Are You Taller Than a Stone Jar? | Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars, Laos

Transcript of 1000 conversations I had when I told people I wanted to visit the Plain of Jars in Laos: ‘A plane of jars? Like an aeroplane full of jam jars?’ ‘Um, no. A valley full of ancient jars.’ ‘Oh. I’d like an aeroplane with jam jars.’

I read about the Plain of Jars in a book, and it was a pretty terrible book so I won’t waste your time by telling you what it’s called, but it piqued my interest so we took a trip out to the town of Phonsavan, which is my new reference for the phrase ‘in the middle of bloody nowhere’. The journey from Luang Prabang was long, dusty and included very few straight roads. Anyway, littered around Phonsavan are a couple of thousand stone jars. Some say they were used for burials. Some say they were big old wine containers. Some say aliens.

It’s probably not aliens.

 

If the giant dusty valley full of jars isn’t strange enough, the giant dusty valley is also full of craters. Look, there’s a jar… oh no it’s half a jar.

 

To cut a long story short, Phonsavan was carpet bombed during the Vietnam War. I mentioned in my post about Luang Prabang that Laos is the most bombed country in the world; that is essentially because there was a civil war there between 1963 and 1975 which was also a proxy war between America and Russia, hence the carpet bombing (both sides, which involved North Vietnam, South Vietnam, China, America and Thailand, plus the opposing Laos forces, wanted control of the Ho Chi Minh trail and Laotian pan handle. Wiki can explain it better than I can.) Literally nothing ever changes.

So, yeah, craters. Most of the valley has been cleared of UXOs but I must say the added risk of accidental death added a certain level of interest to the trip. For scale, by the way, I’m about 5’1″:

girl next to stone jar
I’m not sure whether me or the stone come off worse in this comparison.

Giant jars aside, Phonsavan is pretty quiet but very beautiful. It’s fairly remote by today’s standards (no listings on HostelWorld!) so we kind of winged it and found a really nice guest house with hot water and open air sinks. I really think brushing your teeth in the great outdoors sets you up for a productive day or good night’s sleep, although it helps if the great outdoors is at a balmy 20 degrees.

 

Coincidentally, while I was in South East Asia my friend Maria was in Japan for university, and on the group chat one day we were talking about bathrooms (I think I was excited because we had hot water) and Maria sent us a photo of a public toilet in Japan, which had more buttons and nice little additions then I have seen on any toilet, ever. I shared this photo:

toilet in bathroom in Phonsavan guest house

Next time in the Occasional South East Asia Diaries: Vang Vieng!

Luang Prabang, Laos | Or, That Time I Dropped My Underwear in a Drain, Ate Too Much Street Food and Visited Another War Museum

Luang Prabang in northern Laos is one of the few places I saw in South East Asia that I would return to for a two week suitcase holiday. If you enjoyed yourself in Greece or Italy, you will like Luang Prabang. Awful incoming journey and unavoidable Asian plumbing aside, there’s something for everyone: nature, history, pretty sunsets, temples and waterfalls. Waterfalls!

The Kuang Si Waterfalls

Isobel, if you’re reading this: remember when we were messaging and I told you I’d just dropped my knickers in a drain? This is where that happened! So Kuang Si waterfalls are just outside Luang Prabang and they are absolutely stunningly beautiful.

Kuang Si Falls Luang Pranang Laos
The word you’re looking for is PARADISE

That water lends a new meaning to the term ‘icy blue’ though, it was bloody freezing. But beautiful! If it wasn’t for the freezing thing, I would have moved right in forever. The trees, the running water, the wooden huts in which visitors change and, if they are not paying attention, accidentally drop their undies in a drain. It was a running drain full of, hopefully, waterfall water.

Kuang Si Waterfalls Luang Pranang Laos
DEFINITELY CLEAN WATER. THAT’S MY STORY AND I’M STICKING TO IT.

