This time next year - April 14

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I'm playing fast-and-loose with the TTNY schedule these days because at this point it's really all just speculation. My itinerary is now in version 3462937.1 or so, but what the heck, let's forge ahead! Maybe I should start calling these posts STNY (Some Time Next Year)...

Laos is a small, mountainous, land-locked country in southeast Asia, sandwiched between China, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma (or as it is referred to in news reports: "alsoknownasMyanmar"). The population is just over 6 million and the currency is the engagingly named "Kip", though apparently there are not nearly enough Kip for all those 6 million people, because Laos is one of the poorest countries in the area. With its proximity to backpacker favourites like the beaches of Thailand, the temples of Cambodia, and the phở of Vietnam, Laos is southeast Asia's forgotten destination. That's exactly why I'm looking forward to visiting, and may even forgo some of those hotspots to spend a bit more time in Laos. Laos was also featured in the Fall 2008 issue of Verge, so I'm all keen on it now.

The official language of Laos is Lao, whose written alphabet is quite beautiful. Here's the Lao national motto ("Peace, Independence, Democracy, Unity and Prosperity") written in script:

Isn't that great?

Luang Prabang is the former capital of Laos, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (noted as "Louangphrabang" on the map above). It's got 66 temples, half of which are still in use, lots of traditional Lao wooden houses, and bits of European architecture from when Laos was a French colony. Also, the whole place is positively crawling with Buddhist monks, many of whom are young novices (or whatever a trainee Buddhist monk is called). To give you an idea of the pace of life in Luang Prabang, one of the big tourist activities is to line the streets to give alms to the monks who walk silently through the town at 6 am, with alms bowls around their necks. (In fact it's the Buddhist villagers the monks really rely on, the tourist are just there, well, being tourists). I'm going to direct you once again to Jake at "around the world", his post on Luang Prabang makes me want to go there. Now. Probably you should skip reading the rest of this post and go read Jake's stuff because he was actually there, and I'm just cribbing from Wikipedia. And here's a photo from that same post:

Moving out of the city, let's talk about another site in Laos that seems just fantastic. In fact, it's actually many sites, know collectively as the Plain of Jars. And that's just what it is - more than 400 sites of gigantic carved rock jars, ranging in height from three to ten feet, and weighing up to 13 metric tonnes. Archeologists are not really sure why they're there; some think they were funerary urns for cremated human remains, and some speculate they were for collecting rainwater for passing travelers, since many of the jars lie along a possible trade route. I like the Lao legend that a race of giants once lived in the area. There's also a story that an ancient king, prevailing in a long fought battle over his enemies, used the jars to brew enormous batches of rice wine to celebrate his victory.

Unfortunately most of the clusters of jars are not open to tourists, or anyone else, because they're surrounded by thousands of unexploded bombs. Apparently, the Laotian Civil War in the sixties and seventies "included significant participation by the North Vietnamese Army, American, and South Vietnamese military forces" and they left a lot of stuff behind after massive bombardments. Jar sites one, two and three are open to visitors, but it seems the funding to clear any other sites has run out. This means that Laotian efforts to have the Plain of Jars declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site are stalled, and makes it difficult to conduct any more scientific analysis of the area.

How is it that I can be a reasonably well-educated person and never even have heard of this whole Plain of Jars thing before I opened up the Wikipedia article about Laos? Seriously - an entire area of gigantic stone monoliths of unknown origin and purpose? It seems like the Plain of Jars should be up there with Stonehenge. How many other fantastic and unknown-to-me things will I stumble on while I'm out there? The mind boggles.


Heather Moore said...

I've never heard of the Plain of Jars either and I'm an avid travel reader. I look forward to your discoveries!

Karen said...

Nope, I never heard of it either.

Perhaps in prep for your trip to Laos we should go out for dinner to the yummy Laotian restaurant in St. Boniface. I'd love an excuse to go there for dinner!

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