Entry 23: monster trucks and big jars

Geneva Conventions

The route north from Vientiane to Luang Prabang is a startlingly beautiful landscape of low, felty green mountains, tiny villages and lush rice paddies. All very nice, but we were in no position to enjoy it. Travelling in an overcrowded bus of bluntly functional socialist design, Jane was suffering the after effects of the ubiquitous Beer Lao and, as for me, well my chilli-loving mouth was still writing cheques my butt couldn't cash. Moreover we (and, for that matter the entire bus) were being entertained by a Swiss girl who had been to Luang Prabang before and was now relating her experiences in all their rich and varied tedium. A monologue that grated all the more as she had a horrendous Swiss-American accent and, as far as I could tell could talk for an hour or more before pausing to draw breath.

When we finally arrived, it turned out that our self appointed soundtrack had paid too much for her ticket, or had the wrong ticket or something like that. I really don't know what her problem was, but she started laying into a tuk-tuk (three wheeled taxi) driver, shrieking that she wouldn't pay the 30p for the journey from the bus station to town. After she'd screeched like a molested cat for ten minutes or so, we were in no doubt that she was aggrieved. Personally, I was also in no doubt that she was also unbelievably thick. I did try to explain to her that expecting a bus ticket to include the cost of a tuk-tuk at the other end is like buying a train ticket to London then kicking up a fuss when the taxi to your hotel wasn't free. But there was no stopping her- as Jane pointed out that I was wasting my breath on someone who had the glassy eyed certainty of the truly stupid. Here's a funny thing though: we'd only met two other people from Switzerland, (thousands of kilometers away, in northern Sumatra) and they were having exactly the same preposterous, picayune argument with a tuk-tuk driver! This cannot be a coincidence and, as soon as I have a spare moment I shall be writing to the Swiss government, urging them to educate their nationals. I don't know how things work in Geneva, but until the Swiss realise that public transport doesn't entail a free taxi ride at the other end, they will continue making fools of themselves abroad.

culture in the rain

Naturally it was raining in Luang Prabang. So we went to see the palace in the rain, where the royals had lived until they disappeared or emigrated after the communist takeover in 1975. I hadn't been expecting much and it was pretty small. But, alongside the rather gaudy throne room and a load of ancient vases were several displays dedicated to gifts from the leaders of other countries. And these were so modest - a cheesy plaque from the governor of Hawaii, a tiny splinter of moon rock from the US, a curious metallic ball from Khruschev - that many of them looked like the kind of things you pick up in airport gift shops. Rather than looking shoddy, though, the display was unexpectedly touching and gave an obliquely fascinating glimpse of what it must have been like to be a very minor royal family in the 60s and 70s.

Still feeling an afterglow of regal pathos, we went and looked at some rather kitsch UNESCO-listed Buddhist temples in the rain, climbed a hill in the rain and watched photogenic orange-robed monks strolling around with umbrellas in the rain. Later on we went for a sauna in the rain where we chatted to a very pleasant couple from Texas and New Zealand. She made me feel something of an underachiever as, during her travels she'd managed to contract both dengue fever and typhoid, while all I'd picked up were loser's diseases like tonsillitis and diarrhoea. I immediately resolved to hang around poor sanitation until I caught something more stylish and remarkable.

Finally, we rounded off our brief, damp time in Luang Prabang by sitting next to Guy Pearce in a café. He was a fine celebrity spot as he is one of the few artists who successfully combines both populist appeal (Neighbours) and art-house credibility (LA Confidential, Memento). We later learned that Kylie Minogue had been in town a month earlier. It may rain a lot but clearly Luang Prabang is clearly considered quite chi-chi by the antipodean jet set.

Post Prabang, we elected to hit Phosavan, home of the famous (you mean you haven't heard of it?) Plain of Jars. I had been itching to go to the POJ ever since I'd read about it in National Geographic in the mid 80s; well perhaps not itching as it took me 18 years to get round to going, but as we were in the neighbourhood... Besides which, getting to the plain is a pain and so takes you off the obvious SE Asian traveller route. And I was tired of meeting people who'd spent six months in Thailand and come away with nothing more than smelly dreadlocks and the strikingly useful ability to juggle clubs like a twat.

