Hello and welcome to our sixth and likely final video dump. This one covers our time in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Enjoy!
First, here are two more videos of the election night celebration in Mandalay, Myanmar:
Next, a Thingyan (New Years celebration / water fight) stage in Yangon:
And now, a "graduation" party we came across where some novice Buddhist monks were celebrating finishing their time at the monastery:
A few seconds of peace with a butterfly patch in a field in northern Laos:
The Vietnamese love their caged birds, and here's one with a unique skill:
Finally, here's some fodder for the pub quiz: Hanoi has the world's largest ceramic mosaic. Here's a section of it (with bonus motorbikes and assorted street traffic):
What I loved about Lao food is the predominance of salads and appetizer-type dishes, allowing for an incredibly varied meal. Ingredients are fresh, combinations are creative, fat content is low, and we always felt satisfied and healthily full after our meals. Sticky rice is ubiquitous; it seemed no meal can be eaten without it. Food is eaten with your hands, by grabbing a small amount of sticky rice, forming a small ball, and dipping it into whatever vegetable or meat dish you're eating.
Some of our favorite dishes included the classic laap, a spicy salad made with minced pork or beef, fish sauce, mint leaves, lime juice, and chilies. While vegetables are delicious and fresh, meat is important and we found many dishes involving water buffalo. In Luang Prabang, a city in the north, we tried jeow bong, a dip made from sweet chili paste and buffalo skin, served with fresh veggies for dipping. Sounds gross, right? I thought so too, but it was actually quite tasty and there was no obvious "skin" texture. We also enjoyed sinh savanh, which is dried buffalo meat and very similar to meat jerky that we eat in the US.
While Laos probably can't beat Thailand or Vietnam in a gastronomic showdown, we were pleasantly surprised at how fresh and creative the Lao cuisine is.
We found ourselves lured into the Hive Bar in Luang Prabang by the promise of a free, nightly "ethnic fashion show" followed by a "hip hop dance show". This could go either way, we thought, but hey we don't really have any plans for the next few hours so let's give it a shot.
What followed was a surprisingly well-executed, 45-minute long fashion show in a lovely, stylish setting showcasing 15 of Laos' 49 ethnic groups' traditional wear. The models are local students, all of whom looked gorgeous and professional despite no formal training.
After the show finished and the models did their finale, the music changed, and it was the boys' turn. A dozen or so teenage boys (some were even younger!) came out and did their thing. They were actually some of the most talented b-boys we've ever seen perform.
Everyone who had been there said, "Spend as much time in Laos as possible." Unfortunately we didn't heed their advice: partly because of geographical constraints, and partly because of some outside circumstances, we had to take one destination off our southern Laos plans, and rush through the north a bit. We still enjoyed the heck out of our time in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Nong Khiaw, but have to add Laos to the long list of places we want to return to.
So in commemoration of our abbreviated time in this wonderful country, please enjoy this summary of northern Laos, in haiku form.
Moving morning at
the COPE center. So sad what
war does to people.
What to do when you're
bored of sightseeing? Fuck it
dude, let's go bowling.
site. French bistros everywhere.
Veggie buffet. Yum!
groups. Students in folk costumes
strut on the runway.
azure falls and swimming hole.
Many wings take flight.
Stay in riverside
bungalow. Nothing beats a
nap in a hammock.
We walk to visit
a huge cave where the entire
village hid for years.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita in history. During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped 200 million tons of ordnance over Laos. This small, land-locked country in Southeast Asia was hit with 580,000 bombing missions over this time period: that comes to one planeload of bombs being dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. I found it incredibly difficult to try to understand what these statistics really meant for the country. Then an even scarier statistic rears its ugly head: up to 30% of these bombs failed to detonate, meaning that 80 million deadly bombs remained in Laos even after the US "Secret War" was over.
Is this news to you? Neither of us history buffs, we only learned of the Secret War recently. For those of you that might be just as clueless as we were until a few months ago, here's a very over-simplified recap: Laos, a country that shares its entire eastern border with Vietnam, was declared a neutral country in 1954, meaning that neither the US nor Vietnamese forces could enter it. However, in its fight against Communism in Southeast Asia, the US government secretly sent CIA operatives to Laos to train members of the anticommunist Hmong ethnic group to become fighters on the ground. As an extension of the Vietnam war, the US launched what is now known as the Secret War, since neither the US Congress, nor the media or public were made aware of it. Since putting manpower on the ground would have been too obvious a violation of the conditions of Laos' neutrality, the US flew unrelenting bombing missions over eastern and northeastern Laos, aiming to stop the flow of manpower and material along the Ho Chi Minh trail from communist North Vietnam to South Vietnam through eastern Laos, and to disrupt the actions of the communist Pathet Lao. Additionally, US planes flying bombing missions to Vietnam were sometimes not able to reach their targets, and instead dropped their bombs indiscriminately on Laos simply to avoid having to land with the dangerous munitions still on board.
