Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world, per capita. More bombs were dropped in Laos during America's secret para-military CIA mission there than were bombs dropped on Nazi Germany in WWII. This bombing of Laos is directly related to the Vietnam War/the war against communism. I was pretty shocked and disturbed by a lot of the information we learned when we did a tour of the area. It's not easy to explain, but the Americans set up an air base and sent in a force called The Ravens who had to completely give up their identifies to be involved in this mission. They then trained the (still) highly persecuted H'mong ethic group to fight against the Vietnamese communist forces in Laos. That's really simplifying things...... but no one knew about what went on in Laos until recently. And A LOT happened. It's not just Lao propaganda or some conspiracy theory, it's real and not just the leftover bombs prove it. This video clip is a pretty fair intro... we watched a documentary from the American perspective and it isn't much different: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzhIdRXboIE
Now there are literally millions of unexploded ordinance in the area, many of them cluster bombs or bombis. Agent Orange and Napalm were also extensively used in the area, and combined with the unexploded ordinances this makes farming difficult in addition to being extremely unsafe. Residents who can't support themselves in farming often have to resort to the scrap metal trade -- essentially finding ordinance or other military components and taking them apart to sell them -- a risky business. There is even a village nearby the old American landing strip/secret base where villagers have pillaged all the remaining munitions and war scraps to build their houses (for example, they use the tail end of bombs to prop up their houses). It's very innovative, but retrieving the materials is always a risk.
The whole countryside is littered with unexploded ordinance, which are very slowly being cleared. Because many of the bombis are plastic, metal detectors can't identify them -- most of it has to be done manually. One of the most heavily bombed places in Laos is the Plain of Jars, a vast set of 2-4 meter high rock jar carvings constructed during the megalithic area. Three of these sites have been cleared of bombs to allow for archeological study and preservation, as well as to allow tourists to visit the sites. However, even here you can't stray off of the main path because thus far it has only been possible to visually clear certain areas. Markings indicate where it is safe to walk and you can still see giant bomb craters here and all throughout the region.
To say more about the jars, they are very mysterious and it is now believed that they were constructed as giant urns to keep cremated remains - one individual per jar and grouped by family. Alternatively, local legend says that giants created them and used them to store their LoaLoa (Lao rice whisky). In addition to seeing the Plain of Jars, Erik and I got the chance to visit one of the jar quarries, where it is believed that the jars were constructed and hollowed out, created from rocks dragged from the rivers. These jars are pretty huge, and it is unclear what kind of tools were used to carve them out - but the theory is that elephants were used to drag the completed jars to the main sites where the cremations took place.
Nearby, we also got to see a two cave used during the Vietnam War. One was a big complex where villagers hid and lived during bombing raids. It was not discovered by the American forces and was therefore not destroyed. A large Buddha statue and a collection of many tiny and very old Buddha figures are now in the cave, which acts as a site of worship. The second cave we visited was used by the Viet Cong army to hide from American forces and it was used predominantly as a medical base. There are still literally thousands of old morphine bottles littering the cave. I even found an old bullet, which our guide said was from an old Russian gun.
The Russians (and I think also the Chinese) supplied weapons and medicine to the Communist Vietnamese forces. It's all pretty complicated and I want to know more about it - - but the war in Vietnam really affected much more than Vietnam and America... it created a huge mess in Laos (with America's so-called 'secret war' against communism in Laos and the bombings of Communist Vietnamese forces on the Ho Chi Minh trail are still having devastating affects) as well as in Cambodia (where the Ho Chi Minh trail also passed through and where the tension between communism and democracy led to the Khmer Rouge's regime and the genocide). Now, after everything, Laos is communist. Vietnam is communist. Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy dealing with the aftermath of a genocide. And America lost many young soldiers and their war against communism in southeast Asia. The mass hysteria against communism is not something I understand, but I guess it's because I grew up in another time. BUT the fact that weapons so disgusting such as cluster bombs and Agent Orange were created and used without thought of their long-term consequences is something I will never understand. If the long-term consequences are in fact considered, then that makes the whole thing even more disgusting.
MAG is the organization doing a lot of work in Laos to detect and disarm unexploded ordinance. They are also doing work in Sudan, Colombia, DR Congo, Congo, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Angola, Lebanon, Burundi, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Chad, Pakistan, and Vietnam.
Here is their website: http://www.maginternational.org/
Old Pagoda, Xieng Khouang Province, Laos
Old Russian Tank, Xieng Khouang Province, Laos
Plain of Jars
One more week in Hanoi! See you soon