Notes From the Road: Laos: Mount Phupadeng, near the Plain of Jars
The fire went out early again last night. Not even embers going when I woke up at 3AM. It\’s cold and drafty at night, up here on Phupadeng, and stuck without kindling, I ended up burning my briefing material, page by page–in ascending order of importance–as my situation became more desperate and the wood finally caught fire. I now have no idea what I\’m doing tomorrow. But after dragging my bed around directly in front of the narrow column of heat coming from the fireplace, and burying myself under three quilts, I was toasty warm and slept like the dead.
After a breakfast of chicken, grilled between splints of bamboo, and an egg omelette, a soup of wild mushrooms and greens–and of course, sticky rice and fiery chili paste, we headed out into the mountains to visit a rice farmer and family, catch some swallows and have a meal.All quite wonderful–as you\’ll see on the show. Just about anywhere you point your camera in Laos, you see something beautiful and extraordinary. It\’s a mountainous landscape, thickly forested with tall bamboo, palms, fir and pine trees, impossibly vertical karsks, remote villages and few paved roads. Most mornings, it is covered with storybook mists. It\’s one of the few countries on Earth still barely touched by Western chains. There are No McDonalds. No Starbucks. No KFCs. Anywhere. Even in the sleepy capitol city of Vientiane. The food is spicy and mostly delicious and just about everyone we speak to is warm, generous and remarkably open about their lives, their hopes, their joys and their often considerable pain.
So little is known about this country. Less, I suspect, is known about the secret war here. Having had the bad luck to be a weak, neutral neighbor of Vietnam, Laos found itself, from 1962 until 1975, on the receiving end of more bombs than all the bombs dropped on all of Germany and Japan in all of World War Two. The equivalent of a bombing mission every nine minutes, 24 hours a day, for TEN YEARS. Pilots returning from bombing runs in North Vietnam, often dumped whatever extras they had on Laos on the way home. There were–unlike Vietnam–no rules of engagement. As supposedly, we weren\’t even there. About 30% of those bombs were \”cluster\” munitions. And about 30% of their cute, attractive-to-kids bomblets are still lying, undetonated, around rural Laos, waiting for farmers to find them–often setting them off in the process. About a hundred people a year–most of whom weren\’t even alive during the conflict–still die from unexploded ordinance. Many more lose limbs. We went out with a bomb disposal unit and saw for ourselves.
The shoot is done and, fortified with \”lao-lao\”, the local moonshine and a brief investigation of local herbs and flora (or is that fauna?), Zach, Todd and I appropriate the three rented production motorbikes–leaving the rest of the crew to drive home in the van. We tear ass across the Lao countryside, free, free, FREE and deliriously happy. Through dusty Hmong villages, past brown, fallow rice paddies, hump-backed bulls, black pigs, thatched roof homes on stilts, misty mountains, the mysterious Plain of Jars, dodging the occasional water buffalo, sometimes riding three abreast, but usually falling back into our own solitary, tripped out zones–our own individual road movies. Laos smells of wood smoke, earth, mint, lemongrass, deep forest, fermented fish (paa-dek)–and the edge.
Tomorrow, it\’s a 9 hour road trip across country to Luang Prabang where I am assured of a hot shower of excellent quality–And the possibility of mini-bar.