The Country & The People
Before applying for MTBLAO, I knew very little about Laos. I knew it was a landlocked country in southeast asia, but that's about it. I also knew little about the Vietnam war, let alone its impact on the country. I was about to get a huge lesson in the long lasting effects of war.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history per capita. The United States dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during the Vietnam War —equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. A primary target was the the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an extensive trail system created by the North Vietnamese to transport weapons and other supplies, that ran through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Years later, the country is littered with unexploded ordnance (UXOs): bombs that did not explode on impact. Villagers continue to lose their lives from a war that ended 40 years ago.
We could see bomb holes in many of the remote places where we rode, some in the middle of villages. The mountains turned from tall, jagged peaks to smaller, rounded ones. Why? The mountain tops were literally blown off from the results of continual bombing. Farmers are fearful of losing limbs or their lives everyday that they tend to the land that has not yet been painstakingly cleared of UXOs. Children often mistake the bombs for toys.
One of the most impactful days during our trip was visiting the Mines Advisory Group (MAG); an organization that employs and trains locals to detect and detonate UXOs. We watched Rebecca and her husband Greg detonate two bombs. The sound of the bombs exploding was defining, and we were all silent. At this rate, it will take MAG another 100 years to clear the entire country of these bombs.
Laos is also a poor country. Although the children often shouted, “Sabai dee! Hello!” whenever we rode by, I couldn't help but think that the bikes we were riding were worth far more money than what these kids would ever see in their lifetime.
We spent almost an hour one day hanging out with the children and their teacher at one schoolhouse. There were about 40 students, mostly little boys and only 4 girls! They were very cute but extremely shy. Our goal was to entice the kids to test ride our bikes. The boys did not take much convincing to ride our big, shiney mountain bikes. But the girls required some serious coaxing! Once the first little girl rode, all of the others joined in and the whole class cheered them on. It was an emotional scene to watch. I wondered, where are all of the girls? Why are they not in school? We found out when we left the school and rode to the nearby village. They were weaving! Young girls weave intricate fabrics using a very complicated looking machine made of wood. Their teacher informed us that the village depended on selling these fabrics in the market to make money. So, the girls didn't have a chance to go to school. Families were too poor to send them.
The school house itself was a single room in an open-air building, a small chalkboard, and books that the children had to share. There simply wasn't enough school supplies for everyone. I gave the teacher the rest of the crayons I had packed to distribute to local children. He was so thankful!
I have never travelled to poor areas of any country, let alone ride my bike through remote villages that can only be reached by foot or by motorbike. The farther away we were from a city, the more poverty we saw. The more obvious the impacts of war. Kids without proper clothing. Starving dogs. It was tough.The chances that these children will have the opportunities I had are slim to none. I thought alot about my life and how lucky I was to be born in Canada.