Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Phonsavanh - town and bombies

Craters Restaurant (with old bomb casings), Phonsavanh
Our next place in Laos was Phonsavanh, and having looked at the various options for getting there, we booked onto the VIP bus. This included a pick up from our hotel, to take us out to the bus station. It arrived eventually, but of course they don't send enough out to pick everyone up, so I was sat on the back rail for the journey. At least my legs were inside - the next people to be collected had to cling on the outside. And ours wasn't the most overcrowded one we saw arriving!

Once at the bus station, we saw plenty of buses with names on to various destinations, but none labelled as Phonsavanh. After some confusion, we were ushered over towards a couple of twelve seater mini buses. We waited for a good half an hour before they told us to get on, and then it took them another thirty minutes or so to lash the luggage to the top and cover it with tarpaulins.

Then we waited again, until they decided that, as neither of the two buses was full, they didn't want to take both, only one. So they made the people from the other one get into ours. Which was all well and good, except that there were more people than seats. They squished four people onto the three seats at the back - which would doubtless invalidate their travel insurance in the event of an accident - and two other people didn't get to travel at all.

Map of bombing missions over Lao, Phonsavanh
They then had to change around all of the luggage on top, so by the time we actually left, we were about an hour and a half late. Not what I would call VIP - or even just acceptable - service.

Now I wouldn't mind this kind of thing if we were travelling on the normal buses, but this was another of those cases where they charge you way more that the normal kind of 'costs plus profit' fares, and still are late, overcrowded, and as two of our would-be passengers found, not even guaranteed to travel despite booking a seat. This is the kind of thing that made me unhappy with Laos, in a way that I hadn't found in Myanmar, Thailand or Cambodia.

Anyhow, after the obligatory lengthy stop at a place where they wanted you to spend money on food and drink so that they get a kick back, we made it to Phonsavanh. Our hotel sent a car to collect us, even though it was only just down the road. Of course the idea of this being that then we will use that driver for any trips that we want to do. In fact we did use him, as his prices were no worse than anywhere else. But we'll talk about our trip out in the next post.

Cluster bombs, as dropped in Lao, Phonsavanh
Phonsavanh is a strange little place. This area was the worst hit by the US bombing campaign, with some 580,000 airstrikes, dropping around 1.9 million tonnes of bombs in the region. To put that into context, that is around two thirds of the amount dropped by the allied forces during the whole of WWII.

Even leaving aside the questionable practice of dropping bombs on a country that you are not supposed to be fighting, the really shocking thing is that, apparently, many of the bombs dropping here were completely unnecessary. It is widely reported that many were dropped simply because planned raids on Vietnam were called off, and the bomber crews just jettisoned their payloads here, rather than having to go through a more complex procedure on returning to base.

The original town, like so many around here, was destroyed, so this new town was built in the late 1970s. There is one main street, plus a market up by the old airstrip, and then the rest is largely just residential. The main street itself bears testimony to that terrible bombing campaign. Old bomb casings have been repurposed for practical use and as decorative features, and there are restaurants called Craters and Bombies, although we preferred to eat in Bamboozle.

You will also find the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Office-UXO Visitor Information Centre and the UXO Survivor Information Centre. We went in to the latter, and found it a really worthwhile visit. It is run by the Quality of Life Association (QLA) which is a local not-for-profit organisation that offers support to people who have survived, or been bereaved, through UXOs (unexploded ordinance).
UXO Survivor Information Centre, Phonsavanh

It had its beginnings in the World Education Laos Group in 2009, but in 2011, a number of Laos nationals, including some who were themselves UXO survivors, obtained funding to set up this organisation, specifically aimed at having Laos people help victims.

They provide a range of assistance. They provide first aid training to local communities, so that they can provide good initial care, in what can sometimes be a number of days before the person can get to a hospital for full treatment. They help victims to obtain suitable prosthetics, and arrange transportation to get the person to the clinic - something that might otherwise prevent them receiving it. They provide psychosocial support, including peer group support, to help the individual through the psychological and social issues that they may face as a result of their injuries.

There is plenty of information about the bombing and those awful little round bombies that were dropped in the cluster bombs and now cause so many injuries and deaths every year. If you visit, do take the time to watch the film upstairs.

The countryside is still littered with the bombies, and accidents happen regularly. Many happen when people are farming their land, and hit one of them, often causing loss of feet and legs. Other victim are children, who pick them up like a ball, and play with them, often leading to the loss of hands, arms and maybe their sight. In the 19 years from 1996 to 2015, there were over 500 deaths from UXO in Laos, with about a quarter of those in this region. Over the same period, there were over twice as many people who survived but were injured, making it terribly difficult for them to farm and sustain themselves.

The items for sale in the shop are mostly made by the women who have lost husbands and sons to the bombies, and so have little other means of making a living for themselves. The QLA arranges for them to be trained in handicrafts, and to receive the materials needed, so that they can make these items for sale here. They receive a fair payment for the items sold, with the rest going to the work of the organisation to support the victims.

They do a lot of really good work here, and they do it on a very low income, so buying a few souvenirs, or making even a small donation, can go a long way to helping the victims.

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