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UXO and the plain of Jars

LAOS | Tuesday, 28 April 2009 | Views [5438] | Comments [1]

The 7.30 “AC” bus from Louang Prabang to Phonsavan left at exactly 8.30 and had quite a big hole in the floor under our seats. It was a comfy enough but windy journey punctuated by the obligatory noodle soup shop in a non-descript market town. Of the many guest houses listed in the 2 guide books, Kong Keo sounded very inviting. One of the better places to eat – curries around the fire. Highly recommended tours to the Plain of jars (our main reason for being here) and generally a place where good times roll. For that reason we were steadfast when the hawkers came peddling their own guest houses. Kong Keo didn't have a hawker or anyone to pick you up so we ended up paying for a lift with a guy bringing people to another guesthouse. He was pleasant enough, had good English and tried to get us to go on a tour with him the next day but the promise of Kong Keo was too great. Phonsavan has a slightly unsual street geography (for me anyway) in that roughly parallel to the main street runs a long gravel field that used to serve as the airfield but now has little shops and houses running along it. Kong Keo is at the top of this old airfield. When we got out of the car the place looked abandoned. After calling hello for a few seconds someone came out of a corner and smiled at us. He took us to a room which was clean and we checked in. Maybe everyone was off doing a tour or something. Later in the evening, looking forward to curry and booking a trip, we enquired. No food. No tours. No explanation why. OK! We crossed the gravel field, dodging mopeds in the twilight and walked up into town. It becomes evident quickly that Phonsavan is a quite poverty stricken place, not frequently visited by tourists. We found out why it was so poor later but for now we had to find someone who would take us to the mysterious Plain of Jars. The chap who we had shared the car with seemed a good candidate so we started with him. He had no-one else booked on a tour yet so it would be a bit more expensive but it was getting late and we were running out of options so we signed up – he promised that it was his turn to take the tour so he would be our guide. Hopefully a a few other people would sign up and half the cost for us. The next objective was food, which every piece of advice said was terrible in the area but we were pleasantly surprised to find a great Chinese. When we were picked up the next day it was not our friend from the previous night but another fellow – austerely dressed and with a dapper hair cut. He looked more like an insurance sales man (I mean no offence to to all the valuable individuals in this line of work) than a tour guide. More importantly there was no-one else in the car so were paying full whack for this - $40 a head. Hopefully it would be worth it. First we were taken to the office where our friend gave us a completely understandable but not totally believable excuse for not coming – he had to work with UNESCO. OK! Then off to the tourist office for a look around. It seems that our guide preferred to take us somewhere we could glean out our own information than be told by him. Again fair enough but a far cry from what we had been promised the previous night. What was fascinating was seeing and then reading about the massive amounts of unexploded ordinance in the area. In fact, I was highly surprised to find out, Laos is the most bombed country in the world. Between 1965 and 1973 the US dropped over 2m tonnes of bombs on Laos (that's more than they dropped on Germany and Japan combined during the whole of WWII) in an effort to close down the Ho Chi Minh trail. The trail was actually a network of secret passages in Laos and Cambodia used to transport people and equipment from South into North Vietnam.

Approximately a third of them didn't explode (UXO) and this continues to cause all sorts of problems over thirty years later. The most common form of UXO is “bombis” or anti-personnel clusterbombs which are released from a large bomb and spread over a wide area. They're just about the size of a tennis ball – small enough to slip past you when tilling a field but just big enough for a child to want to play with it if found on the ground. Hundreds are killed and horribly disfigured each year, mostly poor sibsistence farmers who fail to spot them or who try to disarm them to make a few well needed dollars on the scrap metal market. The tourist office, bizarrely had heaps of rusty UXO of varying sizes scattered about the place. A much more ancient phenomenon, the plain of jars takes its names from the myriad of chest high urns dotted in various sites across the hills of Phonsavan. They are thought to be about 2000 years old (although our guide confidently stated they were 4000 years old, contradicting the leaflet picked up in the tourist office) but no-one really knows what they represent. The most widely accepted theory is that they were urns marking the graves of important individuals, containing useful items for the after-life such as tools, food and weapons or possibly cremated remains. When we arrived at Site 1, we saw with our own eyes the devestation left by years of bombing. The hills were pock marked all over with huge craters where bombs had been dropped. In a nearby cave we were told many people used to shelter there. Our guide found a dead bat in the cave and tried to pass it around. No thanks. A UK based NGO called MAG (Mines Advisory Group) had been taking responsibility for making the land safe and clearing UXO. A large sign at the entrance to the site explained the process and how to read the ground markers and stay safe. Walk to the white side of the markers – that means depth testing has been performed. Red means only visual checking had occurred – no digging allowed. It was quite horrifying to think that much of Laos was as badly affected, but this, being one of the major tourist sites, was one of the safest – I didn't feel that safe trying to keep an eye out for the markers. We carried on to site 2, which was much the same, lots of urns in varying degrees of repair, all empty but was in a more peaceful setting with a nearby forsest. A quick stop at a “whiskey village” where the locals distilled rice wine or Lao-Lao. They had none for sale and could only give us the smallest sip as a taste so we stayed about 2 minutes. After lunch (good ole noodle soup) we walked through some still unplanted rice paddies to site 3. More of the same (I don't apologise for the spartan description of the other sites – the guide was basically a chap who knew the way, not necessarily anything about the things there.) One thing Claire had been particularly keen to see was the broken buddha. We had been told the previous night that there was an abandoned Wat near site 3 with some destroyed buddha images. Our guide said no – sorry we would have to go on a different tour to the ancient capital tomorrow to see that. I voiced my displeasure and asked one of the guides with another group - “Oh yes! Beside Where we eat lunch” came back as the answer. As if by magic, the guide then said “Now we visit the broken buddha” as we approach the wat – he was behind! It was sad to see a jumbled up collection of serene half faces and bits of arms lying in a ditch – but somehow poignant. The tour drew to an end and we got dropped off at the hotel, vowing not to do any more tours in Laos. We went back to the Chinese for dinner and then visited the MAG office – they show a documentary nightly describing their work, the bombings, its macro effects on the country and micro effect on the villages. It was harrowing but compelling. Would you till that new field if you knew the last person to do so died in an explosion? One story was told about a poor man who witnessed both parents and 2 siblings being killed by UXO, been severely injured himself (his penis was scathed off) and had to leave school early to become the main breadwinner for the remainder of his family. Stories like this abound. We gave what little we cold to help and made our way back to the guest house thoughtfully. There was still no fire or group of friendly travellers so we played chess and looked at what was going on on the granite airfield. We couldn't make out for sure but it was either truck driver off road training or a crazy driving test.

Tags: guest house, history, tour, uxo, war

 

Comments

1

hi who can i contact for uxo job lao?im in philippines now.and want to live and work in lao.pls. rply ,thanks

  john adams Nov 2, 2009 11:00 AM

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