Getting from Luang Prabang to Phonsavanh by minibus takes 7 hours even though the distance is only about 270km. It is hilly terrain, and of course there are potholes. Lots and lots of them. The ride was bumpy, windy and dusty. It was pretty cramped in the van, but at least being kinda short, it was ok. I felt sorry for the 6 foot 2 Irish fella sitting next to me with his knees in his face.
As soon as you leave town the countryside is dominated by green hills and pine forests. It is really in the countryside that you see how the majority of the people live. Most are engaged in subsistence farming. The farmers live in small wooden and bamboo houses, and these usually sit only a metre or so from the road. I was told that the Lao government is trying to relocate people from remote villages high in the mountains to new, ethnically-integrated villages along the road, where they can more easily have access to basic utilities like electricity and running water.
Most visitors come to Phonsavanh to see the Plain of Jars. Formed in the Iron Age, no one really knows who created them, and what they are really for, although studies suggested that these urns/jars have something to do with burial rituals. So far, around 100 sites have been found containing anywhere between 1 and 400 jars. Only a handful are open to visitors, with site 1, 2 and 3 most popular and easiest to access. Access is only hindered by the presence of thousands of tons of UXO, or unexploded ordnance, making the Plain of Jars the most dangerous and contaminated archeological site in the world. Un-detonated bombs and other military ordnance still contaminate more than 35% of the province’s total land area and continue to threaten the lives of the villagers.
According to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which is a neutral and impartial humanitarian organisation, more than 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped in Laos between 1964 and 1973 during the 580,000 bombing missions. This is equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years, making Laos the most bombed country (per capita) in the world. The bombings were part of the US Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Lao communist party. About 30% of these ordnance did not detonate.
UXO contamination also remains a key cause of poverty and is one of the prime factors limiting the country’s long-term development, preventing people from using the otherwise fertile land, not to mention continuing to kill and maim hundreds each year. Forced into the trade by poverty, people risk their lives hunting for metal scrap to sell.
It is estimated that it will take at least 150 years to clear the ordnance.
Mines Advisory Group (MAG)
Their visitor information office in Phonsavanh is a must-stop. There are informative photo essays, articles, UXO reference material as well as regular screenings of documentaries such as the at times humorous Australian doco Bomb Harvest, which I highly recommend, which you can purchase to view online. http://www.bombharvest.com/
Interesting article Women who clear bombs: