Saturday, July 30, 2011

Plain of Jars 2

NB: these next two posts are a bit out of chronological order. Back in Laos, we traveled east to the Plain of Jars, an area filled with mysterious and giant stone jars, some six feet tall. Like Stonehenge, experts can only guess at the purpose these jars served for their ancient shapers. Also like Stonehenge, the stone for the jars came from hundreds of miles away, across entire mountain ranges, and today we have no clue how such heavy and breakable things were transported so far.

We visited the three largest Jar sites, but there are hundreds. The mystery of the jars was enhanced by the incredible views -- bright green fields that rolled away forever, and intricately fluffy clouds in the distance. (Most of the sites were built on hilltops.)

The rough bus ride here was worth it. The Jars sites were amazing and virtually deserted but for our 5-person group and our guide.

Trekking through a rice paddy to reach the first site:

Break for lunch - noodle soup with egg and herbs

On the way back, we also saw a rusty old Russian tank, half buried by the earth…

…and a whisky (moonshine) “distillery” run by a friendly old woman with no teeth. We all took shots. It tasted sweet and warm from the sun – not as bad as I expected!

Karen and me in front of the largest jar. The clouds in the background only begin to capture the spectacular-ness of that sky.

We found a cool cave that may or may not have functioned as a crematorium back in the Time of the Jars, but made for some good silhouettes.

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Plain of Jars 1

The beautiful scenery in the Plain of Jars was marred by obvious traces of the American carpet-bombing of this province in its attempt to interrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail. (The US didn’t know exactly where the trail was, so instead it essentially just bombed anywhere that was flat or harbored a waterway.)

(Pon Savan is in the midde of the upper red area.)
From Make Me One With Everything

Bombs have left either deep holes now filled with ferns, or bare circular patches devoid of much plant life at all, and in some places just charred dirt. Entire hillsides are bare, our guide said, because nothing but short grasses would grow there thanks to Agent Orange.

From Make Me One With Everything

We also visited the MAG Information Center (source of the two pics above). MAG is an inspiring non-profit whose mission is to clear Laos of unexploded ordnance (UXO), meter by careful meter. Up to 1/3 of the bombs didn’t explode when they landed, which would be a good things except for the fact that instead, they are exploding slowly each year when farmers hit one with a plow or kids find a “bombie” (the local name for cluster bomblets) and mistake it for a tennis ball.

The parts are collected for scrap metal by the desperately poor (leading to many deaths), or used as decoration by most of the restaurants we visited...

(The owners of this restaurant clearly had a sense of humor when deciding on a name, albeit a dark one.)

The flat land that was targeted is also the best kind of land on which to build roads, schools, and new farmland. This unfortunate circumstance is one of, if not the biggest factor keeping the region from pulling itself up from marginal subsistence farming.

MAG is inspiring because they clear thousands of UXO per year while giving men and women (!) a good job that earns them the respect and gratitude of their communities. This is particularly impressive for the all-women teams, as they are helping to shift Lao perceptions of women’s potential contributions. I was delighted and somewhat surprised to learn that no one has been killed working for MAG.

(Don’t worry, family, MAG focused first on completely clearing the Jars sites, as this was a requirement for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, which would bring valuable tourism dollars to the region. Still, you will be glad to know that we didn’t veer off the marked path!)

It was strange to be an American in this land that was devastated by US warplanes, yet the people seem to harbor no apparent ill will toward us. When they hear we are from California, they smile and respond by asking about either Hollywood or Obama. Perhaps they understand that the people of any nation are not the ones making the decisions, even in a democratic republic like ours.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Crumbling paint and colorful lights

On the bus to Hoi An from Hue, we stopped for a rest. A bit of wandering was rewarded:

Hoi An itself is adorable, its old quarter spared from wartime bombing. At night the place is aglow with colored lanterns everywhere.




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What language barrier?

On the boat to the Pagoda Temple we made friends with this adorable little girl, Nha, and her parents. Nha didn't believe her mom that we couldn't speak Vietnamese, so told me many secrets with her hand to my ear. I just smiled and told her some secrets back. Her mom found the whole exchange hilarious, which it was.

From Make Me One With Everything

Tombs 2

After the tombs, we were bused to an incense factory...
...and then to a garden in the back of an ancient traditional house, were we saw many of the fruits we have been eating for the past two months, but still on their trees.

On to the boat...

...which took us to the Pagoda Temple (seven stories tall, a lucky number.)

Behind the pagoda was the monastery, which smelled like pine needles and had a great view of a massive cemetery.

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Tombs 1

The day after visiting the kings' Palace, we went to see their tombs.

The grounds were gorgeous...

However, sometimes the king's ego got a wee bit too large, and the people rebelled against having to pay 30% tax and having to send the father of each family to go work on tomb construction.

Below, statues of royal mandarins (court officials) guard the king's autobiography, etched in Chinese characters on a 20-ft stone tablet.

A Tomb with a View!

After the tomb visits, we were treated to a performace of traditional dragon dance (highly entertaining)...

...and martial arts with various weapons like sticks, swords, and fans.

Then I got myself a conical straw rice paddy hat. Sun protection!

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

More Imperial Hue

A few more pics from inside the Imperial Compound (once restricted to only the Emperor, his concubines, and the harmless eunuchs):

The surrounding moat, filled with lotus plants.

My old high school volleyball coach told us that "girls don't sweat, they glow." He was wrong.

Riding by soccer practice on our way home.

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