The Plain of Jars and the USA’s secret war – Phonsavan, Laos – October, 2015

“Whew thank God we made it” is exactly what I said as we rolled into Phonsavan!

The bus ride from Luang Prabang was a constant winding, bumpy, switchback filled, and somewhat scary adventure that lasted for 8 hours. The road was really narrow and it seemed like we went from mountain top to mountain top and at one point we even had to stop for a while so they could clear part of a hillside off the road. We enjoyed the breathtaking scenery of the high mountain peaks and all the hillside villages that dotted the countryside…until we were run off the road. The bus slammed on the brakes and a woman seated at the front of the bus was literally flung out the bus door which was wide open because they don’t ever close the bus door. Everyone on the bus stood up, and the lady that was thrown out the door just walked back in and sat back down – we were so glad to see she was okay! We all kind of got up to look out the windows wondering if we should leave the bus or what we should do? Then finally the bus driver said it was okay and he was able to back out of the ditch and on to the road. We were off again rolling through more switchbacks, Laos music blaring, bus curtains flapping in the wind, and I was really wishing for a seat belt! The ride was not for the faint of heart but the magnificent scenery that unfolded before our eyes at every turn had us saying to each other “wow this is Laos”.

We quickly checked in to our hotel, wiped the dirt off our faces (the bus ride was really dusty) and went out for a well deserved Beerlao and some dinner. We also lined up a tour for the next day to visit The Plain of Jars.

The next morning after breakfast, we made our way over to the travel place where we booked our tour. Things felt a bit strange to me and I mentioned to Gordon that I thought there might be a problem. Well it so happened there was a problem, the tour we booked the night before somehow changed…it was a classic bait and switch. We only found this out once we had driven a block away to start the tour so we had the driver turn around and take us back to the agency. We had a bit of a discussion with the owner about what we agreed to the night before. Maybe it was a misunderstanding…but we highly doubt it. We asked for a refund and he gave it to us. So there we were without a plan, but the funny thing was that the guide this company was going to use actually worked at a different tour agency around the corner and we were able to arrange something directly with him. Things always work out right?

Our first stop was at a super crater created by one of the bombs in the USA’s secret war. The USA feared communism and the secret war in Laos was in support of the Royal Laos Government against the Pathet Lao and to stop traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail which was being used to supply forces in Vietnam during the Vietnam war. There were bomb craters all over the place here and you could see them only a few feet apart dotting the hillsides – how scary it must have been for these people.

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We learned that the USA dropped more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions – we read that’s equal to a plane load of bombs every 8 minutes, for 9 years. Can you imagine that? Laos is the most bombed country in the world and 50 years later these bombs are still killing and seriously injuring the local people. Approximately 80 million out of 270 million cluster bombs did not explode when they hit the ground leaving Laos littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO). More shocking is the majority of bombs dropped were cluster bombs, and each cluster shell contained hundreds of individual bomblets which the locals refer to as ‘bombies’. These bomblets are the size of a tennis ball and they are buried in fields, beneath schools, beneath temples, under roads, and in rivers.

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This map puts things into perspective

Children in Laos are particularly vulnerable because these ‘bombies’ look like toys and so many kids have been injured or killed. Programs are now in place to teach the kids about the dangers of ‘bombies’, how to identify munitions, and what to do if they come across one. Living with these unexploded bombs has been so very hard on the Laotian people, especially in the countryside where they need to farm land that may not have been cleared of UXO. I couldn’t begin to imagine going out to my rice field feeling terrified that at any given moment a bomb could explode, but this is their reality every single day. It really amazes me that the Laotians are so gracious and friendly towards foreigners given what has happened in their country and what they still have to endure on a daily basis. It was difficult for us to see what we saw, to read and listen to the stories, but we feel it’s so very important for people to understand and to know what has and what continues to happen here.

