5. Plain of Jars




Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the history of the world. The unexploded ordnance (UXO) from cluster bombs during the Vietnam War continue to lie in forests, rice fields, villages and school grounds near the Plain of Jars today, where bomb craters dot its landscape. Children are drawn to the small, toy-like metal balls; others salvage valuable metal and try to make money. 

We watch a short film depicting a man who was farming in his backyard in 2013 when a bombie exploded, leaving him with a loss of both arms. The family has since stopped using their land. ‘We are always afraid in the field,’ his wife says. As we leave the film screening, someone comments: well, now we have an idea what to expect in Iraq and Afghanistan. 













bomb crater

jars


cafe displaying ex-bomb casings 


Beyond killing and injuring people, UXO also prevents (delays) development and perpetuates poverty, doesnt it? it’s going to take hundreds of years to finish clearing these cluster bombs

was a little conflicted about this. see, using these aluminium from bombs to make ‘souvenirs’ are beneficial because it’s a source of income, but it also encourages further attempts to pick out these bomb casings, which is highly dangerous and risky for the children / poor families. should we support them and purchase these? (what if it’s a significant source of income?) but by doing so are we only supporting the risktaking efforts? should they be forced to look for alternative sources of income instead, and this shouldn’t be an option at all?

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4.1: That Luang – Vientiane

that luang as the sun sets

That Luang festival – one of the biggest events of the year in Laos, where people from LPB and other cities visit Vientiane to pay their respects at That Luang.

families, the old, the young

i saw a girl pouring some water out of a little pot

it was explained that she was making a prayer / wish as she poured out the water, and would continue until the water ran out

“Wet and dry season – wet season transiting into dry, like me now, is good cause it’s cooling.¬†
But dry transiting to wet it’s annoying, very humid, and can rain very heavily in one day and get very hot in another.”

4. Couchsurfing in Vientiane, Laos

remnants of french colonization

Village vs city – “village at least you don’t have to worry about food, you get food the next day you go hunting in forests for birds at night, or you go fishing. Here in city you have to plan for the next day how you can get food.”





There is a part of me that misses frolicking around villages in my elephant pants, spamming mosquito repellant, observing plants and trees in the backyard and watching dogs and cats and chickens roam around nonchalantly. Playing with babies as mothers pluck the feathers off chickens, and maybe catching just a tiny, tiny glimpse of another’s way of life.

3.1 LPB – Kuang Si Waterfall






How comfortable, she says 
Indeed, I agreed 
One should walk along this place with their bare feet 
I nodded, it was like connecting with Mother Earth with your soles 






Met a girl from Beijing – talked about China – one child policy – doesn’t seem to make a difference to her, Beijing? Because people who want a second child would probably be able to afford the fine in the first place. Also if both parents are ‘only child’ they are allowed to have 2 children( which makes quite a significant proportion of people in Beijing. 

Forced abortions- yes ūüė¶ depends on province though. Smaller provinces may be stricter…? 
Unless you go overseas, give birth and come back. If you’re able to have the child it’s easier. 

They do learn English in school, but it’s not compulsory to pass to graduate, as long as you pass other core mods (something like electives it seems? I.e. It’s possible to graduate despite failing?) 

No xi zi when they learn Chinese 


Balloting for purchase of new cars – after getting license you submit your name for balloting. She balloted for 2 years but haven’t gotten it. Every 2 months they announce people who gets the car. Whole family can ballot; if your sis gets you can buy the car using her name but it’s still her responsibility. Eg buy car insurance, car accidents etc it’s still under her name. If whole family gets, you get the permission to keep this ‘ability to buy’ for 6 months after which its voided. Strangers no ways close friends also hard to say cause whatever that happens is my responsibility cause under my name. 
Also, car plate number reveals which days you can drive. Eg if car plate ends with 3, maybe you can only drive on tues wed. 
Except sat Sunday no limits, but daily have cause working days a lot of cars. 























