inconsistent news from southeast asia

Travel time: September 2005 - March 2006  |  by Matthew Audley

Killing Time in Phonsavahn

Oct. 30 we took a bus to Phonsavahn, aiming to see the plain of jars there and then head over the border into Vietnam by Nov. 4th when our visas were to expire.

After another day spent on a bus on Laos' questionable roads we arrived to discover that it's actually COLD in Phonsavan this time of year. The locals are all bundled up in hats and coats, but it's much like the weather in Toronto in October and i'd be comfortable if i only had a sweater. The town is beautiful and desolate in equal measure. Lots of pictures to be taken.

bus station, phonsavan

bus station, phonsavan

it's a black and white town. i swear the sky was like that for five days straight.

it's a black and white town. i swear the sky was like that for five days straight.

The whole town smells of wood fires, especially their ramshackle market. It's this huge wooden structure with lots of holes in the roof and no lighting at all. You can get an excellent bowl of noodle soup for dirt cheap.

Day 49 (nov. 1) was another chilly day. Yes, it's a bit cold, even during the day (cold being relative, i suspect. It's easy to get used to 30 degree weather.)

Also, it's plain of jars day. The day before, we'd scheduled a tour, but ended up having to find a place where we could get our Vietnam visas for less than $120 EACH (ended up paying 65, so it was well worth it - we have days to kill in phonsavahn waiting for our visas now anyway).

The plain of jars wasn't as visually spectacular as i'd imagined in my head, but was still an interesting day. The jars in question are about one and a half to three metres tall and are clustered around three main sites. We're told they're 2500-3000 years old but nobody really has any idea what they were used for. Local lore says they were used to brew lao-lao (rice whisky, home brewed - it's illegal but very popular here and not all that bad tasting, in fact.) after a victory of a great king in this province. Archeologists would have us believe they were used for burial, though no human remains were ever found in any of the jars; rather, they were found buried under the jars in smaller jars.

it's a bunch of jars. big. jars.

it's a bunch of jars. big. jars.

inside a jar.

inside a jar.

So, there's not all that much to say about the jars themselves. I found it far more intesting to learn more about the area's recent history and ongoing problems with unexploded ordinance (UXO). This is one of two provinces that was heavily bombed by the U.S. and there are still many UXO accidents - lots of poor farmers who know better still try to defuse the bombs because they can sell them for $15-20.

It was nice to get an opportunity to ask lots of nagging questions, like why lots of men here have long finger nails and our guide was very helpful.

The next TWO DAYS were spent doing very little. I wandered around getting stared at while i took pictures quite a bit. It's a little weird and intimidating the way people stare in this tiny town. Most of the tourists come for the plain of jars tour and are gone the next morning.

goodbye phonsavan.

goodbye phonsavan.

Day 52 is a day that will live in infamy. I don't think it's possible to express the magnitude of our suffering.

The plan (which, i admit, is scary) was as follows:

Up at 5:30.

Meet the man that's getting us our visas at his GH at 6:00.

Go with said man to meet his brother (i know) at the bus station.

Get on the 6:30 bus and get out of this tiny little cold town.

So we arrive five minutes late for item number one there. The GH is deserted except for some guy sleeping on the front couch. He wakes up immediately, but doesn't speak a word of English and has no idea what we're talking about. There is some panicking here. Finally, a courageous decision was reached. We split up - one to the bus station and one to stay at the GH in the hopes that our guy may still show up there.

I'm waiting at the GH at 6:25 when a van pulls up, and apparently it's the brother. Our visas are at the bus station with Catherine. I caught a tuk-tuk and made it just on time. Sadly, this is only the beginning.

It's some three hours bus ride to the border. Not so bad. We've got some DALIYUAN PIES to tide us over for a while. No, i don't know what they are. They look like chocalatey things and taste sort of like cognac.

The border (which is newly opened to tourists) is the ordeal that was promised. We are treated like criminals and my carefully packaged fragile stuff is uncarefully unpackaged. Also, there's nowhere to exchange money and nowhere to buy food.

The road from the border is not paved at all, and it's steep and windy (par for the course for Laos). Not five minutes from the border, the bus starts to slide going around a corner and we're all forced to get out for 15 minutes while it gets unstuck.

It's not over yet, oh no. For hours it's really slow going, paved periodically. We stop in a small Vietnamese town and I figure they'll take Kip because it's close to the border. Wrong... There's nowhere to exchange it, either. So .. we starve!

I'm not sure what i can possibly say about the rest of the trip. It's some 36 hours without food by the time we get there. Everything irritates the hell out of me and vietnamese people seem to like to sing and whistle on long bus rides.

On arrival we were quickly introduced to the harsh realities of Vietnamese sales tactics. Vihn is a dirty, crummy, noisy city and we wander around in the dark for a while locating a bank machine, food, and a hotel room.

The hotel, however, is spectacular. Completely unlike what we're used to. A/C, TV, little toothbrushes and combs to steal. It costs more but you can't find the lousy accomodations we're used to here.

We survived but it was certainly a bad day. We decided to leave Vihn ASAP as it really doesn't seem to have much going for it.

perhaps this says something about the day in question.

perhaps this says something about the day in question.

Day 53 was another damn bus day. The bus station in Vihn was a scary scene with the crowding and the yelling all at once and the grabbing. A policeman showed up to get them to back off a bit. Then there was all the pressure just trying to get some food for the bus - ended up with BREAD and WATER. Nothing but class for us.

So we ended up taking a private bus, scared as hell that there was some con going on. I think we verified the price about four times and still weren't comfortable until we were on our way. It turned out fine, but there was no one on the bus when we were waiting around the station - all the locals get picked up along the way.

Arrival in Hanoi is another scary scene. No, it's not getting much less scary. We ended up at a really nice place that's cheaper than anything listed in LP, even, so i can't complain. And we still have a private bathroom and cable TV - i'm fairly certain they don't know what a shared bathroom is.

I can watch soccer anytime I like, thanks to ESPN - which is 24 hour soccer here. Hoorah.

Day 54 was our first real day in Hanoi and it didn't take long at all for Hanoi to redeem my failing impressions of Vietnam. Looks like Hanoi is a a real live contemporary metropolis and it's much easier not to get noticed. We got up late the first morning and stopped by a communist propaganda art store before hitting the sandwhich bar where I had the first REAL COFFEE I've had since i left. Really, the first cup of coffee that tastes anything like home and it managed to dispell the homesickness that was creeping in at an alarming rate over the last few days of crapness.

This city seems to have a lot to offer and we haven't even begun to scratch the surface.

you can'you can't go far here without the sweet smell of communist propaganda. i love it.

you can'you can't go far here without the sweet smell of communist propaganda. i love it.

© Matthew Audley, 2005
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The trip
Leaving for bangkok on Sept. 12. Where we go from there is anyone's guess. Hoping to see Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. Be back in six months or so if everything goes well. There really isn't much of a route planned - we'll see what happens.
Start of journey: Sep 12, 2005
Duration: 6 months
End of journey: Mar 19, 2006
Travelled countries: Thailand
Southeastern Asia
The Author
Matthew Audley is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 19 years.
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