01 January, 2007

Photo essay of LAOS (Chapter 2 of 3):
The Plain of Jars: a 4000 year-old mystery

Chicken Licken and minor Communist officials do the official Meet-and-Greet as we arrive at Phonsavanh airport. The province of Xiengkhouang is the real Laos, promising plenty of parish-pump parochiality.

The Laos Airlines plane is scheduled to arrive at 4.10pm. It is always late. Quite co-incidentally, the uniformed chaps at the ‘Visa-on-Arrival’ counter have a dot-matrix printed sign on a tattered piece of A4 which reads:


At the stroke of 4.30, up goes the sign with 2 exhausted pieces of yellowed sticky-tape. When we laugh, they can barely disguise their feigned seriousness – they know we know they know it’s a scam…

Check-in to hotel. Go for walk to afternoon market. Most streets aren’t yet paved. Dry and dusty now that it's 'winter' and the Wet is over. Those roads which are paved date way back to the years of the French occupation, so there’s not much paving left between the pot-holes. We pass the barber-shop:

Market stalls are no more than pieces of tired tarpaulin on the ground, stacked with veggies, Vietnamese biscuits, flax brooms, second-hand clothes, chopped meat, etc. There’s no refrigeration – nor any ice, so turnover is (hopefully) quick. A large hand of ladyfinger bananas cost me 2500 kip …and that was probably the inflated tourist price. Who cares? ...that’s about 31¢ Australian. I’m well capable of bargaining aggressively in Thai, but would have felt guilty at that price. I gave her 3000 kip, with a gracious mâi bpen rai, khop jai. Trouble is, tipping always makes me feel like a patronizing pretentious post-colonial power-crazy prat.

Phonsavanh market. There are satellite dishes even in these small towns – ironically, CNN is their lifeline for information from the outside world. Like Burma, Laos is very closed, but doesn’t mind the tourist dollar. There were only 2 other westerners in town during our 2 days, though. We felt like it was US who were the exotic items on display.

Among the stalls we noticed dozens of dead animals and birds for sale – pheasants, squirrels, frogs, toads, chickens, sparrows, eels, insects, and what looked like a weasel (?) with a sort of exotic puffy grey feather-duster on the end of its long tail. In the 1970’s the Lao learned from the Viet-Cong the art of eating absolutely anything that moves. We’ve seen evidence in Hanoi on menus. You know the line... "Tastes a bit like chicken..."

Then we spotted what we fervently hoped was not the very last Civet (?) Cat on the planet:

Then it was off by mini-bus to the “Plain of Jars”, a short trip from Phonsavanh. Many hundreds of these chunky carved stone jars are strewn over a large area of Laos, especially on this chilly elevated plateau of Xiengkhouang province. They are between 3,500 and 4000 years old, the only remaining fingerprint of a long-vanished culture. What were they for? Why did these forgotten people obviously consider it so important to painstakingly carve these enormous things – each one originally with a lid – then drag them by elephant from quarries about 20 kilometres away? Learn more here.

Peter follows a hunch and searches for telltale traces of pre-historic Vegemite.

I concocted various theories, including my ‘Prototype Wheelie-bin’ theory. Also, I had read about the Lao taste for eating fermented swallows - in fact, we had been shown some swallow traps during a trek between jar sites. I pondered whether the giant jars were intended for storing giant fermented swallows (maybe swallowdactyls?). Finally, I stumbled on the real answer – Laos was an ancient colony of Australia!! Here’s irrefutable proof:

The numerous bullet holes in the jars prove that many people objected to Vegemite. Clearly an intelligent bunch of people, yes/no?

Apparently, there was a misunderstanding about the age of the jars about a hundred years ago. The French occupiers claimed they were dated about 2000 BC. The Lao didn’t understand the concept of "BC", of course, so just assumed the age was 2000 years. The French had failed to explain that, as our Lao guide expressed it, BC stands for “Before Christmas”. Ho ho ho.

Later that evening, at the restaurant, our candle-holder turned out to be a (rocket-propelled?) grenade”(or was it a ‘bomblet’?), a melancholy souvenir of the American War. This war is still quaintly referred to locally as the Vietnam War… like, sure, as if Vietnam had been the aggressor! More biased spin from the pens of historians. Should be the CIA War. When locals speak of the war, they talk of the CIA rather than 'America' in order not to offend any american tourists present.

Godammit if the grenade didn’t still have its detonator burning… We immediately ceased giggling about "BC" and dived bodily through a glass window and flung ourselves to the ground, just like in Exterminator 2. Sorry, no photos ;-)

We were amazed to discover a Lao-Hmong resistance fighter who didn’t yet realize the war was over. She was cowering in a bomb-damaged jar on the edge of a bomb crater. She said her name was Mah Lee Buh Low, and that her secret weapon was imitating a jack-in-the-box to scare the 'Cong to death.

