Tag Archives: northern laos

Aftermath…America’s Secret War in Laos

Photo:Phil Borges

It’s hard to believe when you are in the mountains of Laos or cruising on the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers that this beautiful country was anything other than peaceful and is the most heavily bombed country in the world. If one digs a little deeper, or spends some time in the countryside, it’s recent tragic past will start to uncover. You will start to notice flower containers, water pots, benches, and household items made from old bomb casings. Take a close up look and you will see “United States” and a year (usually 1968 or 1969) engraved on the rusting metal casing. The most obvious question is “weren’t we at war with Vietnam?”.

Recycled Bomb Casings

Due to Laos’s unfortunate location next to Vietnam it got pulled into the debacle of the Vietnam war, even though it was a neutral country. Communist leaders in both Vietnam and Laos infiltrated the countryside and built a huge road linking China with Vietnam called the Ho Chi Minh trail. The trail went right through Laos and enabled the Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese army to transport soldiers, food, ammunitions, and basically anything it wanted to its troops. In a climate of eroding public confidence with the Vietnam war, the United States government feared that if the American public found out it was bombing a peaceful country like Laos, it would be the last straw, and public opinion would shift heavily against the war. It was decided that bombing would remain essentially a secret until it was uncovered in 1970.

Unexploded bomblet used as a candle holder

Between 1964 and 1973 the United States flew 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, thats one for every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 straight years! 30% of those bombs failed to detonate and over 50,000 people have been killed or permanently injured as a result of Unexploded Ordinances (UXO). 40% have been children.

25% of the villages in Laos are still contaminated by UXO and hiking on anything other than well marked paths can be deadly. Villagers injure or kill themselves while farming, hiking, searching for scrap metal to sell, while children often find UXO and play with it unaware of its dangers. People are injured and killed every year by bombs that failed to explode over 40 years ago.

Recycled UXO Jewelry

It’s not all doom and gloom though, and we met some people that are doing great work, educating villagers on the dangers of UXO and clearing the countryside. The non-profits Mines Advisory Group and Legacies of War are doing wonderful work and we checked out a progressive museum called the COPE Museum in Vientiane, had some really well presented exhibits. COPE’s efforts is to provide prosthetic limbs to victims of the UXOs and teach them how to live, work, and function in a new way. They also educate villagers on how to avoid contact with UXOs. While in Vientianne we were able to buy bracelets made from UXOs by an organization that trains villagers how to safely recycle the scrap metal from bombs and cast it into jewelry and silverware….metamorphosis.

“122 Pounds-Loading Date 11-68”

America is the largest funder of the non-profits who work in Laos and rightfully so. The US Congress approved $9 million to be spent in 2012 for clearing UXO in Laos. In January a Japanese made $1 million bomb clearing vehicle arrived in Laos ready to work. It is all so frustratingly backwards though, and it is obvious there was no forethought by the Generals who ordered these missions of the repercussions it would have on future generations. No matter how many millions of dollars the United States throws at the problem, they will never be able to undo the suffering caused.

Ben and Peter Kim

We met 19 year old Peter Kim at the COPE museum in Vientianne, who had lost both hands and his eyes and now works to educate local people on the dangers of UXOs and to raise awareness globally of this important issue. Since his injury he has taken up breakdancing and showed us a video of his performance at a benefit put on by COPE. He was friendly and charming even telling Shana how beautiful she was even though he is blind (-: We talked about our vastly different lives but still felt a bond between us. It brought up a lot of confused feelings for me. Here was an innocent person who happened to stumble upon something that our parent’s generation had dropped on his “neutral” country decades ago. Even though Shana or I didn’t have anything to do with the Vietnam War and its consequences, because it was done in our name, for our supposed “freedom”, it was hard not to feel guilty for the sins of our country. Peter however, showed no hint of animosity towards us Americans and we vowed to keep in touch. As I left the museum I was overwhelmed by feelings of anger and sadness at the sheer wrongness of it all…

Nothing could be done to make things better but at least there were a few good people like Peter Kim and the non-profits who were trying to right the wrongs made by previous generations and making sure they didn’t happen again.

