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Published: March 7th 2017
At the crack of dawn (seems most all buses in Laos leave from 6am-8am) I made my way to the terminal in Luang Prabang and purchased a ticket ($95,000kip) for the eight hour journey East to Phonsavan, or locally known as Xieng Khouang. Located in the North Eastern Province of Laos, close to the Vietnamese border, the rolling dusty valleys pegged in by mountainous jungles are home to some unique ancient archeological sites and the friendly Hmong hill tribe peoples. Unfortunately due to the strategic location and the events happening in the late 1960's and early 1970's this area of the planet was subjected to the largest and most intense aerial bombardment in the history of warfare and certainly in the history of mankind. All in a nation that was declared neutral by the Geneva Conference and was supposedly off limits to both the Vietnamese and the Americans. I had come here to see the legacy my people had left behind in the shattered wake of a so called necessary war to stifle the political ideologies of other nations.
Getting off the bus at the terminal 4Km out of town I was forced to take a tuk tuk ($10,000kip -
If you value your legs and your life you would not dare walk over this field lest you end up like the craters in the distance.
I suppose I could have walked) for the always overpriced five minute ride. Once on the main strip, same broken record - knock on a few doors and I found a decent guesthouse for $60,000kip with hot water, wi-fi, and even a little color TV with HBO and CNN! You can imagine my excitement. I set off to a local travel shop that closes its doors at 7pm and screens an illegal (in Laos) documentary called "The Most Secret Place On Earth"
detailing the events of the "Secret War" funded and carried out by the CIA from 1965-1973. Basically the CIA had a secret military base in Long Tieng where a company called Air America was flying humanitarian aid to the people of Northern Laos. Well, along with some rice and medical supplies they were also dropping weapons and munitions to arm a secret army of Hmong hill tribe people who would be jointly trained by the CIA and the Thai Army to fight the advancing Lao communist fighters from the North who were allied with the Vietnamese. Couple this with the Ho Chi Minh trail to the South and the CIA and the US Army dropped over 2 million tonnes of bombs on "neutral" Laos.
A bombing mission was flown every eight minutes, every day, twenty-four hours, for nine years. Countless civilians killed and wounded. From this incredible number of bombs dropped about 30% did not detonate leaving the country riddled with Unexploded Ordinance or UXO.
My next stop was the Mines Advisory Group or MAG. MAG is a British outfit who is working to clear the lands of the UXO by detecting and detonating the deadly remains. No small task as it will take over 100 years to be complete. I saw terrible things in this office. Children with their limbs blown to pieces from picking up cluster bomblets that look like tennis balls to their eyes. Farmers missing legs from plowing fields trying to feed their families and hitting a UXO with their yokes. People robbed of their eyesight from shrapnel, charred and forever disfigured bodies from the leftover napalm. Terrible, terrible things. For all of the efforts of the US and the CIA, they left Laos shortly after pulling out of Vietnam. The Northern Vietnamese took over Vietnam and declared a communist state and the communist Pathet Lao did the same here. The tens of thousands of Hmong survivors of the
secret army were abandoned by the CIA and the brutal repression and retribution from the communist Lao troops began. This is our legacy in Laos. Nobody ever taught any of this to me in school. None of it was in any history book I was ever given in class. You would think that the people would be bitter and angry, but the few who I spoke with, even after telling them I am an American, invited me to their tables, smiled, shared rice, tea with me and were happy to have my company. This is the legacy that Laos is leaving on me as I make my way.
Another factoid I learned - The U.S. spent as much in three days bombing Laos ($51M, in 2010 dollars) than it spent for clean up over 16 years ($51M).
I spent one more day here in Phonsavan. I rented a bicycle for $40,000kip and rode 20 kilometers to what is known as The Plain of Jars. There are several sites around the countryside, but only a few have been cleared of UXO and deemed safe. The site I went to had over 300 of the mysterious jars. This place is
an archeological site dating back to the Stone Ages and is exactly what the name implies. No one really knows what or why the jars are here. Some say they are old funeral urns, some say they served as water or rice wine storage, and some even say they are left over shot glasses from the giant gods of old. You're guess is as good as mine. But even strolling around the site, there are massive craters from the bombing 45 years ago. I felt disgusted. I needed to leave so I split the next morning. I had had enough of war, but as I continue South its ugly head will certainly appear again.
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