If you fly into the thousand-year-old city of Vientiane, the city of sandalwood in Laos, resting on a long, slow-rolling curve in the great Mekong River, touching Thailand, time appears to slow down, settling just above a stall. You cannot help but slow as well, with Vientiane sweltering under the sun, leaving the tension and stress of life behind, casting aside a great weight carried through your life, unnoticed until now.
The wide, lazy French streets feel, no matter how well swept clean, of a forgotten decaying empire sleepily kept alive, its French inhabitants lazing with it into an unhurried merging with the jungles. Laos intrudes at every point with its culture, people and buildings, while its jungles unhurriedly devour the long-forgotten ruined temples and pagodas high in the nearby mountains.
Patiently waiting for a local bus to fill with passengers, it is possible, for a few kip, to jump aboard and leave Vientiane, to travel directly into Laos’s heart, where the mythical and ancient Plains of Jars await. Here, many millennia before history began, the legends tell, ancient Hmong tribal giants fought for supremacy in endless battles across the Laotian lands. Later, in the twentieth century, the United States used Hmong child armies to battle in the Indochina wars against communism. Today, the Plains of Jars is considered the most bombed, cratered and unexploded ordnance-strewn land on Earth, part of the ‘Secret War’ fought alongside the Vietnam War, or the American War, as named by the Vietnamese. A war so concealed in the neighbouring mountains only soldiers brought in to fight knew of its existence. The ancient hill-tribe civilisations trapped in the middle, many vaporised and wiped clean off the face of the Earth, cannot speak, just like the mythical giants, so no one will ever know what truly happened.
While the bus waits in the melting sun, readied for the journey, goods thrown on top are stacked and restacked until they fit, no matter the number or how inconvenient or problematic they may be. People sit on the roof, weighing up the probabilities of accidently falling off against successfully leaping free if the bus plunges off the cliffs a thousand feet high to plummet into the deep rainforest-filled valleys.
Finally packed full of luggage and people, it leaves, crawling through pedestrians dashing back and forth at the bus terminal and out onto the streets of Vientiane. It grinds its way northward, labouring along the dusty roads, constantly swerving in a futile attempt to avoid the countless potholes left from the annual floods, the potholes more numerous than the asphalt. The bus quivers and jolts on sagging springs stoppered on tired axles, the passengers crammed inside acting as human shock absorbers, drawn inexorably into the land of a million elephants.
Fields of rice and villages of woven palm fronds pass by, with people milling across the roads giving a hectic atmosphere that the capital lacked. Animals scamper out of the way or sway gently to one side, like the elephants with their handlers perched high on top. The bus weaves its way through, sometimes slowing at a bus stop instead of stopping, with new passengers running to leap on board. Spare footstools stored behind the driver are unstacked by the new passengers to sit along the centre aisle. Lean women, balancing baskets on their heads, aggressively pursue the vehicle when it slows, selling their goods to the passengers’ outstretched hands through its open windows.
As the sun slants deeper and night abruptly falls, the headlamps of the bus, shaken loose from their mounts by the constant jarring, bounce and shine sideways into the jungles and the roofs of houses rather than straight ahead. Inevitably they fall, hanging downcast as though the bus’s eyes have popped out. The baggage handler, hanging on to the half-open door and acting as a second pair of eyes, yells instructions to the driver to avoid people or objects. He reaches out around the front of the bus and plucks one of the lights from its hanging wires, hooking it onto long extensions pried from under the dash. Cupping the headlamp in his palm, hanging out the open door and shining it in front, he creates a moving Cyclops eye.
Blurred images morph into strobing views of children fleeing to avoid being run over by the bus. Defiant flocks of goats stare the monster down, squashing into one another in a hundred flashed angles as it squeezes past, brushing along their coats to prove its dominance. Occasionally, the baggage handlers, thrown out at a large pothole, sprint to jump back on board. If they are injured or are not fast enough, a friend will leap up and take over the job of the Cyclops eye, noting where the baggage handler fell off in order to retrieve him on the return journey.
As the bus lumbers on, villages become less frequent until the floodplains give way to foothills that grow into mountains. With the temperature gradually falling as the bus climbs higher, the roads, undamaged by floods, limit the shaking and bumping. The throbbing engine, belching black exhaust smoke beneath, provides heat through an open panel, warming the occupants against the cool draughts flowing through the open door. The Cyclops eye continues to rake the ever-lengthening darkness beside stilt houses balanced precipitously on the cliffs until the bus arrives at the journey’s single intersection.
Here, eating-houses and stalls cling to the steep mountainside, offering their wares to the passengers. The bus now winds its way through a series of never-ending hairpin bends, around the fringes of mountain jungles that fall away into deep gullies repeating forever into giddiness. After many monotonous hours, the passengers fall asleep, littered over their baggage, boxes and one another.
As the climb levels out, the bus’s labouring eases, cruising with its gears rattling loose, floating like the nearby clouds unconnected to the Earth. The views open wide, with mountains receding on every side, letting cool crisp air pour in high above sea level, entering the centre of the vast grassy valley that is the Plains of Jars..............................................