Every country has its past and some countries are a slave to it more than others. From Vientiane I travelled to Phonsavan, the home of the enigmatic Plain of Jars; an ancient megalithic site. This was also a great place to learn about Laos’ more recent troubled past of American bombing and its legacy. Finally, every country has its creation myth and Laos is no different; in the caves of Vieng Xai I found the birthplace of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR).
Site 1 of The Plain of Jars. Each jar was craved straight from stone and transported to one of dozens of sites
Some of the jars are huge. It is now thought that human remains were placed in the jars and once the bodies had decayed the bones would be removed and buried. I prefer the legend that they’re drinking cups for giants
A nickname for the area is Plain of Scars as there are several bomb craters. The area was a focal point in the fight between the communist Pathet Lao and the Royalists starting in 1953 and only ending in 1975. The Americans got involved in what has been termed The Secret War
It is a bizarre sight and I haven’t seen anything quite like it before
I visited 3 of the sites open to tourists (not all are safe, you know, due to all the unexploded bombs). Site 1 was really on a plain, Site 2 was in a small wooded area and Site 3 was my favourite being in a wood on a hilltop. Apart from Site 1 I had the place entirely to myself which only served to enhance the experience
Afterwards I explored Bomb Crater Field, which is exactly what it says on the tin; a field full of large (some very large) and smaller bomb craters
Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country per captia in history. More bombs were dropped on Laos then by all sides in World War II. Apparently 200 tons of bombs were dropped for every man, woman and child. The lower red area was bombed by the Americans to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Vietnam and the upper red area was directed at the communist Pathet Lao in order to attempt to prevent them taking over the country
Out of the 200 million tonnes of bombs dropped on the country maybe up to 30% of that didn’t explode. This unexploded ordinate (UXO) is a ongoing massive problem for Laos
The problem is especially difficult here (as maybe opposed to Vietnam) as there was a very high proportion of cluster bombs used. Here you can see an old cluster bomb unit containing hundreds of tennis-ball sized bomblets, commonly known as “bombies”. Originally each bombie was painted in bright yellow and being a small ball is perfectly enticing for children. Nowadays schoolchildren have special classes to teach them the dangers of bombies
I had heard about Spoon Village where enterprising locals were turning the scrap metal from bombs and turning it into a useful, everyday utensil
I watched this guy make a few spoons
I originally thought that this spoon making was such an inventive, creative way to deal with and make use of a problem from the past. So I bought a small spoon and a dove. Only later did I realise that, even though I thought I was supporting local business, perhaps I was actually doing the exact wrong thing. I understood after visiting the excellent Mines Advisory Group (MAG) visitor centre that some people would actively look for UXO in order to salvage the scrap metal, thereby putting themselves in mortal danger. It’s difficult because even if you think you’re acting ethically the opposite might be true. I watched several documentaries in the MAG centre and found it heart-breaking. The potential to be killed or seriously maimed while going about your everyday work in the fields or villages is still present for locals. It makes developing the countryside very difficult
After Phonsavan I travelled to Xam Neua stopping in a village for lunch where I noted they used spoons made from UXO (conscience cleared, well almost). Xam Neua is the jumping off point for exploring the caves at Vieng Xai; the wartime headquarters of the Pathet Lao, that is, the communist party that would eventually control the entire country and still does to this day
This golden victory monument seems so typically communist to me, using the noble and stoic-looking farmer, worker and soldier. But wait what’s that the worker is standing on?
A nice touch…victory over American bombs. The victory must be mostly due to the communists utilising an extensive cave system
So I took the guided tour of the caves. This is the young guide pictured. Coincidently I visited with an American who had previously been in Laos in the early seventies, when the country was still very turbulent
The caves have meeting rooms, dining halls, offices etc. everything you would need to run a communist insurgency. However we weren’t toured around the re-education camps that I had read about
An air tight bunker within the caves to protect against possible chemical weapons attacks. However of course this wasn’t for the proletariat but only for the high command, in this case the party leader and future president/prime minister/dear leader/messiah/face on all the banknotes, Kaysone Phomvihane. The air purifiers were donated by the Soviet Union
The creation myth I mentioned is that the Lao people struggled heroically through tremendous hardships against a superior foe to emerge victorious on the other side into an egalitarian society. Like all good myths there is an element of truth to it; they did struggle and win but history, or audioguides for that matter are written by the victors. One testimony I listened to on the audioguide was of several people saying how wonderful it was that the leaders came to work with the common people sharing all that they had and that everyone was equal…well apart from the leaders who had their own caves with bodyguards, doctors, airtight bunkers, dining rooms, books, electricity, etc. you get the picture. Above is the residence of the Red Prince built after the war. The Red Prince was a prince of Luang Prabang who left it all behind to become a communist. Like all the best communists he maybe thought the ideals were great…but only for other people and then built this fantastic villa for himself
A surprising moment came when our guide told us a story that captured American pilots failed to point out anything wrong with communism when interrogated (I guess I would also have a problem with coherently discussing political theory when being tortured). He then asked us directly, “what do you think is wrong with communism?” Needless to say I was a bit taken aback, there was so much I wanted to ask him and talk about but I didn’t know, was he a true believer? A party member? An average, apathetic modern young person? A subversive eager to talk to foreigners about the evils of the system? I replied simply that the people didn’t get to choose their leaders, end of discussion.
Old armoured personnel carriers outside one of the caves
There must have been something special about this, my last Laotian temple before travelling to Vietnam and a great memory of the country
Next up: Hello to Hanoi and Halong Bay