another opportunity to do so was at the abundant restaurants.
Unfortunately, many seemed to be French owned which, although diverted
some money away from the locals, ensured that the food was exemplary.
Luang Prabang is such a wonderful place, with French colonial buildings,
golden wats and rivers on each side of the towns peninsula but eventually
we had to leave.
We headed by bus down the once perilous route 13, which 10 years ago
was patrolled by bandits who caused the UN to ban personnel from travelling.
Now days the only danger seemed to be the lack of decent air conditioning
winding roads. We spent 3 days in backpackers paradise Vang
Vieng where gap year students divide their time between gulping down
mushroom milkshakes, watching Friends in one of ten bars constantly
showing repeats or tubing down the river. We opted for tubing and it
was a great deal of fun. However, after 3 days I was finding the abundance
of right-on 18 year olds a bit tiring and we headed to Vientiane.
We then flew to Phnom Penh where Im sat; ensconced in the Foreign
Correspondents Club finishing these notes. I shant forget the
people of Laos in a hurry or their relaxed, laidback manner. Practising
Theravada Buddhism means that Laotian people strive to avoid conflict
and stress; I would suggest that anyone wishing to do likewise visit
©Thomas Phipps May 2008
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