Sunday, April 27, 2014

It Must Have Been Quite the Party

The Plain of Jars ranks alongside Stonehenge in the annals of how the hell did they do that without cranes? Scattered over the hills and vales of the central Xieng Khouang plateau, the Plain of Jars is something of a misnomer, as there are 90 individual sites. The megalithic jars come in ones and threes and hundreds; upright, sideways, tilted, or with giant holes in the middle. Some have lids, others' lids have fallen off, but remarkably few were blown apart during the US bombing of Laos. Only a handful of sites have been cleared of UXO, though, and these only in 2004 and 2007.

We stayed in Phonsavanh, a provincial capital close to three major jar sites. We rented a 125cc Chinese motorbike and coated our lungs and clothes with red dust to get to the jar sites. The road looked more like a construction zone than anything else most of them time, and sometimes we had to wait for the cows to pass.

The visitors' center at the bottom of Jars Site 1 was only erected in August 2013; it's a shack with vinyl posters of information in English about the history of the sites and ongoing efforts to make them safe for visitors.We visited sites 1, 2, and 3, and each of them was different: 2 was at the top of a hill overlooking swathes of farmland; 3 was in the midst of a forest grove with trees shooting through the cracking jars; and 1 comprised hundreds of jars wrapped around the fields and hillocks surrounding a large cave.

There are simply some places that feel sacred, and this is one.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The World's Most Heavily Bombed Nation

Before we can move from Luang Prabang to our next destination, the Plain of Jars, we need to talk about bombs. During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped over 2 million tons of explosive ordinance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions, in an attempt to disrupt the North Vietnamese supply train. That's the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. During the war, American bombs killed 30,000 civilians, blew up countless valuable livestock, and left thousands of villages burning. It's estimated that 30% of these bombs failed to detonate, leaving the country littered with unexploded ordinance (UXO). The worst of these are cluster munitions, which contain hundreds of individual bomblets or bombies, which are candy-colored tennis balls of lethal explosive. They look a lot like toys, and there are about 80 million of them littering the Lao countryside. This is what a cluster bomb does when it explodes:

Since the war ended, 20,000 people have been maimed or killed because of UXO explosions. Forty percent of them are children. That's about 300 people every year, almost every day. Nearly a third of the country is contaminated by UXO: all 17 of the country's provinces, a quarter of all villages, 41 of the 47 poorest districts, and a quarter of usable farmland. Subsistence farmers have no choice but to risk their limbs or their lives on their farmland, because the other option is starving. Should something happen, that person's family must somehow survive. Sometimes that means sending children to work instead of to school, furthering a cycle of poverty that has kept Laos among the 20 poorest countries in the world.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Maybe...idiom": Evenings at Big Brother Mouse

Everyone wants to learn English. For better or worse, our native language—or, in Step’s case, one of her native languages—is in high demand worldwide.

Both of us love language, of course, and we’re nerds about it. Yet it does not escape us that the enthusiasm for practicing English that we’ve encountered among people in Southeast Asia is not quite about the innate beauty of the language. It’s about financial security. You can make much more money doing business in English (i.e. with foreigners) than if you do business only in Southeast Asian languages, or even in Mandarin. In the Beijing airport, for example, which we passed through on our way from San Francisco to Bangkok, all major signs are in two languages only: Mandarin and English. For now, those of us who happen to be native speakers of English have a substantial advantage when it comes to the international marketplace.

At Mae Mut Garden, as we’ve mentioned, we volunteered to assist the English teachers at the local Thai school. Each of us went, individually, on a total of maybe five or six different days over a three- or four-week span. There, assisting a young full-time volunteer teacher from the UK, we worked entirely in English with students aged nine to fourteen on a range of enigmas including the names of shapes, prepositions of space and time, and questions.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ock Pop Tok!

Different stages of the Hmong New Year skirt.

I knew very little about weaving before coming to Laos. I still don’t know how to weave, but at least after our hours-long visit to Ock Pop Tock’s workshop in Luang Prabang, I know how it’s done, and just how complicated the doing is.

In almost every village in Southeast Asia, there are women weaving traditional textiles in dozens of ways. Some use cube-shaped bamboo looms, others use backbrace looms like the one we saw in the Karen village. In many villages, husbands build their wives custom-sized looms, combs, shuttles, and beaters. Brightly patterned cotton and silk scarves are sold at every other market stall in Southeast Asia, and half claim to be handmade. Whether they actually are, or whether the weaver was paid a living wage, are both gnarly questions.

Ms Yi is one of the young artisans inventing new and wildly complicated patterns for her weaving. Every part of the pattern is reflected in the off-white threads attached to the loom; it takes hours to attach.

Ock Pop Tok, which means “East and West” in Lao, sells only hand-crafted products with natural dyes, made by women paid a living wage, which is four times as much as they might be paid from another shop. The fair-trade company also develops relationships with dozens of individual villages all over Laos, and in conjunction with NGO partners, is one of the reasons why textile production lives on in these remote places.

This means that the prices are more akin to those you’d see in the West, but I’d much rather spend more knowing that I wasn’t supporting sweatshop labor in Cambodia. Most entrancingly, the workshop is open to the public, and there are free tours every day. It was one of the best days we spent in the entire country, and I learned a lot. More learning after the cut!