Bombs and the bottle flute

Trip Start Nov 15, 2005
Trip End Aug 15, 2008

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A journey as stunning as it was long and uncomfortable brought us to Phonsavan, in the mountainous north east of the country. The town itself isn't ugly so much as entirely nondescript, but no-one comes here for the town, something evident from the fact that so few people stay more than two nights, despite the minimum of 8 hours it takes to get anywhere from here. People come here for the Jars.

Something of a mystery, not far from town are three large fields in which stand hundreds of stone jars of various sizes, from maybe waist height to large enough to accomodate several people with ease, the perfect setting for a fantastic game of hide and seek. Thought to be over 2,500 years old (though impossible to date due to a lack of organic matter), no-one is quite sure exactly what their purpose was, though several theories have been proposed. Some think they were used for fermenting the local rice wine, some believe them to be the work of aliens (because they have nothing better to do with their time and technology than to come to earth and create mysterious structures like the pyramids or Stone Henge) while the most commonly accepted theory is that they are ancient funerary urns, supported by the evidence of what appears to be an enormous cremation furnace at site 1, even though no bones have been found inside. Of course, our guide chose not to tell us this theory until after I had jumped into one or two of the Jars. Yuck. Not wanting to have been standing in what is essentially someones' coffin, I put forward my own theory: given their situation atop a hill, exposed to the wind, I believe the whole site was originally one giant bottle flute, and that in their original positions, the jars would have resonated harmoniously whenever a strong wind blew. Hey, it's more plausable than aliens!

Although the Jars were the main reason for coming here, I also found out that this area of Laos is actually one of the most highly bombed in the history of the world. During the Vietnam conflict, the North Vietnamese army ran supplies to the occupied south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which actually came through various parts of Laos, a neautral country and supposedly off limits due to the Geneva Convention. The US responded by dropping an awful lot of bombs here, more so in the early 70's after President Johnson ordered the cessation of bombing in North Vietnam. The US were flying missions out of northern Thailand, so bombs they had left after their missions were offloaded into 'neautral' Laos in a somewhat misguided effort to stop the supply routes. A bit like dropping a stone in the path of a column of ants, it might have caught a few of the vietnamese, but the rest just carried on around, and the destruction only really harmed the Lao villagers. The legacy of this bombing is very, very obvious. There are sites of bomb craters 5m across, evenly spaced every ten meters or so for kilometers at a time. Pay attention to the villages in the area and you see old bomb shells used as troughs, fences, fire pits, even as stilts for huts. Amusing to see as this resourcefulness is, the continual threat of 'bombies' is an unpleasant truth of the area.
One of the more unpleasant weapons used was the cluster bomb. These would split in mid air and realease hundreds of 'bombies', spherical devices about the size of a mandarin packed with explosives and ball bearings. Designed specifically to kill (and manufactured by Honeywell up until the early 90's, despite their knowledge of the how these things operated - please leave that company, Szymon!), they did little structural damage but could kill from quarter of a mile. The problem still faced in this region is that thousands of them didn't explode on impact, and are still sitting in fields and villages, and are still maiming and killing hundreds of people each year. People who had no part in the conflict to start with. Doesn't seem very fair, does it?        
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