Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Nong Khiaw, Days 2 and 3

This part of Laos was bombarded especially heavily by the US during the war with Vietnam; from 1964 to 1973, as part of the Secret War operation conducted during the Vietnam War, the US military dropped 260 million cluster bombs – about 2.5 million tons of munitions – on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. This is equivalent to a planeload of bombs being unloaded every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years – nearly seven bombs for every man, woman and child living in Laos. It is more than all the bombs dropped on Europe throughout World War II, leaving Laos, a country approximately the size of Utah, with the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in history. The most widely used types of bombs were anti-personnel cluster bombs filled with 670 bomblets that were intended to explode on or shortly after impact. These bomblets, about the size of a tennis ball, are known as “bombies” in Laos. Each bombie contains around 250 steel pellets, which were meant to fire in a 2 to 4-meter radius when detonated, thus crippling but not killing enemy soldiers. Since the US hasn't even acknowledged having done this (until somewhat grudgingly, and incompletely, very recently), we have not even helped clean up the mess. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) accidents still continue at a rate of more than 200 per year. Even to this day, there is one UXO accident occurring at least every two days, and more than half of the victims die almost immediately. If victims survive, the explosion often causes severe injury, especially to the upper half of the body. Many survivors suffer from burns, blindness, deafness, paralysis and loss of limbs as a result of the explosion. Over half of the amputations are of the hand, lower and upper arm. Just in Nong Khiaw, a village of about 3,000 people, we see men who are missing arms and legs. You do not venture off the paths, here, for that reason. We were walking on an unpaved road outside of Nong Khiaw and I reached for an interesting-looking rock -- round, dark brown, with indentations all around. Marc stopped me -- might've been a bombie. As I always feel in Vietnam, I want to put my arms around every single Lao I meet and apologize for my country's actions, but that's ridiculous, and is only a momentary salve for my own conscience. Today when we were walking, we passed a man who was missing one entire arm, and he held a large knife between his shoulder stump and his leg so he could strip bamboo.

they often use bomb parts as grim decoration -- and sometimes they paint words and peace signs on them.
It's very painful and hard to be an American out in the world, and I am always so grateful for and bewildered by the real kindness the Lao and Vietnamese show us, despite this.

SO. Just as we did last year, we hired a boat to take us up the Nam Ou -- again, stopping at Ban Sop Jam, a tiny weaving village that could only be reached by boat last time, but is now accessible by a new road being built, and then stopping at Muang Ngoi on our way back to Nong Khiaw. Instead of having the boat all to ourselves, as we did last time, we shared it with Barry and Debra, two Californians we met at Mandala Ou who wanted to make the same trip. Barry had been to Muang Ngoi 12 years earlier, and they had just come from Bhutan. We did exactly the same things as last time: in Ban Sop Jam we walked through the village, spoke to children, and bought some handwoven scarves (and I admired the various looms); in Muang Ngoi we ate lunch at a different place than last time, and took a little stroll through the village.

So what was notable were the changes, in a two-year span. Last time we were there, at the far end of Ban Sop Jam was an elementary school, with two small pieces of handmade playground equipment including a fat piece of bamboo set up as a seesaw. The road that's under construction passes behind the village (and goes toward Muang Ngoi and then on to Nong Khiaw, we presume) so the school is gone. Surely it has just been relocated, but the village is SO SMALL we didn't see it replaced anywhere. There are lots of kids in the villages, so we just must not have spotted it.

When you come to Ban Sop Jam, there isn't a landing -- you just pull up at a kind of beach and scramble out, and then cross a long stretch of sand to find the stairs climbing up to the village. There was a huge piece of equipment on the sand bar, so the tiny village is definitely about to change, and perhaps dramatically.

the village

this greeted us as soon as we entered the village. Fish drying......

and a rat. Good thing we'd decided to eat in Muang Ngoi. 

lots of kids hanging around

and at least one loom outside every home, often two or three

handwoven scarves? hair washing?

Muang Ngoi seemed more developed too -- two new hotels being built, some new guest houses, and some new restaurants. Just as last time, though, having lunch was a very slow business. Barry and Debra wanted to do a bit of hiking behind Muang Ngoi, so we arranged to meet each other at the boat two hours later, and it took almost that amount of time to get our lunch. No idea why, but that happened last time, and at a different restaurant. Perhaps it's just the Muang Ngoi way. But oh it was delicious; Marc had pumpkin curry and I had yellow curry with vegetables. We had just enough time to walk to the Buddhist temple, and then back the other direction before it was time to get back to the boat.

Barry and Debra had collected a young Israeli man who needed a ride back to Nong Khiaw, so he joined us and he was so lovely. He commented on the horror of our election, and that was his word...and of course we all agreed. It has been hard to let go of the dread and misery we feel, even this far away. We have both tried, but it's just soaked into us and we know we'll return to it, even though we both also want to be here while we are here.

Have I written yet about the damn rooster? It's just a few feet from our room, and the first night it crowed all night long. We both hated it by the morning, and Marc thinks he may even have had a dream of killing it. Last night it didn't really get started crowing until about 3am, and I didn't ever get back to sleep after that. So when the sun was up, we decided to head over to the market in hopes of getting the sugary fried dough we got the first morning. I made my super strong coffee, and off we went.

the morning alms round in NK is dramatically different, and less theatrical, than the one in Luang Prabang.
Feeding the monks is one of the few ways for women to earn merit.

After breakfast, we decided to just ramble around town, and we thought we might try a designated walk we'd seen on various maps. It went straight up one of the karst mountains. I actually thought it was great fun, and I'm a scaredy cat! I get scared to the point of paralysis when my feet feel like they're slipping, but in this case the climb was rocky, plenty of places to grab hold of something sturdy, and there were trees and thick vines. But the rocks were very sharp and jagged, and if either of us had fallen, I shudder to think what those rocks would've done to us. The bigger issue was the verticality -- we went pretty far, I was so proud of us, and then decided to head back down, since down is a little more complicated and maybe scarier than climbing up. And it was, but it was fine. At the beginning of the hike we passed an older Lao woman collecting wood, and when we were coming back down she laughed a bit. She could probably scramble straight to the top while carrying a basket of wood. But I don't care, it was really so much fun. I was proud of myself, because it's not as if I wasn't afraid; I was, but I felt like I could do it, and when I felt the fear start to tremble just a little bit, I'd anchor my foot and grab a rock or tree and just step out. Going down I frequently squatted and kind of sat my way down the mountain, but that's ok with me too!

the path wasn't always this good or clear

scared and proud, yo!

that was the view

and the handholds were like this -- or sometimes just sharp pointy rocks.
But ooh boy, that's a kind of physical activity I'm not at all used to, and by the time we were down on the street again, my thighs were quivering and a couple of times I thought my legs were going to give out and drop me to the ground. While I recovered, Marc took a walk to the Buddhist monastery in town, which seems to have been refurbished a bit since we were here last.

It's been great being back in Nong Khiaw, and we're so looking forward to our next stop, which is Mairood, on the coast of Thailand.

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