Riding through the countryside of Laos’ remote Xieng Khouang province, we spied verdant rolling hills, villagers of all ages escorting livestock on the dusty roadside, and giant craters disfiguring the landscape. For an instant, these cavities in the red earth evoked images of sand traps on golf courses. However, with Laos’ unfortunate distinction of being the world’s most bombed country per capita, not much golf is being played here.
Guided by a local father-and-son team, we had embarked on a day trip to visit the country’s mysterious archaeological treasure: the Plain of Jars. We would also visit two villages: Ban Naphia and Ban Tajok, nicknamed ‘Spoon Village’ and ‘Bomb Village,’ respectively.
Before we could continue, however, we would have to wait until a temporary roadblock was cleared. A Laotian man with a grey megaphone in hand motioned for our vehicle to stop. Our guides explained that it was a safety measure, as the man’s teammates working out in the nearby countryside had likely encountered a piece of unexploded ordnance (UXO).
About a minute passed, then we heard a thunderous explosion in the distance. As the rumbling noise settled, and the area’s serene soundtrack returned, we were told the good news: a piece of UXO had just been successfully destroyed. The man on the roadside ushered our driver to proceed, and as our van rumbled ahead, the dirt road’s red dust danced in the air. Everyone in the van was quiet. I had goosebumps, thinking about the triumph of that moment, contrasted with all the tragic accidents that had come before it.
A History of War, Hope for the Future
From 1964-1973, it is estimated that American military forces dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos – even eclipsing those dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II. For nine years, bombs rained down on Laos every eight minutes. The United States Air Force flew almost 600,000 bombing missions over Laos. (This one and a half minute video shows the extent of the bombings, with each dot symbolizing a bombing run.)
Thirty percent of the cluster munitions used (also known as ‘bombies’), failed to detonate. Tragically, it is often Laos’ youngest and poorest citizens who are still killed and maimed today when coming into contact with this UXO. Accidents also occur as citizens try to ready land for farming. Scrap-dealers, trying to make a living from the plethora of war scrap are also at risk. So too are children, attracted by the shiny, metallic appearance of the bombs. According to the book, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, there have been 20,000 deaths and injuries since the end of the Vietnam War. As we would learn, there are many dedicated people and organizations working in Laos trying to make all the country’s land safe again.
From Bombs to Fences, Flower Pots & Spoons
It’s estimated that 60% of the Laotian population lives on less than $2 USD/day. With that statistic in mind, one can imagine why the prospect of war scrap collection can be appealing. Resourceful Laotians gather it either to swap it for cash, or repurpose it into utilitarian items such as herb planters, animal troughs, fences – even supports for stilted homes.
Perhaps the most unique use for war scrap that we’d see was as material for spoons, bracelets, and decorative charms. In the so-called ‘Spoon Village,’ we watched as a good-natured Laotian man extracted metallic liquid originating from a melted bomb tail, poured it into a wooden mold, let it harden and cool, and then unveiled a glimmering spoon. At the end of the visit, we swapped a handful of Laotian Kip (the equivalent of a few U.S. Dollars) for a trio of these homemade spoons.
We were reassured to learn that an organization had tested the metals for safety, not because we’d planned to eat with the spoons, rather because we were concerned about the man who works with the molten metal on a daily basis. Apparently, the agency’s tests showed that it was not harmful. Additionally, we heard that the war scrap used for the spoons had not been collected by an independent war scrap collector who could be putting himself at risk; instead, it had been given to the Spoon Villagers by organizations after it had been disarmed.
(Update: Despite the reassurance we were given, it’s important to note that the practice of transforming bomb scrap metal into other items is controversial. Several organizations, such as the Lone Buffalo Foundation, instead encourage a policy of Haam Jaap (don’t touch). This UXO awareness video, produced by Lone Buffalo students, highlights these dangers.
Via email, Lone Buffalo founder Mark Steadman elaborated on this issue. “Our view reflects that of COPE and the UNDP that putting value on war scrap could send out a dangerous message to those not educated in UXO awareness.”
