Friday, January 23, 2015

Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars: Bombs and Jars

From Luang Prabang, we headed southeast to Phonsavan, the base for exploring the mysterious Plain of Jars.  More on the Plain of Jars later because first we had to get there via southeast Asia’s always-entertaining mode of transportation: a local bus.  Having read various descriptions of this bus trip, some of which were horror stories describing winding roads and carsickness in cramped conditions, we were understandably a bit nervous.  Having also read that buses tend to break down, we wanted to – more than anything – prevent another FCE adventure.  However, when we arrived at the bus station, the bus to Phonsavan turned out to be a “VIP Bus” instead of a traditional regional bus, and more than large enough for the assembled passengers.  We didn’t just each get our own seat – we actually got our own bed!  Yes, for some reason we ended up on a sleeper bus in the middle of the day.

We settled in to our “bed” to watch Breaking Bad and read, ignoring the precipitous drops down the mountainside, the constant stench of feet (they made everyone take off their shoes prior to boarding the bus), and the repeated near-crashes with trucks, motor scooters, and livestock. We also ignored the Laotian woman two rows behind us who was carsick the entire time; we had read that the Lao people are particularly susceptible to carsickness, but were not sure whether that was really true – we now are.  Our bus never broke down, although we did stop several times to pour cold water over the engine when it overheated.  We have no idea how people actually take these buses at night and sleep in them comfortably, but we were content with our mode of transport for the day.

In Phonsavan, we had just one day to explore the enigmatic Plain of Jars.  If you’re wondering what exactly the Plain of Jars is, it’s pretty much what it sounds like – a grouping of giant stone jars in the middle of nowhere.  These ancient jars are actually found scattered throughout this region of Laos (and a few other parts of Asia), but we were only visiting the three jar sites located an easy drive from Phonsavan.

There are various theories attempting to explain the origin of the jars.  For example, local legends describe the jars as being used to hold rice wine – the massive vessels were used to drink in celebration of an impressive military victory.  A French archaeologist devoted years of her life to studying the jars, in the end hypothesizing that evidence of cremation in the jars demonstrated that they were used for burial purposes.  More recent research supports the hypothesis that the jars were used for funerary purposes, although there are still plenty of unanswered questions.

Whatever the explanation, we enjoyed exploring the three main jar sites surrounding Phonsavan.  After being quoted a price of over 1 million kip for a minivan tour with a guide (not as much money as it sounds like, but about a week’s budget in Laos), we opted to rent a motor scooter instead (a steal at 70,000 kip).  Our Chinese knockoff of a Japanese Honda Wave worked as well as can be expected and we were able to see all of the nearby megalithic stone vessels.  There were hardly any other tourists, so we spent the day wandering through each of the jar sites, poking our heads into the giant stones, and trying to ascertain exactly how heavy they were.  It turns out they are very heavy.  At the third jar site, we also wandered through various rice paddies and had a stare down with a few resident cows.

During the course of our visit, Giorgio proffered his own explanations for the jars, suggesting first that someone just put them all there to confuse later generations (in which case they succeeded) and suggesting second that they were part of a massive game of hide and seek.  Although the jars certainly aren’t a monumental construction on the order of some of the other ruins we have visited, such as the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or even Wat Phou in southern Laos, we enjoyed puzzling over their origins and roaming through the various jar sites.

We tried to see a few other sites in the countryside besides the jars, but were unsuccessful.  After following several signs pointing us to a waterfall, all we found was a large, but empty, construction site.  The silence was eerie and we found no evidence of any waterfalls.  Our current working theory is that the construction has partially rerouted the river, causing what may have previously been a beautiful waterfall to dry up.  Our map also indicated that we could see a rusting Russian army tank just off our route, but as we were more focused on dodging giant construction trucks, we never found that either.

