Monday, August 30, 2010

The Loop

Curious backpacker word-of-mouth and a mysterious boxed text in our travel guide brought to the Tha Kaek lodge: a ram-shackle backwater accommodation replete with thriving ant colonies and dead millipede carcasses. The only respite from the soaring heat and humidity was a loosely-bolted fan turning above us too slowly to provide adequate air circulation, but just fast enough to be lethal. Nobody sleeps well at the Tha Kaek Lodge.

Indeed, nobody would every sleep here at all were it not the resting place of an enigmatic log book, referenced in all the major travel books. An infamous scrap collection, well-known in Laotian backpacker circles, penned by generations of gap year layabouts, containing up-to-date information and a wealth of unsettling details about Laos’ greatest motor-bike odyssey: The Loop.

The scrapbook alone is worth the trip to Tha Kaek- a multi-volume anthology filled with decades worth of colorful anecdotes describing potholes and what they have done to crummy third-world rental bikes over the ages. Some authors focus on the slippery monsoon conditions, while others recounted forboding tales of Laotian ambulance services.

But alas, all entries raved about the hidden beauty of The Loop. Even the grimmest missives were, paradoxically, filled with glowing eulogies of gorgeous scenery and charming locals. Despite scrape wounds, vehicle repairs, and skidding across uneven pavement, all contributors enthusiastically agreed: The Loop is not to be missed. It is the definitive Laotian experience.

Inspired by the log book, like generations of backpackers before us, Katlijn and I spent a nervous night at the Tha Kaek lodge awaiting our appointment the next day with Mr. Ku, the hotel’s motorbike mechanic.

The Loop: Day 1 Tha Kaek to Dong Lo

According to the scrapbook, Mr. Ku’s most reliable line of motorcycles is the dubiously titled Suzuki "Smash". Leave it up to the Japanese to come up with the brand name "Smash" to market low-end motor bikes. To our dismay, he no longer had any of these left so we had to take a no-name Chinese replacement to the more reputable Smash model.

Ku disappeared into his rusty garden shed and emerged with a dodgy scooter fashioned out of light plastic and an engine just big enough to mow a well-groomed lawn. In a sadly mis-guided effort to save money, Katlijn and I shared one bike together with a backpack, causing it to sag and groan under the strain. Perhaps a tad distastefully, we called our bike "The Chink".

Andrew and the Chink.

Mr. Ku warned us that as soon as we left the hotel premises, nobody could speak English. He gave us a crumpled piece of paper with a short glossary of random Lao terms and some mis-spelled translations, then pointed us in the right direction. We waved goodbye to Mr. Ku, Katlijn gunned the accelerator and The Chink responded with a giddy squeal as we set off to tackle The Loop.

Inconviently just outside of civilization, it occurred to us that we were short on Laotian cash. We desperately emptied the contents of our backpack on the road-side, gathering any remotely plausible scrap of currency we could find. It wasn’t enough. Hoping that we could manage by rationing ourselves to only three bowls of noodles a day, we stubbornly persisted.

Andrew devouring his first of many bowls of beef noodles.

An hour later, we turned East onto Route 8, dubbed by many "the most beautiful highway in the world". Shimmering green rice fields flooded between crevices of the jungle clad karst around us. It was a stunning landscape- carefree and on the road, it filled us with endless possibility. As our diminutive motorbike and its comically oversized payload assailed the winding road, rice workers by the road-side stood up and laughed heartily, yelling out "Sabaid !" as The Chink puttered by.

By nightfall we found ourselves at a humble rice village called Dong Lo. One of the local families was kind enough to let us spend the night with them in their rustic wooden stilt-house. They were exceedingly gracious hosts, building us our own private room out of bed sheets and a mosquito net. For dinner and breakfast they served us the usual Lao staples: sweet sticky rice, eggs, and tea. As we puzzled together over Mr. Ku’s dictionary of totally useless words, we enjoyed a peaceful evening exchanging family pictures and kind smiles over a steady trickle of Lao Lao.

