Saturday, March 23, 2013

Learning In Laos

I really didn't know what to expect before coming to Laos. Out of all the countries I've visited on this trip, it's probably the one I knew the least about beforehand. Thanks to an informative tour I took here in the town of Phonsavanh, located in central Laos, I've already learned a lot about the country's history and it's been fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

The first stop on our tour was the Plain of Jars. I'll admit it: when I first heard the words "Plain of Jars" I pictured a field filled with loads of little glass jars, the kind my grandma used to use to preserve fruit in. Turns out the image I'd formed in my head wasn't totally accurate...

The Plain of Jars

The jars are actually not glass at all but have been carved from large pieces of rock, taken from a mountain about 10 kilometers away. Although there is still much uncertainty regarding the story behind the jars, most archeologists believe that they were originally used as urns due to the human remnants discovered inside of them years ago. Locals disagree; they believe they were used to store lao-lao (Laotian rice whiskey). Regardless, considering the Plain of Jars dates back some 2500 years the effort it must have taken to create these 300+ jars is mind blowing - and this was just one of three jar sites!

A detailed carving found on one of the jars

There are over 300 jars at this particular site

The atmosphere at Plain of Jars could not have been more calm or peaceful, but we learned that it had not always been that way. Our guide told us that during the Vietnam War, Laos got bombed relentlessly by the Americans and many of those bombs landed on the Plain of Jars, causing irreparable damage to this archeological site. And the bombing didn't end there.

Trenches found all over the Plain of Jars

A swimming-pool sized bomb crater (jars in the background)

Now I knew Laos had been bombed during the Vietnam War but I didn't know to what extent. I've since learned that from 1963 to 1974, the US illegally dropped over 2 million metric tonnes of ordnance over Laos, giving it the unfortunate title of the most bombed country in the world. This action (known as the "Secret War") was illegal because Laos had officially been designated a neutral country during the war.

What's more, approximately 30% of these bombs did not explode on impact and since the end of the war, unexploded ordnance (known more commonly as UXO) has severely injured or killed an estimated 50,000 people in the country. The worst part? A mere 1% of UXO has been cleared to date, meaning that these bombs are sure to claim more limbs and lives of Laotians in years to come.

One significant site we visited on our tour related to the US bomb campaign was the Tham Piu Cave, where no less than 374 civilians had taken refuge during the war. In November 1969, a rocket hit the cave, killing every single man, woman and child who had been hiding there. I hate to say it but I had never felt less proud to be an American citizen than at that moment.

Uncovered belongings of the victims

A very moving statue near the cave

The cave where almost 400 people had been living

While the majority of the tour was incredibly grim (and rightly so) we also got the chance to visit a few traditional villages. What struck me most was the way so many people had built and decorated their houses.

Notice anything?

Many people had either built their houses or decorated their gardens with old bomb shells. I couldn't believe it; surely people wouldn't want any reminders of their country's tragic past right in their front yards? But the fact that they are able to take these terrible relics and turn them into something beautiful to me shows a possession of spirit and resourcefulness that I find astounding.

Bomb shells holding up a house

A bomb shell turned plant holder!

Like their neighbors in Cambodia and Vietnam, Laotians have gone through their share of trauma. It was difficult to hear about it and did not make me proud of the nation in which I was born, but it gave me such an appreciation for the people in this country. Amidst all of their struggles, not only do the people here seem willing and determined to overcome the hand they've been dealt, they'll do it with a smile on their face.

A shy girl I met, playing a game with some beans

Adorable boy named Toc with his little sister

Lovely young fellow who wanted a picture with me

To learn more about UXO in Laos visit http://www.maginternational.org/ or http://www.uxolao.org/

2 comments:

Susan Zwick said...

Very tragic story indeed. Do you know if the US has provided any aid or reparation funds after the many years of silence?

Wondering and Wandering said...

Some, but the general attitude seems to be that they're not doing enough. They spent far more dropping the bombs than they have cleaning them up, let's put it that way.