After making my departure from Luang Prabang I decided to venture 8 hours Southeast to the unassuming town of Phonsovan. This town doesn't fly completely under the radar when it comes to places worth stopping in Laos, but it is one of the lesser traveled roads. The main draw here are some really big jars which were the focus of my visit, sounds weird I know. Upon entering and exploring the town I learned more about Laos than I ever could have dreamed and couldn't wait to share it, opening others eyes to the tragedy this small country must endure.
Everyone knows about the Vietnam war and the brutality involved; agent orange, numerous murders, torture, and destruction, but what is oftentimes overlooked is the damage that was done to Laos. During the years of the Vietnam war, the United States dropped roughly over 2 million bombs throughout Laos, many of which fell without reason or intent. That fact alone would have been devastating enough but what makes it even worse is that many of these bombs failed to explode and are still lying in the fields, countryside and mountain ranges of Laos, posing a threat to the people there today. To some these actions are referred to as "The Secret War" as it is often overlooked or swept under the rug.
There are few attempts at trying to justify the bombings which occurred in Laos such as interruption of the 'Ho Chi Minh Trail", unloading of dangerous loads and targeting the hidden Vietnamese, but all of that is of little importance now. The war is over and done with and those past actions, justified or not, have caused major heartache for the people of Laos. To this day these cluster bombs are still causing problems for the people of Laos, farmers, children, and villagers must all fear for their lives when they go about their daily routine. The unexploded ordinances (UXO's) are scattered throughout the countryside and could explode if moved, struck or stepped on. The people are literally living in a constant war zone, with no reason for having to do so, other than the carelessness of previous military actions. Families and villages that use the land for farming are simply trying to feed themselves and support their families but are instead in constant danger. The bombs are scattered throughout rural villages, farmland, forests, and mountains, waiting to be discovered, sometimes by kids who view them as toys.
I truly had no knowledge of this previous to my travels in Laos, but after watching a great documentary "Bombies" (highly recommend viewing) I was fully enlightened to the subject matter. "MAG" is an organization that works to remove the bombs from villages and restores safety, as well as peace of mind to the people. The organization graciously accepts donations, offers educational material and screens documentaries (Bombies included) at its storefront in downtown Phonosovan.
I have a mother who lives in constant worry for her children (My travels aren't much help to that), but I can't imagine the worry these mothers go through every day. They are constantly wondering if their child might come across a bomb and blow up. This may sound like an exaggeration, and I wish it was, but sadly it is not. This is the reality these people live in, walking to school, working in their fields and even playing; all of these activities pose a potentially life-threatening danger.
Thankfully there are some things being done to help, various organizations are working to remove the bombs but it's definitely a long-term project. With so many bombs scattered throughout the country and small teams and resources for removal, it's a slow process. Although recovery efforts are underway in Laos it was shocking for me to discover that these 'Cluster Bombs' have been used in numerous countries over the years with the most recent use occurring in South Sudan in 2013! The bombs target civilians which to me is mind-boggling, how is killing innocent people still a practice that this world is participating in? I feel so helpless but I still hope that my donation (to MAG) and spreading awareness through my blog and stories I tell friends and family will do its part. As much as I used to ignore history and politics, travel has really opened my eyes to the importance of both. It's hard to pick and choose which cause to support and where to put your attention as there is a struggle throughout the world, but for now, my heart is siding with the innocent people of SE Asia.
Often overlooked on the backpacker trail, this is a destination to not be missed. Without the influence of 7/11, Mc Donalds or Starbucks this is a country that offers a raw, rich experience.