Huge cave i gaped in awe but was nervous for some reason 
It was my first time wandering into a cave with no guides, no other tourists; it felt like really just stumbling into nature 
It was rather intimidating as we walked deeper and deeper into the cave, wondering when it’s going to end but when the torch is shone it just keeps going 










Her husband sleeps here, she says. She goes to Luang Prabang to sleep because of her child. Does she climb up all the way here everyday to sell drinks? I ask. No, there’s the motorbike! She says. It takes about one hour to Luang Prabang. But her husband sleeps here. Here? I point to the tent. She nods. 

I feel a wave of… Pity, of sorts, thinking about the ways they make a living. And me, happy tourist frolicking around. I mean having to stay here on nights halfway up some mountain, away from your wife and child(ren). Thinking about it again, maybe it is a commendable source of income, this job, so who am I to judge or to feel ‘pity’. I feel like tourism is a pretty important source of economy and employment for VV and LPB, a means by which they earn money. These nature and wildlife, it’s pretty good they have it. At what cost though? 


I think about those tourists this morning lining up to offer food to the monks. On one hand, why not? Everyone wants to engage in an ‘authentic’ experience. But also because of this search for authenticity, seeing tourists and their flashlight bulky cameras and the wave of excitement as the monks ‘arrive’ this morning after anticipation, made the scene… Less authentic. How do the monks themselves feel, with the cameras out everyday? Is it annoyance, is it pride, or is it nonchalance?
How do tourists spoil the landscape?
How do we contribute to them? How do we shape them? 
Ever-shifting, ever-changing 



3. Luang Prabang

I reached Luang Prabang at the clumsy hour of 3am. The bus was supposed to be from 10pm – 5am i think, but somehow we waited for an hour, and reached much earlier than we expected.
I hardly slept anyway, with that bus rocking down the road tripping over the holes. The backpackers woke up clumsily at the wee hours of the morning.
We wanted to share a tuktuk to a hostel, but it was obviously overpriced so the other guys said they’d walk, and we followed. The driver then slashed the price by half, we shook our heads and walked on. As we continued walking they slashed the prices further. Still we walked on, it wasn’t really far. I think we also quite enjoyed the cool breeze of the night, and chatting along the way. I still remember the Columbian couple, and how excited I felt. I honestly think that I feel excited whenever I encounter associations with South America, I think that dopamine that was released during my trip has successfully allowed my brain to associate South America / Spanish with excitement / happy emotions, which probably explains why I love listening to Spanish songs and studying Spanish and watch tv shows. I really think so! Powerful chemicals in the brain

UNESCO World Heritage site of old town Luang Prabang!

The alms-giving ceremony is one of the most significant aspects of my time here. Early morning 5+am the locals start preparing food offerings for the monks, and can be seen along the streets.

The influence of tourism is highly apparent. (hmm, geog fieldtrip? it’s such an observable impact……)

When we went to the street, locals approached us asking us to buy the sticky rice and offerings for the monks. I had read about it, but I was surprised to see how many ‘stalls’ they were lined along the street. Maybe it’s not all for selling to tourists, but I was nonetheless surprised to see just how many tourists there were. (though i guess i shouldn’t be that surprised, it’s one of the top things on tripadvisor to do)

Tour groups with tour guides brought their tourists here as well. I took this picture, which seemed like a tour guide explaining to the tourists what they should do later when the monks come, and how to present their offerings. Some tourists take picture of each other with their food offerings.

It’s not a bad thing, cultural immersion in local customs. It’s good I suppose, expanding their cultural understandings. Yet I wondered how the monks felt, with these cameras waiting to take their pictures as they had their food offerings. The scene felt a little… commoditized, ‘staged authenticity’

Were they annoyed at the tourists? Or pleased because there’s more food offerings now (presumably)? ¬†Both

It would be interesting to speak to one of them, but of course i had no such chances

 

there were also other monks (in robes of other colours) who excitedly took photos of each other during the food offering, and i saw one requesting for a photo with the monk. it’s cute to see, well, monks holding their smartphones taking pictures. (cause of my stereotype of monks i suppose)

also interesting that monks from (presumably other countries?) coming to see this scene too.

