Weighing the Jarring History of Laos

phonsavanh, Laos – People mainly go to Phonsavanh for bombs and jars.

The first blitzed the area 30 years ago during the US air war on Laos. Today, villagers still haul bomb bits from their fields to sell in the markets. Craters pock the landscape. Live bombs lie strewn among cattle ranges and village hillsides. Kids still play catch with mini hand-held “bombis” and die; the government still sends deminers to explode live ordnance. And ingenious minds have turned bomb scraps into fences, bridges, house siding, planters, lamps, cigarette lighters—the stuff of everyday life.

The second appeared about 2,000 years ago—and that’s about all anyone knows. Some 300 stone vessels standing a meter or two tall, stud the Xiangkhoang Plateau, or Plain of Jars, a 40-minute plane ride northeast of Vientiane. The jars just sit here, in view of vibrant rice paddies, an air force base, barren red-earth bomb cavities and lowing cows with dinging cowbells.

You can’t visit this place for one reason without bumping into the other. A scrap metal shop—one of many—in the heart of Phon­savanh sells parts of cluster bombs, burned-out trucks, jet turbines and the like for about $.08 a kilogram. Many still carry readable stamps like “Dispenser aircraft. US Air Force container, Lanson Industries Inc.” Or, “Cyc­lotol—122 lbs. Loading date 7-69.” The Phonexay Restaurant across the street serves fried noodles with military spoons marked “US.” (For $1.25, a customer can take the spoon home.)

And everywhere, the legends of the Jars pervade the mind. Perhaps, archaeologists speculate, they once contained the ashes of by­gone generations. Or, perhaps—as locals like to surmise with smiles and chuckles—they brewed lao lao, a clear but sturdy sticky-rice wine that blazes the mouth, slithers down the throat and kicks the drinker in the pants. A quarter liter of the stuff in a plastic baggie—which sustains a party of two for an evening—goes for $.30 in the market.

An eclectic allure for a tourist town, to be sure. But the mysterious na­ture of the place keeps the curious coming.

“Many foreigners are interested in the Plain of Jars,” says Sevon, a driver for Mr Vieng Xay Plain of Jars Agency Travel. “I drive for tour­ists every day.”

Indeed he does, in an old black Russian sedan whose year and make neither he nor his translator, Bounnyot, knows. It gets around, but it’s not wily enough to trudge through the mudslide leading to the Jars Site 2 (there’s no particular order for seeing the sites). So visitors get out and meander through the rice-paddy trails and up a steep path to a vista overlooking green peaks and valleys, more jars and more craters. All is still, but for the pleasant hum of cowbells and flies, and a human hand swatting mosquitoes.

Perched atop a fallen jar here, one can’t help contemplating the shattered silence 30 years ago. Laos, in the minds of US leadership, had become a key supply route to the North Vietnamese. Lest the country should fall to communism, the superpower planned and executed a massive bombing raid that experts now sum up in numerous staggering ways: 2 million tons of explosives dropped, 580,000 bombing sorties flown, 300 kg of bombs dropped for every person in Laos, a bomb dropped every 8 minutes for nine years, 5 to 10 people yet killed each month by old explosives.

Souvanna Phonma, a Lao prince who later became premier, called it “the forgotten war.” In fact, it was an unknown war to the outside world—even to the Am­er­icans whose government perpetrated the raids. The US government denied for years any military activities in Laos.

But to the villagers populating this plateau, the war was real and vivid. The Plain of Jars, sometimes called “the most secret spot on earth,” riddled with limestone caves, was the communist Pathet Lao’s home base. It then became the primary US target.

In his 1995 memoir “In Retrospect,” former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara writes of the pressing fear that drove government officials to obliterate this clandestine spot before communism could consume Southeast Asia. “We received no thoughtful analysis of the problem and no pros and cons regarding alternative ways to deal with it,” he writes. “We were left only with the ominous prediction that if Laos were lost, all of Southeast Asia would fall.”

Vinh Thong, proprietor of Phonsavanh’s Van Nasinh guesthouse, boldly displays his memories of that era. He has garnished his grounds and lobby with a cache of bombis, shells, guns, mortars, a pith helmet, the sight of a Russian anti-aircraft gun. He regales visitors with the stories to fit.

He was born in Phonsavanh in 1956. In 1968, his family moved into “the cave,” Tham Phiu, a limestone cavity 33 km east of town where some 400 villagers hid during the height of the bombing season. They were the elusive, hunted Pathet Lao.

There, Vinh Thong stayed for a year. “If you go to the cave,” he says, “there are many, many bones. Many people did not have oxygen to breathe.” He later spent six years in Vietnam, then returned to Phonsavanh, where he opened his guesthouse in 1991. When tourists arrive now, he feeds them handmade maps of the area and a bombs-and-jars scrapbook of photos and news clippings about Phonsavanh’s claims to fame.

As Bounnyot, the 22-year-old guide and translator, heads to the Jars, he stops momentarily to point out a fencepost made from a cluster bomb, which burst open in the sky and scattered hundreds of smaller “bombis” across the region. He knows the stories well from his family, who had lived in Xieng Khoang, the old provincial capital, a ghost town since the raids. “During the Vietnam War,” Bounnyot says, “my father built a beautiful house, but it was broken by bombs. The whole village was destroyed. Two buffalo were killed. Dad’s buffalo was killed.”

What, then, do Lao people think of Americans today?

“Now, no problem,” he says with authority.

At Site 1, Bounnyot recalls playing hide-and-seek among the ruins. “When I was a little boy, I came here and I went into the jar, but my friend couldn’t see me.”

He also recalls his grandfather’s stories. “He says the people made the Jars to contain lao lao. But others say they are burial urns.”

Does Bounnyot think the Jars held the mighty wine?

“No,” he laughs, and then, “Well, maybe.”

Ironically enough, many of the Jars today are springs of life. Trees grow right through the centers of some; rosemary burgeons from others. A seemingly foreboding yellow-striped spider lurks inside one. And in some, tadpoles swim in pooled rainwater that also sustains a pesky population of mosquitoes.

At Site 3, Ko, a 9-year-old girl whose village, Xieng Dee, sits at the foot of the jar-studded hillside, says she doesn’t know much about the vessels, but she regularly plays among them. “I always come here with foreigners,” she says.

And then, as if on cue, an explosion sounds in the distance. Probably deminers detonating bombs, Bounnyot says, explaining that two years ago several Phonsavanh children were killed by the shiny intriguing toys they found on the ground, thus spurring an effort to rid the land of its dangers.

Ko says she has never seen a bomb, but she knows about them. “I have to be careful in the fields,” she says. “They are dangerous.”

She ends the conversation saying she wants to teach chemistry in Xieng Dee when she grows up. She gives visitors much to contemplate—war, death, innocence and dreams—on this serene but cryptic plateau.

Later that night, guests sip lao lao on the front porch of the guesthouse, watching a lightning storm roll through town, recalling the day’s tranquility among ancient ruins in quiet grasses.

A New Zealand helicopter pilot orders a BeerLao, the national beer, and joins the contemplative conversation.

He flies for the US military, searching for MIAs. He’s been here six years; he’ll likely stay for 10. It’s not an easy job. He once saw two boys—maybe 9 years old, the same as Ko—playing catch with a bombi across the street from him. It went off; they died.

Talk rambles on until the town generator retires at precisely 10:50 pm (The water supply trickles to a halt every now and then, too). For a few moments, before candles reignite the night, there is nothing but the explosive sound of thunder.

There is nothing but intermittent flashes that jar the black night sky.

 

 

 

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