Sunday, 25 September 2011

Laos: The Land of a Thousand Elephants

The new Raven flew over terrain unlike anything he had ever seen before. Mountains erupted out of a sea of green jungle, some shaped like cones with sharp jagged edges, others thin as knife blades. Towers of limestone stood sentinel on the banks of rivers which twisted between them. From the air the countryside took on the shapes of fantastical animals. In monsoon season the craggy limestone rocks know as karst was covered with moss and green slime. Trees somehow grew from the cracks in the limestone, clinging to the mountains like gnarled old hands. The landscape was primeval, a million years out of its time, the setting for a pterodactyl to come flapping out of the dripping rocks. After the monsoon the whole area blossomed. A thousand different kinds of wild flowers carped the valley. There were giant yellow daises as tall as a man, and acre upon acre of white and red poppies . No one could fail to recognize that this was a place of very great beauty.   

-Christopher Robbins 'Pilots of the Secret War of Laos'

Looking over the Plain of Jars
I write this part of the journal at the end of almost four weeks of traveling the length and breadth of this remarkable country. I feel it near impossible for me to explain how beautiful and breathtaking this country is in words and pictures, they just can never truly justify what one has seen or experienced. But I will try to convey its beauty as best I can. The words above come from Christopher Robbins who illustrates brilliantly the landscape of Laos which is often referred to as; The land of a Thousand Elephants. I have been reading his book with interest on the secret war carried out by the American CIA on the North Vietnamese Army to prevent what Eisenhower called the first 'domino' in South East Asia falling to communist forces. Under the Geneva convention no armed force could occupy Laos. However this was ignored by both forces, due to the geographical strategic position Laos had the misfortune to be in. Peaceful Laos, landlocked, lies between powerful, perpetually (at the time) warring neighbours. To the north lies Burma and China, to the south is Cambodia, to the west largely drawn by the Mekong is Thailand, and to the east the country shares a 1,324 mile long boarder with Vietnam. During the the 1960s and early 1970s Laos people suffered appallingly  from both USA and Vietnam and is today the most bombed country in history. The CIA put together a secret program called 'The Steve Canyon Program' which trained pilots code named 'Ravens' who in effect never existed, to guide US fighter jets to bomb North Vietnamese positions in North East Laos, the Plain of Jars and the Ho chi min trail. During this terrible period, much of the population hid for years in caves to escape the massive bombing campaign and the effects of bombing are still evident today, with over a dozen people each year killed by unexploded devices, most notably the notorious cluster bombs. 

We arrived in North Laos on Tuesday 30th August to a place called Luang Prabang. This was the capital till 1960s until it moved south to Vientiane on the Thai boarder. Its a charming place full of Buddhist temples and monks who, daily at dawn, walk through the streets barefoot taking part in the Alms procession. This is quiet, spiritual and meditative ceremony in which the monks demonstrate their vows of poverty and humility thus gaining spiritual merit. The People here are the most relaxed people in the world and  their motto; "Never Rush" really reflects their attitude to life. Its philosophy that really suites me, and a way of live that is interwoven into all of Laos culture. It can be a little annoying, however, when your stuck in landslide (which is often the case during monsoon season) and its take the workers 8 hours to clear it because they just take there time, 'never rush'.

On our second day we kayaked down the Nam Khan river to a beautiful waterfall called Tat Kuang. Here we spent the afternoon bathing elephants in the in crystal pristine water, and enjoying the swing. Its was great getting in the water with the elephants (they love the water to play) but it was clear to me that my elephant wanted to show me who was boss. As we approached the water with myself on its back, it swaggered, dropped and flipped me into the water. I went head over heels past its drunk into the water. He then rolled over on to his side, so I was looking inot its eyes and proceed to let three massive balls of poo into my face as the current took me right into the direction of the oncoming cargo. 

Who's the daddy

Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls
With our guide we kayaked down the Nam Khan River; it was so peaceful just floating down the river, surrounded by rolling cliffs and the occasional loan fisherman in his boat silhouetted against the sun. It would take us over two hours to get back. On the way we passed children playing in the water, some even jumping off 40ft overhanging trees into the water. It looked good, and our guide offered, I mean dared me to have go. I couldn't refuse, if children as young as 7 are doing it, I have got to do it. We pulled up to the overhanging tree, I climbed up to the top, and almost froze. It was high, very high and when your looking down at the fast flowing river it gets a little scary. But I had no choice and I went for it. It was quality, straight back to the top for another go. Its was very calm kayaking down the river, until we hit the rapids. I wasn't expecting big rapids but we got a load of them.The Kayaks are for two people, me at the back, Laura at the front. We were doing well until we hit a big rapid, my last words were; "let me stare!!!" at which point the kayak went side on and flipped capsizing us both into the water leaving us flying down the river. Well Its no fun unless you go in.
The Nam Khan River

One of the many Buddhist Temples in Luang Prabang

The Night Market

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