James and I left Luang Prabang on a local bus to reach the eastern town of Phonsavan about 10 hours away. The day was overcast and surprisingly cold and torrential downpours and thick fog made the journey over winding hills through stunning, but cloud shrouded scenery, a little hairy. We nearly broke down leaving the town and a mechanic had to disappear under the bus to investigate some clouds of black smoke before we could leave. We passed two accidents on the hill roads and almost got stuck as we approached a jack knifed lorry across the road between the cliff face and the drop down the other side. We all got off the bus which managed to just squeeze round the side without toppling over and we were on our way once again.
Phonsavan is a small, frontier style town nestled among low lying fields and farmlands in the East of Laos and is the closet place to the Plain of Jars, a series of sites that hold hundreds of giant sandstone jars believed to be anything from 2000 to 3000 years old. There are two current theories about the use of the jars, some believe they were used to store Lao rice wine and others believe they were used for cremating the dead whose urns were buried beneath the jars. This is hard to prove as hundreds of years ago Chinese invaders dug under the jars looking for loot and toppled many of them over. Others were blown up during the secret war but I’ll come back to that in a moment. We spent a day on a tour with many of the tourists we’d met on the bus down from Luang Prabang visiting three sites of jars surrounded by gentle rolling hills, small villages and rice fields. The jars themselves are not spectacular in themselves but the large numbers of them strewn around beneath the trees on the hill tops and the history surrounding them, not to mention the comedy photo opportunities made for a good day trip. We also got to visit a village where they make the rice wine which we all had to sample. As local paint stripper goes, not bad. And we stopped by a rusted Russian tank next to a local village as well.
In the town after we came back from the jars we went to visit a small display shop set up by MAG, the Mines Advisory Group. I was quite horrified to realise that up until now I was completely unaware that the most bombed country per capita in the world is Laos. In 1962 at the start of the Vietnam war, America signed a Geneva treaty to state that Laos was neutral territory and would not be targeted as part of the war. Then between 1964 and 1973 they dropped 2 million tonnes of bombs at a cost of $2.2million per day on southern and eastern Laos in an effort to prevent supplies reaching the Viet Kong and to cripple the burgeoning communism in the country. 2 million tonnes of bombs, the vast majority in the form of cluster bombs which break open in mid air showering down hundreds, thousands and millions of tiny fruit-like explosive devices called Bombies that fall onto the countryside like rain. They weren’t aimed at military targets, these were aimed at killing civilians; women, farmers, children. Thirty percent of the bombs that fell didn’t explode and have killed 20,000 people in the ensuing decades. Every time the country wants to build a new road, schools, hospitals the ground has to be checked and cleared of unexploded ordanance, UXO. When farmers need to till their land, stake in Buffalo ropes or look to expand their farms they risk striking and exploding bombies and other UXO. A third of deaths and casualties are children than come across the bombies and pick them up thinking they are toys or fruit. A group of ten of us watched a 50minute documentary about the war and the work that MAG is doing in Laos and were all very moved by the experience, more so for actually being in the country where it occurred. All the restaurants and guest houses in Phonsavan are filled with bomb casings as ornaments and bombies as ashtrays. It’s very bizarre. What is crazy is that Laos was never even declared war on, it is such a beautiful country and full of more warm and welcoming people than anywhere else that I have travelled. And yet they are still living through this terrible legacy. Even at a rate of clearing 100,000 UXO a year, the grandchildren of today’s generation will still be farming land where they run the risk of coming across unexploded bombs. I consider myself a reasonably well read and well educated individual and in constantly horrifies and humbles me just how little I know about the world.