In the West we talk about the Vietnam War, believing it started in 1963 or thereabouts and lasted till 1975. In South East Asia they call this particular little episode the American War. «Little» not because it was insignificant, but because there were so many others. From 1940 onwards, in various areas of what used to be «French Indochina», they fought the Japanese, the French, the Americans, and themselves for almost 60 years.
Today the wars are officially over, but in reality they have not ended yet. If you go to some of the places we have been to, it is all too easy to see how the wars still ruin people’s lives.
If you compare the amount of explosives to the country’s population, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in world history. The American shelling of Vietnam and the neighbouring countries started in the mid 1960ies and lasted till 1975. The idea was to stop the North Vietnamese transport routes that took troops and supplies to the south. From the American point of view this was obvious. North Vietnam did not respect the borders of Laos and Cambodia, and what became known as the «Ho Chi Minh Trail» was of great importance to them. The only problem, for all sides involved, was that the bombing affected the civilian population much more than it ever affected the military targets. The Americans and their alleys could not block the trails and ended up loosing the war. A lot worse, however, is the fact that 40 years later civilians in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam still loose their lives from explosives buried in woodlands, ditches, gardens and rice fields.
In Vientiane we visited COPE, an institution providing artificial limbs to victims of a war that never seems to stop. Every year more than a hundred Lao casualties are counted, mostly from old cluster bombes. The US spread billions of little tennis-ball size devises that can hardly be said to ever have had any military purpose. They kill today as effectively as they would have done 40 or 50 years ago, and if they do not kill they will tear your arm or your leg or your face from your body.
The little bombs are especially fascinating for children. One of the kids playing with them was Adam, our Cambodian guide in Phnom Penh who took us to the Khmer Rouge killing fields. His fun ended one day at the age of ten when two of his friends got killed. Adam is just 30, born long after the «American War» officially turned into peace, but he has very much lived to see the war kill and mutilate his countrymen.
The COPE map of the bombing of Laos shows that the majority of the shelling took place in the south of the country, but large parts of the north were also affected. We visited the so called Plain of Jars near the town of Phonsavan, an area best known for large fields with stone monuments that we have written about earlier. The «jars» can be found in many concentrated sites, but only a handful of these have been cleared for bombes. And even when you visit the safe ones, on your way you have to follow stone markers telling you where to put your feet.
In the same northern region, in Viengxay close to the town of Sam Neua, we visited the cave systems where the communist Pathet Lao movement hid for almost a decade. The Pathet Lao built an organization based on principles they had taken from the Soviet Union, and they also built an infrastructure of caves where their leaders, their army and the local civilian society spent years living inside the mountains. The caves were known to outside world, the area was very heavily bombed, and it was impossible for the local population to live out in the open.
The way to survive was to stay inside the mountain at daytime and move only at night. Some caves were hit with heavy casualties as a result, but mostly they proved to be very efficient hiding places.
Some of the caves are now open to visitors. They are not easy accessible, however. They are located in remote areas where tourism is not well developed; Viengxay is some 15 humpy bus hours from the Lao hotspot of Luang Prabang and about the same distance from Hanoi. If you want to fly there, you must hire your own plane.
Once you get there you will come across local tourism officials who are very eager to show you around. They have developed an excellent audio guide, a device you carry around that gives you information about every stop you might do along your route. You get very close to the people who lived there, above all the Pathet Lao leadership who governed their provinces and lead their armies from the Viengxay caves.
The caves themselves where originally just holes in the mountainsides, but they were relatively fast developed into underground cities. Rooms and corridors were paved, neighbouring caves where connected, new exits were put in, concrete walls were put up to hide and reinforce openings.
Laos proved the American «Domino Theory» right in their way. The North won the war in Vietnam, and the communist rebels also came to power in Laos. Today’s government of Lao PDR (Peoples Democratic Republic) is the direct descendent of the cadres who hid in the mountains of Viengxay. At the time, it was both logical and sensible to try to organize society in an alternative way to what the French colonizers and the American warlords were doing. However, they failed! Today we see a «Peoples Democratic Republic» of Laos that is a parody of both Socialism and Democracy. Instead of creating the society of equality that the fighters in Viengxay fought for, the party has created one of the most corrupt states in the world. The local corruption is one of the reasons why the clearing of the bombsites is literally taking for ever, but lack of interest from the US in clearing up their old Asian mess is by all means another.
Todays corrupt Lao PDR is something you will not be told about from your guides in Viengxay. They will tell you of the heroism and the bravery of the people who lived and fought there. And this bravery was by all means for real, no matter what happened later. And the American forces that very often flew over Laos dropping the remains of their loads over civilian targets at random if they could not fulfil their prime objectives over North Vietnam, do not have very much to be proud of.