Bombs, craters, orphanage

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Sunday, December 17, 2006

A thick gray mist enshrouds the mountains every morning until long past noon, when wispy rays of sun finally begin to snake their way through the clouds. Until the first warmth of afternoon, we walk around stiffly, bundled up in winter fleeces and long pants against the chilly fog, sip our breakfast of hot noodle soup, grip the steaming bowl with fingers hungry for heat.

During a quick stop on the bone-chillingly cold truck ride to Vieng Thong, I climb the metal railings to the roof of the truck and grab a jacket for Todd and I to cover our shivering legs. We're riding through the fog in an open-air truck, gripping the icy metal rail to keep from flying off our seats, and with the windchill of driving 40 km/hour, it's cold - Minnesota in winter cold. And while we fight the cold with our high-tech moisture wicking multi-layer getup, the Hmong women next to us in their plastic flip-flops, thin black cotton skirts, and spring jackets just watch the scenery go by and calmly endure.

A 25-year-old man who sat next to me on the truck told me about how he lost his wife a year ago to illness, has two children ages one and three, and has to support both his sisters, all on a teacher's salary and money earned from miscellaneous odd jobs. He said, "Laos is a very poor country, and I am a poor man," then asked if I had any ideas for what he can do. I mumbled a couple of inane ideas but mostly sat quiet as I thought about how vast this world is and how many people like this man there are who need help.

Vieng Thong is a small village surrounded by steep, forested mountains in the middle of nowhere. Though the kids still shyly wave and greet us like everywhere else with enthusiastic "hello's!" and "sabaidee's!", the adults here don't see many visitors from the West and stare at us with blank expressions as we walk past. A little extra effort - like asking "How are you?" in Lao - usually gets a smile or giggle as they realize that we're not aliens from another planet.

You don't visit Laos for food, and Vieng Thong is definitely no exception. When we point on the menu to fish they don't have it. Mixed vegetables? Nope - don't have that either. It's pretty much noodles, morning glory, which they eat as a vegetable, chicken, fried rice, and sticky rice. We can barely choke down the bowls of thick, slimy noodle soup they serve us here, so we sip a bit of the broth and head off in search of snacks, bananas, anything. Gil and Tom, masters of the art of selecting cookies after two hard months of travel in China, score two bags of tasty biscuits.

When night falls, the sky here is brilliant. From the balcony of our guesthouse, I can see firelight flickering in the wooden houses scattered throughout the valley.

The rough hewn wooden walls of our room and the candle we're burning for light make it feel cozy, like a rustic cabin. I sleep soundly until I'm woken by the sound of multiple pairs of skittering footsteps near my head and small claws scratching near against the walls. Something jumps to the floor and drags a plastic bag from one side of the room to another. I close my eyes and pretend this isn't happening. The noise finally wakes Todd, we emerge from our mosquito net cocoons, and decide to hang our bags from nails conveniently hammered into the walls. Apparently, ours isn't the first visit from the noisy rodent intruders.

In the morning, we pay too much - $12 - for a tuk tuk ride to Sua Hin, an ancient Stonehenge-esque cluster of 2-meter-high stones. It's another long, cold ride to get there and back, but we reward ourselves with a nice long hike after snapping a few photos of the unimpressive stones. It feels good to get out and walk around. Statistically, Laos is the most bombed country in the world. The Americans carried out a secret war here during the 1960's and 70's, a war the U.S. government still denies to this day though they've paid reparations to the Lao government and make payments to the 60 people a year who step on unexploded ordinance. The early generation bombs they dropped frequently failed to detonate, leaving the entire country covered in unexploded bombs, so it' a rare treat to be able to get out and hike around a bit without having to worry about losing a limb.

When we arrive in Phonsavan, we make a bee-line to the Indian restaurant and gorge ourselves on rich dishes of chicken tikka masala, veggie curry, and garlic naan, filling our stomachs after days of nothing but noodle soup, sticky rice, and vegetable fried rice.

Though it's not a large town, the variety of restaurants and menu choices, guesthouse with private hot shower, and internet access makes it feel like a resort compared to where we've just spent the previous days.

The locals here, like everywhere in Laos, make creative us of everything available to them. Since this is one of the most heavily bombed areas in the world, the thousands upon thousands of perfectly intact 5-foot-long steel cluster bomb shells have been incorporated for every imaginable use - as fence posts, housing columns, flower pots, barbecue grills, and decorations. In Muong Ngoi we even saw two people paddling down the river in a converted bomb shell boat!

Yesterday we toured the Plain of Jars, a number of hilly sites covered with enormous carved stone jars weighing up to several tons each. Their historical purpose is unknown, but we had fun imagining the ancient people using them to brew huge batches of lao lao, the popular home-distilled rice whiskey. Though the jars were somewhat interesting, the 40-foot-wide bomb craters all around the sites were what really got my attention. At the entrance to each site, a billboard posted by MAG, the organization working to clear the country of unexploded ordinance, announced th area in square kilometers cleared, how many munitions scraps were found, and how many live bombs were destroyed. At one site, more than 270 live bombs were discovered. The perimeter of the areas where it's safe to walk is indicated with red and white cement markers. It's safe to walk on the side marked with white, the side with red is a no go zone. We were surprised to see rice paddies stretching of as far as we could see, all of it part of the red zone. While walking us through a beautiful wide open valley completely free of trees, our guide explained to us that this area was covered entirely by jungle until the Americans dropped defoliant during the war.

This morning we visited an orphanage run by SOS. 30% of the children here have lost their parents to illness or accidents, the other 70% have lost both parents when they've been killed by the unexploded ordinance dropped by the Americans during the war. Many of the parents killed are farmers who dig in their fields and unknowingly hit long dormant bombs. The orphanage facilities were beautiful, some of the nicest buildings we've seen in Laos. We made a donation, and the kids were very excited about the small bag of balloons we brought along. (Thanks for the recommendation, Gail!) I found myself fighting back tears several times during our visit, as well as waves of anger and shame, at the tragic loss of life that continues to happen here thirty years after the Americans stopped their bombing.

I imagine what it would be like to have hidden bombs littering the beautiful mountains, forests, and streams that I love so much back home, what it would be like to have to stay on well-worn paths rather than freely wandering through open fields and wilderness. I wonder if  the U.S. will ever admit to this ugly part of its history and make an effort to clear this country of the UXO that continues to take innocent peoples lives every year?
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charlie7 on

My brother, Mark, just came back from Laos and Vietnam. He hiked the Ho Chi Minh trail which he said has a Sam 7 missile as a trail marker.

He loves Laos and Vietnam and Cambodia, especially Cambodia. Hope you get a chance to see Angkor. It's worth it.

I'm a friend of your Dad's. Your whole trip makes me wanna get up and go, too.

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