The Plain of Jars enjoys notoriety not just for its perplexing stones, but also for the area’s ubiquitous bomb craters and unexploded ordnance (UXO).  The region was heavily bombed by the US from 1964 – 1973, a period known as the Secret War because the bombing was carried unbeknownst to either the general US population or Congress.  Under the instruction and supervision of the CIA, the US Air Force and Air America (an airline covertly owned by the Government which only posed as a civilian air carrier) dropped an immense quantity of bombs on the comparatively small nation of Laos.  The purpose of these air strikes was to aid the Royal Lao Army in their civil war against the Pathet Lao (the Lao communist party) and to disrupt the flow of arms to and from South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  During this time period, Laos gained the dubious distinction of becoming the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history.  The US dropped over two million tons of ordnance on Laos – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years and exceeding the tonnage of bombs dropped by the US in Germany and Japan for the entirety of WWII. 

As Giorgio has already pointed out, Laos is communist, so the air campaign clearly failed to stamp out communism.  Furthermore, bombs were dropped indiscriminately throughout the countryside, destroying far more villages and farms than communists.  We saw evidence of the damage first hand – Site 1 was riddled with immense bomb craters.  We found the destruction to be even more shocking when we learned that many of the bombs were entirely unnecessary.  Pilots that for whatever reason couldn’t reach their original targets in North Vietnam needed to get rid of the bombs before landing back at the base in Thailand.  The solution?  Just drop them on Laos.

The devastating effects of the Secret War continue to this day due to the high levels of UXO throughout Laos.  The area around Phonsavan is riddled with UXO.  The Plain of Jars sites that are open for visitors have been cleared of UXO as part of the process required to gain UNESCO status.  Helpful signs explain how much UXO was cleared and colorful stone markers designate the path for visitors to follow; the areas outside the path have only had surface UXO cleared and you may still be in danger of blowing up.  There are dozens of jar sites that have yet to be cleared.

More importantly, UXO can be found everywhere – farmers’ fields, village streets, the jungle, and school playgrounds.  The majority of ordnance dropped on Laos consisted of cluster bombs.  Inside each cluster bomb are hundreds to thousands of smaller bombs, which are then activated by motion and are meant to detonate as they reach the ground.  Studies suggest, however, that up to 30% of the bombs dropped over Laos failed to detonate and are thus scattered across the country.  The locals call these “bombies” and the undetonated explosives continue to cause massive casualties in Laos, decades after the war.  Faced with the choice of plowing UXO-contaminated fields or leaving them fallow, many families choose the more dangerous option to ensure there is enough rice to feed their families for the year.  Critics have long pointed out the immediate risks to civilians associated with cluster munitions as well as the long-term, unintended consequences of such bombs.  Upon explosion, "bombies" shoot thousands of shards of metal in every direction like bullets; coupled with the large percentage of the explosives that fail to detonate until much later, they are the perfect recipe for massive civilian casualties.

We visited the offices of MAG (Mines Advisory Group), a UK-based NGO that works with local communities to clear UXO and educate people about the dangers of the bombies.  (Many children think the small brightly colored explosive devices look like interesting toys, or a tasty fruit.)  The exhibits in the small museum along with the afternoon movie showing we attended certainly provided much-needed context to the bomb craters at the jar sites, large cluster bomb casings found around town, and UXO warnings we’d seen at all the jar sites.  Several days later, Giorgio is still asking why he never studied anything about the Secret War when the class was discussing the war in Vietnam.         

After our day of touring the Plain of Jars, we steeled ourselves for the lengthy trip south to Vang Vieng.  Instead of a “luxury” sleeper bus, we travelled via minibus, which is essentially a minivan crammed with as many people as possible.  Although there is less space on a minibus, these vehicles drive much faster than the larger buses, cutting at least an hour off our trip.  When we purchased the ticket at a travel agency on the main street of Phonsavan, we knew that the claim that there would only be six other people on the minibus was too good to be true.  Sure enough, when we arrived at the bus station Tuesday morning, we were passengers #11 and #12.  Since there were only eleven seats available (one of which was a third seat in the front seat with the driver), we wondered where we would be sitting – would Stephanie be on Giorgio’s lap the whole way so we could really bond?

After much hemming and hawing, one of the passengers decided to board a different minibus and we were off, each in our own seat, along the windy roads to Vang Vieng.  In case anyone was wondering, the roads seemed even windier on the return trip – probably because we were driving twice as fast!

Fortunately, we arrived in the small riverside town of Vang Vieng unscathed.  Details of our tubing and spelunking adventures to come!


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