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Secrets of War and the Plain of Jars

Learning about Phonsvan's history.

So having unpacked our bags we went for a walk around the town and found that due to Phonsavan (pronounce Pon-sav-an) still evolving its tourism there wasn't much to see apart from a few restaurants. The main reason we went to Phonsavan was to see the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars describes an area in the Xieng Khouang province of Laos that is scattered with thousands of so called megalithic stone jars and dates all the way back to the Iron Age.

We wanted first to arrange our trip before settling somewhere and spoke to a tour operator. Although he was very friendly and helpful we weren't able to afford the 735,000kip price it would cost to rent a car and guide and we didn't know anyone else to ask to try and bring the cost down so it was looking possible that we would have to motorbike ourselves or see what our guesthouse was offering. Earlier Kong, the owner of the guesthouse, recommeded that he would be having a meeting to discuss tours available at 6pm so we went back and were fortunate to find our that other people wanted to to go the next day and we would therefore be able to split the cost. We paid 110,000 kip each for the tour that included the Plain of Jars, a 'walk' to a waterfall and also the opportunity to visit the crater site and Hmong village that has seen villagers use old bomb shells to build with and produce metal for profit.

Thankful that was sorted we opted to follow Kongs advice and go and see the videos that were playing at his restaurant that would give us more detail on the 'The Secret War' that we were so interested having read about it and also having been given a bullet for a key fob.

Watching the videos which seemed to be made in the USA as documentaries we learned some horrific truths that has plagued this beautiful area of Laos. More than 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 by the US Army. The main goal was to prevent pro-Vietnamese forces from gaining control over the area. It is estimated that approximately 30% of this ordnance did not detonate on impact. The result is that 80 million UXO contaminate the country. It has devastated the Laos people as it continues to injure and kill people every single day and it keeps people poor by preventing them from using the land in fear of losing their lives. Laos is a very poor country - about half of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. The land in Laos is actually very fertile and perfect for farming but many people have lost limbs or lives while working on their land.

Cluster bombs were mainly used and the 100s of bombs that came out of them are full of ballbearings that would obliterate you, unexploded ones of these are locally referred to as 'bombies'. Children often find bombies and as they are similar in size and shape to a tennis ball they mistake it for something to play with. Many children have lost their lives this way. This poverty has also created a dangerous trade in scrap metal from the bombs. This means that many people are digging for these bomb remnants so they can feed their families. It is possible to buy spoons and jewellery that are made out of this scrap metal. You might think that buying this as a souvenir helps the local community but Kong told us it encourages people to go and dig up more bombs despite the danger. He knows people who have become blind, maimed and even lost their lives trying to do this to make souvenirs for tourists.

We were astonished that more bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 than the US dropped on Japan and Germany during WWII, given that we knew nothing about it until we got to Laos. More than 350,000 people were killed but it was kept a secret to the rest of the world making it the most covert operation in US history, hence the name the 'Secret War'. According to the documentary the US were in Laos on the pretence of providing aid when they were moving weapons and creating an airbase in Laos to send bombing missions to Vietnam. When US bombers couldn't find their targets in Vietnam due to bad weather, they just dumped their load on the Laos countryside, as the airplanes couldn't land with the bombs on board. After the end of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, the U.S. military decided to simply use its old bomb arsenal by dropping it on Laos instead of carrying it back home. The value of human lives, of the Laos people, was never taken into consideration and they are now left to deal with the aftermath.

As you can imagine learning these hard truths much like learning about the Khmer in Cambodia and Vietnam War it always makes you stop and think....WHY!!!!

We left the restaurant to head back to the guesthouse and it took sometime to readjust before the nights entertainment was to unfold, it was an experience to remember for sure. Essentially Kong's brother, who we learned had been drinking earlier in the day when he regaled us with the amount he had drunk, began to sing all kinds of songs that ranged from Wonderwall to Blow my Whistle' (which he kept eluding to the alternative meaning). It was a random but fun night and I even got a chance to sing a song as well which Kong's brother was pleased to see.

