Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Thursday, December 27, 2007

Phonsavan was a town with two streets, one of which doesn't count. I'd thought that Sam Neua was a small provinsial capital, I now realised that Sam Neua was an ordinary Lao provinsial capital. I was slowly coming to realise what it means for a country to have a population less than that of London spread over an area equivalent to England and existing primarily on subsistence agriculture. It means that there is no urbanity; very little communication, and the barest of infrastructure. The roads in Laos are excellent because they are new and there is very little traffic. Laos was increasingly proving to be a cyclist's paradise, but I suspect it's an economist's nightmare. Then again, everyone who visits Laos is struck by how relaxed, warm and happy the people appear to be. And then again again, most of the villages I passed through had water pumps supplied by NGOs, which cannot always have been there, which they evidently couldn't afford themselves, and without which they were surely a great deal less content.

Phonsavan had inveigled it's way onto my itinery by dint of proximity to the Plain of Jars, where lie some prehistoric artifacts of great repute (among certain people anyway). In essence, the 'jar sites' are Laos' Stonehenge; at each one are scattered a hundred or more 'jars'; squat cylinders generally around a metre high and halfmetre across, made out of stone or a prehistoric kind of cement. They are generally believed to be either funerary urns, or the raki glasses of giants, but as our 'guide' repeated, whenever asked any question about anything,

-"Nobody don't know the jars!"

-"When were they first discovered?"
-"Nobody don't know the jars!"
-"What do you think they were?"
-"Nobody don't know the jars!"

The jar sites were interesting, in the way that Stonehenge is interesting, which is to say, briefly. However, two of the sites were in the middle of the plain and quite beautiful places in their own right. The experience of visiting the Plain of Jars was all the more affecting for the way it brought home the consequences of the American 'secret war' against Laos. Only three sites are open to the public, and at each one there is a sign explaining that only the paths have been cleared of underground UXO (unexploded ordinance), while the rest have been cleared of surface UXO by sight. The paths are defined by stones, the inner half painted white, the outer red. Stay between the whites. 

That the clearing of UXO is a slow process I later learned explicitly from a documentary made by MAG (Mines Action Group- http://www.mag.org.uk/ [if you have spare money, why not give it to them?]). Those clearing the UXO have to allocate resources so they can be to the greatest benefit, hence, only sub-surface clear the paths, and then the site can be opened to tourists and revenue can be generated. Clearing the whole site would take years. The thing is, the paths were, in places, extremely narrow.

It's compulsory to take an organised tour of the jar sites. This is partly to do with ensuring the safety of the tourists, and largely to do with the lucrative trade in running the tours, dominated by a small-time local mafia. (Pretty much everything in Laos is small-time). For twelve dollars we were taken to the three open jar sites, with bonus stops to look at a decaying tank and the distillation process of the local firewater. The others in the minibus were a friendly bunch. The giant, painted german I met in Vieng Xai happened to have booked the same tour, as had another nurse, a softly spoken Irishman traveling with his Thai girlfriend. There was a swiss woman who kept mostly to herself and Julie, a half-Lebanese blonde from Guadeloupe, with whom I bonded over the love of falafel.

The evening I spent at a guesthouse, watching the MAG documentary about UXO and drinking around a campfire. I befriended an English couple, who I arranged to meet in Luang Prabang, along with my Sam Neua Dutch friends, and Julie for new year's eve. I also chatted with a girl who I suddenly realised was the first gap-year traveler I'd met since Budapest over a year ago. And I thought they were everywhere!
I left Phonsavan early, planning a long ride back into the mountains. It was around 140km to Phoukoune. The first 50km were fast and flat through the Plain of Jars, but the next 90km barely included 100m of level tarmac. The climbs were hot and slow. Steep climbs require strength as well as stamina, so even though my legs have been in training for over a year, this was a strain. The challenge of reaching Phoukoune before nightfall was compounded first by meeting some other cyclists, and therefore being duty bound to stop and chat for half an hour, and then by possibly the most dangerous crash of my ride so far.

I was descending at high speed when some litter that was tied to a rear pannier broke free and skittered onto the road behind me. I looked back to see what I'd heard, and failed to notice the fast approaching hairpin. The outside edge of many, if not most, hairpin bends in this region are an undefended, vertiginous cliff. By the time I turned my attention back to the road, it was too late to make the turn. I braked as hard as I could, but by this point my descent had become an unstoppable force, and I skidded into the drainage ditch that happened to border this particular stretch of road. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The rider flies. In a fraction of a second the bike became a bent memory somewhere behind me as I sailed over the dyke. I made a thumping, scraping landing on the dry twigs and thorny brush at the edge of the cliff. The moment when physics took over is a blur, but the moment of landing I remember precisely. I wasn't in a lot of pain, which suggested one of two things: either I wasn't badly hurt, or I was so badly hurt I was in shock and it hadn't hit me yet. So I concentrated.

1) Have I broken a leg? Be sure. No.
2) Have I broken anything else? No. 

On close inspection it transpired that apart from a bruise and a few scratches I was unhurt. I was shaken, breathing shallow and fast and high on adrenaline, but I realised I had no claim on a rescuer, no excuse to lie there and wait for a good Samaritan. I'd have to take a deep breath, bodge the bike back together (thankfully it was structurally sound still) and crack on to Phoukoune. By the time I arrived the sun had set and my legs ached.
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