War is the most horrific thing and millions of innocent people end up killed or seriously hurt. How can we sit in our living rooms and let these kinds of policies go unnoticed? The fact that it can still affect innocent lives 50 years later truly shows what a senseless atrocity it truly is. Even more shocking, despite the grim history in Laos, the superpowers refuse to sign the cluster convention banning the use of cluster bombs.

Our guide shared several  personal stories of how he had seen friends get hurt and even die from the ‘bombies’. He also told a story of a village chief’s family, his wife and kids were killed by ‘bombies’ while they were planting corn. Everyone in Laos knows someone or has family that has either been killed or hurt by unexploded ordnance.

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Bombies inside a bomb casing

We had to be careful where we walked and we had to stay in areas that were cleared by MAG (Mines Advisory Group) of UXO. They put markers in the ground, the white side of the marker is safe and the red side of the marker is not. There were little holes dug all over where MAG has cleared the land of munitions.

MAG Marker

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Mag marker – it’s safe to walk on the white side but dangerous on the red side (we assume the bird landed on the red side)

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A flower grows in a hole where MAG removed UXO

Our next stop was at a traditional Hmong village and some of the houses were built with bomb shrapnel and bomb casings. They had some original ideas on what to do with bomb casings.

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Herbs growing in a bomb casing

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Houses supported by bomb casings

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Pumpkins growing on a tree

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Pumpkins growing on the roof

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We made our way to the plain of jars and started with site 3. It’s strange but this is the only area in Laos with these stone jars, they were put here over 2,000 years ago from a lost civilization. There are many folk tales on how the jars got here and it was interesting to hear them all from our guide. Some say they were used for burial purposes and some say they were used to store alcohol and grains. The thing is no one really knows for sure how or why the jars are there, it’s a mystery!

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Site 2 was probably my favourite because of the views.

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One of the few remaining lids

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Site 1 has the most jars and is the most visited but it was fairly quiet when we arrived. It had some large bomb craters and you could see the trenches where the soldiers hid and fought. At this particular site 127 UXO’s were dug up and removed, many of the jars were damaged by the bombings. We saw a cave here that was used during the secret war but did not go in, it was covered with bee hives and our guide said someone was chased by them a few days previous (it was fine with me as I don’t seem to have good luck in caves anyways).

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Bomb crater with some damaged jars

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Large bomb crater in front of the jars

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Trenches for the soldiers

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Trying to lighten our mood a bit

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The cave used during the secret war

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Along the way we stopped to see an old Russian tank.

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We visited a small local home where a lady and her son make Lao-Lao which is a local rice whiskey. They make it by fermenting sticky rice and the still they used was made out of bomb shrapnel. We tried it – seemed safe enough to try because apparently you only drink the steam.  We found it to be very strong but it was surprisingly quite smooth. We would’t have wanted to have anymore but they sent us home with a water bottle full of it!

Our expert guide Lor showing us the Lao-Lao process

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It was a tough day emotionally for both of us because even after 50 years it seems the war hasn’t really ended for Laos. When someone builds a new road, or a new school, house, or temple, they are risking coming across a bomb. As one village (Ban Naphia) says – make spoons not war – they turn bomb shrapnel into spoons. Other villages are making key chains and other items out of bomb shrapnel and we each have one on our backpack as a reminder for peace.

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When we got back to town we made our arrangements to travel the next day by minivan to Vang Vieng.

Where we stayed: Adoulack Khen Lao Hotel 

Written by: Tammy Hermann…Live~Love~Travel

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4 Responses to The Plain of Jars and the USA’s secret war – Phonsavan, Laos – October, 2015

  1. Lisa says:

    Did you keep your guides contact information? I also like to avoid the “bait and switch” and we will be in Laos one day 🙂

    • admin says:

      Unfortunately he didn’t have a card, his name is Lor and he works for Jinda Travel. The tour office is located at the White Orchid Guesthouse in Phonsavan 🙂

  2. Lorraine says:

    Very interesting and so sad

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