Phonsavan – a deeper look into Laos History and Lifestyle

Accommodation
Place – Nice Guest house
Facilities – hot water, air conditioning
Cost – about $10 a night
Contact – (0856) 613 12454
Location – main street of Phonsavan
Facilities – hot water, air conditioning
Review – it truly is a nice guest house. Our rooms were cleaned every day, which is hard to come by in SE Asia. The beds were the most comfortable we had experienced in a long time. Friendly service!

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Phonsavan is the base town for visiting the Plain of Jars sites in Laos. We spent a full day exploring the three sites, a waterfall and also two rusty Russian Tanks on the side of the road. It was quite an interesting day, and I learnt a lot.

The Plain of Jars were amazing and very mystifying. Estimated to be about 2000 years old archaeologists believe that these jars were used in ancient burial practices. Human remains as well as beads and other artefacts found inside the jars as supporting evidence. All of these findings point to the ancient tradition of burying possessions with the body. One of the other findings are the remains of human bodies outside of the jars, which supports the tradition of burying a person of significance inside the jars, and the family members on the outside. There are thought to be around 90 jars in the Phonsavan area, each containing from 1 to 400 jars. Only 3 sites are accessible from Phonsavan, as the majority of the sites still hold the risk of UXOs.

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It felt strange walking through the sites, trying to imagine what would have existed here 2000 years ago. The people, their lifestyle, their tools and their culture. Trying to imagine something as short as 40 years ago is a little bit easier. Bomb craters and trenches along the landscape are perfect aids. It becomes much easier to imagine yourself hiding in the trenches whilst B52s hover over you dropping bombs where they see fit. Yet, it makes the Jars so much more amazing to think that not only have they survived the bombings of recent times, but they have survived for 2000 years. Defeating anything that they have had to endure – natural or man inflicted.

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Now try to imagine something else. The rich ancient history that has existed in this landscape is contrasted with the more recent history of a secret war, which still lingers on today. It’s hard enough to imagine what the Laotian people have already gone through, however, what they are still going through, what affects them each day of their lives, is not only difficult to imagine but heartbreaking.

Families live in poverty because their land is not safe to farm. People die each day because they risk their lives trying to farm a land that in unsafe. Children die each day because they search the land for scrap metal from bomb remnants that can be sold for money to support their family. One bomb explosion in the family is not enough to stop them either. A documentary film I watched in the Mines Authority Group (MAG) office in Phonsavan showed a story where two brothers, around 8 and 10 years old, where searching for scrap metal when they came across a UXO. The bomb exploded and left pieces of shrapnel in their legs, rendering them unable to walk or stand up straight. Their family cannot afford surgery to have the shrapnel removed so they must live like this everyday, hardly able to move. Despite this, their little sister, about 4 years old, still goes out everyday to search for scrap metal, so that it can be sold to collectors, so that her family has some source of income.

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There’s nothing strange about having a house decorated with bomb shells in Phonsavan

Thankfully, there is a positive to all this. MAG, has been working since 1994 to clear the UXOs from the land. Not only is it making Laos a safer place, but in effect it is reducing poverty not only through the employment of locals but by making their land safe for farming, for most people, for the first time in their lives. Slowly but surely the quality of life for the residents of Laos is lifting greatly, as not only are they be able to farm their land, they are able to develop it into schools, roads, irrigation canals, water supply, and more. In 2008, MAG located and destroyed 98,061 items of UXO*. 3,763,582 square metres of land were cleared*. These facts are simply astounding.

Some more shell shocking facts which highlight the importance of MAG’s role*:

• Lao PDR is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history
• One quarter of the villages in Laos are contaminated with UXOs
• More than two million tons of ordnance were dropped on Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973, of that, up to 30% failed to detonate

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A jar on the edge of a bomb crater

My trip to Phonsavan was very eye opening. It made real all that I had read about how poverty stricken Laos is. It also gave me first hand insight into the effects of war, and sparked what I would call my first real interest in anything war related. I never really had an interest in learning about war and history when I was in school. I guess in a way it is better to learn about it as you go on in life. It becomes more relevant to me as I can understand the context. It also makes me realise again how lucky I am to have lived and grown up in Australia. I appreciate life a bit more after witnessing the damages of war on a beautiful country like Laos. I want other people to have this same understanding, the same appreciation. So, if you cant get to Laos any time soon, I urge you all to spend some time looking in more detail at the amazing work MAG has done in Laos and worldwide by going to their website. I also urge anyone who is able to donate to do so. Take note, just $25 clears 10 square metres of contaminated land. Thankyou!

*Statistics in this post have been taken from http://www.maginternational.org/laopdr

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