Journey into the Heartland - Essay on the Archeology, History, and Revival of Laos
Written and photographed by Xaixana Champanakone
Part Two: The Secret War and the Plain of Jars
“Who controls the Plain of Jars controls Indochina” (quote assigned to Genghis Khan, an early intruder). That explains the ferocious, in this case clandestine, battle for this vast piece of real estate, and the UXO – unexploded ordnances left behind, killing and maiming villagers to this day.
At the end of this Secret War in Laos, the New York Times observed in 1973 that “some 350,000 men, women and children have been killed and a tenth of the population of three million uprooted.”
From 1964 to 1973 Laos was a battlefield that served as a hidden sideshow to the ‘real’ war in Vietnam which enjoyed enormous TV coverage; progress was measured by daily body-counts. Both the USA and North Vietnam acted in direct contravention of the Geneva Accord of 1962, which recognized the neutrality of Laos and forbade the presence of all foreign military personnel. The war was so secret that the name of the country was banished from all communications; the war that wasn’t.
To evade the Geneva agreement CIA agents were placed in foreign aid posts and airforce officers were converted into civil pilots who made up the infamous Air America (the opium smuggled out of Laos surfaced in Saigon as heroin to poison the GI kids). These ‘civilians’, propping up a very reluctant and deeply divided Royal Lao (central) Government from their military bases in Thailand, had their ‘commercial airline’ carry out massive bombing raids targeting the entire countryside in support of their ethnic auxiliary troops, most of them Hmong. It was this ragtag outfit that did the fighting on the ground against the Pathet Lao for their paymasters in the sky. And so it came about that they waged war against their own people, those among them who had chosen to join the Pathet Lao. These raids were later followed by fighter jets that focused on towns and villages all over. It became a free-fire zone for those patrolling the skies to vent their anger. Observing the uselessness of their technical all-mightiness they targeted the civilian population out of spite to alleviate their frustrations: the losers’ vengeful policy of Scorched and Poisoned Earth.
In addition, saturation bombing against Pathet Lao strongholds was carried out, to no avail. Late in the war they even dropped ‘hot soup’ - that is, napalm - on enemy positions, rolling barrels out of the rear of their planes. By 1973 every town in Xieng Khouang had been completely destroyed, like Muang Khoun. Most of the population had fled and lived a subterranean existence in tunnels and caves like Tham Phiu (we shall visit both locations), or had been removed forcibly to deprive the other side of valuable manpower.
What was the strategic value of indiscriminately bombing one of the poorest countries in the world, mostly inhabited by subsistence farmers and their domestic animals?
Everywhere we travel the ambulance-white MAG (Mine Advisory Group) trucks stick out like sore thumbs. Mine clearing has been carried out uninterrupted for the past 27 years, yet there is no end in sight, no end for the population at large living in fear, no end to limbs being blown off:
- Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. With more than 580,000 bombing missions, one every eight minutes for nine years, over 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 – roughly 10 tons of bombs for every square kilometer, or more than half a ton for every man, woman and child.
- Cluster submunitions or ‘bombies’ are the most common form of UXO remaining. More than 270 million of those were dropped saturating the country’s eastern regions, from north to south. Thirty percent failed to detonate leaving 90,000 of them ‘live’ in the ground.
- Some 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents during the post‐war period from 1974 ‐ 2008.
In addition, large tracts of land retain to this day high levels of acidity because defoliants and herbicides (collectively known to the locals as ‘yellow rain’ for their distinctive colour) were also sprayed across forests, fields and grazing grounds, poisoning crops and cattle, and rendering the water system unusable even for irrigation.
MAG is an international humanitarian organization and UXO-Lao is a government agency charged with cleaning up the infested countryside, thousands and thousands of square kilometers across mountains, valleys, paddy fields, villages and destroyed towns. Remnants are everywhere, wherever you track in the jungle, walk along the fields, plow the soil, dig a hole - everywhere. Watch your step when you visit the Jar sites, the de-mined footpaths are clearly indicated by white marker stones. Do not step across!
Even to you, the tourist today, these marker stones serve as an omnipresent reminder of the horror dropped from the sky onto a civilian population who only want to sow and harvest their fields to live. You, the tourist, go home, the locals remain here to cope, every day, today.
This shameful ‘war of hear-say’, here we have the secret in full view, naked, exposed - stand accused, repent. NO, the horror continues unabated to this day, only the theatre has moved location; other peoples are now fed to the same war machine.
We leave the asphalt road halfway to Muang Khoun and turn west onto a well maintained dirt road that leads to the Plain of Jars, sites 2 & 3. We continue on our way for another 20 – 30 km to reach the War Spoon Village of Ban Napia. The track takes us deep into the undulating countryside, patched with paddy fields and their straight lines of young rice shoots planted in precise intervals, millions of rows, back-breaking labour. Adjoining meadows climb up to reach the dark green pine forests of the hills. We are passing through lovely villages with people going about life in peace; at least in the villages safety has returned. In Ban Napia the artisans have perfected simple smelters to melt down the aluminum aviation fuel tanks which were dropped after a completed bombing run. As a new form of cottage industry this material is then formed into spoons which are widely used in restaurants in Phonsavanh. In June (planting season) and October (harvesting season) you won’t find anybody around because all hands are needed in the fields but this trip into deep country is beautiful at any time.
We turn back to visit the Jars at site 2. All the numerous Plain of Jars sites are listed for nomination as another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Laos … BUT do not expect Stonehenge!
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape. Scattered across the Xieng Khouang plateau are thousands of massive stone jars. They appear in clusters from a few to several hundred at the lower foothills surrounding the central plain and upland valleys. Initial research in the early 1930s suggested that they are associated with prehistoric burial practices. Later excavation has supported this interpretation with the discovery of human remains, burial goods and ceramics. The Plain of Jars Civilisation is dated to the Iron Age (500 BCE to 500 CE) and is one of the most fascinating and important sites for studying Southeast Asian prehistory. It has the potential to shed light on the relationship between increasingly complex societies and megalithic structures and to provide insight into the social organisation of Southeast Asia’s Iron Age communities.
The origin and purpose of these Jars is ultimately shrouded in mystery, and may remain so, as perhaps it should. There is more, something other than their history or origin to capture your imagination.
Leave site 1 to the tourist hordes. Choose a late afternoon to visit site 2. Should you still see tourists disturbing the peace of the place, don’t bother to approach any further; they’ll soon be gone with dinnertime beckoning. Their endless chattering would have shattered the solitude necessary to understand the place. If you are with friends kindly ask them for their understanding to keep quiet throughout your visit or else your entire effort to have finally reached the Jars after a long day’s ride winding around and across endless mountains on the road from Viangchan will be utterly wasted.
With silence you can escape the here-and-now, the visual banality of the Jars; beyond their physical shape they transcend time and space. The approaching dusk will veil the Jars with mystique that will reveal to you the mystery of their location, the deep spirituality of this place – communion with the Ancients.
Not for you to shout the often heard complaint “WHAT? That’s IT?!” Yes, that’s it! Visually that’s all the plains have to offer. It is up to you to find enlightenment, peace and joy in their spirituality, in the metaphor. Go find out. Silence …
… and a moment of quiet reflection for these people here, on this plateau, who were made to walk through hell; it’s living history to them - repeated elsewhere today.