Wednesday, September 22, 2004

And so on to little Laos. This country is so laid back it's almost horizontal. Boats that leave at 8.30 usually end up chugging away from the dock at 10; used dinner plates will sit uncleared at a restaurant table for hours; citzens lie back dozing in the shady spots; and everyone lazily greets you "sabai di" as you stroll past in the sun. This land is almost entirely jungle with a few clearances for towns and villages mostly along the Mekong. Life here begins early in the morning and peters out in the early evening. There is genuine friendliness here - no wonder everybody loves Laos.

But, like the population of two of it's neighbours Vietnam and Cambodia, the people of Laos went through terrible hardships during the US occupation of the region. Between 1964 and 1973, in direct contravention of the 1962 Geneva Convention recognising Laos' neutrality and forbidding the presence of all foreign military personnel, the US made this land the most bombed in history - in fact more bombs were dropped here in that period than were dropped during the entire campaign of World War II by all sides. Laos was of huge strategic importance and the administration, especially Nixon's, thought that pressurising Laos and Cambodia might shorten the conflict in Vietnam and lead to a less embarrassing US pullout.

To evade the Geneva Convention - perhaps in law, if not in spirit, the US made air force pilots wear civilian clothes temporarily declaring them to be civilian pilots and placed CIA agents in foreign aid posts. The North Vietnamese soldiers didn't even bother to do that. The name "Laos" was banned from all communications - being referred to simply as "the other theatre". Almost every rule of engagement that had to be observed over Vietnam could be safely ignored.

The Laos governemt at this time was nothing less than a puppet of the Americans. The Laos economy was almost entirely reliant on US money and inflation has been rampant. Today, one US dollar is worth 10,000 kip.

The statistics of The Secret War make for sober reading. The number of air sorties over Laos totalled 580,944 by 1973, 50 per cent more than took place over Vietnam - making it one plane load of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years, costing US taxpayers US$2 million per day. By the end the bombing amounted to approximately 1.9 million metric tonnes per square kilometer - over half a tonne for every Laotian man, woman and child.

To help them, the US recruited 60,000 Hmong hill tribe villagers to fight in the war. These soldiers were paid with funds earned via CIA-supported opium trafficking, although they were a very poor force which lost almost every battle they fought.

When one visits a country, sees its beauty and meets its wonderful people, it becomes almost impossible to read such histories and avoid the feeling of disgust. Hence my eagerness to describe it here. Very few people are aware of what happened here. The history of Cambodia is arguably even more atrocious. Western governments have been guilty of following abstract political philosophies for decades at enourmous human costs. The ridiculous thing is, these philosophies often turn out to be borne out of a sence of superiority and end in spectacular failure and disaster. In this case communism, poverty and destruction weighed heavily on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the years after the US pullout which in the case of the economies of Laos and Cambodia was akin to pulling the foundations out from under an already tottering building.

I'm currently residing in Luang Prabang - I try to avoid the word, but it can only be decribed as quaint. A tiny town on the spot where the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers meet, old buildings and markets vie for the tourist kip.

Monks trudging down a busy Luang Prabang street. A common sight.

This compares with Bangkok which I have just vacated. On my last day I saw 'The Terminal' at a cinema for 600 bhat. That's eight British pounds. Extremely expensive as it is akin to British prices. The difference was that I sat on a leather sofa with one remote control to recline the seat and another to select one of the seat's many massage programs. I got a waitress service, free drinks, and arguably the greatest toilet seats on the continent. Mmmm....

Friday, September 10, 2004

Last week I temporarily vacated Bangkok for the town of Kanchanaburi - a standard looking town three hours north west of Bangkok via a 25 bhat train journey. This journey was marred somewhat by a very drunken local attempting to teach me Thai boxing number one in the world in Thai for the majority of the journey. It was later made more interesting as I had to verbally maneuver around some pleasant but persistent touts attempting to make their commission by convincing me to stay at particular guesthouses. I beat them all by taking myself to Apple's Guesthouse - a place that doesn't need to sell itself is usually preferable I find.

Kanchanaburi is made special due to its geographical location - near Bangkok and beside the Burmese border; also overlooking the Kwai River - this town was the perfect place for a bridge providing passage for trains passing through Burma and into India from the east. And so it came to be: during WWII the Japanese rounded up their Allied POWs and set them to work on a railway which would serve such a purpose and their srategic interests. Prominence for Kanchanaburi was sealed by the David Lean film Bridge Over The River Kwai which is an inaccurate tale but yet supplies Alec Guinness with the opportunity to produce a stirling performance.

The River Kwai Bridge, Kanchanburi - and the train heading for Bangkok.

Visitors of all ages flock to see the (fairly unremarkable looking) bridge, a well maintained Allied war cemetery, and to partake in the town's other activities. And luckily there are many. Tours take in a series of stunning nearby waterfalls, elephant bathing, more examples of POW efforts on the railway, rafting, a monkey school (which I missed!) and even a tiger sanctuary ran by a Buddhist monastery where I was one of a number of tourists to stroke the fur of a couple of fully grown adult tigers. Such is the beauty and immensity of these animals - one cannot help but be awed into a silenced reverie.

I did this last excursion as a half day trip. I couldn't help but notice on my receipt the very carefully and deliberately written words No Insurance. I avoided wearing red, but it was okay; the tigers ignored me - they were hand-raised from birth, contentedly fat, and probably drugged to the eye balls. Which is morally acceptable if monks are doing it surely...

I petted this. Pretty cool eh?

Typically for a tourist town Kanchanaburi serves up a string of bars and restaurants offering western and Thai fare. And as is usual in this part of the world they saturate the market to the extent that a single traveler finds it difficult to find a bar with the busy hustle of people meeting each other over a drink. Instead customers are spread out such that the average number in a place is between none and three. Classic south east Asia annoyance.

I rarely offer many recommendations on these pages, and it is about time I started. I shall immediately address this oversight with a plug for Apple's guesthouse restaurant - possibly serving the best Thai food I have eaten and deserving of their excellent reputation. Apple's also do a cooking school and their one day tour was superb. The rooms are okay although at a meager 150 bhat per night I have nothing to complain about - but bring your earplugs if you want to avoid being forced to listen to the chat of the residents in the adjacent room to yours.

And I will further compensate for my past ineptitude by recommending a superb guesthouse in downtown Bangkok: Suk 11 is air conditioned throughout, is extra clean, enormously friendly and I don't stay anywhere else in the city I have returned to for the next few days.

Ah, air conditioning... the second greatest invention in human history...

Meanwhile, Stav has put up some picures from her stay at Cool Bananas guesthouse in Agnes Waters, Australia. Don't expect to see me featured too much, but they do illustrate the sort of thing I had to put up with whilst I was there.