The Most Bombed Country in The World

Trip Start Nov 20, 2013
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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, May 12, 2014

After another long bus ride from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, we were happy to see the tour guide we had booked, Tey, waiting for us as soon as we got off the bus yesterday. Tey comes highly recommended on Trip Advisor and picking us up from the bus station to help us find a guesthouse and discuss tomorrow's tour already proved these reviews to be accurate. We quickly found a guesthouse and planned our day for tomorrow. On our own, Jason and I visited the MAG centre (Mines Advisory Group) where we learned about how many bombs were released in Laos over a period 9 years from 1964 to 1973. Today, there are still an estimated 80 million bombs that have not been found or safely defused yet. These bombs did not explode on landing either because they were malfunctioned or they were dropped from too low in the sky. These bombs were dropped during the Vietnam War when American aircraft pilots were unable to drop the bombs in Vietnam and needed somewhere to drop them before landing. These bombs killed many during the duration of the war and they continue to injure and kill many people today. MAG is an NGO that provides many services and programs around Phonsavan to help victims of the bombs.

Next to the MAG centre is the Quality of Life Association: UXO Survivor Information Centre. Unexploded Ordinance or UXO, is the proper name for these active bombs. This centre is filled with stories of the survivors of the bombs and shares how this government run program helps provide victims with medical care, rehabilitation, and even some things to help financially. Within this centre, there are chalkboards where the names of the latest victims are written. It was incredibly sad to see how many people are still injured by bombs as recent as last month and most of them being children. With our heads full of new information and new questions for Tey, we had a quick dinner, we called our Moms to wish them a happy Mother's Day, and went to sleep.

This morning we woke up early to begin a day of touring with Tey. Our first stop was the tourist office in the town where we had to register before visiting the sites we planned to see. At the tourist office there are numerous bomb casings that have been found around the area and defused. Some of them were absolutely massive, but they were all scary to see. The tourist office also has a bit of information where we learned that people in villages affected by the bombs have been taught to make good use of the casings by turning them into bracelets and spoons to sell

Our next stop is completely separate from all the bombs and even separate from the Secret War (which I will get into later). This site was the Plain of Jars. There are over 50 sites of the Plain of Jars, 7 of which are open to the public. The Jars are large stone (mostly sandstone) carvings in the shape of jars that were created by an ancient civilization which has long been gone. Archaeologists, a French archaeologist in particular, have come up with theories as to what these jars were used for and the local Lao people have another theory. The archaeologist and UNESCO believe these jars were used as burial sites. Some evidence of teeth and other bones have been found to help prove this theory. The jars site we visited also has a cave, which is believed to have been where bodies were cremated and then something from them were put into a jar. Tey explained that the jars do not have lids because it is believed that the spirit of the deceased could easily go up to heaven without one. A few of the jars do have lids, which Tey said were thought to be used as storage. There were some gravestones found with family symbols on them, further proving this theory, along with sandstone quarries found around Phonsavan. Further proof of a path was discovered leading from the cave to a mountain about 9km away where it is believed that the sandstone was mined and brought back by elephants. The local Lao people's theory is that the jars were used to ferment rice to make Lao Lao, a strong whiskey. I think I believe the archaeologists'  theory to be more likely! Similar jars have been found in Indonesia and India, but not in the same large numbers as here. This site has about 350 jars, but unfortunately many of them were ruined by bombs. As we were touring the area, we heard an explosion in the distance.  Tey immediately told us that this was a bomb being defused by MAG, who has 16 teams of 12 who work to defuse the bombs across the country.  He said when explosions occur Monday-Friday, it's likely MAG doing their work, but if we hear an explosion on the weekend, it's likely an animal who set off a bomb or worse, a person.

