Tragic Legacy: Profound Mystery

The Unknown Story of Xieng Khouang

    by Mike Matsuno

It was without a doubt one of the most horrific, devastated areas of the Vietnam war. Yet, only a few people now this place exists. It was not even in Vietnam. And although the Vietnam War ended 23 years ago, hundreds of people of this province continue to be killed and crippled every year from unexploded bombs and ordinances. This is the haunting legacy of the CIA's secret war. The place: Xieng Khouang. The country: Laos.

A short half an hour flight from Vientiane or Luang Prabang to the northeastern province of Xieng Khouang will take you high above lush, green mountains and majestic limestone cliffs. However, as you descend for your landing into Phonsavan, a strange sight appears: the lush rolling hills are studded with hundreds of moon-like, barren craters, like a golf course with several hundred sand bunkers scattered throughout. These barren, desolate craters are what remain of the intensive bombing during the Vietnam war. Many of the craters have been turned into reservoirs or fish ponds, but the desecration and destruction of the bombs are no less visible than 23 years ago.

Not many people outside of Laos know that during the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped more bombs on Laos than it did in all of World War II. Until this day most Americans remain ignorant to the fact that during the Vietnam War, the U.S. was also secretly waging a war in Laos. Over two million bombs were dropped in northern Laos as the CIA, authorized by President Nixon, conducted its "secret war" from 1964-73.

Xieng Khouang, a northeastern province of Laos 200 kilometers from Vientiane, was the most heavily bombed area. It is estimated that about a half-million tons of bombs were dropped in this region alone. Almost every town and village was bombed, forcing most people to live in nearby caves.

The former provincial capital of Xieng Khouang (same name), which was home to an ancient kingdom even before the Lane Xang dynasty of Luang Prabang, was so heavily bombarded in the 1970s that nothing remained of the capitol. Thus it was moved to present day Phonsavan.

In Xieng Khouang Province, it is estimated that between 10-30% of the bombs dropped remain unexploded and hidden or buried underground in the hills, fields and plains. In the Lao newspaper Pasason (6/16/1995) was the story of a family living out in one of the villages. In November 1993, the father who was named Tamu, was killed by an unexploded bomb while working in the field. Then in June 1994, his wife (Cita) and their four children (ages 2 through 8) were all blown up by another bomb while clearing grass in the field.

It is an all too common story from this area. Farmers ploughing their field, or children playing somewhere, accidentally hit or step on an unexploded bomb and are either killed or crippled for life. According to a UN related source, in 1 994 over 1 00 people were killed in villages by unexploded bombs and ordinance. This figure is thought to be low, as many deaths are unrecorded in far-off villages in remote mountains. And this figure does not include the number of victims who were maimed or crippled.

23 years later, the aftermath of the war still remains anywhere you go in the province. But the human spirit has prevailed, normal life has returned to the area, and many Lao people have moved back to their towns and villages. The residents are mainly Hmong, Lao, Phuan, and Vietnamese. Military scrap and hardware from the war have become part of the decor and architecture with bomb casings, military plane parts, and other war material used for stilts of homes, planters, and other construction projects. Military scrap metal is also collected and sold. The spoons in Xieng Khouang have all been made from old military aircraft.

At first, being American, I was a bit uneasy about visiting Xieng Khouang. How would the people of this area treat and react to an American? But throughout my visit to Xieng Khouang and other areas of Laos, I never once experienced any kind of discrimination or animosity. It seems that the Lao people, more than any other country after a war, are much more willing to forgive and forget. I was actually surprised at the Lao people's "matter of fact" attitude of letting the past bury its dead, especially when the legacy of unexploded bombs continue to kill their relatives, friends and villagers.

For those who are interested in visiting Xieng Khouang province, at 1,200 meters, the climate is ideal. It is not too hot and humid in the hot season, and not too wet in the rainy season. Until 1994, travelers could visit Xieng Khouang on one-day package tours. But Xieng Khouang is now open to individual travelers.