There is a little bear sanctuary-slash-zoo near the waterfalls, which I am in two minds about. On the one hand, caged animals is an oxymoron. On the other hand, sun and moon bears are seriously endangered due to poaching (apparently some SE Asian cultures think bear bile is good for sexual virility. I can’t think of anything worse for sexual virility). The enclosure we saw definitely seemed kind of small, but the charity that runs the sanctuary recently posted that they have just bought more land and the bears did seem pretty chilled and happy.

Bear Sanctuary Luang Prabang Laos
That was the best photo I got. I call it ‘talk to the paw’

Laos town

There are, of course, at least three wats in Luang Prabang. I checked out a couple, although if I am being totally honest, after a while one wat looks a lot like another wat. Then again, I can’t tell Michel Barnier apart from David Davis.

Side entrance to Luang Prabang wat
Enter, seeker, and ask
Luang Prabang Wat staircase golden dragon decoration
Dragon statues always look faintly shocked to find themselves attached to banisters

Luang Prabang has a market with the usual street food, clothes, trinkets and jewellery but it also sells gorgeous indigo-dyed clothes and accessories. I’m not sure how big the local textiles industry is, exactly, but one blue scarf would have set me back £25 after haggling, which was my daily budget and about 20 times more expensive than the average cotton scarf, so I think that the industry is a) highly skilled and b) relatively unique to Luang Prabang. I really, really want to go back and buy an indigo scarf.

There is a really cool alleyway in the town with vendors selling the absolute best street food I have ever tasted from giant pans. I think it cost 50p to fill up a bowl with vegetables and eat til I was ready to hibernate. Full disclosure: I did get a run of the shits while I was there, although that could have been down to literally anything. Possibly the encounter with the drain.

street food in Luang Prabang, Laos
My love

UXO Museum

I already wrote about the Killing Fields of the Cambodian genocide and the Vietnamese War Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels, and Laos makes the third corner of a really shitty triangle. I will write more about Laos’ civil war and America’s ‘secret war’ when I post about Phonsavan, which is the next place we stopped in Laos. I blame my politics A Level, but of my favourite parts of Luang Prabang was its UXO museum. UXOs are ‘unexploded ordnance’, basically, bombs that were dropped but never went off. At least 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos by American forces between 1964 and 1973, but a third didn’t detonate (per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history). Over 50,000 people have been killed or injured by ordnance since 1964 and the clean up operation is slow, expensive and dangerous. I don’t have a picture, but there’s a whiteboard outside the museum detailing the exact number of injuries and deaths caused by UXOs per year since 1964; 2016 was the first year no one died from one.

Bomb Shells UXO Museum Luang Prabang Laos
Kinda love that the only health and safety is a few tickets recommending viewers don’t touch

I scrolled through my WordPress gallery and I seem to have shared a ridiculous number of photos of bomb shells. Ten points to anyone who can tell me the names of every type of munition in this photo!

I was going to come up with a title to this but I started listening to Wham! while I went through ideas and now I’m too into Wham! to come up with anything.

Guardians of the Galaxy is on at half eight, so I have a finite amount of time to start and finish this, unlike every post I’ve worked on this week, which has basically been me trying to remember how to write about something that doesn’t involve a bus journey or jet lag. I still feel a bit like I’m at home in a foreign land – I nearly came out of a junction on the right side of the road yesterday morning, and I had entirely forgotten that teenagers in Southend enjoy shouting abuse at their elders (me). Usefully, surviving three months in a foreign land has imparted a large dose of self confidence, so I no longer feel it would be inappropriate to shout back. I had missed giving the finger.