Arriving in Dong Lo
Dong Lo locals working the flooded rice fields.

The Laotian stilt house we stayed at in Dong Lo.

Our gracious host and the meal she prepared for us protected for the night bugs under a net.

Andrew high on too much sticky rice and Lao Lao.

Our cozy bedroom.

The Loop: Day 2. Kong Lo Cave to Lao Sok.

Before continuing, we took a boat ride through the massive Kong Lo caves nearby. It took us nearly an hour to get through on a motor boat before emerging into a spectacular valley on the other side.

On our way back to Route 8 from Dong Lo, we had our first flat tire. Mercifully, this happened at low speed. As I struggled over the mechanics of changing motorcycle tires, we were accosted by a gang of grimy twelve year olds with tool bags. It is a little known fact that the Laotian jungle is teeming with gangs of school children carrying bags of tools. They are a shadowy little people. You’ll never see them, but they’ll find you; ever vigilant- patiently waiting to ambush the odd foreigner in need of a tire change. They are like the Viet-cong of good-samaritans.

Local school gang fixing the Chink.

A small flood washed away the road. A volunteer helped us across in his dugout canoe.

Having had our cheap motorbike repaired by the local toddlers, we decided it was safe enough to continue heading east along route 8. Unbelievably, it just gets prettier the further you drive on it. By the time Route 8 ended, we were motor-biking through a piece of heaven- perhaps it really was the most beautiful highway in the world after all…

Oddly enough, the most beautiful highway in the world ends at a wholly unremarkable town. Lao Sok boasts no similar far-fetched superlative, other than perhaps the world’s highest density of pot-holes. We decided to bounce our bike out of town towards the Vietnam border following curious sign posts promising natural hot springs.

A few miles further, we found a struggling outpost business kept alive by a couple of shady Vietnamese entrepeneurs and their false-advertising. The so-called natural hot spring was, in fact, a dirty bath tub serviced by a rusting tap that bellowed forth alarming metallic groans followed by a light brown dribble, while the "deluxe" bedroom was sparsely decorated with a flimsy cot and a hornet’s nest.

Have you ever tried to take a picture of a gorgeous sunset and had it not turn out right ? In reality, this monsoon sunset lighted the entire sky on fire with an eerie crimson glow that was one of the most unexpected highlights of our world trip. This sad photo, however, does not seem to capture the magic.

We slowly bounced back into Lao Sok and ate dinner at a place actually called "The Only One" restaurant, which (fortunately) also served pretty decent noodles. We were delighted to find out that our hotel would exchange American dollars at a reasonable rate. While at first we thought this would finally be the end to noodles three times a day, it turned out that Mr. Ku’s list of food translations only contained the single entry "noodles" and we didn’t know how to order anything else. I consoled myself with some Beer Lao and a luke-warm bath to cap the night.

The Loop: Day 3 Lak Sao – Yongalaat

We got up early the next morning, fueled up with an extra bowl of noodles, and left the cratered town of Lao Sok heading south along the dreaded route 8E. Nothing like its predecessor, 8E features prominently in the log book as the route’s most slippery highway. It isn’t really a highway at all, but rather a continuous undulation of pot holes making its way through the jungle. Though frequent road construction and rainy conditions often turned 8E into a virtual motor-cross, The Chink handled the terrain beautifully.

A spot of charades and a few mock chicken clucks earned us an omelet at a local road-side hole-in-the-wall. Over lunch and a cup of 3-in-1 coffee mix, we watched nervously as the monsoons rumbled over us. The subsequent downpour more or less washed away what little road was left of the 8E. Several hours later, our sore and muddy asses sputtered into Yongalaat: a charmless backwater way out in the Laotian sticks populated by a drunk noodle hawker and a hotelier to service our only affordable needs.

