Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Laos - Trying to make sense of it all

Quite frankly I didn't care much for Phonsavan. The place we stayed at wasn't bad or anything and the people we found there had been mostly good too but there was something profoundly not right about it. Maybe it's the tourism based on war and destruction, maybe it's the still daily suffering of exploding cluster bombs and mines. I can't really explain it, it's just a feeling I guess. Meeting an obnoxious Irishman, who openly declared he had married a Lao girl 30 years his junior, sort of fitted. He was in the right place, I wasn't. Or to be honest he wasn't, as Laos and especially this part of Laos, had suffered enough without needing the likes of him to make it even worse. 

Somehow I got the impression this little rat didn't die
pleasantly... something gave me the distinct impression
he had been dumped in the frying pan while still
Riding away from Phonsavan, towards Luang Prabang, felt good. Luang Prabang is a world heritage town, which should make a welcome change from the death, suffering and destruction which makes Phonsavan to what it is. As much as I do appreciate the unfortunate need of armed forces to protect our freedom, as well as the ultimate price many soldiers have paid for that freedom, I feel what has happened here in Laos is very wrong. What has been done to the people of Laos is indescribable, that not one of the countries who created this mess have quickly cleaned it up is incomprehensible. As a result, 40 years later, people are still being killed and maimed by unexploded bombs. 

I was, I'm sorry to say, glad to be leaving. Riding through the prettiest landscape I had seen in Laos yet, my mind kept wandering off to all the background info I had read about Laos over the past days. Seeing the kids wave enthusiastically, especially the younger girls and women, made me think about what I had read on the cruel way some women are treated here. From pre-arranged marriages which are still common in many communities, to being expected to serve their husband and his family without question for their whole life. The alarming number of teenage mums is another tell tale sign something is seriously wrong here. 

That background info surely made me think differently about what I saw before me. We had already noticed that women here seem to do all the work. They are always working, running a shop, doing the laundry, looking after the kids, chopping wood, mending clothes, cooking and anything else that needs to be done, while the men seem to be mainly hanging around and do nothing. What made it worse for me is that so many of the Laos women have such kind and friendly faces. They seem to be lovely persons who shouldn't have to put up with this sort of nonsense... Thinking about all this while riding the most beautiful part of Laos yet, sure made this a strange and mentally complex day. Beauty and ugliness were certainly intertwined today.

Another example of the duality of this day manifested itself when we wanted to buy some veggies or fill up the tanks. Again the women did all the work, but at the same time are traditionally denied any form of education. The result is that quite a few can't read or write, have problems with maths and don't speak a word of English. You could easily mistake it for lack of intelligence, the truth though is that their intelligence is being clipped. There are luckily exceptions. The other day I witnessed a young girl doing her homework. Her mum, a seemingly single parent, was running a grocery shop where she was doing her maths. It was the happiest moment of the day for me, which hadn't been bad landscape wise either, as she was working hard to make something more of her life, obviously being pushed forward by her mum. 

On the road, getting closer towards Luang Prabang, things hadn't improved unfortunately. We saw quite a bit of 'dilligaf' driving, especially the 4WD and van drivers... Mike was almost pushed off the road 3 times in a matter of hours. Deliberately pushed off by car 'drivers' who don't care about other road users. Not just dumb behaviour but deliberately nasty. We were told these were mostly Chinese officials and tourism related van drivers, which could be true as most locals don't have a car. It seemed everything today just didn't make any sense. I mean why did I see two policemen on a little motorbike with a Kalashnikov? Is there a need for police armament to such an extend here? We saw one sitting on the road today too, as in literally sitting on the middle of the Tarmac, his back facing the traffic and his machine gun more than 2 metres away from him... He was ready to be hit by the next vehicle while his gun was ready to be grabbed by anyone passing.

At the end of the day we found a great camp spot near the Kacham waterfall, just behind the restaurant. Not only a beautiful spot but also free. Of course we ate at the restaurant. The food was good, very good actually, prepared by 3 young girls who made a complete mess of our order as they didn't have a clue what we wanted. We couldn't blame them for it as there were two menus, one in Lao and one in English, but no link between the two. There were even more choices on one than the other... The food was good regardless so who cares?

The waterfall is very much worth a visit. There are cabins available at the entry but we couldn't find anyone there. A little bit further on is the restaurant, right next to the falls, which offered us the camping. A couple of locals came from a seemingly impassable steep mountain with some form of vegetable they foraged in the forests. They carried big baskets on their backs with straps around their heads as well. Very heavy work, I know as I tried! (See video). A strange day came to an end under the calming sounds of water rushing down the falls. A day where the little grey cells had been working overtime to try and make sense of what we saw.