July 22, 2007

In the Company of Communists
Phonsavan, Laos

Building bridges with China.

Sitting on the side of Vang Vieng's abandoned airport runway (now turned bus assembly point), an idling backpacker that had been eyeing me finally walked over and asked where I was headed.

"To Phonsavan," I replied to the curious Swiss/Canadian girl.

A confused look washed over her face. "The place with the Plain of Jars, right? Why would you travel for eight hours on a bus just to see a field with a bunch of stone containers no one knows much of anything about?"

I pulled off my sunglasses. "Well, for me, it's less about the jars, and more about the landscape on the journey there," I replied.

Twisting in the Clouds

I love watching locals clamor to sell food and wares to bus passengers through their open windows. The really smart/aggressive ones actually get into the vehicle and put things under your nose—pushing the limits of personal temptation. Such was the case with a young Lao girl that boarded the bus and processed down the isle towards me.

I'm a total sucker for corn, and that's what this child was offering—hot, sweet, mini-ears of corn. I asked how much, and smiled at her reply: $1,000 kip for a bundle of three (about US$0.10).

I bought a trio—not only because corn is one of my favorite snacks, but because it was a great deal. My perception of the value of the corn was far greater than what she was asking for it.

To plant the corn, grow it, tend to it, harvest it, sort it, bundle it, cook it, and then bring it inside the bus and to my seat—for 10 cents—sure, I'll buy some, and eat it with a smile.

The journey to Phonsavan was nothing short of visually stunning. My bus was an aging wonder, but as it busied itself by twisting and zigzagging along a precarious mountain road, I found myself captivated with the view outside my window.

As the vehicle advanced, I watched as valleys of lush, green jungle and rice unfolded before me—a raw sea of green climbing towards the sky on ancient limestone peaks, worn with age. Very few of the many thatched-roofed villages passed had strayed from traditional Lao home construction techniques, and I was overwhelming pleased to see an absence of corrugated steel.

The landscape frequently vanished into a white haze as the bus meandered along the winding trail. It took the better part of seven hours to reach our destination, and it couldn't have come too soon—I was starting to get motion-sick from the paved, serpentine path.


Born from the ashes of the former provincial capital of Xieng Khuang (that was bombed into oblivion during the U.S.'s Secret War), Phonsavan is nothing more than a collection of small stores, guesthouses, and government buildings in a otherwise drab, rural town. Folks certainly don't come here for the aesthetics of the city, but stick around long enough to visit to the Plain of Jars or take in the collections of war scrap that have been integrated into home construction.

I followed a trio of travelers off the bus and into town, exchanging a free ride in a van (with stops at various guesthouses) for a sales pitch. The city was much cooler than I was use to (I'd put my fleece on, although I'm sure it was still warm and tropical for most), and my only accommodation stipulation (other than price) was for hot water.

The recently constructed Sabaidee Guest House fit the bill, as a spacious, private room with king-sized bed and bathroom en suite was but a mere US$4/night. The van driver also doubled as a tour guide, and stuck around to make sure he had a chance to pitch everyone his services.

I listened to the first few minutes of his offerings, until he started getting to the ("high") prices, and decided to leave. The other three wanted to spend to make life simpler, whereas I usually save to make things more interesting.

Arriving in a new town is like opening a present on Christmas morning—it's the exact same feeling—and reading a subjective guidebook opinion is just like shaking the package the night before. I just can't wait to unwrap it.

As I walked around town in the cool, drizzly evening, I noticed there was little I found appealing about the place (other than its authentic mode of living without excessive impact from tourism). It's geographic position seems to have made Phonsavan a crossroads trading depot for goods (from China and Vietnam), and the city sort of gives off a border town feel.

Beginning the return to my guesthouse, I came across a girl playing a game with an older woman outside one of the garage-like storefronts. I sort of did a double-take as I walked past, returning to them after a few paces, thinking the photo of the pair would be worth my intruding on them slightly.

It's not usually my method to simply go up and take a photo in situations like this, but to simple stand a meter or so away, and take an interest in what the subject's doing—which I genuinely was, as I'd never see the game they were playing before. After a minute or so (and before the photo was taken), the girl turned to me and offered me a chair, but did so in English (which took me by surprise).

I sat and silently watched the game, trying to figure out the play patterns, when I finally broke the silence and asked the girl some easy questions in simple English. It turned out that the game I was watching was Chinese Chess, and that her opponent was her mother. Their family was from China, and she was 20 years old, spending her summer vacation away from Uni in China with her family (who'd moved to open the store we were in front of a little over a year ago).

Her English was okay—at about the same level as my Spanish (but with much better grammar). She relinquished the game to her father so that we could chat. I'd asked to take a few photos during the course of our conversation, and now it was her turn. Out came her camera, handed to the father, and the photo session began.