The monsoons rumbling over the jungle towards us. Monsoons are a natural weather phenomenon caused by an extreme temperature difference between the land and sea during the summer months. The hotter land creates a low pressure zone bringing in moist air from the ocean. Nearby mountains lift this most air resulting in exceptionally heavy percipitation. It is also the worst time of the year to ride a motor bike through the jungle.

Though humble and remote, the spectacularly crusty Yongalaat Inn has left its own unfortunate imprint on my travel memories. Katlijn and I spent a restless night fully clothed, with our shoes on, and our socks rolled up over our pant legs trying to ignore the faint but distinct shuffling of the various over-sized jungle bugs scurrying about the bedroom floor below us.

The Loop: Day 4

Happy to leave the Yongalaat Inn, we got an early start the next morning. We continued south along the 8E. After a particularly nasty spot of road construction, we were happy to find a paved road leading west all the way back to Tha Kaek.

With the sun shining on our backs and a decent size town with French food waiting ahead of us, a surge of euphoria washed over us. We stopped at a few "off-the-beaten-path" attractions along the way, which (in all honesty) probably should remain that way. The swimming hole our guide book briefly referred to was a swamp, while the "bat" and "Buddha" caves were a breeding ground for mosquitoes and leeches respectively. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful day and there is nothing more satisfying than wind in your face as you motor bike through a gorgeous and foreign countryside.

By late afternoon, we waved a fond farewell to The Chink, thanked Mr. Ku for his help, and soothed our pot-hole-weary-saddle-sore with a pleasant stroll along the Mekong among the old French colonial buildings. Having completed The Loop we were entitled to our very own boastful entry into the Log Book complete with impossible superlatives and just enough danger to keep the legend alive. It really is the definitive Laotian experience.

Needless to say, we didn’t spend another night at the Tha Kaek lounge. Not far away we upgraded to a nearby hotel that catered Laotian barbecue room service. A massive monsoon thunderstorm rendered the city without electricity. After four days of noodles, our celebratory candle-light "We survived the loop" barbecue dinner will likely be one of the best in our lifetimes.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vientiane Ear Ache

When I went to University, there was a girl who lived in my residence with freckles and brown hair. She never said much , preferring instead to haunt the halls with a permanently forlorn look on her face. She was utterly forgettable, neither especially kind nor fun to be around. In fact, I am quite certain she would have been lost forever in the jumble of my college memories except that one day she over-heard me complain bitterly about an ear-ache. Quite suddenly, she awoke from her brooding gloom, walked across the room and stared at me unsympathetically. With a deep frown, while unleashing the mother of all sighs, she announced:

"Ear aches are a real bitch."

Perhaps she had once said something else to me, but I can't for the life of me recall what. She was a girl of few words, but it was clear to me then that those select few utterances she permitted herself to make, were statements full of deep and penetrating truth. I can think of nobody in the world more qualified than her to put forth this insight, and with such forcefully cogent prose. For surely there is no common ailment more soul-destroying than a bad ear-ache.

It is not often in my life that I get an ear ache, but whenever I do, I am doomed forever to think of her. And so, as I sat in Vientiane, the gloriously understated capital of the forgotten backwater of Laos, nursing a throbbing ear, a cold coffee, and a week-old Bangkok Post newspaper, my thoughts turned, once again, to that poor girl.

This particular infection found its way into my outer ear after penetrating an immune system devastated by the combined forces of a day-long white water kayaking trip, a spot of cliff jumping, and a miserable four-hour ride through the monsoons in the back of a "Laotian mini-van": basically a second-hand tuk-tuk covered in a dirty bed sheet- an arrangement that is about as water-resistant as it sounds.

Katlijn, shivering in the rain, as we kayaked south through the rapids towards the capital.

