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The Secret War in Laos

bomb carters during war

Our main reasons for visiting Phonsovan, a windy uphill bus ride away from Luang Prabang, was to learn more about the secret war in Laos and to see the plain of jars.

Luckily for our motion sickness pills we made it to Phonsovan in one piece, though I’m not sure if we attribute the lack of nausau to the pills themselves or the fact that they make you so drowsy that you can’t do anything but pass out and remain incapacitated until the bus arrives.

Upon arrival it was more than a few degrees cooler than in the rest of Laos, and you feel the fresh breeze in the cool mountain area.

We were up in the northern mountainous region of Laos, the area where the CIA waged a secret war for 9 years from 1965 to 1973 and was the largest war in CIA history. Surprisingly, despite years in the American education system studying 20th century history, we received our first knowledge of this war through a documentary played at town hostel in the center of Phonsovan. Truth be told, few Americans are aware that the secret war ever took place (though nowadays a simple Google search will reveal the details).

The war, like most during that time, was fought against the threat of communism. The CIA recruited the Hmong people, an ethnic tribe living in the hills of South East Asia, to fight against the North Vietnamese forces and the Pathet Lao (the Lao communist forces). In exchange the Hmong tribes were allowed to continue growing their cash crop – opium. At first the CIA turned a blind eye to the manufacturing of this illegal drug, but with time they used this to their advantage, transporting the drug and selling it off to fund the war. This was a war the US public knew nothing about, in a region that was officially declared neutral in 1962. Yet with a falsified map president Kennedy played up the threat of communist forces in Laos and gave the OK for covert troops to enter. The official cover-up was that the US was conducting humanitarian aid missions in the region.

By 1965 $545 million had been invested into Laos in the name of “democracy.” As the war in Vietnam escalated the purpose of being in Laos was to disrupt the flow of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and more and more bombing missions were flown in Northern Laos.Statistically speaking, between the years of 1964 and 1973 the US conducted air strikes on Laos once every 8 minutes. Every EIGHT minutes. 2 millions tonnes of bombs were dropped over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. Over the course of these nine years the US struck more bombs on Laos than on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. During those years hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians were displaced and many villages destroyed.

leftover cluster bomb

The people of Laos are still living with the consequences of these actions. There are still mines going off in fields and bomb craters scattered around the area. In many areas around the city, large bomb craters are still visible – there’s no denying this one.

Bomb Crater_

Since 1964 unexploded ordinance (UXO) has killed or maimed as many as 50,000 civilians. In 2012 alone the US Congress made $9 million available for the clearing of the UXO in Laos, (which does not compare to the $17million the US spent per day on dropping the bombs).

What happened in this region is truly unbelievable, and not acknowledged nearly as much as it should be.

As resourceful as the Asian people are, the Laotians have found a use for the remaining bomb craters: using them as foundations for the village homes.

bomb crater house foundation_

  • fences

Villages with bomb craters_

  • pots for planting herbs,

bomb crater herb garden

  • and even going as far as to use the aluminum from the bombs to make silverware, jewelry, etc.

spoon made from bombs

And one of the many areas that fell victim to the bombing was the historic Plain of Jars – a site where thousands of megalithic jars associated with prehistorical burial practices lie broken.

plain of jars


Inevitably, the efforts of the CIA proved futile as they were not able to stop the Ho Chi Minh trail. Moreover, not only were thousands of civilians killed in the process, but on account of the widespread promulgation of opium, many of the Vietnam soldiers became addicted to heroine. In fact, one may claim that much of the widespread use of heroin today can be linked back to these events.

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11 Responses to The Secret War in Laos

  1. Thanks for this piece! As a history buff, I enjoy reading your historical pieces as well as your “adventure” posts. Almost everyone knows about the Vietnam war, but here, maybe very few know about Laos, and the war there. Even for us Asians, the country is not one of the popular or “touristy” destinations when it comes to holiday planning. Now I want to see that crater and the Plain of Jars! 😉 When I go back to Vietnam, I’ll make sure to visit Laos too. But for now, my holidays are over, and it’s back to my real job. 🙂 Cheers and happy safe travels!

    Katie June 15, 2013 at 7:40 PM Reply
    • Thanks we like writing the history pieces as well, add a different flavor to the blog and force us to do some actual research

      Dave and Vicky June 16, 2013 at 5:51 AM Reply
  2. What an amazing and informative post! I’ve known almost nothing about the secret war in Laos before this reading. Thank you!

    zof June 15, 2013 at 8:29 PM Reply
  3. So, after seeing and knowing all this. are you still proud to be
    an american?
    Because as we read these post, in Iraq , Afghanistan and, who knows where else, people
    are dealing with consequences of american actions made “in the name of “democracy.””

    Gadi and Tun June 16, 2013 at 6:18 AM Reply
    • Yep, there’s a big difference between the actions of the American government and the American people, with whom I associate myself.

      Dave and Vicky June 16, 2013 at 6:38 AM Reply
  4. We can assure you that this was not the american government dropping these bombs,
    but american people sitting in american plains, which were made by american people.

    Gadi and Tun June 16, 2013 at 6:52 AM Reply
    • Actions of a few don’t speak for everybody. This war was kept secret from the public.

      Vicky June 16, 2013 at 6:54 AM Reply
  5. What happened in Laos and Cambodia during that time is just horrible. All these mines are still killing children and other people today and the process of clearing a mine field is painfully slow. Great posts guys! I think it is important to raise awareness of these past tragedies that nobody ever talks about!

    TammyOnTheMove June 21, 2013 at 2:31 AM Reply
  6. Hi guys

    Thanks for the post.

    I have been to the Phonsovan several years ago and have seen what you have seen with much dismay.

    However, I became aware of the bombing from a different slant, my wife is the daughter of one of the communist revolutionary leaders who was instrumental in defeating the US by keeping the Ho Chi Minh trail open.

    I have heard estimates of around 500,000 tons of UXO remaining in the ground and 50 million cluster bombs unaccounted for.

    When Hiliary Clinton visited Laos she was there for about 4 hours. She was taken to meet a young man blinded and without hands – the result of a UXO. All she said was “more needs to be done” and flew off again.

    Certainly much more needs to done to make the American people aware of what their government has been doing and to clear up the mess left in Laos.

    glenn ford November 12, 2013 at 8:31 PM Reply

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