Thursday, June 09, 2005

Jar Jar Bombs

The Nasca Lines and Macchu Picchu might be known the world over as archaeological mysteries, but Laos has its very own, albeit slightly less well known, mystery: the Plain of Jars. Located in the northeast of the country, where the sharp mountains give way to rolling, grass-covered hills and pine trees (actually I'm not sure they were pine trees, but they were conifers of some description at least) are collections of huge, stone jars. The jars vary in size from about 50cm to over 3m in height and are either carved out of single blocks of stone or moulded from sandstone and pebbles, and are clustered in groups ranging from just a handful to over a hundred. They are as ancient as they are imposing, dating back over 2000 years. Though nobody is certain as to the exact meaning and significance of the jars the most widely accepted theory amongst archaeologists is that they were used for funerary rites (although the locals disagree, claiming that they were constructed under the orders of a king after a victorious battle to hold the whiskey for the after-slaughter booze-up). Whatever the reason for their construction they are definitely an intriguing sight.

Perhaps one of the reasons why so little is known about the jars is because there hasn't been much excavation done around them. There is a good reason for this though, as the area around Phonsavan (the closest town of any size to them) was bombed to kingdom come by the Americans during the Second Indochina War (which most of us know as the Vietnam war). Between 1968 and 1969 this part of Laos was more heavily bombed than anywhere in Vietnam during the whole duration of the war (the scars of which are still apparent in the surrounding countryside where bomb craters pockmark the hillsides). This means that the region has the highest concentration of UXOs in the country; no mean feat for what is probably the most bombed country in the world (I'll come back to the war in a bit). Therefore before any excavation (or farming, or building, or anything else for that matter) can be done the area needs to be demined first; a laborious and time-consuming exercise. The evidence of UXOs is all around for you to see, with assorted war junk being used for building materials (rocket-cone flowerpots seem to be particularly popular). That also made it the first place that I have visited so far where I felt no urge to "walk off the beaten path".

Everyone knows about the Vietnam war, especially from the countless Hollywood movies that have sieved through the topic from every angle. Very few people, however, are even aware of how much the war affected Laos (for those that actually have some idea of where Laos actually is). The war in Laos is often referred to as the Secret War as it was always denied by the US government and most operations were run by the CIA rather than the armed forces (for example the Americans used unmarked planes and pilots in civilian clothing to drop bombs on the Lao, not that that made the bombs any less deadly for the people they hit). Laos also ended up as a dumping ground for unused bombs by American bombers: if, on returning to their bases from bombing raids in Vietnam, the bombers had any bombs left they would just find a handy Lao town and "offload" their cargo onto them. Such tactics completely erased several Lao towns completely from the map. To this day people are still dying and getting injured from the effects of the war when they happen to set off old,decaying UXOs (of these a large proportion are children who like to play with the yellow bomblets left over from cluster bombs).

P.S. After trying unsuccessfully to make a map with my trip-so-far on it I've placed a permanent link to multimap so you can look up where I am (although if anyone out there knows how to make such a map I'd be more than thankful for your help).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

je crois que sur la page du voyage de ton ami Martin il y a une carte peut ĂȘtre pourrait il t'aider

a + bises