 

wet and dry season
fresh market

 

 

night market

 

 

 

2. Vang Vieng

Vientiane – Vang Vieng 
Bus $$: 50,000kip ~ $6+USD
one of the cheaper rides, about 4 hours.


Vang Vieng – the backpackers haven of Laos. 
Reminded me of Mui Ne / Khao Lak, where the rows of shops are catered for backpackers – the multiple tour operators offering highly similar tours, the inter-city buses and their timetables, the food and restaurants highlighting their free wifi, the bars and hostels. 



The limestone karsts – why I came to Vang Vieng! Hehehe



I ate my first meal in Laos with a guide. As we chatted over what tasted like Vietnamese pho to me – noodles in soup, spring onions, some meat – I learnt several things about Laos.

He mentioned that he learnt Russian in school, learnt French in Primary School. He had gotten a government-sponsored scholarship to study in Russia, and he was supposed to join his senior who was already there. The month he was supposed to leave, however, the Soviet Union broke up, so he didn’t go in the end.
If the country is not broken, I would be there already,’ he said

I asked if he was sad that he didn’t get to go though. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It has already broken up’.

Just last year, he was supposed to go to Thailand to further his studies. He had topped the English exam and was supposed to go, but was later rejected because another girl – whom he said was related to higher political figures – took his place. Nonetheless he went on to start his own tour business because ‘it’s always better to be your own boss’. 
In my mind, Laos and Russia felt so different, separated by such great distance in the world map, and culturally seemed so divergent. This was the first time I formed a connection between the two places. 


To control number of cars in Laos- 10 years ago government allowed the sale of second hand cars, but now it’s no longer allowed










There were many Koreans in Laos in general, and there would be entire signs in Korean indicating the large numbers of tourists here. I later found out from my host that his wife (a tour guide) was helping a Korean team to film a documentary of sorts about Laos, and that Korea has hired famous stars and idols to visit Laos in order to publicize the destination, as well as its airline. I believe there’s direct flights to Laos from Korea!





mmm, the dusty roads






My favourite part of Vang Vieng is meeting a lovely group of Thai people. Ah, Thais and their hospitality! They practically sweeped me into their open arms and included me in everything, which I’m immensely thankful about :’) 


Some things I learnt – 

Thai army – either study in high school as part of a ‘module’, or attend half a year / up to 2 years (depending on luck?)
Male only, female voluntary 

Military coup – when’s the next election? No idea, waiting for constitution to be drafted. 


Vang Vieng is known more for its adventure tourism, hence attracting the younger crowd. Here the tours offered caving, trekking, kayaking, and of course tubing – the most well-known thing in Vang Vieng. Some years ago apparently tubing along the Nam Song (river) was banned because of the backpackers who got themselves drunk / drugged (? ‘mushroom milkshakes’) and fell into the river and drowned. It’s been opened up again, though.
















One of my favourite scenes: when I watched the group cycle towards my hostel, picking me up in the tandem bikes and we went for dinner, cycling down the streets to the nearby restaurants



to me, it is the fact that they invited I, a stranger, to their meal, and treated me, a complete stranger, and I feel really lucky, blessed and grateful for that. This reminds me to try to be more friendly towards others and to reach out to them and pass on this kindness!!!







