Friday, March 15, 2013

The secret history of Laos

Laos is one of those countries that you don't think much about. The only land-locked country in southeast Asia, it lies in the shadow of its much more famous neighbors: Thailand, which is known worldwide for its fantastic tourism infrastructure and beautiful beaches (among other things), Cambodia, with Angkor Wat, and Vietnam, which actually I don't know why it's more visited - maybe just famous because of the war? But Laos lies firmly on the "banana pancake trail," as the path of SE Asia backpackers is affectionately known, and that's how I ended up here. So many people told me how nice it was back when I was briefly on the trail in Vietnam, that I promised myself I'd come back and see if they were right.

Perhaps because my expectations were high, I was a little disappointed at first to find that the well-trodden path from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng to Vientiane has become so highly touristed that there are golf courses and resorts and everything is totally overpriced. Lao people are not particularly friendly, and neither are the folks traveling here. The hassle factor is zero, but it also means that sometimes it's near impossible to get where you want to go, and there is no negotiating on prices, so you just get gouged all the time. But just when I was about to give up on Laos, I remembered that travelers are sheep, and so all I had to do was leave that common route to find something a little more enticing.

Don't get me wrong - Luang Prabang is a lovely town. There are nice temples, lots of relaxing cafes, wifi everywhere, and the monks procession for alms at dawn is authentic, even if the aggressive tourists snapping photographs are not. Nong Mgoi Neua, a gorgeous trip up the river north of Luang Prabang, is for the most part a sleepy little town, and not too far of a walk outside of it you find relatively untouched villages with the traditional houses on stilts. In one of these villages I had the best noodle soup I've had in this country (not that this is saying much), made with ferns and other plants clearly just gathered from the forest.

But after that it got interesting. A bumpy 10 hour bus ride took me near to the Vietnamese border to the town of Sam Neua. Here the market was probably the most difficult to bear of any I've seen anywhere. Banana leaves filled with still-alive insects and various other creepy-crawlies (most with their legs torn off by the vendor so they couldn't escape), small pigs shoved inside bamboo baskets so small they couldn't move, and then slaughtered, screaming, right in front of me, rats, dogs, forest animals, frogs, and various other smelly river creatures were on display, making me not so interested in eating anything other than sticky rice from then on (and reminding me that Laos isn't quite so developed as Luang Prabang would have you believe). In Phonsavan I visited the Plain of Jars, vast fields of huge jars with unknown origin or use, thought to be 2500 years old, and a silkworm farm, where for the first time I saw up close and personal how silk is made. The worms are huge and make a lot of noise eating their mulberry leaves, and although 80% of the larvae are sacrificed to make the silk, they are sold at market and eaten, so they don't go to waste.

But the history lesson was the most interesting part of my visit to Laos. Outside of Sam Neua in nearby Viang Xai, thousands of Lao people sheltered in a vast network of caves in the mountainside during the Vietnam War, and many of them were killed. I knew a little about the atrocities in Vietnam, and of course I've heard about those in Cambodia, but I felt pretty ignorant when I found out that Laos is actually the most heavily bombed country (per capita) in the history of the world. During the "secret war" on Laos, which went on in parallel to that in Vietnam, the United States essentially perpetrated a genocide on the ethnic people in Laos, vaporizing whole villages with intense bombing campaigns. Most of this was run by the CIA, sometimes even without the knowledge of most of our government, let alone the American people. More bombs were dropped on Laos in that period than on Germany and Japan during all of WWII. The extent of it is just mind-boggling.

And what's more, the targets were civilians. One captured pilot apparently told his Lao captors that his orders were simply to look for ducks and chickens (ie, signs of life) and just drop bombs on them. After that, all white or red poultry were killed to avoid detection. Many bombs were dropped because the planes had been destined for Vietnam but were unable to reach their target, and rather than risk landing with bombs on the plane, they just dropped them on Lao people. Even worse, what they dropped were cluster bombs, which are big bombs that open in the air to release hundreds of tiny bombs. Many detonate on impact, but as many as 30% landed somewhere and just waited for someone to come along hoeing their field, then blew them to pieces. Some estimates are that 20,000 people have died since the war ended, killed by these "bombies." What's even worse is that these bombs, which are clearly meant to kill civilians, are still in use today in every war the US enters. To think that we used these horrific weapons on people who were subsistence farmers, who barely even knew what Laos was, let alone the United States, is just shameful.

Anyway, the visit of the caves is very enlightening, and in the whole region you can see remnants of the bombing. Near Phonsavan, bomb casings are used to hold vegetable gardens or as stilts for houses. Markers on the ground show you where it is safe to walk because the ground has been cleared of UXO, or unexploded ordinance. It's not just Cambodia, folks. And worse, the mines in Cambodia were designed to maim, but those in Laos were made to kill. In the end, while Laos looks to the average traveler (including myself) pretty developed, it's actually relatively low on the UN Human Development Index, and progress is hindered by UXO everywhere, which will take decades to clear safely.

So Laos has turned out to be much more interesting than I had anticipated. If you want to learn more about its history, there are several excellent documentaries on the subject, including "Bombies" (the best one in my opinion) and "Bomb Harvest." If, after that, you feel like making a contribution, the Mines Advisory Group NGO is doing terrific, painstaking work here in Laos clearing the UXO piece by piece.

Tonight I head to the capital, Vientiane, and from there to Thailand. I doubt I'll have such a dramatic story to tell from there, but I'll try to find something interesting for you. Pictures coming soon, but I've run out of energy for today.

No comments:

Adventure map for 2009...