Phonsavan, Laos

Phonsavan, Laos — small town of Xiengkouang Province with residents who own hotels, restaurants, and businesses. Some residents are farmers, teachers, and apprentices. The town’s central road is lined with auto parts stores and repair shops servicing the big rigs, trucks, and vans bound for the dusty distance. Cheap and delicious bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwich) made with fresh baked bread is available near the long-distance bus station.

Plain of Jars — where enigmatic past meets ever-changing present. Thousands of Iron Age stone jars dot the landscape just as bomb craters and trenches mar it. If it was a community of giants that made the jars or if the jars were fired in a nearby cave (kiln) or both, scholars haven’t yet decided.¹ The Plain is surreal in its beauty: an endless parade of dreamlike clouds float above the thin dirt paths and hazy hills. Sparse, knotted trees and goldenrod low-brush complete the scene.

UXO — unexploded ordnance. That is: bombs, cluster munitions, shells/artillery projectiles, grenades, missiles, etc. that “did not explode when they were fired or dropped and still pose a risk of detonation, even many decades after they were used or discarded.”² Countless of these deadly weapons still linger in the towns and fields where they fell, left to decay and maim innocent people. Unexploded ordnance is the traumatizing legacy of American bombing raids during the CIA’s Secret War.

Amputated limbs and mangled bodies and literally millions of bombs indelibly and profoundly scarring the landscape might not be the first things one thinks of when visiting this place. After all, Phonsavan is surrounded by slow hills and plains that hyper-contrast the pastel blue sky. The plains are captivating. They defy definition.

But clouds as thick as memory pass overhead; many farmers in Laos continue to work in the same fields where bombs crippled them and blinded their children.

The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO LAO) and Mines Advisory Group (MAG) work to make it possible for locals to live on their land safely. As of 2016, UXO LAO has removed over 1.4 million UXOs throughout the country and MAG has cleared 47 million square meters of cluster munitions and other ordnance leftover from US bombing during the Secret War. MAG estimates it has helped over one million people directly.

The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (more commonly known by its acronym, COPE) and its medical partners do incredible work custom-making prosthetic limbs for victims of unexploded ordnance. The COPE Visitor Center in Vientiane is a worthwhile visit with thoughtful exhibits and excellent informational videos about the ongoing UXO problem in Laos. The Center hosted President Obama during his visit to the country in September 2016.

In a country characterized by its confluence of plains, hills, rivers, and peoples, the Plain of Jars is particularly striking. Parts of Laotian legend persist in these monolith vessels. Despite the place’s undeniable beauty, however, I wish I had been more cognizant of the UXO issue when I visited. Laos has the unfortunate title of being the most bombed country in the world per capita,³ but I was too enraptured by the dream of being there that I forgot about the nightmare that so clearly lingers.

Ignorance has the same effect as negligence, and I’m sorry about that.

Given the history of US military involvement in this region and my particular history as a white man from the West, I intend to be more purposeful in my actions as a traveler. For me, that starts with returning the things that were unfairly given to me back to my neighbors. If you have the means, please join me in honoring victims of war by acting with intention and making a small donation to UXO LAO, MAG America, or COPE.

Thank you for your support.

Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai while studying Mandarin and teaching English. He moved home to continue writing and working and then relocated to Berlin to daydream about last summer.