Archive for category Culture

Jars and Craters

I reached the top of a small rise in the midday heat and looked down. There before me was the first cluster of stone jars at site 1, Thong Hai Hin. An enormous 10 foot giant stood king-like over the lesser jars. Some were lolling  in drunken poses or had sunk into the earth becoming small flower gardens. Lichen patterns covered the stone, green water festered inside their bellies and holes punctured some of the thick granite walls. Then I noticed it – mimicking the circular shape of the jars’ openings – a huge grassy crater with a small notice on its rim in Lao  then English:  “Bomb craters during war in 1964-1973.”

Funerary jar 500 BC-800 AD
Plant pot

Bomb crater

When I read about the hundreds of  prehistoric jars scattered over the Xieng Khouang Plateau in Laos, strategically placed on high ground overlooking the valleys, I was determined to visit the sites. The stone jars were estimated to have been hewn between 500 BC and 800 AD and to have been used in funerary rites but very little was known about the people who made them or how  the stone was transported. The mystery surrounding the jars appealed to my imagination but little did I realise what was in store for me when I set out on the death-defying mini-bus journey to the main town closest to the sites.

After a sickening 7 hour cork screw ride from Luang Prabang, I found accommodation in the “wild west” town of Phonsavanh. With a couple of hours to spare before eating, I walked down the wind-swept  main street and wandered casually into the visitor information centre of  MAG (Mines Advisory Group). It was there that I experienced yet again the shame of my ignorance of  Asian history in the 20th century. I had been in Laos for a fortnight but knew nothing of the “banality of evil” meted out by the USA during their Secret War in Laos. Between 1964 and 1973 the US dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos – the weight of 500,000 Asian elephants. They carried out 580,000 bombing missions which equates to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history but the outside world knew nothing of it and the US government denied all knowledge of its operations. Even Congress was kept in the dark.

A farmer described his life before the bombings began;

” In my family there were 13 people – each one happy and content because the area was so bountiful and beautiful. In the evening, one could see the animals returning to their pens in a great unbroken herd after a day of searching for grass. When I would see that, I would feel content because these animals were my heart.”

As Nixon’s policy of “kill all, destroy all and burn all” was turning  the Plain of Jars into a wasteland, the 200,000 people who lived there had no idea who was bombing them or why. A Laos woman reported,

“I saw my cousin died in the field of death…I saw life and death for the people on account of the war of many air planes in the region of Xieng Khouang until there were no houses at all. And the cows and the buffaloes were dead. Until everything was levelled and you could see only the red, red ground. I think of this time and still I am afraid.”

The list of weapons used by US airmen from their bases in Thailand and South Vietnam defies belief –  napalm, white phosphorous, fragmentation bombs, cluster bombs, steel-arrowed flechette bombs (these cause more damage to the flesh when pulled out than when they enter the body), fibreglass  pellets ( designed not to show up on x rays) and tele guided missiles. Pilots returning to Thailand from Vietnam would dump their bombs on Laos villages rather than follow more time-consuming landing protocol needed if they had weapons on board. After 1968 when Lyndon Johnson stopped the bombing of North Vietnam, the planes were diverted to Laos and the bombing intensified. When questioned later about this he replied,

“Well, we had all those planes sitting around and just couldn’t let them stay there with nothing to do.”

It was Nixon’s policy of “removing the water from the fish” which meant separating the people from the revolutionary forces (Pathet Lao), that gradually revealed the truth. 20,000 refugees were placed in camps in the capital Vientiane and American journalists started to interview them. All spoke about the bombings and their stories were horrific. They had lived like animals in caves and holes in the ground for years. Thousands of civilians had been killed or injured and their way of life had been totally destroyed. The American historian Alfred MCoy concluded,

” We destroyed a small medieval civilisation. The Lao Theung civilisation of the Plain of Jars. We wiped it off the face of the planet.”

