Last of Laos
8:00 | 01 January 2010 | GMT+07:00

XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE, LAOS
Happy new year! May your next decade be full of adventure.

Photo Essay: The Effects of War in Laos
I’ve finally run out of stuff from Xieng Khouang, but my photo essay on war leftovers is up. Most of the better photos I took went into that, so go have a look.

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The Plain of Jars Sucks
8:00 | 29 December 2009 | GMT+07:00

PLAIN OF JARS, XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE, LAOS
Over the past few years I’ve talked to dozens of people who’ve visited the Plain of Jars and not a single one had anything good to say about it. The tourist literature bills it as Southeast Asia’s most enigmatic destination – thousands of ancient stone jars lie strewn across the landscape, their orgin and purpose still a mystery!

That’s a pretty accurate representation and the area has serious archaeological significance, but unless you’re an anthropologist it’s really hard to care. If you’re just passing through you’ve probably already seen something like Angkor or Sukhothai, and compared to the well-maintained ruins of powerful ancient kingdoms the Plain of Jars isn’t very impressive. When it takes ten hours on a crappy bus to get there, “unimpressive” turns into “massively disappointing.” Most of the tour companies in Phonsavan seem to have recognized this, so any tour you take will likely include visits to a Hmong village, a hill full of craters and possibly a derelict Russian tank that I never managed to find.

I actually enjoyed Xieng Khouang a lot, but I didn’t go for the jars. I think it’s definitely worth the trip, especially if you partook of the mindless debauchery of Vang Vieng, but the place suffers from a bit of a marketing problem. I can hardly blame it – XK has other stuff to deal with.


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To the Plain of Jars
9:00 | 28 December 2009 | GMT+07:00

PLAIN OF JARS, XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE, LAOS
One or two jar sites are right off a main road, but like most things in Laos the rest are down a few kilometers of dirt track and poorly marked footpath. That trail looks a lot like something you’d find in Eastern North Carolina, except stepping off the path might get you blown up.

There’s so much UXO laying around most of the jar sites that they’ve been closed since the war. The ones that are open have been cleaned up by MAG in an effort to boost tourism, but they were only able to do a thorough job on certain areas. The paths are all marked with these red and white bricks – everything on the red side remains uncleared.


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A Dilapidated Stupa
8:00 | 27 December 2009 | GMT+07:00

MUANG KHOUN, XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE, LAOS
Most stupas are meticulously maintained, regularly repainted and visited daily by numerous devotees. This one isn’t.


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Relics of the Lao Civil War: Hmong
11:45 | 21 December 2009 | GMT+07:00

XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE, LAOS
A large part of Xieng Khouang’s population is made up of the Hmong minority, who you may know better from Gran Torino. They unfortunately bore the brunt of the war’s aftermath, not only from UXO but the political repercussions as well.

Much like in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, ethnic minorities in Laos fought ferociously on the side of the anti-communists. They were all but abandoned by their American allies, and fearing a vindictive communist purge thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand. Thousands more undoubtedly ended up victims of the purges. Many were able to move to the United States (to Minnesota and Wisconsin, weirdly enough), but at least 8,000 Hmong refugees remain in camps around Northern Thailand. Much like the Karen stuck in Mae La, the refugees have an extremely difficult time obtaining any official status and are effectively stateless.


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Relics of the Lao Civil War: Muang Khoun
8:00 | 17 December 2009 | GMT+07:00

MUANG KHOUN, XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE, LAOS
Muang Khoun used to be the capital of Xieng Khouang, but between 1968 and 1969 it was completely destroyed. Completely. Shells rained down from the hills for months on end, blew every last building to pieces and killed everybody who didn’t skip town.

Muang Khoun has since been rebuilt (well, as rebuilt as you see in the photo above), save three buildings: A destroyed hospital, a moss-covered stupa and a Buddhist temple. The temple, Wat Phiawat, is incredibly poignant – though the building itself was totally demolished, its Buddha still stands.

