Muang Lao, the land where the ground goes bang…

I was recently working in the Lao peoples democratic republic and out of all the countries I have visited, this one has to be one of my favourites. I started and finished my trip in the Capitol, Vientiane which, if you haven’t been there, is an old French colonial city, with lots of beautiful buildings and French bakeries.  This old mansion has been converted into a hotel and I stayed here for a couple of nights.  Its was a lot better than the government run guesthouse I stayed in later in the week where I was bitten by bed bugs!



Laos, as you may have read, has a huge problem with unexploded ordinance that was left over from the Vietnam war that still kills many people each year when they tread on cluster bombs or dig up ordinance to sell for scrap. One of the reasons that I was there is to find out would have to be done in order to safely construct a wind farm in the mountains there. The answer to that is ‘a whole lot of very expensive ground remediation work’  The following picture shows how ground is searched for UXO’s – 1 metre wide lanes are marked in rope, after the ground has been cleared of vegetation and the operator (a lot of them are female) walkup and down the lanes with the metal detector.  When something is found, the operator carefully digs down to identify the object.  The UXO is covered in sand bags and a small charge is laid on the device and detonated remotely.  If the UXO is too large to blow in situ, the fuse is often cut from the bomb with a linear charge and the bomb carried elsewhere for detonation.


Laos has the unfortunate distinction of being the world’s most heavily bombed nation. During the period of the Vietnam War, over half a million American bombing missions dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos, most of it anti-personnel cluster bombs.  Each cluster bomb shell contained hundreds of individual bomblets, or “bombies” as the locals call them.  They are about the size of a tennis ball and an estimated 30% of these munitions did not detonate. Ten of the 18 Laotian provinces have been described as “severely contaminated” with artillery and mortar shells, mines, rockets, grenades, and other devices from various countries of origin (not just the US). These munitions pose a continuing obstacle to agriculture and a special threat to children, who are attracted by the toylike devices.


This is helicopter fired rocket that had failed to explode and the operator is preparing to attach a charge for eventual destruction in place.

Some 288 million cluster munitions and about 75 million unexploded bombs were left across Laos after the war ended. From 1996–2009, more than 1 million items of UXO were destroyed, freeing up 23,000 hectares of land for farming. Official statistics state that between 1999 and 2008, there were 2,184 casualties (including 834 deaths) from UXO incidents.  When I asked a doctor at one of the regional hospitals how many people he saw a month who had been injured by UXO’s, he said ‘an average of three per month” which horrified me.

The sad thing is that the Lao people almost seem embarrassed about having disabilities and its quite rare to see maimed people moving around in the towns and villages. They are there, of course and there are a surprising number of them, but you don’t see the disabled people on the streets begging as you sometimes do in Cambodia. I don’t know why, but its clear that the international community has really helped the communities affected by the bombs and the family groups seem very close. In Cambodia, so many people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge that perhaps those extended families just don’t exist any more.

There is an attached picture of a met mast, the 140 meter high tower that we put up to measure the wind at different heights. The tree in the centre is growing in a bomb crater…


The ground site is 1 hectare in size (2.5 acres) and it took 16 days to clear of explosive ordinance and fragmentation from bombs that did go off, which still sets off an alarm in the detectors and has to be removed, or it continues to give false alarms. In this 1 hectare there was 26 cluster bomblets, 1 x 24mm rocket, 22 x 52mm projectiles fired by aircraft , 1 x 37mm anti aircraft round and an entire anti tank cluster bomb round. There was even an M79 grenade round and lots of 5.56mm ammunition dug up at the site. They were used by the Americans and it shows the lie that there were no US ground troops fighting in Laos during the war.


