Turning Bombs into Homes

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Sunday, January 1, 2006

For the first day of the year, Lucie and I took the slow bus to Van Vieng. Although a little over 100 miles, the journey lasted almost eight hours, giving us plenty of time to listen to music, relax, talk, watch the scenery pass, and reflect upon our visit to Phongsavanh, the land of enigmatic stone jars and UXO.

Luckily we weren't sitting in the back, as the bus attendant passed out barf bags to the locals who looked more pale than the tourists. Poor Paul, the pale-face from Australia who sat between two sickly Laotians for eight hours straight. Poor Laotians.

The painfully slow bus, that needed to stop in order to shift gears, was not the biggest worry for the laid-back Laotians in this region. The province, Xieng Khouang, was one of the most heavily bombed areas in the world and over a quarter of its territory is still unuseable because of unexploded ordinance (UXO). Walking off a trail could be deadly.

Air America, the covert, plain clothes C.I.A. and Air Force operatives, launched these strikes, targeting Pathet Lao villages and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which began in this province and extended the entire length of Laos and into Cambodia--the main artery for the Viet Cong. Because both the bombing and the trail violated international law under the Geneva Accords, which created the 17th parallel known as the DMZ and an independent Laos free of foreign troops or warfare, the war in Laos was largely behind the scenes. The main action, after all, was in Vietnam.

Laos was essentially part of JFK's set of dominoes. JFK must have played Risk as a child or maybe even in the Oval Office, as Siam was pivotal to contol the game. His Domino Theory reiterated this--southeast asia must remain free.

To a Laotian, this would likely sound like rubbish. As a government sign at the Tham Piu Cave said: "From 1964 onwards, in view of eliminating the Lao People's movement for peace and independence, the US Government and its cliques continuously intensified their "escalated" war." In this cave, a US missile claimed 374 villagers on November 24, 1968. Laos called the act a "war crime."

In addition, every single village in the province was completely destroyed during the war. The capital was moved to Phongsavanh because nothing was left in the old capital except UXO and ruins.

Today, much of the province is still deforested, the earth obliterated from repeated air strikes and napalm. On the bus, I listened to Spearhead, who summed up the situation: "You can bomb the world to pieces but you can't bomb the world to peace."

The Lao people have been creative with the bombs and have used them to earn money from scrap metal and for building their homes, which are now likely some of the most durable shacks in the world, made of US Steel. Scattered amongst the Hmong villages of the area were old USSR tanks and trucks, reminders that the Vietminh and Soviets were assisting the Pathet Lao in their efforts to free the country from the Royal Lao "puppet" government. As we walked though their villages, we were greeted by children as the elders watched or showed us their Lao Lao stills or some UXO they had collected.

We bought some Lao Lao for the New Year, drinking the clear white rice liquor with orange juice mixer. We were on Lao time, however, and missed the countdown to midnight. Still we toasted to a great 2006; no resolutions, though.

Luckily, the local Lao Lao doesn't cause hangovers, because today's slow bus ride continued on and on. Instead of throbbing thoughts, I remembered the Plain of Jars, which we visited over the last two days. The jars were carved thousands of years ago; no one knows exactly when. No one knows exactly why they were carved either: some say to store Lao Lao or rice. That's a lotta Lao Lao. Others say they're for burying the dead, which makes more sense to me, as they were located on hilltops and other prominent positions. They were also covered with stone tops carved with concentric circles and images of people. Over the years, many of the jars have toppled and most may have been buried, with the surrounding soil eroded with time.

After visiting the jars and Hmong villages, we bathed in local hot springs with our guide and several villagers. Hot was an understatement.

As the sun lowered behind forested limestone mountains, we arrived in Van Vieng, warm and green, a different world from the bombed and browned landscape of Phongsavanh.

Happy New Year!
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terra_amore8 on

happy new year back
hey sweet.
sounds great.
happy new year!
lovyah, wen

Kay on

Wow! thanks for blogging your trip to Laos-my surname is Phongsavanh and boy do I feel foolish not even knowing any of this! I also found out googling that my family name owns a bank. Once again, thanks very much as this was definitely informative and an eye opener. Much love and respect from Canada.

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