Where There’s a Pine Tree, There’s a Crater

It was a hard lesson to learn as I stared at the thousands of pine tress in front of me, but it’s definitely one I needed to be taught. No one talks about the things that were done to Laos during the secret war, especially not in the United States, but that doesn’t make it any less real. As an American, I felt ashamed to be standing beside the crater left by a 1,200 lb. bomb while staring out at the mess my country had left behind. I had expected this section of my trip to appear while I was in Vietnam, but here I was in Phonsavan, Laos being shown the reality of war. It was all around me. Hanging on walls, used as planters, and even marking the entrances to cafe’s. The remnants of war were just as much a part of life in this part of Laos as Buddhism.

It’s been about 45 years since the war ended, and not only is the country still riddled with craters, it’s also full of active bombs. Millions of cluster bombs, referred to locally as bombies, didn’t explode on impact and are still buried beneath the ground, just as active as the day they were dropped. I asked my guide why the trees have been left to continue to take over the land, and his simple reply was fear. The locals are too afraid to enter the woods out of fear of death or severe injury by the bombs they know are buried beneath. Still, despite this fear, some of the pine trees have been used for building material. The locals will only cut the trees a few feet above the roots, making sure them and their materials don’t touch the ground, and they always make sure the tree falls away from the forest to avoid any incidents.

With the smell of pine in the air, and a heavy heart, my tour around Phonsavan continued. Our next destination was a Hmong village nearby which is famous for their use of bombs as building materials. Before the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) began cleaning up small villages and farm land in Northern Laos and educating the locals about the dangers of the unexploded ordinances (UXO) known as bombies, this village was also widely known in tourist circles for the piles of bombs lying around waiting to be sold for scrap. This is no longer the case, but it was incredibly interesting to see the mixture of old and new, war and peace as I was shown around a small section of the village.

During the 20 or so minutes we spent there, I encountered an interesting mix of things. First there was the poor monkey tied to the leg of some structure, waiting to be eaten or traded for some good or another. Don’t be fooled by his cute face. He was vicious and attempted to attack me at one point. Just next door to where the monkey was tied up, there was a home being constructed of pine and metal, so the smell from earlier that morning was haunting me once again. It wasn’t a traditional house, but a newer version modified to fit the changing way of life in the village, and wasn’t nearly as simple or beautiful as the homes with thatched roofs and bamboo walls scattered about. There were many small gardens full of crops, pigs, chickens, and occasionally pigeon coops constructed with bombs as their supports. Apparently pigeon is a delicacy to them, so all the coops we passed were packed with birds not smart enough to realize their fates.

From here, we headed back into town for some lunch before beginning the afternoon section of my tour. Our first stop was Plain of Jars site 1, where I was told the long-held theory about the mysterious stone jars having been used for burial purposes. The truth is, no one actually knows why the jars were created or why there are multiple sites scattered around Laos. Site 1 is the largest and easiest location to access. Some places still have yet to be cleared by MAG for tourism, as like most places in Laos, they too were bombed during the secret war.

Even here I couldn’t escape the war from years past as craters, trench lines, and MAG plaques dotted the area. Despite all of this, the Plain of Jars was an incredibly cool place to visit, and outside of a handful of locals I had the place all to myself. Sometimes there’s a silver lining to traveling during low tourist season. The downfall this time of year in SE Asia is the fact that its rainy season, and no sooner than I had finished walking around it began to pour. I spent a good 30 minutes waiting out the rain with my guide and a nice lady who offered me some sour mango to eat. When the rain finally died down we were off again towards our next destination, only to be thwarted along the way a mere 5 minutes later by another long stretch of torrential downpour.

Eventually we were able to leave, and began our journey to the old city. Along the way I saw a rice field with 2 sections marked off with red tape and leaned forward on the bike to ask my guide what it was. He told me that the area was most likely marked off by MAG after bombs had been found while someone was plowing their field, and that the red tape was there to remind the farmers to stay away until a crew could come back to detonate the bombs safely. For me, the sight and explanation were as foreign as… well I was in Laos… but for him the sight was as normal as the rice field itself. It seemed like I was never going to escape war in this section of the country, and arriving at the old city just brought with it a larger view of that reality.

I was first shown the only surviving Buddha image that had been partially damaged during the war while most everything around it was decimated. It wore its scars proudly sitting amongst the wreckage of an old temple while monks worked the surrounding land. It was both beautiful and eerie at the same time as dark clouds began to fill the sky casting shadows across the land. Across the street stood the remains of an old French hospital which I was allowed to wander around in for a few minutes before heading on to the famous Stupa which has survived multiple wars and somehow wasn’t damaged during the secret war despite sitting a feet away from an area that was flattened.

I spent a little while here waiting for my guide in a small hut with 2 women, one of whom handed me a banana to eat while I watched the second weave a scarf on a loom. It had been such an interesting mix of a day, and as we began our drive back towards Phonsavan I was experiencing a mixture of emotions. No sooner than we left, we were once again caught in a downpour. This one left us stranded at a gas station and lasted quite a bit longer than the previous ones had. As the gas station began to flood, a group of ducklings appeared and began splashing and bathing in the water. It was such a refreshing and adorable sight that I couldn’t help but feel light-hearted and forget about the semi-depressing day I was having.

When the rain subsided the world seemed clear and fresh, and the most perfect rainbow appeared in the sky. As we drove through the country side, I felt like nothing could ruin the beauty of the scenery around me. You can imagine how startled I was when the sound of an explosion echoed through the still air and chilled me to the core. I quickly asked my guide about the noise, to which he replied: it was a bomb. I couldn’t help but feel both disturbed and fulfilled as we continued to speed along as though nothing had happened. On the one hand experiencing my first bomb explosion is a moment I will never forget and hoped to never experience, and on the other, the true reality of life in Laos had come full circle as I understood one final time how my country had destroyed all the beauty surrounding me.

Total: 550,000 Kip or $71.80 for my private tour, entry fees, food, drinks, and accommodation

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