A plume of smoke from burning rice paddies hovers lazily above the green and lush savannah to both our left and right.  I am riding shotgun with a German philanthropist/aid worker, driving south on Rte 13 on our way to pick up our interpreter Mr Phiao, (a man of 2 wives and 14 children) before heading to a leper colony 30 mins from Vang Vieng.  The haze continues to  rise gradually, still slowly, before merging into a grey haze that is sky for the dry season here in Laos. My host and I met over a communal dinner at my hotel a few nights ago and discovered we had worked not far away from each other in Zambia, albeit he had spent 17 years there to my 4 months……

Hubert, a geologist by profession, is now selling all his possessions and is starting up this project at a village and so invited myself and a few other travelers to visit the leper village. Mr Phiao, formerly the village Chief, showed us round, took us to several victims and discussed their cases. It was an interesting experience, and sad to see the lepers are generally of little interest to people given the taboos surrounding their affliction. There are 154 lepers in the village, many ending up with multiple amputations, and as you can imagine, prosthetic limbs here are not widely and easily available. Hubert’s project is to give the lepers a little dignity and basic sanitary amenities as well as providing transport to the main hospital that will deal with them in the Laos capital Ventiane, 4 hours south. We spent the morning there before heading back to Vang Vieng in the early afternoon.

I have now been away a week and it has all been enjoyable so far, if a little tiring. Getting into Laos was a little adventure in itself requiring mulitple buses/trains serving to delay me overcoming jet lag for longer than first expected. There are plenty of travelers here, lots of French, annoyingly, and it was a relief to get out of Bangkok and into Laos where the atmosphere is decidedly more chilled.

I stopped into Ventiane first for a few days, which was very hot and unexciting. It was calm enough though and what I wanted. I didn’t do too many tourist spots but I hired a bike and decided to do a suicidal tour of the city only to realise that every other vehicle on the road was either a motorbike or car. Despite the deluge, it was actually quite enjoyable. The highlight was visiting COPE, a centre for prosthetic limbs to treat the victims of UXO (unexploded ordnance). I had a little idea that Laos was involved in the Vietnam war but no clue as to the terror reigned upon Laos even though it was not at war with the US. The facts are altogether staggering: Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita in history. More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos, one bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. 30 % of the ordanance failed to go off which is why 100s of locals are dying still every year. It can be as simple as a villager lying a fire to make his dinner that sets one of beneath the ground.  They are grim statistics for a country of such poverty.

Which makes the set up of Vang Vieng, where I am now most interesting. It has developed as almost a rite of passage for backpackers on the established route to come here, not necessarily because of its breathtaking backdrop, but to float down the Nam Song river, and do a “Keith Richards”. Indeed I had been here less than 5mins when some pot-bellied sweaty American approached me, completely blitzed giggling that he was fucked up, couldn’t remember where he’d left his motorbike and whether I could give him directions to the Police Station. It was 1pm. Fortunately that was the only thing of its nature I’ve seen but it was so bad 27 people died here in 2012 from accidents relating to over intoxication. The communist government has stepped in very recently, shutting down overnight offending bars, selling drugs, making the place a bit of a ghost town which it is now. This has been great for me as I only intended to stay here a night before heading north. However the vibe is chilled, the views are spectacular and I’ve also done some rock climbing and kayaking. I have also started to do what I came here for and wandered between cafes, up and down stretches of the river with my guitar, stopping occasionally at abandoned huts to do a bit of writing, without being ashamed and bothered by some brute of some Essex boy jumping up and down screaming “is this the way to amarillo”, which I fully expected to happen here. I have thus overstayed and will stay another night before heading to Luang Prabang further North.

 

Until then, ciao and much love. Antony x

MUSIC: This week’s song: Ms by Alt J

 

 

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Manda J
    Apr 04, 2013 @ 20:07:19

    Sounds like you getting to grips with another world, I have heard such trips do act as somewhat of an eye opener! Take care , Auntie Mo xx

    Reply

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