Mystery, war & death in Xieng Khouang…

I’m sat with a beer at a rooftop bar in Vientiane (Lisa is treating herself to a two hour massage, the decadent so and so…), watching the sun set and the night market spring chaotically into life. It’s 6pm and still 38c: I’m sweltering. Beyond the market the Mekong  flows lazily past, and beyond that I can see Thailand. We have a few more days left in Laos and I guess I’m trying to come up with some conclusions on this place.

It’d be a lie to say I’ve loved every minute of being here – sometimes the place is downright infuriating and some of the people we’ve encountered here have definitely been to the Basil Fawlty school of customer service…

At points I think we’ve both longed to be back in Thailand again, but then you remember that you’re in what is still an extremely poor country, despite the recent progress that has been made. Average yearly income appears to be somewhere between £700-£1000 ($1000-$1400USD), although people in rural communities (the majority of the country – 73%) can only dream of these figures. Travelling across the country you see that a huge amount of the people live a survival farming way of life.

So where had been my favourite place in Laos: vibrant Vientiane? Crazy but beautiful Vang Vieng? The UNESCO World Heritage site Luang Prabang? Outdoorsy Luang Namtha?

Nope.

It was Phonsavan, the not often visited capital of Xieng Khouang province. We took a minivan there from Luang Prabang, and the reason why it is rarely visited became clear – it’s bloody miles from just about anywhere. There is an airport there, but no flights to and from Luang Prabang. We decided to go there to see the mysterious Plain of Jars, a series of ancient megalithic sites full of strange stone jars – some reasonably small; some a couple of metres high.

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Nowt in there any more…

There are over 90 sites containing these jars, but only seven are actually accessible – not because of any strange communist government bureaucracy, but because of an altogether more sinister reason – they are way, way too dangerous. You see, not many people know (including me until I came here) that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world (per capita) and Phonsavan is pretty much the epicentre of where that bombing took place, courtesy of American raids attempting to destroy supply lines during the Vietnam War and also to support the Royal Laos Government in their fight against the Paphet Lao. Now, as far as I know, the USA was never ‘officially’ at war with Laos – this was a ‘Secret War‘. But the facts are horrifying:

  • From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped over TWO MILLION tons of bombs on Laos.
  • That’s 580,000 bombing missions, or a planeload of bombs dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for NINE years.

If those stats don’t stun you, then how about this: more bombs were dropped on Laos during this period than were dropped during the entirety of World War Two – mind boggling.

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Display at Plain of Jars site 1.

But in many ways, the dropping of the bombs was only the start of the horror for the people of this country. The ordinance of choice for the US was cluster bombs – basically a large bomb that contains many smaller bombs, or ‘bombies’ as they’re known here. These bombies are about the size of a tennis ball and are spread over a large area by the initial explosion. Over 270 million of these cluster bombs were dropped on Laos, but over a third – 80 million – failed to detonate, meaning that Laos was effectively left with huge swathes of land riddled with small land mines.

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Defused bombies inside a half cluster bomb shell.

The implications of these unexploded bombies has been immense for Laos, and they still are. Although organisations such as MAG have done and continue to do outstanding work in clearing the ordinance, in the 40 or so years since the end of the war less than 1% (ONE PERCENT!!!) of the bombies have been cleared – at the current rate it will take Laos many hundreds of years to be ‘bomb free’. A statistic that I found to be pretty telling is that between 1995 and 2013 the US gave on average $3.2million per year to assist with UXO clearance. Gratefully received, no doubt, but rather pitiful when you consider they spent $13.3million per day (in today’s money) for nine years delivering the bombs in the first place. Hopefully there’ll be some improvement on this later on in the year.

There continues to be between 100 and 300 deaths per year from the UXO (unexploded ordinance), with many more being seriously injured and maimed. One of the reasons for this is that many of the bombs were dropped on some of Laos’ best farming land, so communities working the land live and work in constant danger. Also, there has been a thriving trade in scrap metal – people, including many children, using cheap metal detectors to seek out their income. When you consider that medical care here is pretty poor even for a relatively wealthy tourist, you can see the problems facing the people in the rural communities. We visited the COPE Centre in Vientiane, and heard frequent stories of families having to desperately take seriously injured children in hired minibuses to hospitals hours away, only to find the hospital had no blood or oxygen.

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Bomb crater at Plain of Jars site 1.

Seven of the Plain of Jars sites have been cleared by MAG, with sites 1, 2 & 3 being the most commonly visited. Our guide took us to all three and it was easy to see the signs of war all around. For a start, you are only allowed to walk in certain areas – you have to keep a close eye out for the white or red stone markers. Also, many of the jars themselves were damaged in the bombing raids.

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Stay between the markers!

One of the most interesting things about the Plain of Jars is that we still don’t know for sure what they were for. Research by the French archaeologist Madeleine Colani in the 1930s suggested that the jars were ancient burial sites (it’s thought they date back over 2000 years) and recent discoveries have supported this theory: it seems that the jars were used to ‘decompose’ bodies, before burying the remaining bones – human composters, if you will.

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Jars spread around site 1

Our guide told us a local theory, which I think I much prefer. They believed that a race of giant humans used the jars to brew and then drink whiskey and wine. No wonder the jars were scattered all over the place…

While on the tour of the sites we also learnt more about the times of the ‘secret war’. The US persuaded one of the ethnic minorities in the country, the Hmong, to fight for them on the promise of increased power or new lives over in the states. Our guide was from a Hmong family, with his father and grandfather fighting for the US. At the end of the war, the US left so quickly that many of the Hmong weren’t able to leave. Indeed, many of them had no idea the war had even finished. Many of the Hmong families were effectively stranded in their own country, and were forced to retreat and live in the jungle. Our guide described how he spent the first decade of his life living in the jungle; how he saw his mother shot by Paphet Lao forces. While the Hmong are now largely accepted again and reintegrated into Laos, the scars are certainly still there.

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Human composters, or giants’ shot glasses?

The Plain of Jars is truly one of the most atmospheric places you could ever visit. Endure the bus ride, see the sites and enjoy being away from the usual tourist haunts. The more visitors they get here, the more it will encourage more funds into the clearance of the millions of remaining bombs. The history of the area, both ancient and more recent, is fascinating – they are perhaps missing a trick here in not promoting the Jars more, but also in not using the history of the Secret War more. I found hearing about this to be both horrifying and fascinating – perhaps one day there’ll be a ‘Secret War Museum’ -it’s a story that, alongside that of the Jars, deserves to be shared and told.

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