Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dirt Biking through Laos: The Plain of Jars and Unexploded Ordinances

Here we are in the weird little town of Phonsavanh, in Northern Laos. It looks like a cross between an old western movie and southeast Asia (dusty and full of cowboy-hat-wearing locals), nestled in Northern California-in-the-winter-looking-hills.

We rolled in here yesterday afternoon after a loooooong day of dirt biking up and over multiple mountains. After seven-ish hours on the bike, I am getting really good and sharp steep curves, riding in the rain, waving at small village children, and avoiding meandering livestock. All important skills I'm sure, so we'll count that as a win. 

Phonsavanh is the capital of this province, and is kinda sorta a tourist destination (for those willing to work for it) because it is home to the Plain of Jars. Phonsavanh's other claim to fame is that from 1964-1973 it was one of the most heavily bombed regions of Laos, which is the most heavily bombed country in the world ever (we'll get to more details on that soon).

The Plain of Jars is a series of sites of huge stone jars that were used for ancient burial practices from about 500 BC to 500 CE.

So this morning after some delicious Lao coffee and waiting out a rain storm, we got back on our dirt bikes to see some jars! 

Site 1 is the most popular and accessible. We walked around the jars -- they really are huge

Then we rode to Site 2, which was quite the dirty experience, made more interesting (i.e. muddy) by the recent rains. While Site 1 had a cool cave, Site 2 had great climbing trees. And the jars were bigger and in better shape.

On our way to Site 3, which allegedly has a waterfall, this rainstorm hit, 

and then the road kinda ended, so we decided to turn back and instead enjoy the mud on our bikes. Sadly I kept my camera/phone stowed away safe and dry, so no pictures exist, but we were covered in mud. 

The jars themselves are cool, but what makes this place even more interesting (in my into-armed-conflict-prevention semi-morbid opinion), is that the Plain of Jars and much of the surrounding area is the site of major unexplored ordinances excavation work. So if you visit, stay on the marked paths! For serious. 

Since it's good to be informed about the places we go, in the afternoon, we visited the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) office to learn about their work. Then we watched a documentary about the US in Laos during the war. This is all FASCINATING to me. 

During the Vietnam War, the CIA was conducting a covert war in Laos (the largest CIA operation ever). A US-backed (secretly of course) civil war destabilized the country (1953-1975), and in the largest air campaign ever, the US dropped a planeload of bombs on Laos every 8 minutes, 24/7, for 9 years, completely decimating the Plain of Jars (more info).

So in addition to seeing large ancient jars, today we also saw bomb craters and trenches used by Pathet Lao and Lao Government troops. 

That sign says "Bomb Crater."

MAG is a really cool organization -- they find and disable unexploded ordinances (which are still a major problem), work with affected communities, and train local woman to clear the bombs. Most of the UXOs are from cluster munitions, which are bombs that scatter small bombs ("bomblets") over a large area. Often the bomblets don't detonate on impact, and remain dangerous for years. The bomblets look like tennis balls and are usually detonated by people collecting scrap metal for money, or children playing, or farmers ploughing. 

Pretty interesting and important work! If you're interested in learning more about ending the use of cluster munitions, go here.

Beyond MAG and the Plain of Jars, there isn't much else in Phonsavanh, so our next stop in this beautiful country (that I hope will one day be cleared of UXOs...though that's unlikely), is Luang Prabang.