I talked a little about Vang Vieng’s tourism with my host. I was thinking about how beneficial tourism was to the city. It’s definitely brought about a significant source of income, but of course it has its associated impacts. He mentioned that indeed, the way the tourists dress (more skimpy clothing) has influenced some locals to adopt similar styles, triggering unhappiness from other locals due to disrespect of local customs. Also, the demand for drugs might have encouraged a supply for them.
Hmmmmm



1.5 Laos – Things I learnt about Laos

It was good to walk faceless and talk to myself again, to ask where I was going, and who I was, and to realize that I had no idea, that all I could tell you was my name, and not my heritage; my daily schedule for the next week, and not the reason for it; my plans for the summer, and not the purpose I had whittled out for my life. ‚ÄĒ Sylvia Plath


I ended school far earlier than I’d expected. The last comms class was cancelled, and I had more than a week to spare. More than a week! What a rare treat this will be in the future. I looked at the map and thought about the gaps in my Geographical Imagination, where I lacked an understanding about.



Capital of Laos: Vientiane
Currency: Lao kip (K). 1usd ~ 8000kip

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1. Laos is considered a Communist country.
There’s only 5 Communist countries left in the world – China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos
Before my trip I was trying to understand how Laos was Communist, and was confused between Marxism / Socialism / Communism 
I’m still not completely sure, but I asked my host if Laos was considered a Communist state (and you see the red flag hanging around the cities) and why
Economically they operate in a free-market system. Politically, there’s no elections political party espouses the ideals of Communism


2. Laos – ‘everyone in Laos knows Thai’
Someone said that, and Wikipedia confirmed the similarity between the two languages. Seems like it’s easier for Laotians to learn Thai, but not so easy the other way round. Other than the linguistic similarity, the economic relationship with Thailand is also evident from the Thai products / imports- seems like there’s a preference for their products, and the TV shows, the food they cook at home are also Thai-related / Thai-styles. Similar to Kampong Luong in Cambodia. Seems like Thailand has pretty strong economic/cultural influence within these borders. 

3. No Macdonalds, no Starbucks 
Instead, they have ‘joma cafe’, similar premium-style coffee





4. Laos is a Buddhist country-
My host says that every men in Laos ‘has to be monks before they die’ (could be subjected to his own opinion/stance), which I was very surprised about. You could choose from 1 week to 3 months or more, not necessarily a lifelong decision. 
Reasons: Everyone has to be monks to show respect to parents / thank parents for giving birth to them, raising them (if you don’t become a monk, it suggests a lack of respect / lack of filial piety) 

Another reason could be the fact that they come from poor families. As the monks have government-sponsored monk schools (where they study a range of subjects, including Sanskrit – my host studied Sanskrit for awhile) so the people from poor families can then send their children to school, even up to University for free. 

Also they have to be tmonks / nuns for a day when the family or relatives pass away (funerals) to help out, though nuns don’t need to shave 

This was probably one of the more curious and surprising things for me.



5.  Laos isn’t exactly cheaper than Thailand
In fact, many backpackers I met highlighted their surprise at the prices in Laos. I mean, considering our (my) geographical imagination. The meals on even streetside stalls are about 10-15k kip, and seems to be 20-25k kip on average. My host say that this could be because they have to import everything – the sauces, raw materials etc except some that they can plant. Also, the potholes on the road makes the transport cost in land-locked Laos more expensive in terms of the transport (import) cost.

What i wrote when i went back to Thailand on the last day:
‘Actually, Thailand does feel cheaper.. I don’t know. In Laos meals at its cheapest cost 15k kip ~ 2usd, these are more of the street stalls, local eateries. If not, general prices are 25k kip. Drinks and snacks – about 10k for touristy places. No 7-11 that I saw.. Not as prevalent as in Thailand.’

Thailand a meal costs maybe 3SGD at the food court? 2+ at the streetside stalls?


Key aspects of economy: 

Electricity – electrical powerhouse of SEA, with their dam-building projects. My readings have highlighted the controversies generated from the dam-building projects. I asked what he thought about it, and he said, if it benefits him, he’ll be happy. If it doesn’t then whatever, it’s fine too. 