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The next morning we were up early to make our way on the tour. Kong's brother turned up as well and to our amazement was going to be our driver for the day, even after his heavy night (He was actually wasn't bad at all). The first stop was the market to pick up previsions for the day (chicken and sticky rice) and then the long trip to the craters was going to be our first experience of the carnage that the American bombs inflicted on the countryside.

The sheer size of the craters was unbelievable and you could not imagine anyone or anything surviving in the surrounding blast area mainly because it was not far along till another crater was etched in the landscape. We also had first experience of the potiental threat that the 'bombies' have on the area when we were shown a real live one in the ground that had been marked for disarmerment, which was pretty crazy. The fact that this area had been cleared several times and still bombies were surfacing after the rainy season highlights the constant danger and how long it will take to fix.

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We moved on from the Craters to visit the Waterfall and we were driven down what seemed like an impassable track which you wouldn't know was there unless you lived in the area. We rounded up supplies and started our walk, or what we thought would be a walk. The track we started on was relatively easy and descent down the hill was going well and we started to hear the river gushing below us. However, somehow one of the guys in our group got lost and we waited for at least 20 minutes before it was decided by our guides to move on. To be honest I felt as though I had to push them to sort it out because they didn't seem that bothered but one of the friends of the lost fella went with the guide to look for him and we carried on.

We got down to the bottom of the waterfall quite quickly and went passed another group who were having lunch from what seemed a break from a trek and we waited again for the two guys. The guide then just decided to carry on up the waterfall to where we were going to have lunch and somehow the guy who was lost was already there having had a dunk in the waterfall. At the time I thought he was a right knob because he had made us all panic, later he turned out to be alright but I wasn't impressed. Once we regrouped with the other guy the guides said we are having lunch at the top of waterfall so we thought 'oh ok, just up there' . That just ended up being a trek rather than a walk up the waterfall edge and across it at times making it a far more arduous task than we first thought but we made it no probs and were treated with lunch by the pools edge and some of us had a dip in it. It was freezing!!! Great fun!

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Leaving the waterfall was hard as it was a nice place but we had to move on to go see the Hmong Village and also the Plain of Jars which we had originally come here for!

The short walk back to the van and we drove back up the dodgy track and were dropped off by the village to have a stroll. The village was very pleasant and Kongs brother told us that the Hmong people who originate from the hills of China and Vietnam make up a large percentage of Laos ethnic tribes. What was interesting to see in this area was the way the villagers have used the remnants of war that ravaged their homes to build new stores for rice or troughs for animals almost reversing the negative effect these metal objects were originally made for. It wasn't as abundant in this part we visited as I thought it would be but it was still worth visiting especially having viewed 'The Secret War' documentary the night before.

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After the Hmong Village we made our way to the Plain of Jars site 1 which our guesthouse recommended was the best to see as it had the largest collection of jars. It was good advice in the end because although very interesting to see, after a while it does just become a site full of jars. Perhaps if we read more into its archeological facts it would have been a little different, however we did read that it was believed by the locals that the jars were used by the giants to prepare and store their own rice wine. Judging by the size of this one if those giants had a party then it would be probably be the best party in the world (sorry Carlsberg). The area had been disarmed by the Mine Advisory Group (M.A.G) meaning it could be walked so long as you stayed within the white markers. The site had its fair share of craters and it was probably likely that some of these ancient artefacts were destroyed by the mindless bombing, another job well done by the USA.

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Our guesthouse had included a buffet of food with our tour when we got back and we all cut into it as the sun went down and had another night of music around the fire (in a bomb!) before departing for bed.

The next day would see us tackle the roads to Luang Prabang renowned for being the windiest roads in Laos. Joy!!

Stay tuned for more tales...

Dan

Posted by doyledan 07:32 Archived in Laos

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