Tom and Jerry gif
from Twitter

My job search is going well, insofar as I haven’t had many rejections. I have not had any interview invitations yet, which is a fly in the ointment, but I had also forgotten how much I enjoy making Excel spreadsheets and striving for professional greatness. By that I mean I would like to land a paid internship, if possible, or a job that offers a salary large enough that I might be able to replace all the clothes I’m throwing out. I had a look in the shops the other day and it might be cheaper to fly to Bangkok with a large suitcase and hang out in the markets until I’ve replaced my wardrobe than it is to visit Topshop. Why are cold shoulder tops still a thing? What’s up with jeans that have been ripped during the manufacturing process? GO BACKPACKING AND RIP YOUR OWN DAMN JEANS.

Oops I’m doing it again. This has been happening all week. I think that subconsciously I’m worried that I’ll fall back into the Great 2015 Blogging Pit of Despair and Creative Frustration if I don’t keep talking about the only interesting thing that’s happened to me since I passed my eleven plus. To be honest, I’m worried that Asia might be the only interesting thing that’s going to happen to me, and that I’ll go back into the Great 2015 General Pit of Despair and Creative Frustration. I like how I felt when I came home. I like that I was relaxed and rested and enthusiastic about everything. Even throwing out clothes! In the 12 days since I’ve been back, my arms have ached from the cold so much that I thought I might need to go back to physio, I’ve forgotten to exercise and meditate virtually every day and I’ve shouted abuse at teenagers in the high street. They were little shits who needed to find hobbies, but still. I don’t want to fossilise into a grumpy, arthritic unemployed old lady. Or not until I’m at least thirty, anyway.

That’s why I’m going to dye my hair purple, go back to my old Pilates class and share my writing more. I’ve just finished working on a thing. It’s a pretty okay thing. I don’t know where I’ll put it yet, but I’ll put it out somewhere before I decide it’s not good enough. I’m going to finish up those blogs I started. I’m going to exercise enough that I won’t need to go to physio. I’m going to keep talking about Asia, probably. I’m never going back to the 2015 Pits of Despair.

I have to go because Guardians is on in a minute and that paragraph ending feels really dramatic. BYE.

In Which I Am Going Home to a Foreign Country

This morning I worked out that if I did one blog per week about each place in South East Asia that I haven’t talked about yet, I would have told you about everything in… 13 weeks. That’s longer than the time I’ve spent in South East Asia. If I do two a week and devote a third post to something else – like looking for a job and being reunited with my pets and re-learning to wear jeans – I will probably have finished up by the time I’ve found a job. Or is six weeks too soon to find a job? I’ve been away from home for so long that I can’t really remember how European time (sorry, sovereign British time) works. How long will I spend in traffic getting to my nan’s? What time do shops stay open until? How long do commercial breaks run? It’s a good thing we’re finishing in Thailand, where motorists drive on the left side of the road, because I’m already fully expecting to try overtaking on a hill while going round a blind bend, tooting my horn and chatting on my mobile. And that’s wrong. Right?

I’ve been trying to think of something philosophical to write about leaving home and traveling and returning home, because isn’t the whole point of going backpacking in your twenties to find yourself but either I’m really unaware or I’m already a salty old lady, because I can’t think of a bean to say. I think the UK might actually feel more alien than Asia at this point; I keep thinking of all the things I want to do when I get home, and how I’ll approach certain parts of my life differently, but what if my new ideas are not okay in Southend? I mean, I realistically won’t drive like a Laotian minivan driver. I also probably won’t barge past people on pavements, because in Britain it’s just not done. And I’m definitely happy to be leaving a region where it’s normal to discard rubbish in the street, where a lot of children don’t go to school, where landmines are an every day occurrence, where equal marriage is literally a foreign concept. But I’m going to miss how friendly people are, how willing they are to help foreigners even if they don’t really understand you. I can hand my phone to a tuk tuk driver so he can look at my map, and I know for a fact he’ll give it back to me. I’ve been leered at once. Just once! I’m going to haggle in every market I go to, I won’t have such a problem talking to complete strangers any more and I’m probably never going to judge other people’s bathroom habits ever again.