Pronounced "Wieng Chan" by the locals, and we can thank the French for the abominable transliteration, "Vientiane" is the curious anti-capital of Laos. Paradoxically mixing a small-town easy-going ambiance, with a worldly array of influences spanning Lao people, Buddhist monks, French food, Vietnamese businessmen, American music, and Soviet-era communist propaganda, it is apparently one of the fastest growing cities in Asia. This tumultuous cultural mix and chaotic growth into a capitalist future, however, felt somehow distant and unimportant strolling down its pleasant tree-lined boulevards devoid of any trace of hustle or bustle. Either that, or my swollen ear canal had rendered me half deaf.

Katlijn spots perhaps the country's only decent hog on the streets of Vientiane.

Unable to find the Australian clinic described in our guide book as the only viable alternative to an airplane ticket for Bangkok, I had to come to grips with the daunting prospect of having my ear examined in a third-world medical facility. Vientiane's city hospital lived up to its reputation: a colourless 1960s communist-inspired cement building; its unkept floor sparsely haunted by a sordid variety of bandaged patients and creepy medical gadgets. We found our way through the dimly lit halls to their top ear and throat specialist: a short Laotian chain-smoker with a faint French accent he must have picked up in medical school. Ignoring the "No smoking" sign posted above his head, he lit up a cigarette and motioned me inside.

Through the thick carcinogenic mist that shrouded his tiny office, I could make out a cluttered desk piled with out-dated French medical journals and a single anatomical ear poster festering off the back wall. As he examined me, I heard him whisper faintly into my swollen ear "oh... mon dieu mon dieu mon dieu mon dieu..." punctuated by an impressed whistle.

He quickly popped in front of me, and exclaimed with eagerness "we see what we can do, non ?" With that, he put his cigarette down, dived behind his desk, and began rummaging frantically through the drawers. Moments later, he popped back in front of me with a long rusty rod hooked up to a large retro electronic control system, and a turkey baster.

"We start with this, non ?"

With an odd surge of relief, I saw him motion towards the turkey baster rather than the rusty rod. Only in Laos could the prospect of having your infection treated with a harmless kitchen implement be interpreted as good news. Regardless of whether or not my ear actually benefited from a good basting, certainly the antibiotics he gave me afterwards proved effective.

Happy to have survived another Laotian medical appointment and feeling myself finally on the road to recovery, Katlijn and I celebrated that evening in one of Vientiane's fine restaurants. Shortly after the second world war, in a master stroke of utter genius, the Laotians kicked out all the French people in their country but kept their French cuisine. Perhaps not surprisingly, the same cannot be said of American fast-food franchises which are now banned in most parts of Communist Indochina. This, of course, is all good news: it might be possible to find superior French food in Paris, but only here could you enjoy it for the cost of a happy meal. Dollar for dollar, Vientiane is certainly one of the world's finest gastronomical centers.

I sank my teeth into a supremely grilled salmon bathed in mustard sauce. Within moments, my ear ache seemed to have faded away, and along with it, that poor freckled girl from my dorm was once again banished to a remote place in my distant memory.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Vang Vieng In the tube

Katlijn grimaced when the old crone offered to take her empty plastic lychee bag and throw it out the window. Chucking one another's trash into the country-side is both socially approved and a Laotian birth-right. The crone eyed my empty Styrofoam curry box curiously, completely unable to fathom why we insisted on carrying smelly junk all over her country on our vacation.

"LAOS… HAS… NO… GARBAGE… CANS,” I tried to explain. She looked at me slightly amused and slightly sad- the way I suspect she might look at her local village idiot. I opened my backpack, “YOU… SEE ? MY… BACKPACK… IS… FULL… OF… GARBAGE!”

Astounded by my bizarre other-worldly mannerisms, she re-doubled her efforts to unload my garbage onto the highway. For several hours, the crone and I locked horns in a battle of will as I guarded my Styrofoam curry box, sometimes with force, from the old crone’s anxious littering hands. Fortunately, by the time we had arrived in Vang Vieng, she had finally learned to accept my obvious lunacy and was snoring soundly my shoulder.