Bomb craters like this pock-mark the entire region like acne, along with the grass-filled zigzag-ing lines of former infantry trenches (originally disguised by natural vegetation as camouflage before it was poisoned by Agent Orange spray). The whole country and its psyche have been shattered by the trauma of the war – for them, it ain’t over yet, especially the Hmong tribe. But they get on with life, because they can’t not get on with life.

But the injustice stinks. After having fought alongside the CIA against the Vietnamese, the Hmong have recently been denied entry to the USA because Bush has labelled them as 'terrorists' under the post-2001 definition. The truth is that america simply doesn't want any Asians, even if it means breaking Lyndon Johnson's 1975 promise of asylum in case Vietnam won. So now, thousands of Hmong - and their children - have become persecuted refugees in their own country, hiding in the jungles in the mountains north of Phonsavanh. Read about the betrayal here. No wonder they're angry with the USA. How can they now bring themselves to trust tourists? Answer? Cash.

Back to our trip. We noted that, unlike Luangprabang, there is not a single structure left at the site of the pre-war town. It was bombed flat by the CIA, as were thousands of other villages (and people), so was re-built in a different location (possibly to help erase memories?) and re-named 'Phonsavanh'.

DISGRACEFUL FACT #476: During the American War, the CIA (aka ‘Criminal International Assassinations’) tried to souvenir one of the largest jars by attempting to lift it with 3 helicopters. As if they had nothing better to do... Of course the klutzes accidentally dropped it, and to this day the forlorn jar lies on its side, now in 3 pieces. Surely, was this not cultural violation at its most thoughtless and crass?

UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) litters the countryside. Here is an unexploded cluster-bomblet next to my 1-litre water-bottle. Trust me when I say I placed the bottle gently.

I’m pretty sure that some items of UXO were actually defused and deliberately planted for the benefit of tourists… you know, the ‘wow’ factor. Otherwise it would have been long ago collected and sold as scrap metal at the going price of 1500 kip per kilo. An old Russian tank, for instance, had been stripped of every possible removable part. This suggests that local villages and tour operators have realized that it is worth more to them to strategically position some de-commissioned bombs near tourist trails. Villagers can sell bowls of noodles and drinks to tired trudging trekkers.

Nevertheless, permeating through Laotians’ daily lives is endless genuine evidence of grisly wartime atrocities. On average, American aircraft dropped a bomb every eight minutes, 24 hours every day, from 1968 until 1973. This adds up to more than 2 million tons of explosives – fifteen hundred pounds for every man, woman and child in the country. Laos remains the most heavily-bombed nation in history… and there was scarcely a mention of it in the american press at the time, in order not to lose votes. It was later dubbed as america’s “Secret War”, often using de-commissioned warplanes which had been ‘retired’ and ‘sold’ with engine numbers removed. Read more about the media deception and atrocities here.

Thatched village huts are often supported by old USA bomb casings.
Talk about making lemonade out of lemons.

Hotels and cafés often use old weaponry as prurient displays for tourists to perve at, or convert them into bench seats, fences, etc. Welcome to Laos, the little country of only 3 million people that President Kennedy deemed to be a "danger to american national security"… propaganda eerily identical to that echoed by Bush Jnr some 40 years later.

Never - but NEVER - walk anywhere in the Laotian countryside without a local guide who is intimately familiar with UXO locations.

As will be evident for many years to come, most of this formerly fertile region (even its rice paddies) was sprayed with Agent Orange herbicide [a] to destroy forest camouflage, and [b] to deprive the Viet-Cong of food. Ain’t war grand?

On this Phonsavanh hillside (and hundreds of others) UNESCO has detected and removed UXO along a narrow walking path to a comforting depth of 1.5m. Bomb craters go deeper than that, though, so are ‘off-limits’. Some other areas have been cleared only down to a depth of about 3 inches (which normal metal detectors can do), and others merely visually checked on the surface - but it’s often not clear which is which. Care for a stroll?

A little surprise lurking just under the surface, now marked with a white stick and awaiting removal.

The UNESCO ‘safe path’ is designated by white markers which can sometimes disappear under grass or mud during the monsoon season. Deviate off this narrow path at your peril. The sad thing is that locals have to work on the land here – it is, after all, an agrarian country – so casualty rates are persistently high. I won’t put any photos in – you can google plenty up yourself if you yearn for horror.

Having said all this, we still enjoyed the time there, and next plan to go to the south of the country. We’ve certainly acquired even greater respect for the Lao spirit – and even less for uncle bloody sam.

Recommended reading: Quincy, Keith. Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos. Eastern Washington University Press, Washington, 2000. (The best and most comprehensive source of information).

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