Mining
Export coffee, rice? 
Teachers earn like USD$200 a month? :/ 

Abortion illegal 
Driving license… Erm buy your way 



I climbed onto the upper bunk bed: seat 13B. As people continued to board the bus, I lie on the pillow and squash myself against the window, wondering who’s going to lie next to me for the next 10 hours in this tiny bed. This man glances over for a moment, then passes. Then another. A lady eventually places her shoes next to mine, and I smile with some sort of relief. As the bus tumbles towards Vientiane, our arms touch; she shifts and I try to move closer to the right, but I can budge an inch no more. We try to fall asleep to the rocking rhythm of the night. 


In fact, I think one of the scariest parts of taking the overnight train is wondering who the heck is gonna be sleeping next to you on this bed. 

Awkward….. 
Oh I think they do assign females with females. But what about fat people…

Now, I lie in the darkness as the bus zooms crazily down the road. I try to sleep as we ride over potholes, and I can’t help giggling as the French girls next to me do the same. The bus SWAYS to the side, and my mind flashes back to La Paz. Goodnight…… I hope. 


Girl turns to me: where are you from? 
Me: Singapore 
Girl: are there buses like this in Singapore?
Me: no, no way. 
We laugh, as the bus continues swaying and speeding down the road.
Me: I hope we get there safely. 
We burst into laughter again.



Last day when I returned to Thailand:

 After so many nights, I FINALLY get to lie on a bed that doesn’t move. I get to curl up and read – FINALLY. 
(appreciation for smooth roads – greatly amplified over the week)


Good morning Bangkok! I am pleasantly surprised when I hear ‘sawadee’ instead of ‘sabaidee’. Instead of khup jai, I say khup khun ka.

1. Bangkok – Laos

Goodbye semester!
 
beautiful mural found when I was walking from Union Mall to Chatuchak (on my last day)
 
I landed in Bangkok and took the BTS, making my way to Makkasan > Hua Lamphong Station. Bangkok was a familiar place and didn’t trigger any anxiety. I packed light (40 litres!), so light I felt it was like a usual school day, except this was for one week.¬†
 
Upon reaching Hua Lamphong station, I followed the directional signs and made my way to the rail station. Asked where I could get tickets to Nong Khai, and was directed to the Ticket Office for Foreigners. Wow, a ticket office set up for foreigners! No thanks. I queued behind a lady at the counter and asked for the¬†8pm¬†train to Nong Khai, which I’d read about. Hurray!¬†
 
Then I walked to Chinatown. 
 


Here I ate my lunch / very early dinner. It was about¬†4pm, and it seems like Chinatown is known for seafood perhaps? There were ethnic Chinese and Thais here, and some shops were selling ‘shark’s fin’ hmmmm. I missed doing fieldwork, I thought as I walked around. It would be nice if I’m armed with a clipboard of questions to ask them about how this place, Chinatown, fits in within Thailand. Or their languages, their heritage…¬†
 
I saw a plate of noodles that looked moderately delicious, pointed to it and sat down to eat. As she was preparing the food the rain suddenly came, heavy drops that started pelting from nowhere, harder with every second, the surroundings rising to a roar with their merciless downpour. It was interesting to see how these tiny shop / stalls stretched out their umbrella-like shelters and I continued eating. 
Then, as suddenly as it came, the rain stopped. Stall holders poured away the rainwater and rolled up the waterproof shelters, and the streets were busy again. 
 




the sun started to set, and i continued walking 



here, i bought my dinner – mango sticky rice





i was excited to board my accommodation for the night:




At about 755pm a man comes to set up the bed, wrapping it with fresh sheets. The boring brown bed changes into an appealing the place to snuggle under the blanket and catch a good night’s sleep. Plus, there’s air con – all for 688 baht. $27.50¬†
 
 


I eat my mango sticky rice, continue my Kafka by the Shore and its bizarre dialogue with cats, and eventually fall asleep.
 
 
Good morning Nong Khai! One of the Thai borders near Laos, many foreigners do their visa runs here. I bought my ticket to Vientiane, and waited.