May 11th: Sepone, LaosWe've arrived in the village of Sepone, just 49km from the border with Vietnam, via a surfaced road that disintegrated into kilometres of muddy, potholed track. In the dry season, dust is a big problem. But in the last few days, the rains have not stopped from dawn till dusk, making cycling tough going. Plastered in a layer of red mud, we slowly clock up a jarring 100km for the day.
Sepone is a little busier than Muang Phalan, but only marginally. It's small enough that we overshoot it and have to stop and ask directions at an aid agency - Handicap International. This Franco-Belgium group are one of many combing the area for unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War - the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail is nearby, once smothered by B52s with bombs, napalm and defoliants. Invited to their HQ, they explained their work - a 4 year programme to teach a group of Laotians how to diffuse the bombs for themselves as there are far too many for Handicap to clear them all - on average, one or two people die a month from stumbling across these death traps from the past.
A thick booklet detailed the huge range of bombs found in the area, from hand grenades the size of a pack of cigarettes to huge man-sized shells. At times, the group diffuse up to 700 hundred a week in villages for kilometres around. Just weeks earlier, one of the larger bombs had been dug up just below the local bridge we cycled over - the bulldozer dented the casing, just cms from the fuse. Those which are deemed 'unsafe' to diffuse require an evacuation of all the villagers in the area in the agency's pickup and a controlled explosion from a kilometre's distance.
It's an incredibly real problem in this whole border area - I had absolutely no idea of the Vietnam War's effect in Laos, and the way even now its repercussions continue to be a major problem for the country. In fact, during the US effort to obliterate the Ho Chi Minh trail, used by the North Vietnamese to feed their war effort, more bombs were dropped on Laos than during the whole of WW2. This saturation bombing gave the country the very dubious distinction of being the most bombed per capita in history...
Nowadays, the shells have all manner of uses, from boat hulls to supports for houses to plant pots - some of them aren't even diffused. But the majority are still waiting to be discovered - restaurants have posters identifying what to look out for. According to Handicap international it will take years to clear the area of danger, and until then lives will continue to be lost from a war fought 30 years ago.
Because the Vietnam visa has a set entry date, we've actually got a couple of days to while away until we can cross the border at Lao Bao. There's not a whole lot to do in this sleepy town, and the hours slowly creep pass. Though it's the rainy season, the weather seems to be taking a twist, and as the sun shines at last, we can appreciate our surroundings. Forest covered ranges are all around, the odd bus and truck which pass by kick up a trail of red dust as the road dries out, goats wander around with their bells ringing and lilting Laotian music carries through the air accompanying the daytime roosters. Kids play in the dusty street and locals cycle by with umbrellas to shield them from the heat. Often, there's a friend who sits side saddle on the rear rack, despite the bumpy road - and we complain about having to carry our panniers! Ancient ladies, stooped in their conical hats, tug on ropes attached to enormous water buffalo. Not quite the same as taking the dog for a walk in Hyde Park...Transport ranges from clapped-out buses, with bright yellow roofs piled high with baggage held down by netting - sometimes with someone scrambling around on top, as the bus bumps by - to old Russian Minsk motorbikes, supply trucks carrying Vietnamese goods into Laos, cheap brakeless bicycles and the brand new pickups of the various bomb diffusion agencies. It may be the main linking road between Vietnam and Laos, but the traffic seems never more than a Sunday afternoon trickle.
The guesthouse we're in is as rural as the rest of what we've seen - goats sit at the foot of the stairs and cows wander in the yard. From the balcony we can watch the town life go by. The owner speaks a smattering of English and French and the rooms, empty but for a couple of mattresses, have mosquito nets - Malaria is rife. It looks like he's hoping for a good year - new rooms are being built and beds made. Sepone is not a common stopping off point, to or from the border crossing, but yesterday a friendly French couple passed through and it seems there's a small but regular flow of travellers, stopping over for the night to break up their journey.
Downstairs, the children are watching a black and white TV on which a picture is very vaguely discernable behind a layer of static. Yet in the local restaurant where we have been eating, a brand new Sony Trinitron stands pride of place and a satellite dish looms over the wooden shack that houses it. At 2 o'clock and 7 o'clock, sharp, it's crammed with soap addicts catching the latest installments from Thailand and Japan. Last night was a surreal scene as we sipped our noodle soups and munched on sticky rice, surrounded by Laotians glued to the box. Electricity came relatively recently to the town, so I guess there's a lot of episodes to catch up on! The owners are wonderfully smiley and friendly - on out first day we asked for an omelette and now we seem to get one with every meal. That's one of the delights of eating here - you're never quite sure what you might get.
The market sells a limited range of goods - some bananas, peanuts, sweets and the usual chunks of meat drawing the flies. Our every move is monitored as we make our morning visit to buy nut brittle, a delicious concoction of peanuts and sugar. At 500 kip a pack, around 5 pence, we invest heavily for the ensuing days. Around the market's edges, children play the extraordinary game of flip flop boule. This game, a testament to French colonial times, bases itself round traditional 'boule' played in the villages of France. Adapted by the Laotian kids, a small rock is thrown, flip flops are removed and skillfully slung, lobbed and slid as close as possible to the rock...
As I sit here and type, a loud explosion has just resounded through the air,
shaking the building. I'm hoping it's a controlled one...