March 2008


A friend was telling me about the “Duck Game” that was played at the Lao Wat Phou festival. It’s a simple game that the whole family can play. All you need is a pond with some ducks, and two players or more. There was a concert happening at the Wat Phou festival at the announcer commentated the participants playing the duck game. The contestants had to go to the pond of ducks and grab one. Whoever grabbed a duck won the game. You couldn’t use a slingshot or anything to kill the ducks, you had to try and sneak up behind them. Several people gave the game a go but nobody won. In Sydney the new gladiators TV game show is being heavily promoted. I think I would rather watch an hour of the duck game being played.

Bomb Harvest is an Australian made documentary about bomb disposal in Laos. To give you a blurb:In Laos, over two million tonnes of bombs were dropped during a war that at the time no-one knew about; the so-called ‘secret war’. Now, thirty-five years later, the casualties from these unexploded ordnances or bombs are on the increase.A new documentary that premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival explores the consequences of war as it follows an Australian bomb disposal specialist, training locals in the skill of detonating bombs while trying to stop the locals, particularly children, from finding them and using them for scrap metal.I saw the documentary last week and thought it was excellent. I think they captured aspects of Lao culture really well. The main protagonist in the film is an Australian bomb disposal engineer who is helping to train a team of Lao people. He’s very likable and his sense of humour was really compatible with his Lao compatriots. When they ask him if he wants a Lao wife he tells them that he does but they don’t like him because he’s fat and ugly.A google video of the documentary (condensed to 1 hour rather than 88 minutes) can be found here.An ABC radio interview with the creators of the film can be found here.A criticism of the film I have is that it never gives the audience the facts on how many unexploded bomb casualties there are in Laos per year. These figures are hidden from the audience. The dramatic nature of the film exaggerates their impact. According to mineaction.org the casualties were 109 (2003), 194 (2004), 164 (2005), 49 (2006), 70 (first half of 2007). This compares with road accident casualties for 2003 (see here) by official police figures of 6,646 (415 deaths and 6,231 injuries) and by estimates 19,271 (581 deaths and 18,690 injuries).I’m not trying to show that unexploded bombs are not a serious problem in Laos, they certainly are and groups combating the problem deserve your support. I’m instead trying to point out that bombs are not such a big problem in Laos that they should make you scared to visit the place. I’ve heard from at least one person who changed their mind about visiting Laos after seeing this documentary, so I’m concerned it may have an impact on the tourism industry.Most bomb casualties are from people trying to dismantle the bomb for scrap metal. Unless you’re planning to do that in your holiday in Laos I think you can expect to come home alive.

Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)

The wounds inflicted by the U.S. military’s covert Vietnam-era operations in Laos still run deep, as evidenced by “The Betrayal” (“Nerakhoon”), which details one Lao family’s harrowing efforts to start a new life in America. More than two decades in the making, this heartfelt debut docu feature by veteran cinematographer Ellen Kuras brings an affecting personal dimension to a sprawling sociopolitical narrative, intimately detailing how the agendas designed to advance the interests of nations can destroy individual lives. Results signal a long, well-traveled life on the fest circuit and on television, with limited theatrical play also a possibility.

From Variety (read more)

After one year abroad I’m now back in Australia. I am hoping to write more about my recent time in Laos now that I have some time on my hands and a much faster internet connection. There are a lot of photos I need to upload too.

The trip home was extremely rushed. I caught a bus from Pakse (in southern Laos) back to Vientiane on the Sunday evening. It left at 8pm as was meant to arrive at 6am the next day. The bus broke down and in the end it look me over 24 hours to get back to Vientiane. With my flight back to Australia at 1:30pm the next day there was a frantic rush to pack everything up and say goodbyes. In a way I think the fact that things happened so quickly was good. I didn’t have much time to dwell on how sad it was to leave.

One hour and about 60kms out from Pakse our bus broke down. The bus driver tried to fix it over the next few hours. As far as I could tell their attempts to fix it involved looking at the engine for a few minutes, trying to start the engine again, then standing around and doing nothing for half an hour. Repeat this process several times. I ended up going to sleep and woke up at about 1am. At this stage the bus was still stopped and a New Zealand girl told me another bus would be coming in the morning at 7:00am to drive us to Vientiane. They stopped the bus in the middle of the lane and didn’t even bother to try moving it to the side of the road.

The second bus arrived the next morning one and a half hours late. After 15 minutes driving it stopped for breakfast. Someone said at the start of the trip that we’d be in Vientiane by 2:00pm and that after the breakfast stop the bus wouldn’t stop again. They were a little bit off the mark. The bus continued to stop about ever 45minutes. Sometimes it was for a toilet stop, sometimes it was to buy food, and at other time it was to buy bottles of honey and bags of dried wood. The bus finally arrive in Vientiane at about 8pm, almost 24 hours after we started. The original night bus should only have taken 10 hours. I have rarely endured such tests of patience before.

All the Lao people on the bus were extremely patient. No one complained or even looked cranky, they were all just sucking it up. The few foreigners on the bus were also pretty good about the ordeal. There was a lot of laughing about how nightmarish the trip had become and how at least it would make a good story. This compares with my experience with some absolutely vile backpackers who wouldn’t stop whinging about how they had to spend two hours being driven around in a minivan before finally heading off to their final destination. My worse experiences with people this year have been with obnoxious foreigners acting extremely disrespectfully to Lao people. It’s sad because I can see years of this abuse will diminish the Lao culture of friendliness to foreigners. Places like Vang Vieng, which put up with some of worse behaviour, seems to have noticeably less friendly people.

This was by far the worse bus trip I’ve had in Laos. The bus trip from Vientiane to Pakse was actually very fast and pleasant. Don’t let my story put you off bus trips or travel in Laos. It’s an extreme instance that you’re very unlikely to encounter.

The bus was a new Chinese one. I think they’re far worse than the older buses donated by Japan. The older buses break down all the time too, but they know how to fix them quickly. I’ve heard lots of people have problems with their buses breaking down but they usually report that the problem is fixed in a couple of hours. Not the case for our bus.

The buses I caught were these dreadful sleeper buses. Instead of seats they line the bus with two layers of single size beds. Every bed is assigned two people, so if you’re travelling alone you have to sleep in very close proximity to a stranger. The back seats are replaced with a single large bed that five people sleep in. I’d highly recommend you go for a regular seated type if you’re catching an overnight bus in Laos.

So in the end I only had a couple of hours to pack my stuff and leave Vientiane. In the rush I left my pocket knife in my carry on luggage. The Laos airline security didn’t pick it up but Bangkok security did. Bye bye pocket knife. I also had a sharpz kit in my carry on luggage, which includes several needles. Surprisingly neither airport security checks picked this up.

On the flight from Bangkok to Sydney I had all my duty free alcohol confiscated. This included three bottles of Lao Lao. Apparently all flights into Sydney are now restricted from bringing any duty free alcohol on board. I’m not entirely sure if this applies around the world or just for flights that leave Bangkok. I was bitterly disappointed to leave the Lao Lao behind. Out of everything I was bringing home that was probably the souvenier I was most looking forward to. Oh well, I guess I’m going to have to start brewing some at home.