Monday, December 23, 2013


Old bombs and weapons from the war are piled together in Phonsavan
I’m in the remote northern Laotian province of Xieng Khuang. The previous provincial capital here was bombed heavily during the war in the 60’s – 70’s. It was so completely destroyed, that afterwards the capital was relocated, to the small town of Phonsavan where I’ve just arrived. Most of what I'm seeing has been constructed in recent years. Driving down Phonsavan’s main street, I find most hotels have the most bizarre choice of decorations. Out in front of the various hotels and guesthouses, are old bombs, weapons, and other war refuse! They are displayed outside their front doors, and out in their gardens. 

Later, I will see them inside hotel lobbies, and even mounted on the walls of their restaurants. There are literally, tons and tons of old bombs sitting outside their doorways. They include the deadly little round bombies, grenades, mortar rounds and artillery shells. There is also a whole range of US made aircraft ordinance: 250 pounders, 500 pounders, 750 pounders. There is even a monstrous 1000 pound bomb. Strangely, this is the local way of attracting tourist business. 

Buddhist temple bell, made from old US bomb

Since the Plain of Jars that surrounds this town was the key to controlling northern Laos, the North Vietnamese Army fought the American backed Hmong forces tooth and nail all over this region for years. Control over this plateau changed several times during the course of the long war, and the high plain was heavily bombed from the air. Since not all bombs exploded, it left the landscape here littered with the dangerous refuse of unexploded ordinance, much like the Ho Chi Minh Trail that I had seen earlier. 

There are a number of NGOs and military teams that continue the long process of finding, disarming and disposing of old explosives in Laos. 

But there are also more than a few amateurs. As it turns out, some of the unexploded bombs on display in Laos have not yet been fully disarmed!

Case in point, was a 500 pound bomb that was recently bought by a Buddhist temple to the south. The monks wished to have the metal casing cut and hollowed out, to be refashioned into the temple’s bell. Fortunately, they had the good sense to have a competent disarmament group examine it first. Inside the old bomb, they found 9 pounds of explosive still packed in the nose! 

This example isn’t unique, since I had seen a similar bell in a cave temple near Vang Vieng. Made from a 750 pounder, half of it had been cut away, and red stripes painted across it. It was an odd looking bell, but if nobody had told you, you wouldn’t have guessed that it was once a deadly weapon. 

Two wrecked motorbikes in Phonsavan. Motorbike accidents are all too common in the region.
Well, Laotian monks certainly aren’t rich. It’s much cheaper for them to buy a bell made from an old bomb found locally, than it is for them to import a real bell cast from expensive bronze. 

Looking at all the old ordinance on display, I wonder if any of these old weapons that I see down the street still have explosive inside them. New bombs are being found across Laos all the time. 

As we arrive at my hotel, we come across the remains of a modern hazard, a road accident. Just yards from the hotel entrance, are two motorbikes laying on their sides out in the street. Bits of broken plastic lay scattered around them. It seems that the riders involved in this collision were already taken to the hospital, but the bikes were left where they fell, probably for police to investigate. Like elsewhere in Southeast Asia, there is a high accident rate for motorbikes in Laos. 

I check into my hotel and head upstairs to relax. There’s a great deal for me to see on the historic Plain of Jars. 

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