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Archive for November 2007

Nong Het, MAG and UXO

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MAG (Mines Advisory Group) Laos All-female Team


We have just returned from one of those life experiences that which was so unique it is almost hard to believe that I was living it.

For almost a week we’ve been in Xiang Khouang province in NE Laos, which is high, cold and dry. It was also subject to some of the most intense aerial bombardment in history. I believe that 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos in the late 60s up to 1975. There is not one old village or town in the region – they were simply obliterated by the Americans. Everything is new, and the landscape is pockmarked with craters. This legacy of destructions endures, however, as an estimated 20-30% of the bombs dropped never detonated, often a result of being dropped too low or in the rainy series when everything is mud. One of the weapons of choice for the Americans was the cluster bomb: a cannister of hundreds of tennis-ball sized anti-personnel bomblets that would spread over wide areas. Millions of the bomblets, or ‘bombies’ or BLUs are embedded in the ground all along the border regions of Laos. Some make their way to the surface, some lie just underneath. They often explode when hit by a farmer’s hoe or in the hands of small children. A great deal of effort is being made to educate people about the dangers of UXO (unexploded ordnance) and to do land clearing, particularly where land is needed for cultivation.

We have spent the last two days with a group called the Mine Awareness Group (MAG), a British NGO committed to mine clearing and bomb removal throughout the world. We travelled 120kms east of Phonsavan on Route 7 to a border town called Nong Het. It is a very basic town – it will not be hooked up to the electrical grid until next year, most likely. The majority of the inhabitants are ethnically Hmong. At 1200m in elevation, it is cold; frost lay on the ground this morning. The landscape all the way between Phonsavan and Nong Het is gorgeous – rugged forested peaks, limestone, perhaps.

We visited with three UXO removal teams yesterday. As you would expect from an experienced international NGO, their operations were precisely and effectively carried out. The level of training and equipment as very high. The first team that we visited was an all-female team, one of two operating in Laos (there are 7 MAG teams across the country). They were working on a food security project, meaning that they were clearing a village’s field of ordnance. They were just starting this site, so no UXO had come out of the ground yet, but it will. My pictures will hopefully best convey what it was like to be among them.

The second team that we visited was working another food security project – a field cultivated as recently as October of this year. They were close to finishing this one, and had uncovered 46 UXO so far, mostly BLU, but we were also shown a cannister of white phosphorus. Four red stakes indicate where ordnance lies. It was sobering to see a forest of stakes across the field. Part of the reason for the large number was the field’s proximity to Route 7, along which the Vietnamese would move troops and materiel, and also the fact that there was apparently a Vietnamese army camp close by. The field itself was only perhaps 5 acres in total. It hard to imagine that farmers were working this field so thick with hidden bombs. What has been found will be exploded in place, piece by piece, when the searching is complete.

The final team that we met with was the roving team, who travel the area detonating found surface explosives in what they call ‘spot tasks’. They destroy about 10 per day, and we heard the blasts from two BLUs that they detonated just over a ridge from the field mentioned above.

We were also able to see and document the daily life of the UXO clearance teams – the dormitories they sleep in, their meals of sticky rice, pork and vegetables, and their English classes in the evening. Jeremy and I even got called on to participate in their class to demonstrated what native speakers of English sound like. It an experience I don’t think that I could have even imagined before yesterday.

It was a cold, cold night in our unheated, electrified guest house. I slept in all of my clothes including my sweater and long pants, and was still not that warm. We got up in time this morning to watch the teams pack up and head into the field.

We’ll hop on a plane to Vientiane in two hours. Apparently the views of craters on the Plain of Jars is something to see. Tomorrow morning we’ll fly to Phnom Penh for a few days in Cambodia before heading to Hong Kong.

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Written by sockeyed

November 30, 2007 at 05:20

Posted in Photography

On the Banks of the Mekong

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Things move a bit slower here in Luang Prabang. It’s a smallish town on the banks of the Mekong (already very wide here), and surrounded on two other sides by the curve of another river feeding into the Mekong. It is an older town, many centuries old, and was the centre of at least one empire. It is chock-a-block with wats (temples), and therefore with monks. Every morning at dawn they file through the centre of town collecting alms from people kneeling on the curbside. It’s very atmospheric.

I’m impressed with much of the tourism ethic you see here. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on sustainable tourism: supporting local economics, being culturally and environmentally sensitive. Some effort seems to be made towards improving the lot of locals, particularly children.

Yesterday’s performance at the Children’s Cultural Centre was lovely. The kids themselves are great – lively and poised. The event began with a traditional Baci (blessing) ceremony lead by local elders. The centrepiece is a banana leaf and chrysanthemum shine. Sweet treats (bananas and and sticky rice) are passed out, and string bracelets are tied onto the wrists of people attending. These bracelets should remain on for three days to bring luck, and should be untied, not cut off.

The performance began with a puppet show, an art form that almost died out, and in fact, this might be one of the last places to see it. Following that was a series of dances from different ethnic groups in Laos, each with the distinctive costume. We are learning that Laotians are from very diverse backgrounds reflecting different migration periods and histories. The kids danced very well, and the accompanying music was sonorous and rhythmic. The audience, about 35-40 visitors from around the world, seemed to really pick up on the positive energy of the kids. I hope that these bi-weekly performance really become a central attraction on the tourist scene. There is little mention in guidebooks; most publicity comes from handbills and posters. We’ll spend tomorrow with the kids again, hopefully watching over and photographing music and dance lessons. On sunday there will be a cooking class at the CCC where the kids will learn to prepare otlam, a local specialty – a stew of greens, meat, dill and other herbs. It’s quite delicious, particularly with sticky rice.