This was how I came to be adopted by a Chinese family from the Hunan Changsha Province for my duration in Phonsavan.

Making Plans

I was the first American Lizhen had ever met, and she remarked how differently I talked compared to her British-born language instructor back in China.

I followed her through the store and up a flight of stairs, so that I could meet the rest of her family. Her 18-year-old bother (Tianpeng) and 16-year-old cousin (Linghui) were both situated in their typical spots: At pair of oppositely-facing laptops, from which they spent the majority of their days playing multi-player games, instant-messaging, and downloading music.

Another friendly photo session ensued as the three rotated into a collection of group or single photos with me, countering with a snapshot of my own. The boys didn't speak any English, so the best I could do for an activity (and to better illustrate where I'd been) was to introduce them the snapshots gallery on Travelvice. Lizhen quickly became obsessed with the fact she thought I looked much more handsome with short hair and a shaved face (and repeatedly suggested over the course of our time in Phonsavan together that I revert to my youthful, "Corporate Craig" look, circa 2005).

Just as I was about to excuse myself to get back to the guesthouse for a shower and some food, when Lizhen invited me to join the family for dinner. I was particularly honored, and a enjoyed her mother and aunt's cooking immensely (finding myself eating a tasty form of rice that I'd never had before).

As we ate, the family chuckled at the way I held my chopsticks—peculiar to them, but perfectly functional. I tried to explain to them that chopstick technique is not taught in the United States, but often learned from trial-and-error, using the poorly drawn three-piece illustration on the packaging of a disposable set of the eating utensils: 1) Break apart chopsticks; 2) Hold like this; 3) Pick up food.

Lizhen asked what I was doing the next day, to which I replied I had only one more day in town, and was going to use it to visit the Plain of Jars. She immediately suggested an excursion to one of the sites by motorbike, joined by her brother and cousin—apparently they'd already discussed it.

I accepted her generous offer (for what was sure to be a particularly unique experience), and in doing so, couldn't help but think about the trio back at my guesthouse who'd undoubtedly opted to spend the day in the company of a paid tour guide. I'm sure their experience would be plenty informative and rewarding, but I was confident my time in Phonsavan was already more memorable for me than most (travelers who pass through the town).

Time to Eat

Setting the meeting time for this morning's meet was little interesting. The Mou family does everything based around the current time in China (one hour ahead), instead of local-Lao time. All the clocks in sight—be it on their wrists, computers, or hanging from a wall in the store—display the current time in China. When they talked about a time, it was China-time. It was like the family had just stepped off a flight and hadn't yet adjusted their clocks for the country.

I took the opportunity to pass through the city's morning food market (conveniently located near my guesthouse) before proceeding onto their shop. What a neat sight, and very much different than what had been seen in Thailand and Malaysia. The rural atmosphere really made me feel like I was back in Latin America, but with fun new foods to sample.

We idled above the shop for an hour or so, listening to music and explaining the particulars of a Travelvice photo when asked for the details. I didn't know it, but we were waiting for lunch to be served (China-time), and when we sat down I honestly didn't know how much more food I could put in my already breakfast-filled stomach.

Lizhen was hoping that I'd drive her brother's bike while she sat behind me, but I declined. This was not the time, place, or weather conditions (wet roads filled with cattle) to learn how to drive a manual-shifting motorbike. The boys knew the roads, and more importantly, knew how to drive. I jumped behind Linghui, the 16-year-old cousin, and we were off.

The Plain of Pots—Jar Site 1

I personally think "Plain of Pots" sounds a lot more catchy than "Plain of Jars"—but hey, that's just me. Some background information on this mysterious place:

Archaeologists believe that the jars were used 1,500–2,000 years ago, by an ancient race whose culture is now totally unknown. Most of the excavated material has been dated to around 500 BC–800 AD. Anthropologists and archeologists have theorized that the jars may have been used as funeral urns or perhaps storage for food.

Lao stories and legends claim that there was a race of giants who once inhabited the area. Local legend tells of an ancient king called Khun Cheung, who fought a long, victorious battle against his enemy. He supposedly created the jars to brew and store huge amounts of lao lao rice wine (whisky) to celebrate his victory.

There are total of more than 400 sites across the whole Plain of Jars that centers on the area of Xieng Khouang. They range from Khorat Plateau in Thailand in the south, through Laos and to North Cachar Hills in northern India. Archaeologists have found more similar burials in India. The jars appear to be laid in a linear path that was probably a trade route.

The jars are made of sedimentary rock, usually sandstone, but also granite, conglomerate or calcified coral. They are angular or round and some have disks that could be lids. They can weigh up to 14 short tons (13 metric tons) and range from 3 to 10 feet (1-3 meters) in height.