The history from 1964 to 1973 is only part of the story as I found out in the MAG office. Of the 2 million tons of ordnance that was dropped during the Secret War, 30% of it did not detonate  leaving one third of Laos still contaminated. Today and every day since the end of the war, one person has been killed by UXO (unexploded ordnance) in the province of Xieng Khouang. Cluster bombs, know as “bombies” by the locals, are small tennis ball sized bombs. When one explodes, it sends out 30 steel pellet-like bullets, killing everything in a 20 metre radius. One cluster bomb contains 670 of these bombies. Millions of them are still in the earth, in trees or logs. 40% of accidents happen to children who mistake them for balls and play with them.  Others are tempted to sell ordnance for scrap metal and are killed or injured in the process.  On a  board in the MAG office were recorded the number of casualties each month from UXO. There was a  list of about 12 people for the month of November 2012 giving their occupation, age and information about the accidents. The majority of adults were farmers who had suffered injuries hoeing or planting rice in their fields. Some had lost a limb or were blinded. The children had mainly suffered upper body injuries. Getting  treatment for these injuries is not easy in the rural areas because hospitals are far away and treatment can cost up to $200 – the annual per capita income for a rural family. 50,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents between 1964 and 2008.

I learnt of a farmer who had lost his sight when a wood fire exploded as a “bombie” had been buried in a log 40 years previously. He was not able to look after his family and his wife had to work in the fields. He was constantly worried that she may unwittingly hit UXO. This is a constant fear for all people living in the areas bombed by the USA.  It also limits the country’s long-term development preventing people from developing the land and accessing basic services. I tried to imagine living my life constantly worried about cluster bombs – every time I went out to work, to do the shopping or went for a walk I might be blown up or badly injured. My children would be at risk as well every time they went out. The reality of the situation was brought home when I visited the main sites of the Plain of Jars. There were notices everywhere stating that visitors could only walk between the MAG white and red markers showing the safe areas.

MAG notice board at Site 1 Plain of Jars

Between 2004 and 2005 MAG in collaboration with UNESCO and NZAID cleared the Plain of Jars sites 1, 2 and 3 to encourage tourism in the area. MAG works closely with local communities and local government so that they can implement “primary development action” on the land they clear. They also train local staff including women to undertake clearance work. This organisation is doing wonderful work but it will take another 100 years to clear Loas of UXO at the current rate of clearance. Between 1996 and 2012 the US contributed $2.6 million per year for clearance which sounds generous until we remember that they spent $17 million per day for 9 years on bombing Laos.

Staying only on worn footpaths was wearying but brought home the constant daily danger facing the inhabitants of Xieng Khuang Province. I enjoyed visiting the three sites and saw hundreds of the stone jars. Cremated remains found in the jars suggest that they were funerary urns used over 2,000 years ago. It is incredible that so many of them remain intact despite the bombing. Their initial purpose is ironically fitting given the later tragic history of the Plain of Jars.

When I met up with Adisack, a Laotian friend in Vientiane, I was still upset and indignant at what I had learnt about the Secret War.

“It is terrible,” I said heatedly,” that it is going to take another 100 years to clear the UXO from the Plain of Jars. Think of all the people who are going to be killed or maimed in that time. Surely more needs to be done now.”

“Ah,” he replied quietly, ” you can tell you are a newcomer to Laos.”


The following links give more information about these issues:

  • youtube – The Most Secret Place on Earth (the CIA’s covert war)
  • Voices from the Plain of Jars by Fred Branfman

To see my photos of Laos follow this link:


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Chongqin and Dazu

Chongqin, the City of Fog and “as polluted as almost anywhere in China.” (Lonely Planet) How is it that I find myself here for the second time in less than two months?

My first visit was during the Spring Festival in January. Having visited an exhibition of Buddhist sculptures from Dazu at the museum in Cardiff during 2011, I was determined to visit the place for myself. After a 12 hour train journey to Chongqin and a 2 hour bus ride, I arrived at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Dazu. There, at Treasured Summit Hill, were extensive cliff carvings and statues of great beauty. Dating from the Tang Dynasty (9th century) to the Song Dynasty (13th century), the carvings show  Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian influences. The central carving is a 31m long, 5m high reclining Buddha seen entering nirvana. Having seen individual sculptures at Cardiff museum, I was amazed to find so many fine carvings still in situ. I’ll let the photos tell the rest. They also include photos of Chongqin and AnKan.

So why a second visit to this city of 5 million people? I have been working this time. It is strange what one does in foreign lands. I was asked by VSO to give a two day training on Volunteer Management Systems to a group of local NGOs and here I am. Having worked in a Volunteer Centre for only 6 months, I have just delivered a two day workshop to over 25 participants. It was touching to meet so many young  people who run NGOs (charities) despite the frustrations of funding and capacity. Many of the NGOs worked on environmental projects and they certainly have their work cut out for them. Others worked with the deaf – there are over 45,000 of them in Chongqin – with special needs children, soldiers’ wives, children from rural areas, migrant workers and the elderly. They gave up a week end to come to the training and participated with enthusiasm and commitment. I was also pleased to hear that the British consulate had sponsored the week end. The training of course was free!

