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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.