When the US finally ceased their bombing missions in 1973, unexploded ordnance (UXO) remained in large parts of the country, and is still one of the most serious problems facing Laos today. It is estimated that 50,000 civilians have been killed or injured by UXO incidents. Perhaps the most common cause of such incidents is the use of cluster bombs, wherein a large bomb shell drops hundreds of deadly tennis-ball-sized "bombies", many of which lodge in the ground and do not explode as planned.
When someone comes into contact with UXO and it explodes, the person often loses a limb (if not their life) from the explosion. Sadly, the risk to children is high, as they are often playing in the countryside and are curious about small UXO that can resemble toys. The simple act of a farmer tilling his fields can result in death. In addition, the scrap metal from UXOs can be sold for decent money, so many poor families risk facing an explosion just to gather the bombs using metal detectors. In fact, throughout our stay in Laos we saw bomb casings repurposed and used for all kinds of household items.
So that brings us to the COPE Center, whose aim it is to assist those who have been injured by UXO with rehabilitation and prosthetic limbs, and whose headquarters we visited while in Vientiane, the nation's capital. The COPE Center and other NGOs are also involved in efforts to rid the countryside of UXO, which is an extremely time-consuming and difficult effort. UXO Lao, the government overseer for all UXO cleaning and detonation programs, reports that it has disposed of nearly 500,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance in its 15 year history, an impressive statistic until you compare it to the 80,000,000 pieces of UXO that remain, meaning that it will take over 2000 years at the current rate of removal to make the entire country safe for its people. Finally, these and other NGOs provide educational programs to small villages all over the affected areas, to educate children to avoid UXO. We saw clips of elementary-aged children singing songs to help them remember to avoid suspicious metal they might come across.
The COPE Center's incredibly moving exhibit of photos, stories, short films, UXO displays, and prostheses really hammered home the gravity of the situation. As we walked through the center, we saw recent victims of UXO incidents recovering from amputation, as well as the wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs that COPE provides to them, and others like them. We read stories and viewed photos of victims from toddlers to grandparents who lost their limbs or their lives just by accidentally stepping on a UXO while taking a walk or tending to their fields. As an American, it was a particularly heart-wrenching educational experience; after all, it was our country that did this to them, and it is innocent Lao people who continue to pay for it now, and will for decades to come.
For more information, we found the movie Bombies to be a good overview of the UXO problem in Laos.
Our first stop in Laos was a three-day adventure in the Bolaven Plateau in the southern part of the country. After an all day bus trip from Phnom Penh (Cambodia), we crossed the border and arrived in Pakse, a sleepy riverside town in southern Laos, from where the trip would start.
We spent the next three days with a friendly Australian-Vietnamese family of five and our three guides, hiking through the jungle and ziplining between huge trees through deep river valleys. The three kids' excitement and hyperaciveness entertained us and got us even more pumped for each zipline as we whizzed past gorgeous waterfalls, over rivers far below us, and through dense jungle. The longest zipline we did was 450 m and took close to a minute from start to finish!
In the afternoons, we hung out at the main treehouse, overlooking one of the most beautiful waterfalls I've ever seen. The pools below the falls were perfect for swimming and playing around.
We slept in a private treehouse that was only accessible by a short zipline, which really made us feel like we were in the tree canopy.
On the last day, we abseiled from the top of the big waterfall down to the bottom, and then started hiking back to the village where we left from two days before, using a via ferrata (a system of iron cables, ladders, or steps built into a rock face or mountain that can be used to ascend or descend) along the way. It went much better than that time on the Ampitheatre hike in South Africa: we had harnesses and ropes and there were no crazy wind gusts!
Tree Top Explorer was a really fun way to get deep into the jungle-- which illegal loggers thankfully have not ravaged yet-- and see the area from a different perspective. We wore harnesses and there were plenty of safety measures, so it wasn't scary at all (well, unless you're scared of heights and then you should probably not sign up for this!).
This oversized grenade of a fruit is a love/hate affair. It has a nasty reputation for smelling like trash, but durian fans are willing to overlook its scent's peculiar similarity to dumpster air in order to enjoy the sweet, rich, custard-like meat.
Our introduction to the fruit was in ice cream format in Myanmar, where we concluded that it tasted and smelled like onions, and was not exactly the after-lunch sweet treat we were looking for. But we gave it another shot in its unprocessed form and ended up really liking and even craving it. It can be found at most markets where other fruit is sold throughout southeast Asia, and can often be bought in sections since it can be quite a large fruit and has a heftier price tag than most other fruits. The taste is sweet and floral, not unlike the mighty jackfruit, but the consistency is what really got us hooked: it's creamy, almost like souffle or pudding, and the sections are big enough that you can take huge bites of it at once, without pesky skin or pits getting in your way. Just don't leave it in your room like we did once for a few hours...afterward the whole place smelled of restaurant trash!