One of the most mysterious and dangerous places on earth...
01.02.2012 - 04.02.2012 14 °C
This area in the North Eastern Laos to the Vietnamese border in considered one of the most dangerous places on earth. This is not because of natural disasters or because of axe murderers as fortuately both are very rare in this area. When passing the prison in fact, the driver informed us that the worst crime regularly committed is stealing someone elses buffalo. As we have no buffalo (yet!) then we were unlikely to become victims of this prevelant crime as we stopped for three days in Phonsovan.
The reason for the danger is the amount of unexploded ordinance and artilery in the area left over from the American campaign against Laos in what is termed the 'Secret War'. During the Vietnam war, the USA were worried about Vietnamese fighters using Laos to set up bases or travel through to get to different parts of Vietnam without meeting USA blockades. The USA therefore carpet bombed Laos as a way to root out the insurgents. We were informed that there was more bombing in Laos during the period than were dropped on the whole of Britain during the Second World War!
At the time of the bombing locals were forced to live in caves under the mountains to avoid the sheer amount of force being plied down on them by American caves. These bombs were not dropping on amunition factories or on major ports but were falling on villages and farmland leaving the survivors greaving and unable to provide food or sustinence for their families. When in the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) readng room I read a really poignant quote from a journalist during this time which I will paraphrase here.
"Talking to the refugees who had fled the bombing to Vietiene all had stories of loss and death. Each refugee, without exception, asked me, 'Why are they bombing us? Who are they? Do you know?"
Normal people were losing their lives without any knowledge as to who was committing these atrocities or why they were being targetted. The pain and fear that this must have caused is terrible to contemplate. Add to this that the whole bombing campaign was an entirely illegal act by the USA as it contravened a treaty which stated that Laos would remain a neutral country, and the whole campaign was kept as confidential and under strict secrecy in the USA and hidden from the world at the time.
All these years later, people are still suffering at the hands of this campaign. It is estimated that 30% of all explosives dropped on Laos during this period failed to detonate when it hit the ground and instead remained buried in farmlands, forests, hill sides and under homes just waiting for the day it would be disturbed and explode. What this means is that cluster bombs, or 'bombies' as they are locally termed, are waiting around the living areas of a rural population and are most often found when children are playing and lose their lives or farmers are ploughing they own land with a hoe and lose an arm. The week before we arrived a child lost their legs when they were hitting a stake into the ground to tie their buffalo and hit a 25 year old US cluster bomb that exploded.
A British based NGO, Mines Advisory Group along with other partners are currently working in Laos to clear as much land as possible and other measures to avoid further damage from the UXOs. They organise training for local children on the dangers of appraoching unexploded ordinance through puppet shows or art work, they train teams of bomb disposal experts from the local communities and provide them with top notch equipment, knowledge and support in order that once identified, bombs that have been located can be carefully made safe. Talking to people in the communities around the area it is clear how much impact this charity is having in the area, not just through the practicalities of making more land available, but also contributing to creating employment and sustainable communities in the area. I urge anyone who comes accross this charity to support the work they do because the money you give really does support the people who need it most!
As we were in the area and had done our research in the visitor centres we decided to head out and see some of the remnants of this campaign ourselves. We hired a guide because, when considering everything stated above, wandering without a guide in this part of Laos is unsafe and stupid. We drove up to a plateau amongst villages and farm land where the land had been left unfarmable due to the bombing. The area had just been demined and what was left that was not explodable had been ravaged by the scrap metal collectors; another dangerous activity that many villages are driven to by poverty, collecting metal with a metal detector in a landscape punctuated with active bombs. The size of the crators left by the bombs brought home the damage that had been caused and the power of these explosives. The freezing wind and fog on the plateau created an eerie and macabr atmosphere that etirely matched what we were there to learn about.
Next stop was a local village in the area most affected by bombing. Villagers, struggling in the aftermath of the bombing and unable to farm their lands for fear of explosives, had taken to collecting the scrap from the bombing to sell or use. Fragments of gigantic bombs made up parts of houses, ffences, cow sheds, and even planting boxes for onions! The ingenuity and desire to just get on with what they had shows the resilence of the Laos people and their flexibility to work with whatever they have and survive despite their hardships.
Next stop was slightly more cheerful as we headed to another waterfall. The guide insisted this was a trek and had decided not to warn us before we set off. Luckily we were dressed appropriately for what turned out to be an ideal walk for Andrew and a real test of self for me! A clumsy child, my sense of balance has not improved significantly since I was about 18 months old. I tend to stumble through rather than gliding and I have come to terms with that. So the walk down a steep and narrow dirt track along the side of the waterfall was a challenge to me but I survived. After a lunch by the foot of the waterfall of fresh fish and sticky rice it was time to return to the top. However, on the way up we used a different route... up the four tiers of the waterfall itself using only the rocks to climb under the rushing water and occassionally using a fallen tree trunk to walk across! I have seen this done before, if only by Baloo in the Jungle Book, and I will admit I was absolutely terrified of real risk of death halfway up. Andy jumped and pranced through like a mountain goat. However, we both made it to the top and I was proud of myself! Although Andy asked if he could have another go, I was ready to be back on dry land!!
The real incentive for our trip to Phonsovan was to visit the 'Plain of Jars'. These are a collection of over .... stone jars and lids of various sizes that scatter accross the hillsides of the nearby mountains. These jars are said to date from between 200 to 500 BC but there is no conclusive evidence as to what civilisation built these jars, how they constructed them or for what purpose they were constructed. But stuff the historical evidence! The local residents will tell you a collection of tall tales as to the answers to all of the above questions. From 16th Century wine jars to 12th century burial jars to alien intervention, each guide, guesthouse owner and man in the street will give you his definative answer! We tried out a few of theories with the jars and we can give you our perception that these jars would be very difficult to drink wine or whiskey from!
The jars themselves are strange and mysterious but it is the sheer scale of how many litter the hillsides and the impressive backdrop of mountains and rice fields that make the experience of visiting so spectacular.
PLAIN OF JARS SITE
As we boarded our night bus to Hanoi it was time to say goodbye to Laos. This is a lovely country with some spectacular things to see and impressive places to visit. The people are friendly and travel is inexpensive. Although for me it did not hold as much charm as Cambodia I have definately been more impressed by our time in Laos and would reccommend a prolongued stop in this country rather than a rush through the main cities.
Sabaidee Laos! Good Morning Vietnam!