The Field of Bombs - Part 2

by Ian Douglas, Sep 29, 2001 | Destinations: Laos / Xiangkhoang

Clumsy croissants and sweet coffee awaited me outside my cabin in the morning. After a late boozy night, Lao style, they were most welcome. The coffee appeared black at first glance, but vigorous stirring brought the condensed milk slowly to the top.

Looking round for the mysterious American I found him long gone, having departed with the dawn. All of which added to my impression he was a spy. But I had no time to ponder his enigma. I had an appointment as eight thirty with Alfred Molina. No, not THE Alfred Molina, the British actor who found fame and fortune in Hollywood (Maverick and Species to name two of his successes), but a local guide, whose beard, portliness and swarthy demeanor reminded me of him. As I couldn't catch his unpronounceable Lao name, Alfred Molina seemed as good as any.

We were off for a day trip! At a cost of 20 dollars I had hired Alfred Molina and his Russian jeep for the day. Soon we were far from the town and the bleak valleys gave way to lush, abundant forests. In less than an hour we reached the first port of call for the day. The Plain of Jars

These man-sized and roughly-hewn stone jars once dotted the plains for miles around. Like Stonehenge or the Easter Island Heads nobody has an inkling how they got here, who made them or what they were for! It's as if they just grew up out of the soil one night, like gigantic petrified mushrooms. We do know that they are made of molasse, a form of sandstone located 180 km to the north, and that they have been resting on these faraway slopes for over four thousand years. The rest is pure speculation. Perhaps they were coffins, or there again containers for the local firewater, but until somebody invents a time machine we can only guess.

Sadly the once vast area of Jars has shrank to just 3 fields as museums and other thieves have had their way. However on the bright side, modern spy satellites have revealed there are many more jars still buried, just waiting to be dug up and turned into tourist attractions.

On my morning with the Jars, I was the only visitor (not counting Alfred and a Jar attendant). So I was free to wonder the field and enjoy these silent monsters, imagination running riot. The pure country air, the tranquility, the romance of these strange urns, ahh, it was a good day to be alive. Muang Khan Muang means city in Lao and Muang Khan was once the provincial capital. Today, thanks to the Vietnam war it looks more like the site of an Indiana Jones movie. During the sixties and early seventies the small city was bombed out of existence and completely abandoned. A ravaged and weathered Buddha sits where once a temple stood. Ruins are everywhere sinking, year after year, deeper into the creeping embrace of the jungle. True there are a few new settlers and a small monastery, but overall one comes a way with a feeling of desolation. In a halting mix of English and Lao Alfred pointed out individual attack sites. With each one he would spit out the words 'American bombs'. Here is where a French doctor used to live and work, devoting his life to the poor, then one day came the sound of planes, and there was no more doctor in Muang Khan. That patch of crater was once a bakery, this patch a restaurant. Alfred Molina had brought me here for a purpose, he needed to bear witness to the atrocities done to his people. He drove me up to a blackened chedi, topping a grassy hill. Again this was the sole survivor of another temple blitzed out of existence. The chedi looked centuries old but in fact had been quite new on the day the bombers flew in.

While I sat in contemplation under the chedi, the warm breeze playing over the hill tops Alfred, much to my surprise produced a huge butterfly net from the back of the jeep and dived eagerly into the long grass. In fact he was performing two jobs at once, both tour guide and butterfly hunter simultaneously. He later explained that this remote, hilly corner of the tropics spawned all manner of butterflies and beetles, each exchangeable for hard currency on the international market. This explained the quite amazing collection of preserved beetles littering his travel office back in Phonsavan, many uncomfortably big. Prices varied depending on the rarity of the species, but even a humble specimen could fetch a dollar and a few could go for hundreds. (Remember a dollar goes a long way in rural Lao) The Japanese were especially keen and generous collectors, Alfred told me. All these colorful creations fluttering over the grass-tips were in fact dollar bills on wings!

