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Published: November 20th 2017
The Overloaded Minibus
There were chickens inside the last cardboard box. We heard clucking most of the way to Phonsavan. There were 21 people in this minibus which had 15 seats.
Getting to Phonsavan
came to get me at my hotel at the appointed time to take me to the bus station where our minibus was waiting. The inside of the minibus was already full of stuff; there were sacks of grain on the aisle and cans of cooking oil underneath the seats. Because of this, I was stoked when we set out with four empty seats. The minibus headed north halfway to Luang Prabang, then turned east. Just after turning east, the driver stopped for two women with six children. They put a lot of stuff atop the minibus, including two chickens in a cardboard box. It got crowded. The road was winding and bumpy. The driver didn’t stop much, so I was glad I kept to my regimen of forced dehydration on long travel days. We didn‘t have lunch until 2.30pm. After lunch, he picked up another woman and child. They sat atop the sacks of grain in the aisle. It got very uncomfortable. We rolled into Phonsavan well behind schedule. My first impression of Phonsavan was that it felt like a frontier town, especially with the amount of Chinese and Vietnamese signage. From the minibus station,
I found my hotel easily. After checking in, I went out looking for a group tour the next day to the Plain of Jars.
The Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a series of archeological sites featuring hundreds of mysterious stone jars over 2,000 years old. It has been theorized that these jars were used for burial. Three sites are open to visitors, and I visited them on a group tour with four other travelers - two Australians and two British. Site 1 was the first site we visited. This was the most accessible site, and so there were quite a few people there, comprising mostly of locals on their Sunday outing. As there was a Hmong festival that weekend, there were a few women in traditional dress. Site 1 is the largest of the three sites, and it features the largest jar and a cave. It was quite an impressive site, with over 200 jars strewn over two hills. The cave had a shrine and there were several beehives and honeycombs at the entrance.
Our second stop was Site 3. This was the most atmospheric of the three sites. To get there, we had to
Plain of Jars Site 3
Buddha statue near Site 3. This statue was damaged by a bomb. There is a skinny little trunk growing out from it. Rather fittingly, it appears to be a bodhi tree.
walk through padi fields and then up a hill. The jars were in a shady grove admidst some amazing scenery. Better still, we had this site completely to ourselves. After viewing the jars, we looked for the remains of a Buddha statue that had been destroyed by a bomb from the Vietnam War. Rather poetically, even though the statue was destroyed, there was a bodhi tree growing out of it.
Site 2 was our last stop of the day. We also had this site to ourselves. The jars were spread out across two hills. Both hills were nice and shady.
Beating Bombs Into Spoons “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations shall not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
- Isaiah 2:4
It is impossible to visit the Plain of Jars without acknowledging the wanton damage caused by American cluster bombs leftover from the Vietnam War. Indeed, the jar sites are pockmarked with bomb craters. Because much of the Ho Chi Minh Trail - the logistics supply route of the Vietnamese communist forces - went through Laos, the U.S. bombed Laos heavily.
Plain of Jars Information Center
Cluster bomb. Each of these bombs contains hundreds of little bombies. The big casing is designed to break after 2,000 revolutions and scatter the bombies.
To make matters worse, bombers which had not discharged their payload over Vietnam indiscriminately dropped them on Laos as they could not land safely in their bases in Thailand with the bombs on board. As the US had not declared war on Laos, the military wasn’t bound by the same rules of engagement as in Vietnam. All these meant that Laos became the most heavily bombed nation (on a per capita basis) in the world. Xiang Khoung province, where Phonsavan is located, was one of the worst hit areas. It is estimated that 270 million explosives were dropped on Laos, of which 30 percent did not detonate. This means that there are as many as 80 million unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos. Many of the UXO are from cluster bombs - several hundred little tennis ball-sized “bombies” packed into a larger bomb casing. The larger bomb casing is designed to come apart in midair, scattering the bombies. Many cluster bombs from low flying aircraft - especially those dumping their payload to land safely in Thailand - did not have enough time to come apart and properly scatter.
Obviously, having lots of UXO is bad. Today, over 40 years later,
UXO Survivor Center
This blackboard lists the recent survivors of UXO, where and when they were hurt, and their injuries.
people are still getting killed and maimed while doing their day-to-day activities - playing, ploughing fields, lighting a cooking fire, etc. This keeps people in the cycle of poverty because they fear setting off UXO if they expand their arable land. Children get killed or hurt when they play with bombies because they look like toys. People try to gather the bombs to sell as scrap metal, leading to casualties. Even lighting a fire to cook a meal can set off a bomb buried underneath.
Phonsavan houses two information centers - one run by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and one run by a Quality of Life Association for UXO survivors. The MAG center focused on UXO detection and disposal. There, I watched two films - one about the extent of the UXO problem and the other about how MAG trains local people to detect and dispose of UXO. I watched the films with my Australian friends from the tour and then had dinner with them later. The UXO Survivor Center focuses on how UXO survivors and their families cope and how the center assists them. It was staffed by a UXO survivor who was missing a forearm. Both
Molten aluminum is poured into a small hole in the wooden mould (top right), and in minutes it solidifies into a spoon. The mould is opened and the spoon pried out, and excess aluminum is tossed back into the furnace.
centers were sobering. I walked out deeply ashamed of what my adopted country had done. I also left wondering how the U.S. is involved in cleaning up this mess. The Western MAG staff shown in the films were all Australian, the UXO Survivors’ Center was a local initiative, and NZAID appears to have contributed as well. There was no overt evidence of U.S. assistance.
One of the stops on the tour was Ban Napia village, also known as “spoon village”. There, we watched the villagers fashion spoons - a commodity that is in shortage, apparently - out of scrap aluminum from UXO. They used woodblock moulds and poured molten aluminum into them - a modern day equivalent of hammering swords into plowshares. The aluminum solidified surprisingly fast. Here, I bought two spoons - my first souvenirs since I set off in July.
I liked Phonsavan a lot. It is off the beaten tourist trail and I was relieved to have some respite from loud, disrespectful tourists. The Plain of Jars was fascinating but even more fascinating was learning about the Secret War and its lingering impact.
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