There are so many remnants of war littering the ground that you can see shell casings and cluster bomb containers being used as piling for huts, fences and even very large jet fuel tanks that were jettisoned during raids have been repurposed as canoes.  This MK 82 500lb ‘general purpose’ bomb has been defused and  the object sitting on top is actually a cluster bomb.  Here’s a closer picture of it;


The area I was working in was directly along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The trails (there were a number that all ran along the border) roughly follow the spine of the mountain range that runs along the Lao and Vietnamese sides of the border and they were used by the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army to resupply their soldiers who were fighting the Americans (and some Australians). The Americans dropped so much ordinance on the land trying to disrupt the transportation. The trails varied from literal tracks where ammunition was carried on foot and sometimes by elephant to roads that enabled trucks and even tanks to travel along them. We saw a wrecked tank (possibly a T55) alongside the trail, along with an unexploded 500lb bomb that had been displaced during the road clearing. The Leatherman tool is placed there for scale.  It’s a good guess that the tank had been wrecked by one of the bombs that did go off on the same mission.


This strange looking vehicle is what passes for a horse/Ox cart here and its nicknamed an “Iron Buffalo” and if you look at them from the side, thats exactly what they look like; a buffalo head. They unhitch the trailer and put big paddle wheels on it and use it to ‘rotivate’ the rice paddies. I have even seen one on a stand and being used to power a house.


You can also see lots of small pretty horses wandering around in the countryside; they aren’t necessarily wild and it surprised me that the locals don’t use them to tow carts, carry firewood, or even to ride them. According to my guide, they eat them, along with dogs, monkeys and all manner of snakes and lizards!  This handsome fellow is a stallion and was very protective over the mares, stamping his hoof whenever we got too close.



It’s Friday, so it must be Saigon?

It’s nearly the end of the week and I am sitting, nursing a beer in the rooftop bar of the Renaissance hotel in Saigon.  I haven’t been here for a number of years and it’s been refitted and is now very elegant.  It wasn’t so smart the last time I was here, but it had lovely bones, as they say.  There’s nothing quite like very cold beer on a hot day unless its a very cold beer on a hot day at home and seriously, that trumps it every time.


I’ll be home in the morning, but for now, because of the beer, I will put up with the jack hammers, the honking horns and the screeching of brakes – all still deafening, even when you are on the 21st floor.  Not that the noise makes any difference because on this trip, I have had around five hours sleep in the last 48, so I am feeling very relaxed, so relaxed in fact, that I may just slip off the stool, sound asleep.


The past two days I have been working up country, near the town of Khe Sanh in the Annamese cordillera; the mountain range that runs down the spine of Laos and Vietnam.  Khe Sanh is well known amongst both Americans and Australians, but for different reasons. The Yanks know of Khe Sanh because it was a US Marine base that was besieged by the NVA for 77 days during the Vietnam war or as the locals term it, the ‘American war’  Most Australians know of it because of the fantastic song of the same name by the band Cold Chisel.  It’s a bit of an anthem for Australians of a certain age, of which I am now one.

My reason for being up country was to ascertain the situation regarding Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) at a site just outside the town.  Being a besieged former US base, the US bombed the hell out of the surrounding area and of course, around 40% of the ordinance didn’t explode at the time.  There has been a great deal of (American guilt) money and effort spent in order to make the area safe for the people to live and farm, but the land has been cleared down to the depth of a plough, but not deep enough to dig foundations.  I have been working with a professional UXO clearance company, whose job it is to tell me if the place is safe enough to work in or not and from what we have seen, it most certainly isn’t – not in its current state that is.

Anyway, back to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh city, if you prefer.  It was renamed after the war for the leader of the time, who was also known as ‘Uncle Ho’  There’s a statue of him in one of the many squares in the city.  There’s still a number of landmarks from the French colonial period, such as Maxim’s, named after the legendary Paris nightclub and the Caravelle Hotel, which was a favourite of foreign journalists during the war, largely because of its bullet proof glass and back up generator, which guaranteed cold beer.  It does have a pretty good roof top bar as well.


The traffic in Saigon is outrageous and its almost impossible to cross the road on the riverfront at almost any time of day.  Forty years ago it would have been largely bicycles of course, but now it’s anything with wheels and a motor.  Last time I was here I tailgated an old lady who was crossing and the traffic miraculously parted like the red sea in order to avoid her.  This time I couldn’t find an old lady, or my insurance policy to check for coverage in the event of being hit by multiple motorcycles, so I had to be satisfied with looking at the river from the other side of the road.  I finally came to terms with walking the city by staying on one side of the road and standing at intersections for some human shields to come along.