I will leave Chongqin tomorrow with fond memories of the time I spent here as a tourist and a trainer.

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Chun jie – Chinese New Year part 2

An acrid smell greeted my nostrils on New Year’s Day. Outside, the snow was stained red with the  debris of  World War 3.  I picked my way through piles of smouldering rubbish, keeping a look out for unexpected exploding crackers and made my way to the Small Goose Pagoda Temple Fair. What a delight.

Enormous dragons and mythical and religious statues welcomed in a freezing  New Year. Breath taking acrobatics took place on an outdoor stage. A young boy, no more than 8 years old, climbed up a never-ending series of up- turned chairs dressed in flimsy Lycra. It was a least -8 that day. There were shadow puppet displays, colourful dragon processions with Beijing opera characters following behind, lanterns with riddles posted on them, music and calligraphy. All the fun of a traditional Chinese fair.

I was unaware  how important the last celebration of the Spring Festival was. Known as the Lantern Festival, it dates back to the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) when the emperor ordered lanterns to be lit in all the temples and palaces to show respect for the Buddha. Nowadays, it is another important time to spend with the family and visit the various lantern displays around the city. There are also some traditional rural festivals, one of which I was lucky enough to witness. Two Chinese friends invited me to the “she huo” festival in a village at the foot of the Chinling mountains. They said that there would be some dancing and festivities but I was not prepared for what we saw.

Traditional food was laid out on trestle tables at the entrance to the village and we ate spicy noodles with fresh coriander and honey filled dumplings to keep out the cold. Hundreds of villagers from the surrounding areas poured into Houguanzhai and took up their positions along the streets and other vantage points to see the procession. Whispers of “laowi” – “foreigner” – rippled after me as I made my way down the street. It is quite possible that some of the older folk had  never seen a foreigner before and I was the only one there. Costumed horsemen galloped wildly up and down the narrow streets in a dangerous attempt at crowd control.

At last the beating of the drums announced the start of the carnival. It was a “lord mayor’s”  type parade with a difference. Young children, some under two years old, were bound to long metal poles and dressed in Chinese opera-costumes with painted mask faces and ornate wigs. The floats moved slowly through the crowds with the children only being able to move their arms, draped in long-sleeved robes. The purpose of the floats was to make it look as if the  children were floating or balancing in trees or in clouds as they moved puppet-like through the streets. It was mind boggling.  The poor kids had been practising for weeks apparently but they were exhausted. Many of them fell asleep atop their lofty poles whilst their parents tried to poke them awake with long sticks. “Stay awake or I’ll beat you!” one mother yelled at her unfortunate daughter. Another very young child pulled off his wig and was crying but to no avail. It was obviously one of those occasions when parents, who kept popping up from the back of the float vehicles, were proud to show off their children.

she huo parade

My doctor friends in Xi’an kindly invited me out for a meal on Lantern Festival. They knew I had no family here and it is traditionally a family affair. It was great to see them all again (see Doctors on Tour blog). Our conversation was drowned out by even more thunderous bangs and booms than on New Year’s Eve.  We rounded off the meal with yuanxiao – glutinous rice balls filled with bean paste. Eating them denotes harmony and happiness for the family. My return bus journey was positively hazardous with rockets and crackers exploding everywhere. I watched a spectacular display near my flat and then beat a hasty retreat and repeated my actions from New Year’s Eve 15 days earlier.

So where ever you are, “May the Star of Happiness, the Star of Wealth and the Star of Longevity shine on you. ”          xin nian kuai le.

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Don’t Stand on Ceremony

On New Year’s Day (not lunar calender), I was invited by a Mr Shi to his tea house. This particular gentleman had been photographing my “shoe-box sessions” (see work blog) with the high school children for several weeks. He couldn’t speak any English but kept asking my translator if I would like to have tea with him. Now, after my disastrous “tea” episode in Beijing, ( for those of you who haven’t heard, I was conned into paying £89 for three cups of jasmine tea which I poured myself and the occasion lasted no m0re than 20 minutes,) I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. However I didn’t want to appear rude and finally accepted his invitation on condition that I could bring a couple of friends with me.

