Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Heart of Laos

I suspected that the timetable was not going to be followed to the letter when the uniformed buffet car waiter asked us if we wanted to order breakfast. “What time do you serve breakfast?” I asked somewhat perplexedly. “Oh, about 7.30, 8 o’clock.” “But the train arrives at 8.30,” I replied, yet more perplexed. Our transvestite waiter batted his eyelids at me in amused disbelief. “Oh no, the train won’t arrive at 8.30. Breakfast?”

We placed our order and paid up. No receipt was issued, so there then ensued a period of anxiety while we wondered whether our immaculately made-up waiter was actually an employee of the Thai railways, or just someone who knew how to part unsuspecting gringos from their cash. You can’t be too careful…

Indian trains were not of the highest order, in terms of their interior accoutrements, but in the month we spent travelling on them, I don’t think any arrived more than an hour late. Even our first one from Delhi that left about two hours behind schedule made the time up overnight. In Thailand, on the other hand, the train was immaculately furnished with fully functioning adornments (should a toilet ever really qualify as an “adornment”?), and the trip north from Bangkok to Nong Khai on the border with Laos was supposed to take from 8.30pm to 8.30am. We breakfasted without haste. Once the air of anticipation dissipated we gave up and lunched, and then finally arrived around 1pm. Bored senseless. It’s the question of where your horizon of expectation lies. If we’d expected to spend seventeen hours on the train instead of the advertised twelve, we wouldn’t have allowed ourselves to get so pointlessly impatient so quickly.

Off one train and onto the next at Nong Khai. With our careful, trademark preparedness, we had run out of cash and didn’t even have the price of the Laos visa. The Thais have had people like us before, and have thoughfully installed an ATM in the railway station. (Yes, I give up, it’s an “ATM”. You won’t get anywhere if you ask for a cash machine. The only cash machines round here are the tourists.) While tuk-tuks and motos zip back and forward on either side our next train runs on tracks down the middle of Friendship Bridge, spanning the famous Mekong, and to the border point with Laos. Welcome to Laos, it’ll cost you ninety quid to get in. I nearly lost my temper with the woman behind the visa counter. Firstly, I had to bend double just to be able to hear her through the tiny window, and then to add insult to western injury, they had installed their little facial image camera at about the height of my navel. She demanded thirty quid each for us to get our three visas. No, the child wouldn’t go free. I had just heard her charge three Spaniards twenty quid each, so it seemed like a good idea to kick right off right there right then. She didn’t even bother to smile back and curtly informed me that different nationalities pay different visa prices. Just like it is back home. At this point I remembered that Laos is a one party socialist state, and while it is usually fruitless to argue with border guards in the west, it felt like a whole lot more risky a proposition in a one party state.

The Mekong. Another landmark river. It was broad, in full spate with monsoon rains, and flowing swiftly past the banks of Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I can’t think of anything except Apocalypse Now. It’s not even the right country, but then again, the conflict left its mark on the entire region. Laos is, per capita, the most cluster-bombed country in the world. The Americans dropped something like two million tonnes of cluster munitions onto Laos (they weren’t even officially at war) in an attempt to cut the supply routes that the North Vietnamese Army used during the Second Indochina War. With a failure rate on impact of about one third, Laotians calculate that there are still 80 million unexploded cluster bombs littering their country. If economics determined the war, economics continues to drive Laotians to risk losing life and limb – children gather bombs for their value as scrap metal, never knowing if they are duds or still live.

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The COPE Centre in Vientiane tells the story of the “bombies” as they are known here, and fabricates prosthetic limbs for those that survive their encounter with the American legacy, as well as rehabilitating disabled victims and designing ingenious three-wheeled chairs for those that have only one complete arm remaining of their original four limbs. (The picture above shows a display of redundant homemade limbs fabricated in despair by bomb victims before they found their way to the COPE Centre. If you want to do a good deed today, follow the link and sponsor a leg for a Laotian.) It was a sobering visit, and one with its own particular challenges of how to explain to a three year old why little boys younger than him have only one leg. It seemed like it would be a good counter-balance to all his current enthusiasm for guns and killing things (thanks to too many hotel room tellies and too much Ben Ten). He took it all in, but it has generated its own discomfort in turn. The streets have a noticeable number of disabled people, usually asking for money, and when he spies them, Oisin now asks in a loud, innocent voice if they don’t have their arms or legs because they did step on a bomb in the ground and it did blow them up. I just hope his youth defrays any potential offence his enquiries might cause to those being so loudly discussed.