|A long bus journey over the mountains took me from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, in the east of the northern part of Laos. I remembered to get there early enough to be assured of a seat this time though! The day I spent there I went on a tour to see some of the effects of the war in Laos and also the Plain of Jars.
The war was fought between 1964 and 1973, essentially between the Americans and the North Vietnamese, although the two sides used existing factions to fight a lot of their battles (the Hmong hill tribes in the case of the Americans and the communist Pathet Lao by the Vietnamese), in contravention of a Geneva accord stating that Laos was neutral and was not to be interfered with in any way. Since both sides were there illegally, there were no rules of engagement governing the war and pretty much anything went: temples, schools and hospitals were legitimate targets and nowhere was safe. The Vietnamese apparently were using the land near their border for transporting troops and had a very heavy military presence, and so the Americans bombed it, and heavily - any bombs that weren't used by planes in Vietnam itself were dropped in Laos on the way home, the ridiculous reason being that they didn't want to return home with unused bombs. Since there officially was no war and nobody knew about it, both sides got away with pretty much anything. After the end of the Vietnam war, the Americans suddenly found they had spare planes and bombs that needed using, so where did they send them? To Laos. The cost of the war there ran at $2million a day, apparently the most expensive war ever waged, and more bombs were dropped there per person in the country than any other war. The bombs used were cluster bombs, which shed a payload of miniature bombies that cover a large area and are specifically designed to maim or kill people on explosion rather than machinery. The countryside was littered with them, and still is today, rendering huge areas of the countryside useless for farming and dangerous for anyone who goes anywhere. This is where our tour started off. We drove out to the countryside to go and see some of the blast craters and remaining bombies. It was a bit disconcerting going to see them because it was apparently in a field that nobody had come to check out whether the remaining munitions were still live or not, so the group was very careful in watching where they were walking! After looking around the craters (none of them had any remains as the locals had long since removed it for recycling - lots of the remains of the war have been used like this) we went to our guide's village.
First off, he took us to see the village opium garden, with its purple flowers and opium collectors, before taking us up to his parents house and sitting us down to tell us a bit about the war, local history and customs, and to answer any questions we had, ending in a double shot of Lao Lao for everyone who could stomach it! The village itself was fairly typical, consisting of wooden houses on stilts (although the stilts were made from bomb casings rather than the usual wood), pigs, chickens and dogs wandering around, and, being a Saturday, lots of children around the place watching us tourists intently.
Finally we went out to the plain of jars. The entrance has a big sign declaring that the area has only been completely cleared of unexploded bombs along a set pathway and that you have to stay within the lines or risk an untimely dismemberment (although I suppose there's never really a timely dismemberment), which, if you believe a Laos guy at our guesthouse, is evidence of the mafia being alive and well in Laos. Apparently, the American government gave a mine clearing charity $1.3million (peanuts compared to how much they spent bombing the place in the first place, eh?) specifically to clear all the land around the plane of jars, making it safe to go anywhere there. What the charity did, being run by the mafia, was to employ local people, at a cost of $2 a day to clear a completely safe path (i.e. free of surface and buried munitions) through the site and to clear all surface munitions from everywhere else (leaving the buried ones), at a total cost of about $100,000 leaving a tidy $1.2million for themselves. The guy seemed to genuinely believe it, and it does seem a bit suspicious that they didn't finish the job, although I can't honestly say how true it actually is. The plain of jars itself was unusual: 334 stone jars, some weighing up to 6 tonnes litter this particular area and there are 56 sites (I think) in all, all with fewer jars though. And noone is really sure who put them there or what they were for - storage, funeral urns or something else. As you can see from the photos though, some of them are rather large!