This area in the Xieng Khuang province is one weird place. We joined a mini-van short tour with three other tourists from Luang Prabang (2 Canadians 1 UK) as we heard that the buses were pretty poor, and that the roads were extremely windy. And even though the road was paved the whole way, it still took nearly six hours to go 220 kms. The roads through the mountains were extremely windy as we had been forewarned, but of course the views were of fabulous stunning mountains and hilltop villages. These two windy roads we were on are the main arteries of northern Laos - Route 13 and Route 7! And they converge at a town called Muang Phu Khoun. This area is home to the Hmong people, some of whom are still at war with the government. In 2003 and 2004, there were many incidents on these roads when buses were shot at, and people killed. The government is supposed to be patrolling the area now. Needless to say, it was a bit of a worry when we saw lots of guys dressed in civvies carrying weapons on the side of the road. Some guns were pretty ancient, some were AK47s!!
Anyway, made it safely to a reasonably big sized town called Phonsavan which is a strange place for two reasons. The first is an ancient reason which they have never been able to fully explain. As this is where they have massive stone jars sitting in fields near to the town. And the biggest jar weighs over 6 tonnes! (The Mother of All Jars!) and we are not just talking a few jars. The first site we went to had 150, then the next had 90, and the last had over 300. Its kind of a strange phenomena which we can only really show in photos for people to believe it - I thought it was a weird take on stone circles! Reminded us a lot of stone circles in the UK. The logical local reason is that are in fact burial urns of people who lived there 2000 to 2500 years ago (and this was re-inforced when we went to the Laos National Museum in Vientiane)
The other perhaps more surreal thing is that this town has all the weaponry you can imagine from the Vietnam War just sitting here. Yes I said Vietnam, and this is Laos, but will come back to that! There are Russian and Chinese tanks, jeeps, trucks - some of the latter two are still being driven around by the locals, others are just lying as scrap, or the scrap has been used for building. But even more surreal than that is the amount of what the locals call 'bombies'. These are straight from Uncle Sam. And the locals use these for whatever. Many (hopefully) offer no danger anymore, but these bombs of all sizes are used for souvenirs by hotels and households, as scrapmetal, as direction pointers, for holding up houses in place of traditional wooden stilts! , and we even saw one that was now opened up as a barbecue!
This is the place of the secret war between USA and the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) between 1964 and 1973. The NVA backed by China and Russia were supporting the Pathet Lao rebels. The US were backing the then Royal Lao government. Another war that the Americans lost as Pathet Lao are the now the present government. It is called the secret war as the UN had said no foreign military personnel were allowed in Laos at the time. This did not stop the NVA from having a huge presence on the ground, and the US from sending in airforce (dressed in civvies) to guide Laos and Thai airforce (in US planes) in bombing the hell out of Laos with US made bombs. They dropped an average of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years on Laos! The bombing continued even when the US stopped bombing north Vietnam in 1968. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed nation, on a per capita basis, in the history of warfare!
The result is not only the 'safe' bombs that we could see in the open, but also this part of Laos still has plenty of UXO (unexploded ordnance). Kids are still dying here from picking up bomblets from US cluster bombs, and it was dangerous for us to walk off the beaten track when we were at the plain of jars. Also out in the open fields as we drove along, you could still see lots of bomb craters where nothing grows, the result of agent orange and left over UXO. NGOs and some governments - Japan and NZ were mentioned on signs, are trying to clear the fields, but at current rate, it will take about a 100 years....
Even when we went for a very nice Laos meal at Maly Hotel with the rest of our group, the back wall was covered with bombs, grenades and various weapons - made in US, China or Russia.
As I said, a very strange place.....