That was the end of day one and Alfred drove me back to Phonsavan. Frequently during the trip the Russian jeep had coughed, died and given up the ghost, but Alfred was of course a reasonable mechanic and each time resurrected the vehicle for a few more miles. The next day I was not to be so lucky. Day Two My guide for today was Kip, the local school's English teacher who moonlighted with Alfred on Phonsavan's infant tourist industry. Unfortunately as I was to learn before the end of the day Kip didn't have Alfred' skills under the bonnet. Our first stopover turned out to be a hill tribe village. Here I was able to stroll the peaceful network of thatched huts on stilts, observing the ethnic Hmong folk going about their business, the spartan simple life passed down across countless generations. One scrap of modernity has crept into village life. The stilts upon which many huts stood were made from the discarded casings of American bombs! A macabre concession to the twentieth century it seemed to me! Next Kip pulled up deep on a country road and led me up a babbling brook to a gaping black hole in the rock-side. This was the tragic Tham Piu cave. In 1969 villagers, mostly women and children, had sheltered in here from an air raid. One lone missile zoomed in through the cave's mouth and exploded, killing 400 of them. A pile of skulls and bones remained as a pitiful remembrance.

After this depressing visit we continued to the Baw Yai hot water springs and rustic spa. Kip left me to the delights of the bamboo bungalows where I took a dip in the near boiling bath tub. It was just as well I had that hour of intense relaxation as the return trip to Phonsavan was to prove most stressful!

Throughout the day the jeep had been throwing longer and longer temper tantrums. Poor Kip lacked Alfred's magical touch and we were both getting somewhat fraught. I remember Kip leaving me alone for an hour at one point, miles from anywhere and surrounded by the unexploded leftovers from the Secret War, while he jogged to the nearest village to find a mechanic. Finally the jeep died on us outside a small village. Hopelessly Kip labored on the engine as I watched the moon rise and began to fear I would never see civilization again. My mood wasn't helped by walking innocently across a quicksand bog - SLURRPPPPPPPP! - I was up to my thighs in sticky mud.

Luckily the villagers pulled me out. With darkness slipping down from the stars Kip announced we would be staying the night with his Uncle and he would get me back to Phonsavan in the morning.

This was not what I wanted to hear! I threw a tourist's fit and no mistake. No doubt offending every social grace in Lao culture I bawled at him to fix it and get me back! In part I was mindful of my early departure by plane the following day. Shocked by my western bad manners Kip scrambled off to find his uncle. A mobile light was found and the Uncle gamely began surgery on the deceased motor. The air was alive with mosquitoes and the black bush echoing with animal cries as they worked around the clock. Eventually Uncle triumphantly coaxed the recalcitrant jeep back into life and Kip and I motored the last fifty miles or so over the bumpy trails to Phonsavan.

Outside my guest house we parted company sullenly. Kip insulted by my loutish attitude, and I feeling I deserved better service for my 20 dollars. Well maybe. Looking back I remind myself that Lao is one of the poorest countries in the world. People like Kip had probably met few foreigners before. Car trouble is the other side of the coin, the coin of exciting and exotic third world holidays. It's there, in the invisible small print every time a westerner signs up for a holiday in the developing world. Things might go wrong, actually things WILL go wrong. So don't complain because that's daily life for the locals and however bad it is it can always get worse! Sorry Kip, if you are out there in cyber Lao, I didn't mean to be a loud mouth I just couldn't cope with a breakdown in the jungle! Oh and about the flight the next morning. My 9.00 AM departure was delayed, by a mere eight hours. An entire day spent at the dusty bamboo shack that they call Phonsavan airport. No drinks, no food no air-conditioning. Worse the airport staff, (both of them) loaded my backpack on the wrong flight I couldn't believe it! I shrieked at them till one, an older man, ran out onto the landing strip. He flagged down the plane as it was about to take off and reclaimed my backpack (phew!). But don't worry, the planes at Phonsavan airport are never very big! And don't worry about me, after a day of suffering and choking on the dust I was stuffed into a tiny plane and soon flying into the heavens, on course for the fabled city of Luang Prabang and more adventures......