Monday, April 8, 2013

"Bombies" and Jars

Many of you probably know very little about Laos. I didn't before I decided to travel to this tiny country. I knew that Laos was heavily bombed during the Vietnamese War but I did not understand the extent or why. I know the war was bad for all sides, including our men that fought in it. I have been educated on the war from an American perspective and wanted to get an understanding from the Laos perspective. This is the only way to learn and understand the history.  So, when I arrived in Phonsavan, I went to the MAG (Mine Advisory Group). This is present in Phonsavan because Laos is the most bombed country in history. I would have guessed Germany and Japan. How could this be? Laos in a country the size of Minnesota with a population of about 3 million people at the time of the war. So, more bombs were dropped on Laos based on per capita than any other country in the world. From 1963-1974, the equivalent of one bomb every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years was dropped in Laos. That equated to 1 ton for each man, woman and child. This was called the "Secret War." I was never aware that Laos was bombed so heavily during the Vietnam War, another example of my ignorance. As you look across the landscape you can see the bomb pock marks. 
I tried to understand why Laos was bombed. It appears there were two main reasons:
  1. Laos hosted part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where troops, supplies and artillery were transported out of northern Vietnam, through the mountains on the eastern edge of the country of Laos and into southern Vietnam.
  2. American aircraft flying out of the Thai air bases were sometimes unable to launch their bombs at the primary target due to bad weather or other circumstances. Unable to land safely back at the base while still carrying bombs, they dropped them on Laos.
Due to the heavy bombing of Laos, there are millions of unexploded ordnances (UXO). The most common bombs at this time had a rocket shaped outside, filled with up to 600 small "bombies." The rocket casing split open as it fell, launching the smaller bomblets (bombies) which were filled with hundreds of ball bearings.
About a third failed to explode on impact leaving an estimated 80 million UXO lying on or beneath the ground to this day. UXO include bombs, rockets, missiles, mortars and grenades which continue to pose a risk many decades later. They lie under houses and roads, in school playgrounds and rice fields. The people have lived and died with these since the war ended and the casualties of the war continue to grow daily. Farmers are unable to farm parts of their land. Children find the small bombies and think they are fruit or a ball and get killed. The people of Laos have moved forward since the war and are not angry. Many Lao will say that the war is in the past. Life goes on. We just need to save lives now and find the UXO before more innocent people die.

Why is all of this important? I came to Phonsavan to see the most popular sight in Laos, the Plain of Jars. Since this region was heavily bombed, it is imperative to stay on the trails. I wanted to understand where I could walk at the plain of jars to make certain I did not end up dead or in the hospital. As most of you know, I am not a fan of organized tours. Since the Plain of Jars is outside the city limits of Phonsavan, I attempted to find a private guide to go to see the jars. It is Laos, how much could it cost? I shopped around and everyone wanted 600,000 kip! That's about $80 USD! No way! My second option was to rent a motorbike. I had done it once, why not again? I talked to a guy at the rental service and he only had dirt bikes. It seems the roads are bad and you must be experienced at off-road biking to rent one. Well, that only meant one thing. I had to give in and accept a tour...I was dreading it! I booked one with Inter Loa Tours since the guy at the MAG said they were good and only cost $16. I jumped in the van when it arrived at the tourist office. I was off to see the giant jars scattered over the plains of Laos. The first thing I learned is there are no plains, more like rolling hills. The giant jars made of ancient stones about 2000 years ago. It is not known who made the jars or the purpose of the jars. Our guide told us the folklore was the jars were for storing the Laos whiskey (Lao-Lao) or rice wine for a celebration. That is a lot of alcohol if they were used for storage! However, recent studies of the contents of the jars and area around the jars has found human ashes in some jars and skeletons and jewelry buried next to some of the jars. This has lead some people to guess the jars were used as a burial place. But nobody will ever really know the purpose. That is part of the mystery of the jars. There are 90 recorded jar sites but only 7 have been cleared of the UXO and then only within limited areas. Our guide stopped at the tourist center to get our entrance tickets and to educate all of us about being careful at the sites. The paths are marked with MAG White and Red/Gray bricks.

We were instructed to stay within the white bricks or we may have an unfortunate surprise. No problem there! We walked out to the first sight and saw the largest jar (6 tons) and wandered the area.
The area was pocked with craters from the war. They also marked the trench lines that were used during the war. We wandered down to a cave that may have been used as a crematory. I think everyone on the tour was much more interested in the large bee hive hanging at the entrance!  Then we were told we could take the flat path back to the van or hike up and over the hill to see the countryside. All 10 of us wanted to hike the hill so our guide reminded us to stay within the markers and he would meet us back at the van. It was a beautiful hike. Just a short hike up a hill, looked over the valley and then back to the van.
Our next stop was the Whiskey Village and home of the famous Lao- Lao. A little old woman met us at the hut and showed us how she uses sticky rice to make the whiskey. It was followed by the a big shot or two for everyone. Wow! I know I was breathing fire after that shot. The woman that made it laughed at our reactions. She told us to have a second, it will keep us looking young!!  I warned our guide that he was going to have to carry me to the next two sites. He laughed and said "now time for Lao massage!" back to the van and I was excited. Somehow I had missed that we were getting massages on this trip. I sat next to my new friends from New Zealand and Austria all three of us were excited and talking about wanting a nice 30 minute massage. Bring it on. We started down the road and our guide looked at us and said "free massage. Enjoy!" As we bounced down the road I was disappointed. Nothing like the massage I was anticipating. Henrick, the Austrian guy and I decided we were going to walk around town when we returned and find a good 30 minute massage.
My favorite site was the second jar site. We hiked to the top of a small hill and there were the stone jars surrounded by pine trees and beautiful views of the countryside. Some of the trees grew around the jars and reminded me of Angkor Wat. This tree was actually growing out of the jar.

Afterwards, we were off to see the third site. We walked through rice paddies, over fences and up a hill to see the jars. They looked the same as the others. It was getting hot outside and Henrick asked me if I wanted a beer before or after we get massages. Before! I was hot. We had one stop at a Russian tank before heading back to our hotel. The tanks was nothing special...just the frame of an old tank. Beerlao-thirty! Yeah! And it tasted so good! I walked around Phonsavan with Henrick looking for a massage. We finally gave up and decided to have some dinner and call it a night.

I was headed east to Vieng Xai in the morning to tour the caves the Laotians lived in during the war. That is all for now. You will have to wait for my next update on the caves. 

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