Couchfish Day 59: Jars, spoons and a lunatic

Couchfish Day 59: Jars, spoons and a lunatic

After all the riding yesterday I end up at Cranky T’s. The cafe/bar is Phonsavan’s best nightlife option—or the best karaoke–free one anyway. It attracts what few travellers are in town on any given evening, so is a good spot to meet others.

I’d hoped to catch up with Poon and Heather who I’d met in Luang Prabang, but they’re nowhere in sight. Instead there’s just one occupied table, hosting an older western guy and three travellers. I join them.

This is how you do it!

He’s an American returned veteran, and looks like he’s been around the block way too many times. As I sit, he’s telling (not suggesting mind you) the other three Europeans what they need to do in Phonsavan. They’re on an open–ended trip, while he’s on a break from a veteran–funded aid gig in southern Laos.

I think he thinks he’s being helpful, but, as with the competitive traveller I met the other week, he’s all commandments rather than suggestions. They’ve only arrived this afternoon and are bamboozled by the raft of village names and attractions he rattles off.

Shady jars at Site 2. Photo: Cindy Fan.

We all keep drinking and he’s getting more and more frustrated with their desire to just get scooters and go exploring. I agree with them—hell it’s what I’ve been doing—and as the four of us start inching towards travelling together the next day, he interrupts and says:

“Ok screw it. Let’s do this. I’ll drive you all. We’ll go to Site 2 and Site 3 and then to Ban Naphai. Ok?”

None of us have suggested he drive us—nor that he even join us—but he’s so matter of fact, in the end we agree. If nothing else, it will save us cash from hiring scooters.

That’s a modern jar in the foreground. Photo: Cindy Fan.

We meet the next morning at 9 am out front of Cranky T’s. I’m the last one to arrive and everyone is standing around an enormous pick–up truck. Gleamingly black, there’s not a spot of dirt on it, and I joking ask if it is new. It’s not—he says it is his and he drove it here from Attapeu. We pile in—the interior is likewise immaculate. To me, the car smells brand new. Weird.

Site 2 and 3 are around 25 km south of Phonsavan and I have to admit, it is great to not be on a scooter. The American is a careful and very slow driver, but we still make good time reaching Site 2.

Both Site 2 and Site 3 are smaller than Site 1, but we’re almost the only people save a bored ticket seller at each location, and it is lovely having them to ourselves. The American drones on, explaining the different theories on what the jars were originally for, but we scatter, each exploring in their own direction.

An enduring mystery. Photo: Cindy Fan.

An archeologist friend of mine who has worked on digs in the area has told me the true use of the jars remains one of the great mysteries of the region. He believes there are still plenty more to find, and perhaps some time in the future, a mother node will surface that will hold all the answers. With much of the surrounding territory still perilous to even dig a hole in, patience is required. To be honest, I like that we simply don’t know for sure what they were for.

We hop back into the shiny vehicle and drive onwards to Ban Naphai. Supported by Swiss NGO Helvetas, the village smelts left over munitions back into their liquid form before transforming them into everyday utensils. Spoons are a particular favourite—hence the village’s nickname, “the spoon village”.

Spoons anyone? Photo: Cindy Fan.

There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing war weapons repurposed into something to eat with, and we watch while the molten metal is poured into wooden moulds. The workers are used to tourists and are happy to show us around. They’ve also diversified into trinkets to sell on the side, but we all go with the spoons, each buying a few.

The American then suggests we go eat at a small noodle stall he knows, and, to be honest, it is a great tip. The older woman cooking clearly knows him, and there’s plenty of genuine friendliness at play as she slings out our simple lunches on plastic plates. Each comes with a locally made spoon.

Defused bombies at Ban Naphai. Who invents this stuff? Photo: Cindy Fan.

Mid afternoon is upon us by the time we jump back into the car and return to Phonsavan. We’re all chatty and upbeat—in part due to the generous number of Beerlao we put away at lunch. More importantly though, in a region where so much ongoing misery is on display, the spoon village is a far more upbeat experience, full of hope rather than despondency.

Then it all comes crashing down.

He pulls up outside Cranky T’s and we get out, ready to head back in for a few more icy beers. Before we can go in though, the American calls us together and says:

“Ok, that’ll be $15 each.”

I assume he’s joking—we all do—but he’s not. Before I can say anything, one of the other travellers pipes up, half laughing, pointing out there was never any discussion of payment—he just offered to take us.

Just a bomb, in the garden. Ban Naphai. Photo: Cindy Fan.

“Look, we can fight about this, or you can each pay. I drove you, guided you and took you to my favourite lunch place. You each need to pay, and $15 is the standard price.”

One of the Europeans points out we had all been going to hire scooters, which would have cost a fraction of the price, and he offered to take us. Again he points out there was never any discussion about payment. He’s not being rude or aggressive, and I’m still not sure if the American is having a laugh. We’re all just standing there a bit dumbfounded.

“Look, if you want to fight over it, I’ll fight you all. Girls too.” He’s not joking, he’s mood suddenly dark and deadly serious.

None of are in the market for a street fight with someone who is clearly unhinged, so we grudgingly hand over the money. He counts it on the bonnet of his shiny car, then, like the exchange never happened, says “nice doing business with you”, gets in and drives off.

Nobody is home. Photo: Cindy Fan.

We head into Cranky T’s and start drinking, talking about what the hell just happened. The money is an annoyance, but it was a fun day, even if it did finish off on a bad note. We talk about onwards plans and agree to head to Hua Phan together the next day.

Later, after a few too many Beerlao, we’re making our way back to our guesthouses when we spy the shiny black car parked on a dirt side street. Without a thought one of the girls runs over, scoops up as much dirt as she can, and throws it all over his car.

We’ll be getting the early morning bus to Hua Phan.

Tomorrow: Laos’ hermit kingdom.

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