Whilst searching for a patisserie and the perfect chocolate croissant, I came across the Saigon opera house.  It’s a good looking building built by the French and it opened in 1900.  There were a number of years where is was used as a government assembly room and a temporary shelter for French civilians who were evacuated from North Vietnam, but it has been refurbished and looks brand new..


I did eventually find that cafe, with the best French pastries and whilst I was a little late in the day for them to be warm from the oven, the proprietor kindly gave them 30 seconds in the microwave.  This is my first and possibly my last picture of food on this blog – unless I find something really good to show and tell about!


And yes, I ate both of them myself….

Goodbye winter?

It’s supposed to be spring here in the southern states of Australia but despite that, we have just had very strong winds (over 120kmh) blow through and its not over yet.  It’s 10 degrees (Centigrade) today and it will be 4 degrees overnight.  There are trees down all over the place and power is a luxury again.  Unfortunately, an elderly man was playing golf at the course in the village over the weekend and was hit by a falling branch, but luckily not seriously hurt.  Thankfully, despite the rain, there is no flooding close by, although all of the dams (man made lakes) on the farms are full and the water in the nearby creek is rushing through the bush.

The best thing about this kind of weather is the justification for lighting the fire and we are really lucky to have a great fireplace in our 174 year old house.  Mind you, even in the summer we have cranked up the air-conditioning and lit the fire just to sit around it with a nice glass of red wine.


The dogs love lying in front of the fire as well and we sometimes have to step around them in order to get to the sofa! That’s ‘Stampy’ – a cyclone on four legs and she just loves the fire.  She is a cross between a fox terrier, a Chihuahua and something really really naughty.  Just in case you were wondering about the Reindeer in the right hand side of the picture; we usually have Christmas in July – which for us is the depths of winter.

stampy-fire-2  The picture below was taken by our eldest daughter and shows the Christmas table decorations.


We lived in the tropics for twenty years and loved being warm, but eventually, we missed the seasons.  Foolishly, we decided to move back to somewhere more temperate and for some strange reason, we pitched up in a place with all four seasons, in a day sometimes…. That means that we will have the fire blazing and the electric blanket will be ‘on’ tonight.  There’s also a pretty good chance that a nice local Shiraz will be opened!



Thailand – a house by the river

This week, as one is wont to do, I found myself in Thailand.  It’s certainly not the first time I have been there, but it’s unusual that I have five minutes to spare, let alone take a few hours for myself.  On this trip, my meetings had been postponed, so I got in touch with an old friend, who I haven’t seen for ten years (at least) and I had the best day.  We met up early one morning after he’d dropped his daughter at the International school in Bangkok and I was already wringing wet, after having walked from the BTS station.  It wasn’t raining of course, just over 30 degrees with what felt like 1000% humidity.

Bill hadn’t changed and only his hairline had updated itself.  He was just as annoyingly tall (6′ 4′) and still had the old twinkle in his eye that I remembered when we worked together in Indonesia during the last days of the Suharto regime.  He was driving a “very Bill like” truck; a high rise (for a shortarse like me) twin cab ute complete with a snorkel, large knobbly tyres and bull bar that scared the Thai drivers into letting him edge out in the morning rush hour traffic. He’d invited me to travel up to Kanchanaburi (of the ‘Bridge over the river Kwai’ fame) and see his weekender that was in the final stages of construction.  Bill needed to inspect the curtains before paying the guy who had made them and check on the workmen who were installing the kitchen and I was delighted to be invited to tag along.

I had never seen the ‘Bridge’ and so we took a small detour and headed into the backpacker haven of Kanchanaburi town.  The original bridge was destroyed in the war and its ruins are still visible upstream but the current rail bridge serves as the focal point to all the war veterans and tourists who come to see where Alec Guinness and his men toiled and died under the harsh rule of the Japanese Army.

