Since we no longer had to go south to get our visas we were free to head up to northeast Laos. With our unexpected recovered time, Plain of Jars seemed like a reasonable destination. In theory, the Plain of Jars is the top or second top attraction in Laos. It’s a series of sites across a huge valley with massive limestone jars dating back 2,000 years, made by mysterious people for mysterious reasons. In reality, it’s far off the tourist trail and not a lot of people make the trek to get there.
I remember reading about the Jars as a kid and thinking how cool I thought it was. In retrospect I’m surprised at how indifferent I was when we initially talked about going. But we started reading more about the region, which has a lot of recent history, also mysterious, at least originally. This region was one of the most heavily bombed areas during the Vietnam war. And Laos, we learned, was the most heavily bombed country in the world, ever. More bombs than Vietnam itself. More than all of the bombs the US dropped in Germany and Japan combined in WWll. And all of this bombing was done secretly and illegally since Laos was officially neutral during the war. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main supply route for the North Vietnamese, cut north through Laos, making it a big target. American planes also used Laos as a dumping ground for bombs when the original target was clouded over and the plane couldn’t land again loaded with explosives. As bad as that was then, the problem now is that an estimated 10-30% of those 2.5 million tons(one ton for every member of the population at the time) of bombs didn’t explode. So farmers – at least a hundred each year – die or get seriously injured when they hit the unexploded ordnance(UXO).
We have to admit to being woefully uninformed in general about the Vietnam war. I think most people under 40 or so don’t know a hell of a lot about it. I’m going to blame high school mainly. We certainly didn’t know much about the “secret war” that happened in Laos. So coming into Phonsavan, the heart of the US bombing over 50 years ago, was more personal than we thought it would be. All around town bombs of all sizes have been placed in front of businesses and homes as decoration. There’s a bomb themed restaurant called “Craters Cafe.” People live with the reality of bombs every day and seem to take it in stride.
The town has been almost entirely rebuilt, and since it doesn’t get that many tourists, it has a sort of wild west outpost feel. The landscape itself was fascinating and unlike anywhere else we had seen in the country. It’s a high plateau surrounded by mountains. The sky is huge and vivid blue with big clouds. The sun was somehow brighter and shinier than 100 miles west.
We headed out to see the Jars in the morning with an Italian we met the day before on the minivan ride. We hired a tuk tuk for half the day, which was in a dire situation, cobbled together with all manners of wire and tubing. The site #1 is where most people go to see the jars. It’s an impressive sight to see the huge carved rocks sitting clustered on otherwise smooth and rolling hills. The consensus is that the jars were used as burial site, so we stood there picturing these giant vessels filled with a person and capped off with a carved rock. Mixed in around the jars are huge craters made during the war. The entire area has fairly recently been cleared of UXO by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), and trail markers indicated where was safe to walk. It was a little spooky to know there may be cluster bombs buried all over.
The second day we took a motorbike out to site #3, 25km away. The scenery was beautiful. The site was barely built up for tourism and we were the only ones there. We had a picnic among the jars before setting off for the famous spoon village. At spoon village, the locals have been adaptively reusing bomb scraps for years by smelting down the aluminum and casting spoons. Steel bomb casings are being fashioned into farm tools, knives and cowbells. It’s unreal how large a volume of metal is being found and how the people are using it to supplement their income. Bombs paid for by our parents’ taxes and now we’re buying back as spoons.
We got a pizza that night from an honest to goodness Italian restaurant run by an honest to goodness Italian guy. It was going enough to satiate us for a few weeks. The next day we rose early to head east to the border and into Vietnam.