Probably.

street food in Luang Prabang, Laos
Why, WHY isn’t street food more of a thing in Britain? (Taken in Luang Prabang, Laos)

Something I’ve become very aware of is that I can walk into a dorm that sleeps six people and hear five languages that aren’t English. Out here the locals can identify me a mile off as a backpacking white girl, and they’re kind enough to indulge my shitty pronunciation and wide-eyed stares and total ignorance. As an British person I’m one of the few foreigners who doesn’t speak two languages; English is the default language for pretty much every traveler I’ve met, from Scandinavians to Ethiopians, while I’ve understood maybe four words of other people’s languages. Again, they’ve indulged me. I’ve even picked up some new vocab, although none of it is usable in polite conversation. Unlike holidays I’ve taken with family, amongst backpackers there hasn’t been a single xenophobic comment about anyone to anyone, and no one’s spent dinner accusing a Brexiter of being a fascist or a German of being a Nazi. Trump supporters are discussed with more nuance than I’ve ever heard in a western news broadcast. The most grief I’ve experienced is when I’ve told people I’m from Essex and they’ve said ‘I’ve heard of Essex girls,’ to which I’ve replied I’m not what they’ve heard of; at home I’ve had people call me ‘exotic’ and ask where I’m from in a tone that really just means they’re asking if they can say something Islamophobic in my presence and get away with it (spoiler alert: no). I’m going back to a country in the middle of a debate about what it means to be British, and I’m not sure how I’m going to fit.

Hue, Vietnam
I was served this Pina Colada in Hue, Vietnam, and I kind of feel like if the Vietnamese can use an American flag as decoration in a shitty beverage, the Leave voters I know can make amends with the Remain voters they stopped speaking to last year.

I guess I’m going to learn a lot when I’m home, huh. By the way, how much does a coffee cost in the UK at the moment? I’m used to paying about sixty pence.

South East Asia Day 79: Missing the UK… (Or Not)

If my maths is right (and it probably isn’t), today marks three quarters of this trip. In honour of this significant landmark, here is a list I’ve been compiling of what I miss about home… and what I could happily never see again.

Things I don’t miss about the UK

  • Drizzle
  • Wearing three layers to leave the house and taking both an umbrella and sunglasses
  • Brexit bullshit (not that I’ve been immune out here. Completely devastated about #IndyRef2 but who can bloody blame them)
  • The Daily Mail
  • Going out for coffee and needing to sell an organ for an accompanying flapjack
  • Neighbours who complain that I park over their driveway, which I don’t, when they don’t even use their driveway
  • Bible bashers in Southend high street who should go to an Asian war museum if they actually want to see what hell looks like
  • Turning on the TV for two minutes and finishing Keeping Up With the Kardashians an hour later
  • How shit everyone thinks everything is even though they live in a country that isn’t riddled with landmines and they have free healthcare and their government hasn’t tried committing a genocide recently and their children are in school and not asking tourists for money outside a famous landmark
  • Having two-four jobs at any one time
  • Easter advertising at the end of January

Things I do miss

  • DOGS
  • My friends
  • Decent chocolate
  • Cupboards
  • Private Eye
  • Leaving my clothes in my bedroom when I go into the bathroom, and leaving my toothbrush in the bathroom when I go into my bedroom
  • Family
  • Smoking ban in public places
  • General public use of seatbelts and traffic lights
  • Staying in the same place for more than a week
  • Good TV
  • Having a job
  • Porridge
  • Being the only person who has a bed in my bedroom
  • Waking up to Jon Humphreys ripping the shit out of a politician on the Today Programme
  • Going down the pub, bitching about the pub, going to McDonald’s after, bitching about McDonald’s
  • Getting my eyebrows waxed
Cat Ba, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
There were no windows in the bathroom/dorm of our hostel in Ha Long Bay; walking there took about 30 crooked stairs and it was 30 people to a room. This was the view I woke up to. TL;DR: I can live without getting my eyebrows waxed.