The Aftermath of War

Phonsavan Travel Blog

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The mysterious jars

My last days in Laos were full of fun and eye-opening education about the country’s history.

 

After our up-north adventure, we headed down to Vang Vieng, famous for its river tubing.  Everyone I’ve met who has done the tubing has raved about it.  You basically jump on a tube and bar hop along a river, stopping about every 3 minutes where someone throws you a bamboo pole to grab, they reel you in to their bar, and you drink and take advantage of the swings into the river.  I do a big river tubing thing back home every year, so this was not a novel thing to me, but I found it be lots of fun and enjoyed the Laos’ take on it.

One big jar!
  A few times Alex and I took to the swings together and we all managed to come away without any scratches from rocks.  We found VV itself lacking character, and our first night there may have put a bad spin on things.  We battled bug beds and cockroaches at our first guesthouse, so we moved before staying the night, only to then have to battle the owner the next morning, threatening the police if we still didn’t pay for the night.  We called his bluff and got him off our back, but even after finding a bug-free place, we decided not to stay long down there.

 

From VV we caught a bus to Phonsavan, where I sat behind two pukers and alongside another one.  The Lao people I’ve noticed don’t handle bus travel well.

Bomb crater in the countryside
  I’ve had my share of motion sickness, but I finally started to use my dramamine to good results.  I wanted to offer this up to my company on this ride.  The gal in front of me kept vomitting into a bag and tossing it out the window.  Next to me she was at it a lot as well, but the bus was full and I had nowhere else to go.  I survived nonetheless and we pulled up into Phonsavan and headed for King Keo Guesthouse, Mr. Kong, or Crazy Kong’s pad of mayhem.

 

Our main reason for visting this place was the mysterious jars scattered in sites around the area, called the Plain of Jars.  They are stone jars about 2,500 years old, but their origin is unknown.  Some believe they are burial markers.

Creative use of CBU shells - that's a pigeon coop on the stilts
  We ended booking a tour with Mr. Kong to take us to one site, along with some bomb craters.  Northern Laos was heavily bombed during the Secret War, leaving craters around the area, but more importantly, and more alarmingly, unexploded ordnance, or UXO, killing thousands yearly.  All of this courtesy of the U.S. military.

 

We set off on our day tour, first pulling up to an area with bomb craters caused by bunker bombs.  I stood there, trying to picture planes flying over head, dropping bombs and causing damage to this countryside of amazing beauty.  It was so peaceful then, so it was so hard to imagine otherwise.  I hesitantly posed for pictures by the craters, noting that a smile was probably not a good idea.

Crazy Kong's jeep

 

From there we headed for a Hmong village so see how these ingenious people have incorporated the scrap of war into everday life.  The U.S. used cluster bombs (CBUs) as well, the reason for the UXOs.  They are shells containing about 67 bombies, small individual bombs that once released from the shell, spin in the air until the bomb is armed and then explode.  Many are not properly armed before hitting the ground, thus do not explode and lie in wait for unsuspecting villagers to find them.  More on that later, but the shells previously containing these were left lying around as well.  Villagers now use them as stilts for their homes, fences, troughs to feed the animals and even boxes to grow herbs in.  So we toured a village, noting the CBU shells in various places.

Pondering at the waterfall
  It is almost like having a bank as well, as these shells are sold for scrap metal.  I suppose they sell them as need be.

 

After that we took a break from bombs and trekked down to a waterfall for lunch.  We previously stopped at the local market to pick up lunch supplies.  It was not a very appetizing market, so Alex and I ended up with sticky rice, screwers of unknown meat and some fried bananas.  After lunch and a quick swim by some, we climbed back up, following the falls along the way through water (I wore my Chacos this time).  I fared a little better on this uphill climb, but I managed to pick up another leech along the way, stuck between my toes.  Upon notice, I started screaming leech, leech, and after Rob removed it for me, I noticed that Alex and another guy had leeches as well between their toes.

Hmong children chasing us out of the village
  Alex thought she got hers, but her toes kept bleeding profusely, and about an hour later we realized the head was still there.  She managed to not faint at the sight of her blood and we headed off to the Plain of Jars, site 1. 