Aside from the legacy of the war, Xieng Khouang province also holds the biggest mystery in Laos. Just 12 kilometers southeast of the capital of Phonsavan are the ancient jars of Laos, and the area is called the Plain of Jars. Scattered over a few hills are 247 recorded ancient stone urns believed to be 2,000 years old and whose origins and use remain a mystery. The stone jars vary in size from one to 2.5 meters high and up to 2.7 meters in width. They weigh one to six tons each.

The jars are believed to be made from solid pieces of sandstone and thought to have been brought down from the mountains some 40 kilometers away. The Lao government has declared the site of the Plain of Jars as a national heritage site. Japanese archeologists just last year discovered and excavated some human bones. Fortunately, despite the enormous amount of bombs dropped in this area, most of the jars seemed to have survived intact. But visitors are warned to be careful while walking around the fields of the Plain of Jars and Phonsavan for there is still a large amount or unexploded ordinance in the area.

There are different theories of the origin of the jars. Many believe the jars were funeral urns used for nobility. French archaeologists concluded that the jars are over 2,000 years old. Archaeological excavations have discovered stone axes, iron tools, ceramics, bronze ornaments, fabrics, and ashes which led many to believe that the Plain of Jars must have been an ancient burial ground. Also, there is an Asian belief to bury someone where they will have a beautiful view for eternity. The location of the Plain of Jars is on hills which have a scenic view of the surrounding area. This would also support the idea that it was an ancient burial ground.

However, according to Lao legend, giant ancestors used these stone jars as containers to produce and store homemade rice alcohol called lau-lau, which is still drunk today. One folk tale, "Thao Hoong Thao Chong," was about a king who lived in the sixth century and celebrated his war victory by drinking lau-lau from these jars. The people of that time were believed to be twice the size of Laotians today. The king and his officers drank from the largest jars at the top of the hill while the common people drank from the smaller jars at the lower half of the hill.

There is also a cave nearby at the foot of the hills which was supposedly used as a kiln in ancient times for producing ceramic items. There are also bomb craters outside of this cave; during the Vietnam War, the Pathet Lao were said to have used this same cave as a military headquarters.

What makes the Plain of Jars so mysterious is that how did the ancient Lao people of 2,000 years ago have the technology to produce such enormous stone jars, and how did they transport these heavy jars from the mountains to the plains so many kilometers away? Who were these people and what happened to them?

Another place to visit aside from the Plain of Jars is the limestone cave of Tham Piu. During the war, due to the heavy bombing most of the village people were forced to live in caves. In 1969 approximately 400 people were killed when a single rocket from one of the U.S. or Royal Air Lao planes was fired into the cave. The cave is located some 38 kilometers east of Phonsavan on Route 7 (about 5 kilometers from Muang Kham).

51 kilometers from Phonsavan (18 kilometers from the village of Muang Kham) is the Baw Yai hot spring resort where you may take a mineral bath. There are bungalows and bathing facilities. But be forewarned that the water is extremely hot, and that there is no cold water to cool down the bath water. So after filling your tub, you will have to wait awhile before actually being able to get in.

Phonsavan (population 6,000) is the provincial capital which Lao Aviation flies to. For many Americans, it may be a good lesson to actually see what U.S. policy did and left behind. For others, Xieng Khouang is an off the beaten track area where not too many tourists have ventured. The climate is cool and the area has an easy pace of life. There are a few reasonable guest houses and a more expensive, quiet resort, Auberge de Plaine de Jarres, which is located on a ridge and has an excellent view of the town.

Xieng Khouang may not offer so much as in the way of sightseeing: however, its history, its people and refreshing scenery offer a pleasant change from Vientiane. It is also intriguing to observe it--as in the story of the Phoenix, from the ashes of war, Xieng Khouang has risen, normal life has returned.

Xieng Khouang Province is a tragic legacy of the war: and at the same time holds one of the profound mysteries of Laos. Not many foreigners have been to Xieng Khouang, because not many know about it--that might be another reason to make it worth visiting. It is a province which epitomizes the durability of the human spirit. Thousands died here and some continue to die here even today. Human spirit, human history, and human drama--all live on at Xieng Khouang.

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