I’m sitting in a small roadside tent in Phonsavan, Laos. The sounds of dusk traffic and cooking fill the air. In front of me there is a small TV. The wall behind it is decorated with bombshells, grenades and articles. Some of the bombs are rusted, the others polished; all in all it makes for an interesting tour office. I lean forward so I can better hear the words from the TV. It’s playing The CIA’s Secret War, a documentary about the nine-year war (1964–1973) that America waged in Laos.
Through a mixture of archival footage, interviews with journalists and leading CIA figures in charge of the war, I’m learning that Laos is the most bombed country in the world. That over 2 million bombs have been dropped on it, 30% of which are unexploded, lying on the ground even now, waiting for the slightest touch. How at one stage there were 400 flights a day leaving from America’s secret air base in Laos making it the busiest airstrip in the world. How these flights were run by a private company – Air America – that was, in fact, owned by the CIA. How ‘soft rice’ meant actual rice and ‘hard rice’ meant ammunition. How Air America was helping with the export of heroin to Vietnam. As I watch all this, I can’t help but think of the drones flying overhead in Pakistan and the bombing going on there. My mind also drifts to Iraq and the involvement of corporations there.
Its strange how quickly things change. When I arrived in Phonsavan, I was sent to see the Plain of Jars – giant stone jars that are 2500 years old, their origins a mystery. Now all I can think about are the planes flying overhead, dropping bombs throughout the countryside. Moreover, as the film in front continues, I learn that Phonsavan as a town only existed post-Vietnam War. The original town lies 30-odd km south, but was destroyed by a US bombing spree. I can’t help but think that as mysterious as the origins of the Plain of Jars is, and as much as the tourists want to see and understand them, the real desire is for people to understand this ongoing history of the town, region and country.
This idea is reinforced when I go next door for dinner at the worryingly named Craters, where there are large bombs out the front and where, after eating dinner, I watch a movie about the day-to-day impact the UXO (unexploded operatives) have in the region. I hear stories of people losing limbs or family members as they tried to clear land to plant crops. Or how in the past people scrounged for scrap metal and a little bit of extra money.
The next day our tour guide tells how his brother died when the bullock he was using to plow a field stepped on a UXO. He tells us this as we stand outside the tourist information centre, where surrounding buildings house thousands of bombs that have been cleared from the land. The guide then emphasises that nowadays, since the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and others started working in Laos and the economy has improved to the point that people no longer need to scrounge for scrap metal in order to survive, such incidents are declining.
He then shows us the spoons and bracelets being made from the reclaimed aluminum from the weapons. Later, he describes the villages that have built their houses on stilts made out of old bombshells. I am impressed by the ingenuity of the local villages to live off what is around them.
On our way to see them we witness one of the MAG teams in action. Metal detectors in hand, men and women scour inch by inch through red taped pathways covering the field on the hill. As I learn later, upon visiting the MAG office in Phonsavan, the land they scour is land that they want to make economically viable for local communities. The aim isn’t to clear the ‘most land’, but land that will help improve the lives of the Laotians as much as possible.
At site 1, I witness firsthand the damage that one of the bombs can cause. Next to the giant jars are craters 10-metres deep. The guide points out an abandoned Russian plane on the horizon, and a barracks that protected the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Looking at the barren landscape of the hills surrounding the Plain of Jars, I wonder how America couldn’t have succeeded in destroying the trail and barracks; it’s so open, after all. Only later do I learn that the barren hills are a result of Agent Orange being dropped in the region. Before then, the whole region surrounding the jars was forest. The devastation and impact of the bombing continues, and in multiple ways.
After the Plain of Jars we head to an old Buddhist statue in a cave. The cave was used by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War. As we work through it, past the statue and the locals giving gifts at the entrance, I realise how deep it is. Up above, we visit the hospital cave. To get there you have to climb a narrow path that hugs the ledge of the mountain. I imagine how difficult it would have been carrying an injured body up there. Given how many empty morphine vials there are, it’s an event that would have occurred thousands of times.
From there we walk through a village where the American-sponsored Laos Army and their air base lived. The airstrip is now part of the road, the barracks now a village. It’s the one the guide was talking about: steps, stilts, bases of walls and doors are all made from defused bombs.
At the end of the day, back in Phonsavan, I can’t help but sit and reflect on what I’ve seen and felt, on all those hidden histories that exist.