 

Yep, they are jars, in a plain.  We took pictures, posed and chatted about them, and after a whole ten minutes, all of us were tired and lounging about on the jars, so Crazy Kong decided we should head back and begin the night’s festivities.  He had an eye on the single gal from England, and we knew where this was headed.  The evening turned into a big storm, literally and figuratively.  It started pouring rain, hailing even.  Alex and I were in our bungalow and fought off the drenching to join the others outside for dinner.

Laundry by the fence of shells
  They were already engaged in drinking Beer Lao and of course, drinking Lao Lao.  We had told ourselves it was time to detox after our river adventure, but since it was our last night together (I was heading to Vietnam and they southern Laos), we participated in the foray.

 

Mainly everyone got drunk and ended up going to bed before nine.  We were entertained by Mr. Kong, who picked up his guitar and belted out a tune about Falangs and how they love sticky rice and Lao Lao, but he saw his English girl start stumbling off to bed, so ditched the guitar and disappeared for the night.  We called it done pretty early and went to bed as well.

 

My last day with Alex and Rob was spent walking about Phonsavan, checking in with the internet place every hour to see if it was finally up and doing a whole lot of nothing as there isn’t much to do in town anyway.

The market - this isn't bad, you should've seen the fish heads!
  MAG (Mines Advisory Group) has an office there with information, so we took that in.  I think they are Britain-based and have been leading the charge to rid Laos of UXOs since 1994.  One of the statistics there said one planeload of bombs was dropped over Laos every eight minutes for nine years, with 30% of all the ordnance dropped not exploding.  This all in violation of the Geneva convention which made Laos a neutral zone.  You may wonder why the U.S. would do such a thing.  In fact, the U.S. denied they did such a thing for years.  Now they give out various excuses that always breathe the message:  to stop the communists!  One thing they’ve said is they needed to bomb Laos to cut off the communist supplies going along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Much of the bombings were during the Vietnam War.  However, if you look at the location of the trail, you’ll notice it is south, not north, so there was no reason to be up here.  They also say the Lao Communist party was on the rise, so they needed to suppress them, giving reason for the northern bombings, but what we hear from some locals is that the U.S. was actually involved in the opium trade in Laos to help fund the Vietnam War.

 

In any event, the U.S. did a horrible thing and as far as I can see, have done little to remedy the aftermath.  The aftermath being the dangerous UXOs.  This town lives off of crop growing.  If you are in fear of gettting blown up when you till your field (many have), would you want to be out there growing food?  So many have to survive off other foods, if they can.  As mentioned, the metal from the bombs is valuable, so the other option is selling it for scrap, but that, too, is dangerous.  It is a difficult situation for the Laos people to be in and MAG can only clear so much.  It is a painstaking process.  The one thing I noticed, though, is that the Laos people take all this in stride.  I felt like a bad guy, not wanting to admit where I was from, but no one begruded me and I was always treated with welcome. These people have struggled so greatly and continue to do so, but they never wear their struggles for everyone to see.  I have such great respect and admiration for this country.

 

So we watched two documentaries at the MAG office (one talked about the Honeywell plant in Minneapolis that manufactured some of the CBUs, so much for hometown pride) and I donated $20 for the cause (that’s a lot of dough for a backpacker).  The sobering statistics made our moods even lower given we were off to celebrate our last supper together as the comedic trio.  I’ve so enjoyed traveling with Alex and Rob in Laos over the last three weeks.  We’ve had so much fun we’ve already made plans for a meet up, but this time in the States. 

 

I type this as I sit in Hanoi, and I feel anxious to get out and experience this place.  However, Laos really touched my heart and I was so hesitant to leave.  Time is running out for me, though, and after a long time on the road with no place to be and no deadline to be there, I actually have a return date home: July 11th.  So time is winding down quickly for me and I panic at the thought of only three more months abroad!  I have much to look forward to still, so I will soak in every second and not worry about tomorrow.

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The mysterious jars
The mysterious jars
One big jar!
One big jar!
Bomb crater in the countryside
Bomb crater in the countryside
Creative use of CBU shells - that…
Creative use of CBU shells - that…
Crazy Kongs jeep
Crazy Kong's jeep
Pondering at the waterfall
Pondering at the waterfall
Hmong children chasing us out of t…
Hmong children chasing us out of …
Laundry by the fence of shells
Laundry by the fence of shells
The market - this isnt bad, you s…
The market - this isn't bad, you …
Phonsavan
photo by: droonsta