Plain of Jars: Xieng Khouang, Laos

When life hands you bombs

Here lies Allison Declercq-Matthas, the Canadian too stupid to stay within the safe-path markers. The thought coursed through my mind, ricocheting back and forth. Tentatively lowering my foot toward the next narrow patch of packed earth I cursed my curiosity. Other tourists milled about at the bottom of the hill, a colony of colourful carefree ants marching from jar to jar. I pictured how, for a split second, they would collectively duck and snap their eyes in the direction of my explosive end, then scatter like frightened doves. They’d have an inkling of what happened, and perhaps know that they were safe, but they’d run away just the same.

Then, after they’d fled and their cries had bled away, peace would settle in. A silence—absent from the plain since the years following American planes littering the area with bombs—would blanket my grave.

And that’s when my nerve ran out. With an about-face that would have inspired even the strictest of sergeants I began to creep back to the embedded stones marking the main path at Site 1 of the Plain of Jars.

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Of course the main path doesn’t make a lot of sense because only the white side is supposed to be safe…

I’d arrived in the Xieng Khouang province near Phonsavanh the day before at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m.

My first bleary glimpse had been a wall of mist through the bus window. The music that had thundered me to sleep was still blaring from the speakers. At the front the driver hunched forward like a mad musician pounding away at his grand organ under the dim lights of inner discord. As we sped through the fog on the serpentine road he swayed from side to side to spin the enormous steering wheel.

When the wheels finally spun to a stop at the terminal in Phonsavan I thanked my lucky stars and fled the bus. The sun was just beginning to pierce through the haze as I hiked into town.

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The crisp morning air bit at my nose and I blissfully basked in its icy breath. I had started to feel a kinship to steamed broccoli in Thailand’s soaring May temperatures so this, this was heaven.

Around me the town began to crop up: home businesses here, farmers rumbling to work there and guesthouse signs beckoning from every street. It’s hard to believe that less than a lifetime ago this area was bombed into pieces.

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Where the Bombs Came From

The province was supposed to have been the most heavily bombarded area in the world after the Second Indochina War ended in 1975 (The Vietnam War according to Westerners and the American War according to the Vietnamese).

The ironic thing is that Laos was declared neutral by the Geneva Accords of 1962 and off-limits to foreign interference. Three princes, Prince Souvanna Phouma from the neutralists, Prince Souphanouvong from the Patriotic Front of Laos (Neo Lao Hak Yat), and Prince Boun Oum and General Phoumi Nosavan from the rightist grouping were chosen to represent the different sides of earlier Laos conflict.

Peace was called for and agreed upon.

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Then, and this various according to historical accounts, someone/everyone didn’t keep their promise and the two sides of the Vietnam War responded with violence.

The most widely regarded story is that the North Vietnamese—with the help of the Pathet Laos (a communist movement and organization in Laos)—broke their promise by keeping and expanding their troop numbers in Laos. So the Americans sent planes from Thailand to beat down the offending troops. They called the American aerial presence reconnaissance missions only.

However on the other end of global perspective, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1979 stated that the Americans violated the Geneva Agreements by aiding the right-wing groups of the country in undermining the political circle created by the Geneva Agreements.

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John Prados, an American historian, author and analyst of national security in Washington wrote that both sides ignored the stipulations of the Geneva Accord one-way or another.

One thing is agreed upon though, and it is that both the Americans and the North Vietnamese continued to use the Geneva Accord to hide the “secret war” of Laos.

And so history unfolded. Or rather unraveled.

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 A Shroud of Bombs

Bombs rained from the sky and turned the Plain of Jars into the Plain of Scars. Today very little is known about the mysterious arrays of massive stone jars found across the northern provinces of Laos.

As the Plain of Jars sites become more accessible the province is using their mystery to draw tourists to the region. One can’t help but be curious about these Iron Age artifacts because of the odd stories surrounding their origin.

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Local legend tells that a good king named Khun Jeuam decided to hold a feast to celebrate his victory over an evil king called Chao Angka. Khun Jeuam ordered the construction of the massive stone jars to make and store alcohol for the celebration.

Another suggestion was that the jars were built to collect monsoon water so caravan travellers could find easy water. The water could be boiled if it was stagnant. Travellers may have left beads inside as offerings when they prayed for rain.

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The final and most supported theory is that the stone jars were associated with burial practices.

At some point it may have been customary to place the bodies of the dead inside these jars so the body could dry out. Then the body would be cremated and buried.

Over time however, the tradition may have changed to cremating the body first and then placing the ashes in the jars where bone, teeth and bead fragments would later be found by French archaeologist Madeleine Colani in the early 1930s. The jars shrinking in size over time support this theory.

More graves have been discovered buried around the stone jars with the remains within lacking signs of cremation. It is not known why they were not cremated.

Laos Road Trip-40If these jars were indeed used to store wine then water then bodies it seems the adaptive spirit of the region is still very much alive in the people residing there today.

In 2004 to 2005 the UK-based Mines Advisor Group (MAG) worked to clear the three main jar sites of undetonated bombs or unexploded ordinances (UXOs). They continue to have a big hand in helping Laos begin cleaning up the more than 80 million undetonated cluster submunitions in the country.

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Breaking Free

With the cleanup comes another attempt at prosperity. While I was travelling through northern Laos I saw countless construction sites and signs of renovations.

People have adapted and even found uses for the endless heaps of scrap metal from the war. Some people decorate their homes or restaurants with defused bombs. Some use the casings to make stilts and fences. I think the greatest testament to the modern ingenuity of the region is the spoons, necklaces and bracelets the locals have made from melted-down bombs.

They were given weapons and they turned them into art. It makes my heart glow picturing an American tourist travelling home with a keychain clipped to his or her bag. It’s dull silver is moulded into the shape of the national flower of Laos and a long slender leaf. The two shapes clink merrily as they jostle together, no longer a threat if pressure is applied and no longer part of the death machines still littering a land that’s doing its best to move on.

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