21.12.2012 - 25.12.2012
The slow boat from from Nong Khiaw sounded like the best way to reach Luang Prabang, with all the peaceful gentle gliding romance that river travel naturally entails. The reality: eight hours perched on a six inch wide wooden plank pressed up against the engine. The passing scenery made up for the noise, fumes and intensely uncomfortable seating - to begin with, anyway.
Luang Prabang is a city awash with orange robed shaven headed monks and full of Buddhist temple-monasteries (wats), which we spent a lot of time wandering round. Most wats resembled youth clubs, albeit in oddly ornate surroundings, far more than places of spiritual devotion. The surreal sight (to us anyway) of young men in monkly garb listening to tinny pop on their phones, playing football and noisily larking around was a delight, and seemed to be pretty much all they did in fact. If I was a Buddhist I might be a bit perturbed. But there was no spiritual purpose to our visits either - we were just there for the decor.
The old city is ridiculously gorgeous. As well as the ubiquitous orange-clad figures and the colourful tuktuks rattling around, the ancient centre of Luang Prabang is dominated by dark teak, contrasting nicely with the abundant greenery and cascading vivid red and pink flowers everywhere, all liberally topped off with xmas fairy lights. The suburbs were just as bad - quiet wide streets of pastel painted houses behind white picket fences, with climbing roses and neat front gardens. All just too lovely. Once again however Laos's horrific recent past provided a counterbalance to all this visual delight, something of a contiuning theme in this part of our trip. After a visit to the UXO Centre (UXO=Unexploded Ordnance) in Luang Prabang which focuses on the legacy of the 'secret war' on Laos and the effect on this country of having hundreds of thousands of bombs lying unexploded all over the countryside, we were no longer walking round exclaiming 'Ooh how lovely, look at that, how gorgeous' quite so much.
One of the most evil creations in human history confronts you as soon as you walk through the door - a cluster bomb. Here's how they work. Imagine a six foot long metal shell, containing about 600 individual mini-bombs, each the size of a tennis ball. Once released from the aircraft, the shell splits in mid-air scattering the mini-bombs indiscriminately over a wide area - this will include villages, rice fields, crops, grazing animals and forest. One mini-bomb has a thirty metre radius impact, so imagine hundreds of powerful thirty metre wide explosions over a mile or so. Then imagine several of those dropped over one area, by one bomber plane. Then imagine several bomber planes over Laos - the same size as Britain - each day. Still with me? Then imagine these bombs falling day in day out, for nine years. Making Laos the most bombed country in history.
Two twists: about a third of the mini-bombs never detonated, and are waiting to go off, in forests, fields, villages and towns. And Luang Prabang province, one of the most beautiful regions in Laos with its most beautiful city and ancient capital at its heart was one of the main areas targeted by the US.
One last figure. The UXO clearance teams in Laos make about 40km sq of land bomb-free each year. There are 800,000 km sq of land known to contain hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs still to go. So at the current rate of progress, Laos can look forward to being bomb-free in two thousand years time*. But the thing I found most sickening of all - that children are the main victims. I've already mentioned that we have been captivated by the sweetness of the giggly comical Lao kids, and their sense of fun and curiosity. And this same curiosity has been the death of thousands of children, and resulted in thousands more being blinded and losing arms and legs and receiving terrible wounds - from picking up those interesting shiny metal objects they've found when out playing in the woods, or looking for scrap metal to sell.
And just one more fact. The International Convention on Cluster Bombs was designed to consign the cluster bomb to history, by creating a worldwide ban on their production and use. The USA declined to sign.
No apologies for this angry-sad post. As I've said, what we've learned since being here about these events has undoubtedly shaped how we've come to feel about Laos. It would be false if I left this out. And this region of Southeast Asia that we're travelling round - Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia - is not the place to come for warm fuzzies about the USA, frankly. Luang Prabang is a wonderful city: we loved the richness of the colours and greenery, the temples and little side streets, and the gentle pace. We could have spent much longer there and were sorry to have to leave. Maybe the dark shadows throw all this beauty into sharper relief.