The jars are several hundred stone vessels weighing up to a tonne each, scattered across a high, moody plain. Nobody really knows how they got there which, rather pleasingly, negates the need to read lots of tedious literature on the subject, and (even better) means that the tedious bores who have read all the literature don't know much more than you do. But before you can check out the jars you have to get there and while the journey is certainly not half the fun, it makes a good story - as most things that are really unpleasant at the time do.

night of the monster trucks

The road itself, one of a scant handful in Laos, is for the most part as charming a highway as you could care for. Wiggly, certainly, but what do expect in a country that has about thirty acres of flat land. But there's a 25km stretch that is completely unfinished - an education in itself as you get to see that ephemeral half-way stage between virgin jungle and road. This is a sea of churned up porridgey mud, landslides and rocks that looks a bit like the Somme on a particularly bad day. One glance and you realise that there's no way you're going to get through that in a bus. Or even a jeep or Land Rover. No, for this sort of challenging terrain, you need a monster truck.

This being Laos, after the bus drops you off, you have to wait three or four hours for your monster truck to show up - clearly there has been no attempt to integrate the bus timetables with the monster truck schedules. So in the interim I sampled the various food stalls, all of which sold products on a stick: potatoes on a stick (good); meat on a stick (unidentifiable, but good); and chicken heads on a stick (not so good to eat, but good for upsetting vegetarians). Then, as the long day waned, a low diesel growl and gnashing of gears announced the arrival of the monster trucks. These were huge, communist built vehicles with three-foot wheels: in terms of off-road ability they were one below a tank. And as they had had loose wooden benches in the back and passengers are packed in like crated veal calves, they were one below a tank in terms of comfort too.

The sun dipped below the horizon and our monster truck began its ponderous progress along this torturous track. Despite the MT's undeniable off-road prowess, it was undoubtedly the worst vehicular journey (again) of my life. The monster truck tipped and yawed like a ship in a storm. It went on to show that MTs can lurch through impossible angles without tipping over; it threw us together like ninepins. Moreover, so packed was the MT that, at one point, the shoulder I'd been meditatively stroking for 15 minutes turned out to be not my girlfriend's but that of the man next to her; still the Lao are a tactile lot and he didn't seem to mind.

The only real saving grace was that the entire journey took place in the dark, rendering the 200m drops we was veering towards invisible. The trip took eight hours - an average of 3km/h - and involved the monster truck ahead of us in our convoy getting stuck in the quagmire and having to be winched out by an even more monstrous truck (Truckasaurus Rex perhaps?) that was travelling in the opposite direction. Although this caused a considerable delay it was a touching show of the solidarity that clearly exists in the Laotian monster trucking community.

big jars

Wearied by our monster truck trauma, we arrived in Phonsovan at 4am, crawled into bed and woke up late and damp the next day to check out the Plain of Jars. In fact the jars themselves only occupy three sites on this vast and marshy flatland and it would be far more accurate (if considerably less lyrical) to call it the Plain of Unexploded Ordinance. It is after all, the most heavily bombed place in the world and I have never seen so many shell casings, bombs and other detritus of early 70s superpower proxy wars.

But the areas around the Jars have been cleared of UXO - the local people grazed buffalo there and, when the buffalo stopped jumping 30m in the air and landing in pieces they figured they were safe. The Jars themselves, which are up to three metres tall, are pretty stylish as ancient monuments go: Jane said the Plain was a sort of Asian Stonehenge and that's as good a description as I've heard. Best of all though is that being made of indestructible rock and devoid of any apparent religious or cultural significance you can take lots of stupid pictures of yourself pretending to drink from the jars, climbing in and out of jars, and so on. There are few things better than ancient monuments where behaving like a fool is encouraged.

Proverbially enough, it rained on the plain too. So much so, in fact, that we decided another monster truck experience was out of the question and coughed up $46 apiece for the flight back to Vientiane. Lao Aviation may get a bad rap for its patchy safety record and the delightfully old fashioned practice of flying without radar. But even with these drawbacks, 28 minutes with one of the world's least reputable carriers beats eight hours with Monster Trucking, Ltd hands down.

August 6, 2002