Home > Caves, Friends, Laos, National Parks, Travel, Trekking, Village life > Bombs, Jars and Drips

Bombs, Jars and Drips

The tourist attractions in Phonsavan are twofold; bombs and jars. We were joined on a protracted journey from Luang Prabang by a group of ’you’re old enough to know better’ travellers. Still hung over from their ’party boat’ trip a few days previously, they complained incessantly about the cramped conditions in the van. Compared to some of our journeys, this carriage was luxurious, so I was having a hard time empathising with the four and a half brain cells valiantly remaining within the skulls of these six people. Do I sound bitter? Well that’s because I was; the tourist circuit in South East Asia had begun to patronise me to tears. Plus I was hungry. Furthermore my propensity for becoming nauseous in the back of minivans had continued.


We reconvened with our trekking partner Jorge upon arrival and, still feeling ill, I promptly went to bed. Hazell joined our friend for dinner and reported she had found it easy obtaining a vegetarian dinner, whereas Jorge had encountered rather more difficulty finding flesh, his clucking and flapping of ‘wings’ apparently incomprehensible to the local vendors.


I was feeling brighter the following day and we hired mountain bikes to explore the beautiful greenery surrounding the town. We headed for ‘Site Number 1’ of the ’Plain of Jars’, one of the main tourist attractions in the area, consisting of randomly positioned stone vessels. Historians, archaeologists and anthropologists are unable to agree on what the jars are all about, with explanations ranging from ’cremation pots’, to ‘containers for tribal liquor’. The three of us decided that they were most likely receptacles for intergalactic communication, perhaps relics of a long forgotten technique of trans dimensional dialogue which remains locked within the mute frames of the resident cows.


All this talk of space travel, combined with the bike ride home, rekindled my sickness. For the following 36 hours I was in a state of fevered delirium, thankful only for the western rather than squat toilet in our room. We decided I should go to a local clinic, which proved a challenge as I was having difficulty placing one foot in front of the other. The kind man at our guest house offered to take me on his motorbike, the only thing in the past day or so which raised a smile. ’You’re joking right?’ My stare of incredulity was clearly disguised behind bloodshot eyes; as he grinned back I sighed and flopped onto the bike behind him. He did his best to drive slowly as I swayed all the way to the doctors.


A prenatal clinic was not the destination I had in mind, but it was the only place open, so I thanked my friend for the ride and waited patiently for the doctor to arrive. Thankfully I wasn’t offered an ultrasound, just a thermometer and some antibiotics at tourist prices. I thanked him and presumed our consultation was at an end, but alas, I was asked to lie back and relax on a semi hygienic bed. A smiley assistant came in and inserted a large needle into my arm – antibiotics apparently. She then prepared an IV drip, which I presumed was for the next patient, but with a motherly, placid grin I was plugged straight in. I was too knackered to argue, and in all honesty I was quite enjoying the attention. Hazell stuck her head around the cubicle curtain and a look of what-the-fuck-are-you-doing?, immediately swept her features, followed of course with ’how much is that going to cost?’ I was unlikely to request politely to be unplugged due to a lack of funding from my Welsh accountant, so I lay back and enjoyed two hours of re-hydration as the nurse administered a blanket and tucked me in.


Upon completion Hazell offered me her hooded jumper, a kind gesture tainted only by the cockroach that fell from the garment onto the surgery floor. I averted my gaze in embarrassment and observed my fellow patients scattered around the premises. Each and every individual not displaying the signs of procreation was clutching an IV drip. Some were leaving the surgery with ‘take away’ drips on wheeled stands; I wondered if there was a ‘drip drive through’ in the adjacent alleyway. It appeared if one was present for any reason other than to receive an ultra scan, our ’drip happy’ doctor would serve up an Extra Value Meal of IV medication to all concerned. I no longer felt special, though I was feeling a little revived, and our encounter with Phonsavan could continue.


We had planned a trek through the local countryside, but unfortunately my illness led to cancellation. We were due to learn a little of the harrowing history of the country from our guide, but had to settle for the ample supply of information in the town. The ’Vietnam War’, as it is known to those outside South East Asia, was a high profile display of man’s terrifying destructive capabilities. The US offensive on the Communist Vietcong was broadcast extensively; what remained unreported within the wash of American propaganda was the ’secret war’, which took place on the ground and in the skies above Laos. Known to Laotians as the Second-Indochina-War, this period of sustained US air attacks from 1964 onwards saw a bomb drop on Laos every ten minutes for nine years. The country still holds the unenviable title of ’most bombed in history’.


The US had attempted to subdue communist ‘Pathet Laos’ forces in the north of the country preceding the Vietnam war. The rebels were cooperating with Vietnamese communists, a coalition which the US considered a threat and attempted to control by funding the Laos government’s defence. Under J. F. Kennedy, the US eventually pulled out of this agreement, supporting Laos neutrality. However, as the Vietnam War escalated, the area surrounding Phonsavan became a crucial segment of the Ho Chi Min trail, a route used by Hanoi to infiltrate supplies and personal. This tactical route became a prime target for the US, and in 1964 they began to bomb the Plain of Jars. Officially 2,093,100 tonnes of bombs were dropped at a cost of $2 million per day for nine years.


The Mines Advisory Group state on their website, (http://www.maginternational.org/laopdr) “more than two million tonnes of ordnance was dropped over Laos during the Second-Indo-China War. An estimated 30 per cent did not explode on impact. UXO still affects more than 25 per cent of villages and remains a key cause of poverty.” MAG do a fantastic job of educating and training locals to cope with the huge amount of ’unexploded ordnance’ (UXO) still scattered throughout the country. It is predicted at the current rate work rate, it will take another hundred years to clear the country of UXO entirely. We learnt through films shown in the town that the scrap metal trade is an ongoing problem. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds dig for ordnance in order to sell the scrap, with many maimed or killed by detonation.


The Lao people live with this terror every day and many are unable to farm their land safely, but in characteristically high spirits, the locals make use of the abundance of rusted metal. Bullets are used as keyrings, bomb canisters are employed as ornaments, fence posts and plant pots, all acting as a stark reminder of the danger that lies hidden just below their feet.


I felt almost guilty handing over a measly donation of $10 for a MAG t-shirt, but every penny that contributes to such a worthy cause is precious. We were thoroughly moved by the films we watched at the MAG office and chilled by the empty caves surrounding the area. It was in these now derelict hillside hollows that many Laotians spent nine years sheltering from aerial attacks, only to return to a post war land contaminated with a lifetime of danger.



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