Shawn and I didn’t know about Lone Buffalo when we visited Laos, however, you can learn more about this worthy organization in this NPR article.)
The Intriguing Plain of Jars
Situated in a remote region of Laos and eclipsed by enchanting Luang Prabang’s gleaming temples, the Plain of Jars are often regrettably left off of one’s list of places to explore while in Laos. The fields on which the jars are strewn are challenging to access by land, given Laos’ poor, mountainous roadways. And, to make matters worse for those in this region so hungry for tourism, Xieng Khouang was one of the worst-hit provinces during the so-called American ‘secret war’ in the country.
Instead of arriving via the Phonsavan Airport as many visitors do, we came overland via a remote and mountainous Vietnamese / Laotian land crossing. Welcomed into Laos with heartily spoken ‘sabaidees,’ our route from the border to Phonsavan consisted of serpentine roadways framed by lush foliage, stunning views and steep drop-offs.
No one is certain why the megalithic jars – thousands of them – are scattered about the Laotian landscape on approximately 90 different sites. One legend is that they were made to brew rice wine to celebrate a triumph over barbaric leaders. More recent studies have concluded that they were burial urns. The jars are believed to date back to between 500 BC and 200 AD.
Only a handful of the 90 jar sites have been cleared of UXO, thanks to admirable clearing work completed by NGOs and their Laotian male and female employees. Some funding has been provided by international development agencies too.
While in the Phonsavan area, our guided day trip to the Plain of Jars and Spoon and Bomb Villages were coupled with independent excursions to the province’s former capital, UXO education centers, and even a morning spent shadowing a Japanese team training to clear UXO. These experiences filled us with the greatest respect for the resilient citizens of Laos and the fearless men and women working hard to rid it of UXO. In fact, our days spent in the quiet province of Xieng Khouang provided many of our Southeast Asian trip’s highlights.
To learn more about how to help make Laos free from UXO, and to see Shawn’s video, please continue to the bottom of this post.
Video of This Experience:
Where in the World?
Learning & Doing More:
- Several organizations work to help victims, and remove UXO from the landscape. COPE, for example, offers donors the chance to buy a prosthetic leg for $75 USD, even $10 developmental toys for children with disabilities. Or, for about $45 USD, the nonprofit organization, MAG, can clear 20 sq/m of land, making it safe for agricultural or community use.
- So far, more than 115 nations have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty that addresses the harm caused to civilians by cluster bombs. In 2010, this Convention became binding international law. The United States, Israel, Russia, and China are among those countries that have not signed the Convention. The Cluster Munition Coalition is a global campaign aiming to eradicate cluster munitions.
- The Plain of Jars are located in northeastern Laos. The town of Phonsavan, where we stayed, makes a good launching point for exploring the various Plain of Jars sites. Phonsavan has a bit of a wild west feel in that it’s somewhat remote, but there are good basic tourist services there including tour operators, guesthouses and restaurants (Laotian, Western, and even Indian food). The Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which does noble work around the world to clear landmines, has a visitor’s center in Phonsavan that is well worth a visit. There is also a UXO Survivor Information Center (just two buildings away from the MAG Visitor’s Center) which has informational films, as well as handicrafts to purchase. The proceeds go to help UXO survivors.
- To get to Phonsavan, we traveled from Vinh, Vietnam. An early-morning bus took us close to the Laotian border, then we hired a driver to take us to the border. From there, we walked into Laos, and had the fortune of meeting a travel agent who was shuttling another passenger to Phonsavan. We hear that many visitors to Phonsavan avoid the country’s infamous curvy roads, and instead fly into the nearby Xieng Khouang Airport. Buses also link Phonsavan to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and the capital city, Vientiane.
- While in Vientiane, we found that a stop at the COPE Visitor Center was also a must to better understand the country’s battle with unexploded ordnance.