We all arrived at an office block at the appointed time. There was no sign of a tea house and it wasn’t in an area where there were any shops or  people. I started to get worried.  Eventually the guard at the desk unlocked a heavy metal door and ushered us through. He told us to take the lift to the second floor and as we got out of the lift, there was Mr Shi waiting to greet us. He opened a door and  we entered another world.

The Tea House was not open to the public as it was a “school” where the Art of Tea was taught. Women were trained there in the art of the tea ceremony – the typical course lasts for two years.We were ushered into a small side room where we were introduced to a musician friend of Mr Shi’s. I realised that he had been invited especially for me as I had told Mr Shi that I played the flute. Tea Houses are rather like the Paris salons of the 17th and 18th centuries. Historically it was a place where the Chinese aristocracy, court officials, intellectuals and poets would meet. Today, it is a place to enjoy the sensory experience of tea as well as a place where musicians, artists, calligraphers and writers meet.

Well, the tea drinking went on for over two hours! We were told to make ourselves at home and to enjoy the tea. We were educated in the different types of tea – An Ji white tea, Shou Mei white and green tea, Zheng Shan Xiao Zhong black/red tea. All types were served by the lovely hostess in small china cups. The woman who served us was exceptionally knowledgeable and exuded a aura of tranquillity and competence. When I asked her how long she had been studying tea, she replied, “since I was in my mother’s womb”. She came from a family of tea growers and it was in her blood. She explained the different boiling points for the different teas as she skilfully poured from the pot. Each pot served 3 to 4 rounds and her mastery was to ensure the flavour was consistent throughout. She tried to get us to appreciate the smell of the tea as well as the flavour. The tea could be bitter but the after-taste was sweet, leaving the mouth feeling pleasant and refreshed. We were encouraged to eat fruit with the red tea and sweet pastries with the green tea.

Most of the subtleties of the comparisons of the teas were lost on someone like me, who usually drinks Earl Grey with milk, although since coming to China I have been drinking green tea.  The spiritual side of the art of tea drinking is the emphasis on “he, jing, yi and zhen” – peace, quiet, enjoyment and truth – reflecting the underlying philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The musician told us about his “hut” in the mountains where he goes on retreat regularly. Just when I thought I might sink if I drank another cup, this lovely man said he would play for us. He played an ancient Chinese instrument called the Gu Qin and also tried to teach us how to play. Then he entertained us with some more traditional music on his flute.

It was a wonderful way to spend New Year’s Day and we were willing to pose for the obligatory photographs at the end so that Mr Shi could put some foreigners’ photos on his web site. I’ll put in a link at the end if you’re interested. It certainly put to rest my uncomfortable memory of the Beijing incident, especially when I discovered how expensive the teas were that we had been drinking, for free, all afternoon.

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Money To Burn

I guess it is Halloween time for some of you and for others a time to mark the coming of winter with bonfires and marshmallows. Well, here in Xi’an, there has been a lot of money burning going on in the street outside my block of flats this week. Old ladies have been squatting on the pavement at night selling large rectangular sheets of joss- paper money and little hand-made paper shoes. People have been buying them and then burning them in the street in ceremonial fashion. I was fascinated and asked my translator what it all meant.

She said it is known as the festival of Han Yi Jie and takes place around the week of the 1st October in the lunar calendar. Usually people who have lost family members in the past three years will buy the” money” or paper shoes and clothes and then burn them. This is so the ancestors can have enough money to buy warm clothes and shoes for the winter. Some of the joss- paper money or spirit money has the picture of Yan Wang imprinted on it – he is Emperor of the Underworld. Other pieces have a picture of the old Chinese currency or a large monetary value stamped on them.

Further research on the subject showed that this is an ancient custom dating back as far as about 1000BC. Archaeologists have found imitation money in the form of stones, cowrie shells and bones in tombs and imitation metal money in the tombs of wealthy people from The Spring and Autumn period (1600-1046BC). Initially they thought that the imitation money was for the poor.

Joss paper Spirit Money with Jade Emperor Jade Emperor – monarch of Heaven in Taoism

Spiritually, the money is used as a symbol of transformation. By burning, it increases in value and the deceased member uses it to pay the remainder of his earthly debts in order to get a body and fate to continue its karmic journey. The living are paying back their spiritual debts by fulfilling their filial duty and paying respect to the ancestors.

It is obvious that old customs and spiritual beliefs are still flourishing here given the number of people buying the money. It might also be the only country that can afford to burn  money in the present economic climate!