Peering outside the confines of our musty bus, it was clear that we had arrived in a stunningly beautiful part of the world. A panorama of imposing limestone cliffs shrouded in the soft green camouflage of jungle growth, while the Nam Song river wound its way through the karsty portrait. Outside, I could see restaurants serving pesto pizza, happy backpackers milling about, and cheap guest houses boasting air conditioners, hot showers, and even tiny waste-paper baskets.

I pried the old crone off my shoulder, grabbed my Styrofoam curry box, and set off into paradise.

Vang Vieng amid the jungle.

It doesn’t take more than a few hours for Vang Vieng’s superficial charms to fade into distant memory. Contrasting harshly with the idyllic landscape is a sprawl of cheesy bars serving under-dressed foreign girls curiously potent “happy” meals, while brain-washing them with an arrangement of clunky television screens each running a different Friends re-run at full volume. Laotian Pesto is in fact a disgusting blend of spinach and ketchup, and the backpackers weren’t happy at all, they were stoned. This place wasn’t paradise, it was a strange and unnerving Kafka-esque dystopia populated entirely by hippy freaks and college drop-outs.

Hoping to escape this disturbing reality, Katlijn and I met up with a local guide for a tour of the country side. Like most Laotians we met, Phose cheerfully guided us into the steep slippery slog that is Laotian jungle trekking, inexplicably oblivious to the various hazards this might entail. He brought us to what he called the “Nam Song river suspension bridge”: a dangerously dilapidated crossing high above the Nam Song river cobbled out of loose cables and a sparse smattering of slippery bamboo strips. Unable to comprehend our concerns, Phose dexterously tip-toed his way across.

To my surprise, Katlijn threw caution to the wind and took a few courageous steps towards the nearest length of water-logged bamboo before emphatically declaring this endeavor unreasonably dangerous.

A group Laotian toddlers giggled mercilessly at Katlijn as she desperately negotiated the cable’s precarious sag. They gingerly swung around her and skipped across in their thonged feet. Moments later, their pregnant mother lumbered behind, murmured an apology, then meekly made her way across leaving Katlijn dangling sheepishly in her wake.

“Break your bones not possible,” Phose refrained with an astonishing sincerity. He lit up a fag and began bouncing on the bridge. To the frustration of our guide, and the great amusement of the local villagers, we found a kayak and paddled to the other side.

The Nam Song River suspension bridge.

Phose leads us between giant karst formations deep into the Laotian jungle.

A community of Laotian farmers crosses the Nam Song suspension bridge regularly to access their wild rice fields. With an amazing machine-like accuracy, they manage to throw grains of rice into tiny holes in the ground without bending over.

Trekking through rivers and mud.

A picturesque jungle farm where Phose roasts us up a well-deserved lunch.

Butterflies in the jungle.

Laotian karst is home to some of the world's best spelunking. Many of the caves, like this one, are best explored in swimming trunks.

After a thoroughly muddy but enjoyable romp through the gorgeous jungle, we continued our tour by kayak down the Nam Song River. Soon, Vang Vieng’s strange hippy world announced itself once again with an array of bars setup along the river in thatched stilt huts, each of them selling ridiculously cheap booze to a goateed clientele drifting languidly down-river on tractor tubes. Long-haired yahoos were swinging high over the river from ropes, then jumping off with a reckless abandon proportional to the number of consumed lao lao shots and doobies.

Typical Vang Vieng river bar.

Katlijn, shortly after polishing off a Vodka Bucket.

Andrew, with bucket, considering the rope swing.

By nightfall, in a drunken stupor watching three simultaneous “Family Guy” re-runs, Katlijn and I had reached a new cultural low in our world travelling experience, shamefully assimilated into the happy-shake-for-breakfast universe of Vang Vieng.