Next up, we headed to an area that has many large craters from being hit with bombs weighing up to 2 tons. Tey explained that along with all the bombs, the US also dropped a large amount of Agent Orange, an extremely harmful chemical, all over the area to kill the dense jungle so they could have better visibility from the air. Even today, the land and water in the area is highly contaminated with Agent Orange. When people want to grow crops or build houses, they need to ask people from the hospital and other places to check the area for bombs and Agent Orange. Today, many people are injured by bombs by either touching them unintentionally while farming or children who play with them. Many people are injured from the bombs while trying to defuse them on their own without proper safety precautions because there is a lot of money to be made from the scrap metal. Tey told us that one of his brothers was a victim of a land mine explosion on their own farmland while he was ploughing the land on a tractor one day. Unfortunately, he didn't make it and Tey explained that the explosion was so massive that all the rest of his family could see was smoke. There was nothing left to decipher from the tractor or his brother. This seems to be the way of life for people living in this part of Laos.  The government will take care of victims who were injured if they were farming or if the explosion was completely accidental by providing medical and other support.  However, if the victim caused the explosion by trying to search for scrap metal or by playing with the UXO, the government won't help the victim.

For nine years, bombs and Agent Orage were dropped on Laos every eight minutes. For a country dependent on agriculture for survival, this was extremely difficult. People would take shelter all day and then do their farming at night in the dark because it was the only safe time. Rice could not be planted at this time because it was too difficult to work the rice fields in the dark. The people of Laos had to change their eating habits to include much more cassava, sweet potato, and corn. At night is when they would plant and pick crops to eat in their places of hiding, usually caves. During this time however, there was even more stress and danger in this part of the country as the CIA helped lead a massive civil war on the ground. So while there were constant air raids happening, there was an aggressive civil war happening on the ground using even more US ammunition. The entire situation is completely complex and intricate, involving the US, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Hearing about it and even seeing some of it firsthand still makes the situation completely unimaginable. Tey took us to a beautiful village in the countryside that in some ways reminded us of Switzerland, but is heavily cratered from bombs. Standing beside one of the craters, knowing that it is much smaller than its original size due to years of wind and rain blowing more dirt in to fill it, it was understandable how much damage these bombs caused for kilometres past where they landed.

Our next couple stops gave us a mental break as we had a nice lunch at a local restaurant, with local prices. Tey actually treated us to lunch and explained that it would be cheaper this way because he would be given the local's price and we would have had to pay tourist's prices. We were appreciative of this! Our mental break continued at the natural hot springs where Jason took a nice hot dip and I soaked my feet. Again, Tey helped us save a bit of money by telling the woman selling tickets we would just pay one admission, but not take tickets and she could pocket the money for herself. Brilliant! 

Leaving the hot springs was also the end of our mental/emotional break because the next stop was to an historical cave called Tham Piew. This cave was used by an entire village of nearly 400 people, plus their wildlife, as shelter from the bombs for years. Most of the people living here were women, children, and older people, as most of the men were fighting in the Secret War. The people of this village lived each day of their lives in this cave together and farmed each night in safer conditions. One day in November 1968, the US hit the cave multiple times. The first three were insignificant, but the fourth bomb entered the cave and killed everyone inside. To be standing right where this happened and to be able to see the markings on the outside of the cave where the other three bombs hit, was surreal. Today, there is a kind of memorial made from rocks and at the bottom of the cave site is a large statue depicting the military bringing bodies out of the cave one at a time.

From the cave, we headed to a "bomb village". Hmong people live in this village, but it's called a "bomb village" because the villagers use bomb casings in many creative ways. For example, as planters for hens, barbecues, stilts as foundations for homes, fences, and many other unique ways. As we walked around this village, I found it interesting and inspiring that these people have found ways to take something that brought (brings) so much misery to their country and turn it into something useful. I also enjoyed watching the young girls of the village do gymnastics on the ground. It reminded me of my childhood!

After taking us to the bus station to organize transportation for tomorrow, Tey took us to the last spot on our tour, the local organic market. While we were here, Tey explained some of the items we passed by, including produce and different meats. He also explained that the market has vendors from all different ethnic groups with such different dialects that not everyone can even communicate with each other. He helped us buy some deep fried sweet potatoes and we aren't sure if it's because of Tey's help of not, but we were given a very large amount of this delicious treat for less than $1CDN! Saying goodbye to Tey, we let him know how much we appreciated our day with him. He is a wealth of information and speaks fantastic English. Our private tour with him cost more than visiting sites on our own or with a group would have been, but it was a fabulous way to spoil ourselves for a day!
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