The bridge is actually quite small and it is packed with tourists literally treading the boards.  The precinct is surrounded by the ubiquitous ‘t’ shirt stalls and uniformed soldiers, (who might not be real soldiers) posing for pictures with the tourists.


One minute and one photograph later, Bill looked at me said “done?” and in answer we both turned and walked away thinking of the brave men who suffered there and on the nearby Hellfire pass.

Bill’s place was around 30 minutes upstream and on the banks of the river Kwai.  He’d found an ideal block of land and had leased it on a 30 year renewable basis from the farmer who lived at the top of the block.After months and months of looking at demountable homes, log cabins and eco houses, he’d settled on a pavilion style house made from six and a half shipping containers. Neither his architect nor his builder had experience of building residences from containers, although he had built several resorts and in theory, they felt that it would work…..

From the inside – the flat pack kitchen is being fitted. You can see the second bedroom pavilion in the background.  There will be a pool between the buildings eventually.


The garden, with its newly laid grass, is fully irrigated (from the river) and has several mature mango and jackfruit trees.  As usual with Bill, he’d thoughtfully stocked up the fridge with cold beer and we pulled up some chairs and enjoyed the view of the river, which is about 30 metres from the deck.  dsc_0371

He’s planning on a floating jetty with some sun loungers and a mooring for his boat, which will set him up very nicely.  It’s a fantastic spot in a lovely area of Thailand and the whole ambiance is very, very relaxing. All I need now is a family invitation and the time to go!

Mongolia – big sky and wide open spaces…


This is the Gobi desert, its not all sand and as you can see, it’s even relatively green in parts. The important thing to note is that if you are in the Gobi, you’re a long, long way from anywhere. There is nothing in the way of your sight from horizon to horizon. Except perhaps for herds of camels, horses, flocks of sheep and tribes of goats.


You’d think that they were wild, but if you look carefully, some of them have tags or rope collars and with some of the groups, if you look really really carefully, you might see a nomad herding them on horseback to better pastures. Sometimes, they just seem to roam at will. The nomads live in ‘Gers’ which the Russians call Yurts.


This charming couple are locals to this area of the Gobi.  They actually have two yurts; one that they cook and sleep in and another that functions like a living room.  Powered by solar panels and a small wind turbine, it has satellite TV, a fridge/freezer, a playstation (for their kids, who weren’t at home at the time) and pretty much most of the comforts of home.  The loo however, was a pile of breeze blocks some 150 metres downwind, which wouldn’t be much fun in winter….


I tried mare’s milk for the first time while I was there, imagine a sour, slightly fizzy cream and you’ll get the idea, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounds…  After the milk, they gave me snuff, from an ornate gem stone bottle – which is apparently something that male children receive at their majority from their parents and it becomes as family heirloom.  I can’t say that I cared for the snuff, it was like spices in talcum power, but they seemed to enjoy the sight of me sneezing my way through it.  They also enjoyed the sight of my face when they gave me a large silver soup bowl (also an heirloom) full of vodka. I thought that it was to pass around the room, but no; that was for me.  The next stage of the journey passed painlessly. Apparently.


This shows you a little of the vastness of the Gobi, but it reminded me a lot of the Australian outback in that there’s nothing there at first glance, but when you stop the car and look carefully, you see the animals, the birds of prey and in the case of Mongolia, the isolated Nomads Ger’s.

I stayed in the ‘socialist workers paradise’ of Tsog Tsetsii (Sog Set Si) while I was in the lower Gobi and it’s a small coal mining town. It had a very basic guesthouse which had brown water and cable internet that killed my work computer, but their food was good. By that stage of my trip, I had of course, given up asking what I was having. I was checking out the local hospital and seeing what kind of infrastructure there was in the area and the hospital had plasma and oxygen (my first two questions) but no x ray machine (my third). I did however notice that the hospital had a clap clinic, so clearly the mines have contributed something to the town!