It's actually kind of fun.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Other Thirty Percent

A bus ride through the gorgeous and rugged juggle hills is the quintessential Laos experience. A rusty ‘nam-era bus. Broken windows and the haze of road dust they let in. A crowd of backpackers piled in the back lazing off crooked seat backs and stacks of rice bags. An Asian bus driver that, paradoxically, drives in an almost sensible laid-back manner. Regular coffee breaks. Communities of stilt houses and thatched roofs rolling slowly by. Their tribal residents decorated in an other-worldly array of colors, styles, and names: The Black Hmong, the Red Dzao, the Akha. This is Indochina in low gear.

Our bus turned a corner, lumbered quietly down a dirt road, and squeaked to slow halt. Its crusty payload of international backpackers hesitated and blinked their eyes before squirming out from between their rice sacks and torn seat cushions. In the sunny quiet, we slowly and deliberately set about the solemn ceremony of unloading our enormous luggage, mounting up, and setting off in small teams to uncover the cheapest hotel deal in town and brag about our ruthless providence later.

Katlijn and I teamed up with an Israeli ex-fighter jet pilot and a tattooed Aussie beach enthusiast- typical backpacker circuit company. As we explored the wanting hotel scene, we remarked to each other how amazingly easy backpackers could go about their business here. In other parts of Asia, our bus would have been surrounded by a sea of slippery touts and over-eager hoteliers. They’d not only unload our bags for us, they’d run off with them to their hostels cleverly forcing us to take up chase. Not in Laos. It seemed the local business community couldn’t be bothered badgering backpackers. Sure, they’d make a token effort to rip us off, but it was done in such a half-ass lazy manner and with so much free lao-lao, that we’d feel almost obligated to give them our money.

There isn’t much reason to come to a place like Phonsavan. Indeed, very little reason at all. Nevertheless, I forced Katlijn to accompany me all the way out here just so I could witness first-hand their main tourist attraction: a grassy field full of broken stone jars called, rather uninspiringly, “The Plain of Jars”. Imagine that ! A plain of… jars ! Of all things ! I found that interesting. There is this place, deep in the farthest reaches of Asia’s mystical backyard, witnessed each day by only a handful of dusty backpackers who actually have the time for this sort of thing, full of giant stone jars so old they pre-date the birth of Christ by more than 1000 years. Oddly, these jars are found nowhere else but here, their extinct society would have devoted massive amounts of resources to their construction, and archaeologists haven’t the foggiest inkling what they are for. That’s incredible ! How can it be that everyone knows Stonehenge, but nobody has even heard of Laos’ giant jars ?

Several theories have been proposed to explain the origin of the plain of jars. The Akha people believe the stone jars were used to ferment lao-lao rice wine, while archaeologists think they may be part of an ancient burial ritual.

A german backpacker puts forth a third alternative.

As we wandered happily about the mysterious plain of jars, we began to notice, for the first time, the ubiquitous presence of the following signs posted all over Laos:

And so, I think this is as good a time as any, to finally broach the topic. After all, I know what you are thinking: all these colorful tribal people and stone jars are fine… but, really, doesn’t Laos have something to do with the Vietnam War ? Come to think of it, if it’s the “Vietnam” War what did “Laos” and “Cambodia” have to do with it at all ? And if this was part of the “cold” war, why all the napalm ? And was it a “conflict” or a “war” and what’s the difference ?

If you ever find yourself asking questions like these, then you are probably a closet Vietnam War ignoramus and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. After all, between all the double-speak that developed to explain the unthinkable and all the stoned journalists telling the story, it isn’t surprising nobody really understands what happened anymore. However, the details of Laos’ tragic story seems to occupy a particularly nebulous realm in the already foggy place of the American-Vietnam psyche.

Vietnam era bombies: small clusters of metal balls packed together in clay and gunpowder. Thousands of these were dropped at a time to engulf several football fields of area in a deadly spray of shrapnel.