The jars lay in clusters. The largest one near the town of Phonsavan, known as Site 1, contains over 250 jars of varying sizes. The jars now lie amidst thousands of unexploded bombs left behind by the Secret War in Laos in the 1960s. The large quantity of UXOs (unexploded ordnances) in the area means that only Sites 1, 2 and 3 are open to visitors—the others are considered too dangerous.

The field was about what I expected, and though there are three jar sites in the greater Phonsavan area, I'd had my fill by the time it took us to meander around the place, snapping an excessively entertaining number of photographs. Visiting the site was certainly much more rewarding with the company I was mixed in with, than if I'd done it alone.

Trying to figure out what to do with the rest of the afternoon (there's not much to see but stone jars around this place), the four of us zoomed through the city, to a hilltop lookout with a view of Phonsavan. I thought the city looked a lot more attractive and modern from the vantage point than when you were in the middle of it.

We sprawled out on the grass and I asked Lizhen questions about the life cycle of rice, China, and her day-to-day life in Phonsavan. A normal day for this girl is to wake up late, eat breakfast, play cards with her parents, eat lunch, study, play chess, eat dinner, do whatever, and repeat. In the two months she'd been here she hadn't traveled around Laos, as she was afraid to do this alone (and her brother had no desire to do such things). I could see how my introduction into her life had brought with it a sudden surge of excitement.

I asked her what the ring on her wedding-finger represented, and got a laugh when I asked if she was married. It was just a gift from her mother, and in China, the wedding band goes on the right hand, not the left.

Throughout the day I tried to learn some Chinese, but the sounds are so wild and foreign to me it's exceedingly difficult—I've never tried to make such sounds with my mouth before. I was rather unsuccessful.

Lizhen asked what religion I practiced, and if I believed in God——something asked again by her father, trying to make conversation later that night. It would seem the Mou family is Christian, which came as a bit of surprise. They said roughly 10% of China is down with the Bible, which I thought to be quite a lot (for a country with a population of 1-billion+, and is still statistic I still need to check up on).

The trio returned me to my guesthouse in the late afternoon, so that I could shower and get ready for dinner (doing likewise themselves, returning to pick me back up about an hour later).

We motored to an obscure wooden restaurant next to a peaceful lake, where we sat and waited for the food to arrive. I was a little confused as to why we didn't order—no menus—but kept it to myself, as I knew things would be explained in due time.

The stages of the Chinese meal that unfolded before me warranted every photo taken—I'd never seen such a thing. Called Huo Guo, it first starts with a a bucket of coals are placed (in a hole) in the center of the table. On top of the coals goes a combination grill/soup bowl, that looks like the giant version of something you'd juice halved-oranges with.

Then, a strip of animal fat is rubbed around the cone of the grill, oiling it to keep the meat that's about to be placed on it from sticking to the metal. Broth is then ladled into the concave receptacle, where raw vegetables, noodles, and egg are added to make a soup.

A delicious peanut-based paste is brought to the table slightly in advance of the grill, from which you create your dipping sauce for your meat and veggies. The entire process is slow to ramp up, but once it gets going it's a really fun, social meal that seriously fills.

Lizhen told me how there's a joke in China about an clueless American who goes to eat Huo Guo at a restaurant, first sitting down and eating the basket of vegetables like a salad, and then drinking all the broth like a soup—I love hearing cultural jokes like these.

I tasted Beer Lao for the first time tonight, on my fifth night in the country. Geez—that's a super-sweet lager. It's like candy, it's so sugary. This beer is the beer for Laos (and for tourists to consume liter after liter of it). Lao totally makes bitch beer—no wonder it's so popular. (laughing) Good, though.

I wanted to pick up the bill for dinner, but there wasn't a check to be seen. Stuffed, we made our way back to the Mou home/store to upload the day's photos from my camera to their laptops, before playing some cards and calling it an evening.

I said my goodbyes, and got the particulars for my first contacts in China. I feel quite honored to have found myself wrapped up in this entire experience. It's absolutely amazing what language skills can do for you—Lizhen's, not mine, in this case—and what a little curiosity coupled with an outgoing personality can find yourself in the middle of.

Good times, great memories—but short-lived. My time in Laos is fleeting, so it's back on the road again tomorrow, where a nine-hour bus ride awaits to take me northwest, where a new town and new experiences await.


Craig Strong

July 26th, 2007

Awesome last image on the bikes.

Too cool.



Craig | travelvice.com

July 27th, 2007

Thanks Craig! There's a couple snaps, some with a wicked cool sky, but I think that one was the pick of the litter.


The CIA World Fact Book's stats on religion in China:
Daoist (Taoist), Buddhist, Christian 3%-4%, Muslim 1%-2%
note: officially atheist (2002 est.)

More information can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China#Religion

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