This temple, I’m quite sure, is misinterpreted by the vast majority of visitors (six per month in the high season, apparently). American planes caused so much death and suffering in this area that it’s natural to assume Wat Phiawat was a victim of our idiotic foreign policy, and it would be so intensely satisfying to be able to point to that awkwardly smiling Buddha as a symbol of Lao defiance.

But no, alas, I’m pretty sure the Lao did this one to themselves. American bombs destroyed their fair share of Xieng Khouang, but from what I was able to gather ground fighting between the Pathet Lao and Royal Lao Army was to blame for most of what happened in Muang Khoun. No one really seems to remember, though.





(Muang Khoun before the war, stolen off a billboard in the town)

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Relics of the Lao Civil War: Craters
8:00 | 14 December 2009 | GMT+07:00

XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE, LAOS
After nearly forty years you’d think the wind and rain would have done away with any traces of exploded munitions, but the landscape of Xieng Khouang province is still perforated with enormous craters (note motorbike for scale). Their survival is partly due to the fact that a lot of the land is still full of UXO, leaving it un-farmable and keeping everybody poor.

If you poke around a satellite view of the areas near Phonsavan the craters are hard to miss:

At least one local establishment has tried to find some humor in it, though:




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Relics of the Lao Civil War: Scrap Metal
8:00 | 11 December 2009 | GMT+07:00

XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE, LAOS
The US spent seven billion dollars (almost $37 billion after inflation) on “The Secret War” in Laos, so-called because the government didn’t officially admit to it until 1997. Most of that money blew itself to smithereens, but at least some survived in the form of scrap metal from unexploded ordinance.

In a region like Xieng Khouang, which has been poor since anybody can remember, two million tons of steel falling from the sky is a big deal. Granted, it’s explosive, but cunning entrepreneurs can sell the scrap from one big munition for upwards of 150USD. That’s almost half the average Laotian’s yearly income.

When Western NGOs started to filter in after the war, particularly MAG, the value of scrap metal presented a huge problem. They offered to remove UXO for free, but the easiest way to do that was to completely destroy it and any possibility of making money. When people heard that they wouldn’t be getting the metal back they started keeping their unexploded bombs, occasionally blowing themselves up trying to defuse them. Luckily, somebody at MAG came up with the “low-order technique” – a method of dismantling explosive charges without destroying the casing.

Many of the towns scattered throughout the valley use defused bombs as plant pots, structural supports and decoration. It’s tempting to think about this as a way to make peace with the war, using these vehicles of destruction as tools to better communities, but I suspect necessity far outweighs metaphor. For certain, some people have intentionally made that connection (a few restaurants throughout the valley have displays of UXO), but it’s doubtful that poetic justice is a major motivation for building your chicken coop out of cluster bomb casings.


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Relics of the Lao Civil War
9:13 | 10 December 2009 | GMT+07:00

XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE, LAOS
Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped at least two million tons (or four billion pounds) of bombs on Laos. That’s not only five and a half Empire State Buildings, it’s more than we dropped on Germany through all of World War II. A large part of that was cluster bombs – big metal cases full of nasty, tennis ball-sized submunitions. A single cluster bomb contained about 360 of them, and each one of those held about 200 ball bearings that shot out like bullets upon detonation. All in all, 250 million cluster bomblets were released in the skies over Laos, and a full eighty million of them didn’t explode. They’re still there, forty years later, blowing limbs off small children and stopping people from farming perfectly good land.

Cluster bombs weren’t the only things we used, though. The US also dropped plenty of good old 750lb pieces of awesome that indiscriminately blew the hell out of everything in a five hundred foot radius, leaving behind huge craters that are still around today.

Oh, and the communists won.

I drove around Xieng Khouang on a motorbike from dawn till dusk, searching for remnants of this decade of insanity. Over the next couple of days we’ll take a look at what I found.




from the MAG museum in Phonsavan

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Except for Bombs
8:00 | 08 December 2009 | GMT+07:00

PHONSAVAN, LAOS
I don’t have the slightest idea what this was about, but it wasn’t the first thing I wanted to see when I checked in.

Next, we’ll see what 250 million of these death balls does to a country.

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