The food in general is good here. Most dishes are cooked with a variety of herbs like mint and basil, and fresh veggies abound. I’m particular fond of the coffee, which is rich and chocolaty, and made with sweetened condensed milk, much like Vietnamese coffee. Baguette sandwiches are also popular, made with grilled meat or cheese (vache qui rit). All along the river are restaurants with the most amazing views.

Today we took a boat ride across the river to a very attractive abandoned (but maintained) wat with quite elegant, almost Japanese-looking architecture. There seemed a french colonial influence in the heavy curving staircases too. We also dropped into a hot and sticky cave that serves as a repository for retired Buddha sculptures. Back on the town side of the river, but a bit upstream we visited a village specializing in weaving and mulberry paper, and I couldn’t resist buying samples of the beautiful work.

We’re in Luang Prabang for the weekend, then on monday we’ll head east with the CUSO folks to visit NGOs working in the Xiang Kouang area. after 4-5 days there, we’ll fly to Vientiane for a night, then head to Phnom Penh, Battambang and Sisaphon before making a final short stop to visit Siem Reap. From there we’ll fly to Hong Kong for a few last days before I fly home.

Written by sockeyed

November 23, 2007 at 21:50

Posted in Photography

Chiang Mai and Mango Sticky Rice

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I’m feeling somewhat satiated after finally getting my mango sticky rice. I arrived in Chiang Mai almost 24 hours ago, but it took until breakfast this morning to get some. I’m spending my time in Chiang Mai photographing a project by an NGO called NEED which promotes sustainable local development and human rights issues. The initiative is called the “Food Security and Human Rights Awareness Project.” The subject of my documentation is actually a young Quebecois volunteer who is funded to do work here by CUSO. The project he is leading is the creation of a small farm which will be used to train Burmese in practices of sustainable organic agriculture and educate them about human rights issues. Nicholas, the volunteer or ‘cooperant’, is very passionate and driven about the work, putting in long hours seven days a week in most cases. He is working out of the NEED office here in Chiang Mai. The office is an open-air house that is actually home to about six Arakanese Burmese, from the state of Arakan in the far west, right next to Bangladesh. All are in Thailand illegally and will face 10 days in jail and deportation if caught by the authorities. All arrived here independently of each other.

The farm itself is 20km from town. We got there on motor scooters on some of the more chaotic but actually reasonably safe roads. To call it a farm is a bit of a stretch; it’s only about 3 acres or so, and has one bamboo house that they built together, but it makes sense that it’s small as it should replicate conditions back in Burma. The land is mostly planted in rice from seed that they scavenged and collected. There is some mixing of crops, too: beans, okra, pumpkin, banana, mango and herbs all grow in raised beds among the rice. It is harvest time, so I watched Nicholas and two of the Burmese harvesting the rice with sickles. One, Kyaw Aye, was a real pro and could gather up great bushels in short order. It was hard work, though, no doubt. Nicholas was right in the middle of the action, and he spends every day out on the farm. He seems to really thrive on the work, though. He certainly doesn’t take the easy way here, working alongside the Burmese farmers. His intention is to stay for 5 years. We all spent a great late afternoon in the fields, and I think that I got some decent shots in the warm, low-angle light. Back in town we socialized over some beers in a local Thai watering hole. Six big bottles of beer and snacks came to about $11. My treat.

We’ll be going out to the farm again over the next few days. Tomorrow will be a big work day – I’ll hire a car (they have a very limited budget) and we’ll take all the Burmese folk out to the farm. They plan to raise beds, and harvest and thresh rice. Should be an amazing experience. Jeremy arrives on saturday. I hope to take him to the farm, but we’re not likely to spend a ton of time here before heading east to Luang Prabang in Laos.

Getting to Chiang Mai was a bit of a whirlwind experience. Flying on Cathay Pacific, I landed in Hong Kong on sunday night and made my way by public bus to Kin-yi’s apartment in Tsuen Wan. She’s on some mysterious trip to the UK, from what I know. A good night’s sleep and I was up and running errands around Hong Kong – getting memory cards, portable hard drives, and dropping things off at Joseph Yao’s shop in TST. It was a bit surreal, obviously.

That night I flew to Bangkok and arrived at midnight. I put myself up in the KT Guesthouse at CUSO’s suggestion. It was kind of out in the middle of nowhere, but it was convenient to their office. After a lousy sleep, I stumbled to the subway and rode a couple of stops, then walked to the CUSO office, which was even more in the middle of nowhere. There I met with the regional director, Thomas Achillles and we planned out my trip and contacts in various places. He treated me to a great lunch in a nearby eatery.

I collected my things from the hotel and zipped downtown on the subway then skytrain to the Sala Daeng station, where I met Simon Larbarlestier, an English photographer living in Bangkok whom I’d met through a couple of online forums. Being a small photographers world, we also know quite a few folks in common. We had a good long chat, joined partway through by another local friend (a painter), over ploughman platters and lager in an Irish pub. I’ll see Simon again in Siem Reap in a while.

A short subway ride and I’m at the train station. CUSO provided me with a ticket on the night train to Chiang Mai, which was a great experience. I love trains, especially sleeper trains. It’s a narrow-gauge railway, so there weren’t separate compartments, just semi-ingenious fold-down bunks and convertible seats. The train pulled out at 7:35pm. I read The Great War for Civilization, then crawled into my curtained-off little bed area. I slept very well, bouncing down the rails. We pulled in to Chiang Mai at 9:45am and I took a tuk-tuk to the Roong Ruang hotel by the Ta Phae gate, where I stayed two years ago. Good location and decent enough. Nicholas met me there, and we set out on our day.

Written by sockeyed

November 15, 2007 at 17:29