War and Peace in Laos
Vieng Xai is a tiny town on the northeastern border of Laos. It’s easily passed by unless you decide to hit the roads less travelled on a $150 110cc Honda Win. She was sold to me rather reluctantly by a Swedish backpacker called Sven. I christened her Frankie—promising that no matter how many dirty hippy arses she had seen in her 20 years, she was going to have the most fun with me. My plan was to spend a few weeks rolling up through Laos, then cross the border and drive the length of Vietnam from North to South.
I rolled into Vieng Xai covered in grime. My backpack, which was protected by a garbage bag, sat askew on Frankie’s pitiful excuse for a luggage rack. The potholes, hills, dust, exhaust fumes and average cruising speed of 50km/hour had been testing and we were both in need of a wash and some hydration. I went searching for water but soon found myself merrily drinking beer, shotting Lao whisky (moonshine) and sculling rice-wine from a communal clay pot—cheered on by a group of lively locals. The water never materialised.
We sat cross-legged under a thatched hut, learning of each other’s contrasting lives in broken English and Laotian and filled the silences with increasingly drunken laughter. We ate sun-warmed mangoes straight from the tree. I was offered deep fried cicadas, and played with an inquisitive baby chicken who pecked at my moles and fell asleep in my hands. The headiness of the afternoon muddled my brain.
The gathering broke up for an afternoon siesta. I hopped on Frankie and had a bit of a joy ride through the deserted streets and lanes. Absorbing the unique landscape of karsts, lakes, caves and forest. I smoked a joint looking over the water then drove down a dusty dirt road. I sat in an orchard, I’m not sure of what, and watched the sun sink slowly below the line of karsts. Ants crawled between my toes. It was one of those moments seemingly so simple and insignificant but as the sun set, time stood still and peace settled.
That night I stayed in a floating guesthouse and played gin rummy with the son of the owner. He taught English at the local school and had a daughter named Pink after his first girlfriend. He joked about the “honeymooners” at the next few tables—old married men with their young girlfriends getting drunk and renting the rooms by the hour. He spoke of his desire to start making the “big money” by turning the guesthouse into a casino and his dream to work in Australia one day .
The next day I explored an unbelievable series of caves that housed 23 000 people during the USA’s secret war with Laos. The war was fought from 1964 to 1973, during which Laos gained the unwitting record of being the most bombed country per capita in history. During the nine year period, The US undertook 580 000 bombing missions, which works out to a plane load of bombs dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day. It was an attempt to support the US-backed Royal Lao Government in its civil war with the Pathet Lao (a communist political movement equivalent to Vietnam’s, Viet Minh).
The bombings destroyed villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians as well as leaving 25% of the country contaminated with unexploded bombs, which still plague the community. Since the bombing ceased in the early ’70s, over 20 000 people have been killed by unexploded bombs.
Resourcefully, local artisans now hand cast this cleared, melted down artillery into cutlery, jewellery and ornaments to sell to tourists. This peaceful commerce not only creates jobs but a percentage of the proceeds fund the ongoing clearance—making more land safer for local farmers and curious children. This resilient, enterprising and magnanimous nature of the country, its beautiful people, continually caught me off guard.
On my last day in Vieng Xai I managed to find the only restaurant with Wi-Fi and planned for my border crossing into Vietnam. It was there that I struck up a comical conversation with a couple of Vietnam vets from Seattle. They were lifelong friends who were slowly travelling around the continent by bus. They told me about a local businessman who had nearly finished building a disco in one of the caves behind his hotel.
Regrettably, I was 10 days too early for the opening party.