Day 135: Discovering true joy of travel
That Compet might not be the most impressive pagoda, but finding it by chance enhanced the experience ten fold. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Glenn Simonelli
THERE was a sense of discovery, a sense of excitement, all because the die had thrown me slightly off course. What rises above Xieng Khuang is an overgrown pagoda of the Phuan Kingdom.
It wasn't That Compet, but another pagoda, or what's left of it, on the neighboring knoll overlooking the small dusty village, that caught my attention. Even at a standstill, it was difficult to ascertain what exactly was on top of the hill. From the road, it looked like giant wedding cake that had been left out to mold. It didn't look like a pagoda, yet it could be nothing else, no natural land form could sprout from the top of the grassy hilltop and no amount of greenery in these cold conditions could swallow up such a structure completely.
Having not even taken my pack off the bike last night, I got an early start to the day, perhaps the earliest start to-date. Outside, the crisp, cold air tastes fresh to the skin. It's strange to step out into a alien landscape, but common when you drive late into the night. After the sun has gone down, the forests, the mountains, the world is too dark, moves by too fast for you to comprehend the changes. Instead of thick, warm jungle, groves of tall wispy Eucalyptus trees with their white bark and weeping leaves stand near scattering of Two-needle and Three-needle Pine trees.
The cool, subtropical climate reminds me of El Calafate in Argentina. I find this happening more and more often, without being able to put my finger on it: the essence of one place reminding me of another from a lifetime ago. In Argentina, Jackie and I were still together. After two months of holing up in a poker house and grinding it out with some friends in Buenos Aires, I was ready to travel. So, Jackie flew down and we explored the great nation – one of the few places in the world outside of American in which I was confident I would be willing to raise a child.
That was the taste of the air this morning, not that I'd be interested in building my family on the outskirts of the Plain of Jars.
Coffee with my drinking buddies at 8am, is a bust, so I'm on the road early, eating up the freshness of a morning ride. I should spend more mornings on the bike and less in bed.
The yellow BeerLaos signs for guesthouses start to appear on either side of the road, along with side streets and a few serious junctions. Halfway through town, out on the east side of the main junction, I find a proper cafe: Cranky Cafe. It's a good time to fill my tank with coffee and check a map.
Phonsavan isn't where I am headed, but it's where I need to be I quickly realize after a few more minutes of researching the Plain of Jars. A highly recommended guesthouse, Sabaidee Guesthouse, is basically across the street, just down a side lane. An elderly man with cockeyed military hat books me into a closet – also known as a Hong Kong flat – of a room with a big bed for six dollars a night.
With the United States bombing missions every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years between 1964 and 1973, the Plain of Jars was for unsafe for visitors for decades, though locals had no choice but to work their fields and tend their cattle, praying not to set off one of the millions of unexploded ordinances that litter the region. In 2004, MAG IN FULL cleared three archaeological sites, opening them up to the public.
My goal is to explore the area around the stone-age artifacts that were created by some civilization lost in human history. However, between my inability to navigate, Laos inability to clearly mark attractions and the die's general attitude of doing whatever the fuck it wants, the regions namesakes would not come underfoot today.
Cruising through a valley that pours out into the plains, I know I've missed the turn off for the Plain of Jars Site 2 and 3. A duck waddles alongside the road as I enter another small village. Rice paddies fill the lowlands. Like rivers running green with bright green pond scum, the rice paddies fill the narrow valley fingers that reach out into the steep slopes of the forested mountain sides. Closer to town, the hills are barren, perhaps from herbicides and defoliants dropped by the US during the Secret War, or perhaps from slash and burn agriculture or the constant grazing of cattle. Unlike in the mountains, which run amok with children, the dominate life force outside of the city are sweet brown cows and stocky water buffalo.
Hesitating between turning back and continuing down route D1, I pull the die out. The die seems to think we're on the right track.
Further along, the asphalt road gives way to a wide dirt road before crossing a bridge and resuming.
Out the outskirts of one village several pieces of property with high walls are bursting with pieces of scrape metal. There was a junk shop not far from my house in Phuket and a huge complex five minutes from the office, but this little unassuming scrap metal collection site give me pause. During the UXO education video that is shown to Laos children to prepare them for a world that is literary full of explosive situations, scrap metal hunting was one of the four topics covered. A young boy, maybe eight or eleven years old speaks directly to the camera, recounting how he and two friends were out with a metal detector, hoping to making a little extra money for their family with pieces of scrap metal. The detector sounded and the boy started digging. They struck an American bombie dropped on Laos long before they were born.
He was lucky. He wasn't killed, but his impaired vision and damaged arm present daily struggles for him both socially and physically. My heart sinks thinking of the video clip of fruit falling from the tree and the kids around him scrambling to grab the pieces, while he offers an embarrassed smile and turns around and around looking for a piece for himself, but ends up being too slow.
Through the gate, a the rusted shell of what appears to be a Browning .50 Caliber machine gun rests on a makeshift tripod. Inside, pieces of metal are grouped together, gears in one area, sheets of metal in another, a small pile of artillery shells in another. Outside, alongside the gate is half of the outer shell of a cluster bomb.
War artifacts litter the scrap yard. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Having perhaps found what the die intended for me to see further down the road, I head back to the Plain of Jars Site 2 and 3, but am waylaid by a moldy green weeding cake atop a grassy knoll.
Hiking up a narrow cattle path after parking the bike near a closed local market, I find myself in small grassy field. Bright, golden orange Marigolds encircle the earthen base of the pagoda. The grounds are well maintained, even if the 500 plus year old structure isn't. Grass, moss and ferns have laid claim to the phallic temple jutting into the sky. A few small trees have taken root, pulling it apart red brick by red brick. Like the yawing mouth of an elderly shark the crumbling entrance on the north side reveals row after row of bricks descending into darkness before opening up to a blinding light on the far side. Crouched down, in the cool interior, dozens of ancient bricks litter the ground, another archway above reveals a slice of blue sky marred by foliage.
The pagoda is one of the few reminders left of the the prosperous Phuan Kingdomw, which was raided by Chinese bandits in the late 19th century. Though the religious monuments were looted the handsome buildings themselves remain, but most succumbed to weathering, numerous wars and the heavy bombing.
While the drone is in the air, a woman walks over, informing that I need to pay an entrance fee, apparently there is a formal access point. I pay the small fee of 15,000 kip. The short dirt road, running the ridge between That Chompet and That Foun is limed with thick bushes of Marigold blooms and dotted with white Daises, light blue button blooms and tall yellow flowers.
A trail leads from That Compet to That Foun. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The grassy hilltop above That Compet, which is home to the moldy cake known as That Foun is occupied by four or five cows gnawing on grass with a string running through their noses back to a wooden stake hammered into the ground. On the far side of what's left of the unassuming pagoda is a small shrine.
A couple tourist arrive in a van at the lower pagoda. Though ancient, they aren't forgotten relics. Yet, the die's decision to push me further down the road, without me knowing that these dilapidated pagoda awaited, fills me with a glee that would not be possible if I had driven the 36km from town knowing what I would find.
As Milan Kundera write, “Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.”