- There’s more to do in the Phonsavan area aside from the Plain of Jars and UXO-related sites. We enjoyed visiting Mulberries Organic Silk Farm, a weaving co-op in the town’s outskirts. On several occasions, we also strolled Phonsavan’s outdoor produce market. Vong, a friendly Laotian employee at our guesthouse, who happens to teach English on the side, also invited us to come to his classes one evening.
- See the Highlights of Xieng Khouang website for more details.
- Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Laos.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. The video was created by my husband, Shawn.
29 thoughts on “Laos: Legacies of War Amid a Promising Future”
It is heartbreakingly beautiful to consider that from under the long shadow of war’s casualties can come a handful of spoons.
Bespoke Traveler, brilliantly said. There is the hope that Laos’ future will consist of more creation, and no more destruction. Much work remains though. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.
Just yesterday I watched a TV program on two British women driving the Ho Chi Minh trail from Vietnam to Laos. The scale of the destruction caused by the endless bombings was really mind-boggling. However, as I experienced myself, the Laotians are such resilient and friendly people. I didn’t make it to the Plain of Jars when I visited the country, but should I return one day I will make sure to pay it a visit.
Bama, I couldn’t agree with you more about the Laotians being “resilient and friendly people.” Despite the fact that we are American and our government was responsible for so much destruction there, we were treated with kindness wherever we went. I do hope you’ll have the opportunity to visit the Plain of Jars someday. I’m also optimistic that the site will soon achieve UNESCO World Heritage status, as that would be so good for tourism! What parts of Laos did you visit?
Thank you for sharing your insight.
I went to Vientiane and Luang Prabang only. The fact that it was during low season helped me fall in love with the laidbackness of Laos.
Both are interesting cities; I could spend days exploring LP’s intricate temples. We were there in January/February, and to be honest, I’m not sure what season that is for the country, touristically-speaking? High perhaps, since it’s not as hot as it can get there? :)
February is probably the end of peak season in Laos as it gets more humid and hot in March.
Such a beautiful country and people ~ and you sure do them justice with this incredible post. There is so much to see and experience in this country, torn apart by war (much of it out of their control) and your photos reflect it well. Great video by Shawn as well, and it makes me want to re-visit and see some of these sights you show here. Safe travels ~
Randall, that’s high praise coming from a talented photographer and writer; thank you very much.
Of course, in this piece, I didn’t show Laos’ extraordinarily-beautiful places like Luang Prabang. We also found Vientiane to be a very manageable and interesting capital city.
I’m curious – how long ago did you visit the Plain of Jars? Had MAG already done extensive UXO-clearance work then?
Here’s hoping that for cultural and economic reasons the Plain of Jars sites will continue to be cleared and cared for. Getting UNESCO World Heritage status could be such a win for the area.
Such an amazing place. We didn’t visit the Plain of Jars, which is one of the reasons I want to return :-) We hung around Vientiane and that area for 10 days ~ it was heaven. Incredible land and people… UNESCO is much needed and deserved.
I trust you’ll make it soon then. :) Like you, I missed Xieng Khouang province my first time around, and so that’s why Shawn and I were determined to get there during my subsequent visit. Getting to the Laotian border from Vietnam was a bit of an adventure – walking with our luggage, trying to find someone to pay to drive us the final leg, riding in a van with a mammoth branch of bananas on our lap. Eventually everything fell into place once we took the leap. Such is the magic of travel!
That was very interesting. War is terrible.
Gerard, I must confess that I only learned of the extent of the bombing in Laos in 2009, but I feel fortunate to have been able to travel there twice, and learn about this first-hand. I hope that this issue will continue to get more awareness so that the people of Laos can move past this horrific chapter of their country’s history.
I too visited Laos in Jan/Feb, which is indeed the height of their season. I thought it was a beautiful country, reminding me of the phrase “the land that time forgot”. It was incredibly sad, and extremely mind-awakening, to see the many citizens who were missing arms or legs as a result of undetonated bombs which are still an issue to this day. How very sad and such a powerful reminder of the cost of war. Like you, we found the people friendly and warm, seemingly bearing no grudge toward us. BTW, I never heard about the field of Jars and didn’t visit it. Thanks so much for including it in your post. Terrific job on this one Tricia.