Despite all the confusion, the story line is very simple. The infamous “domino theory” was coined by John F. Kennedy to garner popular support for his increasingly hawkish interpretation of events in Laos, not Vietnam. These comments were made in response to political events developing in favor of a communist-inspired resistance government called the Pathet Lao. To prevent further escalation, a 14-nation conference was held to create the Geneva Accord of 1962 which strictly forbid the presence of foreign military in Laos. The tragic story is that everybody violated this accord for a very long time.

Bomber releasing bombies over a target.

It would be unseemly to announce in public the wanton dismissal of a major international agreement, so the war was conducted in secret. The “Secret War” lasted nine years and involved foreign superpowers (America, China, USSR) playing off native Laotian pawns (Thai-Hmong tribal groups and the Pathet Lao) against one another, while committing air support and ground troops of their own. The war was such an embarrassing secret that the name of the country was banished from all official communications; participants darkly referred to activities in Laos as “the other theater”. Pilots directly involved in the bombing, were asked to dress in civilian clothes so they could not be traced back to the United States. Since the war was in violation of a Geneva accord anyhow, it made sense to ignore the rest of the international rules of engagements while they were at it and what happened in “the other theater” was so horrible it had to be obscured in a confusing array of nebulous euphemisms forever. However, I will refrain here from the stylized diction of the stoned ‘nam embedded journalist, and stick with the facts:

  • On average, one planeload of bombs was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years at a cost of 2 million US dollars per day.

  • Between 1964-1968, nearly half a million tons of ordnance and 200,000 gallons of agent orange had been let loose on the country. At about this time, bombing was halted in Vietnam increasing the available air power to drum Laos.

  • By the war’s end, approximately 1.9 million tons of ordinance had been dropped on Laos, or over half a ton of explosives for every man, woman and child living in Laos.

  • On a per-capita basis, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare.

During the secret war, seventy-percent of the ordinance detonated successfully. In addition to an astonishing inefficiency, this figure highlights another issue: what about the other thirty percent ? And finally, brings us back to those signs and the subject of this post.

The short answer is that it has been re-integrated back into the local economy. True, some of it still goes off from time to time when a decades-old bomb sunk in the muddy rice fields meets a farmer’s plough or a tourist’s hiking boot; Laos is no place to wander off the beaten path. However, the vast majority of it is meticulously recovered and sold-off as scrap-metal for such mundane items as village flower pots, kitchen ladles, and thatched-roof supports. There were so many bombs dropped on such a poor country, that the left-over ordinance has become a commonplace commodity occupying the most mundane and banal items of daily village life. The locals barely notice that their tulips are growing out of bullet-ridden army helmets and that their families live in homes curiously cobbled together by spent artillery shells.

An abandoned soviet tank in Laos has since been picked clean by scavengers and resold as scrap-metal.

House support, fence, and herb-garden built out of spent artillery shells and bomb cartridges.

In addition to an increase in demand from American journalists and GIs, a newly-formed landscape of bomb craters created a boom for the local opium and heroine industry. Runoff collected in the bomb craters provided a perfect nursery for growing opium poppies. Poppies were grown in these bomb craters long after the war until the industry was made illegal in Laos only five years ago.

Not to undermine the problem of unexploded ordinance in Laos. American bombs of the era were designed to maim, not kill, and this cruel logic is still being unearthed more than thirty years later. The Laotian scrap-metal trade is as wicked as the war that initiated it. After all, who better to find and dig up lethal baseball-like bombies than the little fingers of child-labour ? The small cadre of Western volunteers trying hard to dismantle and remove dangerous ordinance from Laotian communities are often disheartened by the angry looks of villagers watching on as potentially useful and profitable commodities are taken away from them.

The mysterious stone jars were badly damaged during the bombing of Laos, irreparably complicating the process of understanding the past. Today, there exists a field of mostly smashed jars lying about a forgotten backwater of Laos: a kind of shrine to wasted resources attended to regularly by a clergy of gap-year backpackers.