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VIDEO: Glimpses of Laos

Northern Laos has some dramatically beautiful scenery and this video offers a glimpse into our trip up the Nam Ou river to Muang Ngoi Neau and Ban Na Village. ¬†Both are nestled between huge limestone karst mountains and our time there was the highlight of our trip to Laos…enjoy!

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PHOTOS-Laos…Jewel of the Mekong

Nong Khiaw, Laos

(CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO SEE OUR LAOS PHOTOS)

After nearly a week exploring Northern Thailand amid a cloud of smoke from the slash and burn agriculture we boarded a plane to Luang Prabang, Laos. We had hoped Laos would be a bit less hazy, but upon our descent into the airport it looked like it would be worse. Although disappointed by the lack of views that this country is known for, we were determined not to let that ruin our time here. I had visited Laos in 2005 and had fallen in love with the landscape, the people, and the slow pace of life, and was anxious to share it with Shana.
Luang Prabang is a special place, with the old city planted beside a bend in the Mekong River and emanating old world charm. You can see remnants of it’s French Colonial past in its architecture and riverside cafes where sipping a coffee and watching the river life pass by is a favorite pastime. We spent a few days exploring the temples and royal palace which has remained devoid of the Royal family since 1975 when the Communist Pathet Lao party ended the monarchy and sent them to work and eventually die in the fields.
We were eager to escape the agricultural smoke which enveloped the entire city, swallowed sunsets, rained ash over every surface and wreaked havoc on our eyes, nose, and throats (see our previous post on slash and burn air pollution).
Heading up the Nam Ou by riverboat is the only way to reach Muang Ngoi Neua as it has no road access. Watching the river life from the boat, it seems as if it has been frozen in time and not much has not changed in the past hundreds of years. Families cruise up and down the river and fishermen stand waist deep setting and checking their nets for a fresh catch.
Upon arriving, we were ecstatic that a heavy morning rain had cleared away the smoke and the air was cool and crisp with a mystical thin veil of fog hanging over the limestone mountains reminding us of Lord of the Rings Middle Earth.
Muang Ngoi used to be a regional center but was bombed off the map by America during the CIA’s “secret war” against Laos during the Vietnam war (more on that in an upcoming post). Unexploded bombs can still be seen in the village being used as flower pots and at our guesthouse as stairway banisters (see photo). Since then, the village re-established itself and was rediscovered by backpackers about 10 years ago and now sees a stream of travelers. Muang Ngoi is a great place to hike to reach off-the-beaten-path villages as there are no roads in the area and electricity is limited to 3 hours a day.
On our second day there, we set off to hike to a local village, Ban Na. A trail took us through rice paddies, passed by a cave that was used by locals and rebels during the war, and then past a traditional weaver from whom we bought a scarf. The trail arched over hillsides that gave us spectacular views of the valley and the majestic karsts looming overhead while also passing swaths of hillside that were still baren, black, and still smoking from the slash and burn practices. As we descended onto the floor of the valley and entered Ban Na village, Shana and I could only look at each other with childish grins on our faces as we were so blown away by the surroundings. We were the only non-villagers there so we respectfully and slowly started walking down the single lane of the village smiling at the locals who were very curious about us. Seven-inch long puppies flocked at our feet and we came across a group of young boys firing pellets out of skinny shafts of bamboo that popped like cap guns.
We had purchased a set of Laotian/English language children’s books at the non-profit Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang to hand out to villagers as they often don’t have the means or access to books. We handed some out and the boys were instantly enraptured by them. After enjoying the secluded atmosphere we headed back to Muang Ngoi Neau as the sun set and passed a large heard of cows who were on their way back home as well.
After another day soaking up the laid back atmosphere we headed back via riverboat to Luang Prabang and then spent a few days exploring the Capitol of Vientianne where we enjoyed an excellent authentic Italian meal and some delicious western dishes that helped nurse our cravings after a steady diet of local cuisine.
Laos is an incredible country, despite being one of the poorest in the world in the world and owning the dubious distinction of being the “most bombed country in the world”. The slowed pace of life, subtle French influence left over from it’s colonial past, and dramatically beautiful scenery truly bolster its claim to being the “Jewel of the Mekong”.

You can also check out a slideshow of our photos by clicking the photo below:

Laos
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