“The land that time forgot.” I like that, Tina, and concur that the phrase complements Laos well. I’m guessing that you must have spent some time in Luang Prabang?
I’d been to Laos about three years before Shawn and I made this return trip. During my first visit, I learned of the Plain of Jars, and the province’s struggle to rid itself of UXO. Shawn and I were in a more remote part of Vietnam when we became determined to go here, and our journey to get to the Plain of Jars was certainly more independent in that we weren’t on the traditional tourist route. I’m so glad that we did it though, as our week or so in Phonsavan offered some of the most powerful learning/life moments of our entire Southeast Asian trip.
Thanks for your flattering, thoughtful comment, Tina. Hope you had a lovely weekend!
Yes, we WERE on a tourist route and altho it was an excellent, private tour, our Laos stop was brief and centered around Luang Prabang. On the same trip we did Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. It was a month but not long enough ! Would love to go back one day.
I like those kind of trips, for they offer a great introduction to a place’s highlights, and tempt you to come back for more select spots. Luang Prabang is one such place for me, as its temples are remarkable.
As I re-read my comment from last night, I wanted to clarify that I didn’t want to highlight that there are ‘ traditional tourist’ routes and more ‘independent’ ones. What I meant to articulate is that the route to Phonsavan was more uncertain and challenging than other journeys we’d made in our SeA travels at that point (no bus schedules, border crossing on foot, etc.) Because we were so uncertain that we’d even get there, we contemplated not doing that leg of the trip. Of course I’m now pleased that we overcame our fears. And today, I have to smile reminiscing about one segment of the trip: Shawn riding in front of me, straddling a large segment of a banana tree. :-)
Hope you have a lovely week, Tina!
What an incredible experience. Thanks for sharing.
Darlene, indeed, it was a powerful experience seeing this region of Laos, and I’m pleased to finally share the details of our visit here. Thank you for reading.
Dear Tricia and Shawn, thank you so much for sharing all this. I have not known to that extent what had been going on in such a beautiful place, neither can I imagine the suffering of all those people. I am deeply thankful to you both, to do such great work, to bring light to those issues to all our attention. Much Love from Cornelia
Cornelia, heartfelt thanks to you for your warm, reflective comment. One of the gifts of travel, as I’m sure you’d agree, is that it exposes us to new information. Like you, I didn’t know about the prevalence of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos, until more recently. It took me going there in 2009 to learn how widespread the UXO problem is. I’m also grateful that it’s so much easier to share information now, thanks to new media.
May you have a wonderful week, dear Cornelia!
Great post, Thanks Tricia.
Thank you, Mark. It was no doubt inspired by great people and a special country.
this is truly amazing trip…!
architravelust, Indeed, the trip offered us a lot of lessons and interactions with inspirational people. I’d love to go back someday!
Such an important post,Tricia. It’s maddening to see the destruction and consequences for these lovely people caused by our military. Our time in Laos was in Luang Prabang, but we did visit a small school along the Mekong north of LP and the school bell was a bomb casing hung in the window. The teacher called it “Nixon’s bomb”. A military friend of ours said that all fly overs were not to come back to Vietnam without unloading all their bombs and so Laos was the dumping ground. Horrible!! I was aware of the Plain of Jars but we didn’t get there.
Hi Lynne, thank you so much for chiming in and sharing your experiences. We saw a great amount of war scrap repurposed into new uses in the Phonsavan area and beyond, but never a school bell. In 2009, I also visited a village not far from LP, following a ride on one of the longboats. I wonder if I visited the same village as you? We’ve also heard accounts that echo your comment about pilots unloading their bombs on Laos before landing.
Here’s hoping that this lingering issue will continue to get more exposure! I do recall having seen a fascinating documentary about it at a café in Phonsavan. Perhaps you can get your hands on it? I think it might be this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ye2rzEKbz8I
Thank you again for your insightful comment, and Happy Memorial Day in the days ahead. :)