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An Art Therapist Abroad

Bombieland

LAOS | Thursday, 9 January 2014 | Views [1114]

My day of sightseeing in Phonsavan got off to a rough start. The night before I met a woman at dinner who had an actual thermometer with her. While I knew it was cold, I had no idea it was regularly getting down to 30*F (-1*C) or so at night! (And this is pretty far south of Luang Nam Tha so goodness knows how cold it really was up there.) I woke up not feeling the greatest, and was surprised by a knock on my door. It was the very nice man from the travel agency I had booked my tour with for the day. He came to tell me that the tour was...you guessed it - cancelled! But, of course, if I wanted to pay more I could go on a different one. Awesome sauce. Instead I got a refund and crawled back into bed where I spent the morning shivering and watching movies. I hauled myself up in time for check out and went to find a tuk-tuk to drive me to the Plain of Jars instead of looking for another tour.

Somewhat similar to Easter Island and Stonehenge, the Plain of Jars is an ancient site with an ultimately unknown purpose.

Dating back to the Iron Age (approximately 500 BC to 500 AD), the stone jars, of which there are thousands, range from 1300 pounds to 6 tons,

and are scattered across several sites just outside of Phonsavan. While the original reason for their creation is unknown, bones have been discovered inside certain jars so it's speculated they held a funerary function. (Although I personally prefer the native legend that the jars were actually the drinking cups of ancient godlike kings.) The jars lay scattered around fields in various conditions, some still completely whole, others broken into pieces.

Large stone slabs sit next to many of the jars and were originally thought to be lids,

but after actual lids were found,

it was decided that these slabs were most likely markers of some kind.

Nearby the jars there are huge craters in the ground created by bombs that were dropped by the US from 1964 to 1973.

One can't help but wonder how much this contributed to the current state of the jars. Or how many may have been destroyed altogether. But more about the bombing later. It was a really amazing place to have seen, and I wish I had thought ahead and brought a picnic like all these guys!

Back in town I had a while before my sleeper bus to Vang Vieng. I had read that somewhere on the bleak main street of Phonsavan were several worthwhile information centers about the 9 year US bombing of Laos and the country's enduring problems with UXOs, or unexploded ordinances. So I set out to find them, and I'm so glad I did!

First, for some worthwhile history. For 9 years, from 1964 to 1973, Laos was constantly assailed with over 200 million tons of explosives dropped day and night by the US military. (That's an average of one plane load of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day.) A huge percentage of the country was blanketed with these attacks, making Laos the most bombed place on earth.

While it is claimed by the US that these raids were strategically placed (in the north to fight the rise of communist groups and in there south to cut off the Viet Cong's access to the Ho Chi Minh trail) their purpose appears to be more along the lines of indiscriminate destruction. Certain theories about the bombing being related to cover-ups of the CIAs involvement in funding local anti-communist guerilla armies, not to mention some serious opium trading, have also surfaced. On top of all this, approximately one third of the bombs dropped never exploded, leaving 25% of the country heavily strewn with UXOs. These weapons, referred to by locals as "bombies,"are now often discovered in rural villages by children who think they are toys, adults who attempt to disassemble them for scrap metal, or are accidentally struck by farmers while tending their fields. As a result, at least one person is killed and many more are injured by these bombies every day. For the record, I knew about none of this prior to coming to Laos.

The first education center I visited was the Xieng Khouang UXO-survivor's Information Center which focuses on the everyday experiences the Laos people have with bombs and on life after the tragic and nearly inevitable daily explosions. The walls were covered in explanations of how the bombs are found and what the outcomes typically are, all scrawled in black paint made to look like the drawings of a child, I believe since they are the most common victims. There are also detachable books that chronicle the lives of bomb survivors and chalk boards propped up against the walls which are constantly updated with information about the latest victims. One of the employees, several if whom are survivors and all of whom are young adults putting themselves through university, asked if I wanted to watch a brief documentary about a few survivors' stories. Ummm, yes please! After the film I wandered through the last room of the center and found a recent project that had been documented using ... wait for it ... ART THERAPY with child and adolescent survivors!

Be still my heart. Even prior to seeing this I was contemplating writing to the head of my graduate department about the possibilities of incorporating Laos into our international program (which already has strong ties in India and South Africa). After seeing the display I will definitely be writing her and I'm even thinking about applying for a grant to come back and do some work here myself. Anyone else wanna join in? (For more information you can also look up the Quality of Life Association.)

Next I visited the Mines Advisory Group center Which has more information about the bombs themselves and displays a great deal of statistics about the attacks (not to mention the bombs themselves). In the basement is a large film room where I watched a documentary called Bomb Harvest which shows MAG specialists coming in and teaching locals how to safely disarm and dispose of the bombs. It also highlights what life is like for people living in the rural areas where the UXOs are still fairly prevalent, focusing mainly on children and elders who lived through the actual raids.

Walking out of this center I looked across the street and saw a small sign saying something along the lines of: see banned film about bombings here, 50 kip (about $6), schedule in advance. Sold! I walked into this tiny restaurant and asked to see the film. After I paid the owner pulled several sheets of corrugated tin across the front of the building, effectively blocking it from view. They were serious about this! As I ate dinner I watched the film called The Most Secret Place on Earth which is about the "secret war" in Laos where America and the CIA played huge roles. The majority of the people in the film are retired marines who served in Laos, in this secret war. It was pretty interesting and made me think about how little I know about past and current US military involvements overseas, in part because a lot of that information isn't advertised to the public.

(Artifacts from the secret war on display in the restaurant, collected by the owner's father. He had been involved in the war and knew many of the Marine troops in the film.)

After the film I had just enough time to get back to my guesthouse and grab a tuk-tuk to the bus station for my overnight ride to Vang Vieng. When I got to the bus station I was so excited to see what looked like a really nice sleeper bus, hooray! Even if I was going to be arriving at 3 am I could get a few good hours of rest before then. Climbing on the bus I saw not only was it clean but there were full sized beds! Then one of the staff members pointed me to my bed ... which already had a man sleeping in it. My eyes widened and before I could stop myself I turned to the staff member and said, "Two people to a bed? Oh my god!" He nodded and then, rolling his eyes, mimicked me. "Oh my god," he said, before walking away. Touche Mr. Bus Man, I probably couldn't have sounded more like a western female in that moment if I had tried. Later he came back and, to make amends, relocated me to a bed with another girl. Despite all this the beds were quite comfy and I enjoyed the ride until my rather prompt arrival in Vang Vieng around 3:30am. Luckily I got picked up by the nicest tuk-tuk driver who told me he knew a good but inexpensive place to stay. He even insisted I sit I the cab with him instead of in the back and pointed out a few things to me as we drove. Arriving at the guesthouse I was shown to a room which had a huge, thick mattressed bed and a hot shower, for the same price per night as I had paid earlier to watch the documentary. I was literally giddy (I think I might have freaked the owner out a little bit) and after dancing around the room with joy I curled up for a wonderfully comfortable night of sleep with no alarm set for the morning.

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