Photographer. Writer. Adventurer.
20 February, 2012 (Phonsavan, Laos): It felt like we were driving on the moon. Heads wobbled uncontrollably and the driver apologized profusely. My water bottle flew sideways, knocking a less than impressed Israeli tank commander in the head. I had planned to explore the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos by bicycle, until I discovered more than fifty people die annually in the area, due to unexploded bombs (UXOs) from the 1964-73 war. Heeding local warnings, I opted for a car instead.
As we passed farming huts at walking pace, I observed people beginning their days. A toddler squatted beside a set of peeling green scales, slurping rice porridge appreciatively. Old women hacked into cracked red soil, preparing gravel for construction. A young mother watched her child, cycling amid a cloud of dust, as she delicately applied make-up to already flawless skin.
Half the fields were burnt off, allowing new growth to flourish. However, considering the barren land stretching to the horizon, nothing seemed likely to grow. The landscape reminded me of Australia during drought – hot, dry and dusty. Nearby fields milled with cattle and horses, savouring any nourishment they could find.
Laos was littered with two million tones of bombs from 1964-73. A large portion of these dropped by the United States, in support of Lao Anti-Communist forces. However, the US involvement was not formally recognized until 1997, when the Laos Memorial was erected in Washington DC, to honor the Lao and American veterans of the conflict.
Thirty percent of the ammunition did not explode, resulting in 25% of farmland being too dangerous to use. This has caused poverty to spiral out of control. Entrepreneurial locals have made an industry out of UXO scrap metal. They risk their lives on a daily basis by locating, collecting and dismantling potentially engaged weapons. These materials are then resold, or crafted into sellable items such as spoons and chopsticks.
I watched a one-eyed man, injured in a UXO accident, melt old bombs and then craft molten metal into spoons, earrings, chopsticks and bracelets. Newly unearthed mines lay on a nearby bench, ready to be dismantled and liquefied. His wife sat behind, carefully filing tough edges and sucking profusely on sour tomato paste. She offered me a piece, which I slowly placed on my tongue. I grimaced a little, which elicited a hearty laugh and encouraged her to shove another piece into my hand.
The Plain of Jars is predicted to be as old as 5000BC, however no one is sure of its original purpose. Oversized stone pots, some more than two metres wide and high, stretch across fifty kilometres of land outside Phonsavan. Advocates have been petitioning to receive World Heritage listing for many years. However, because the area was bombed excessively and remains heavily mined, it is struggling to develop any significant tourist industry.