Laos: A land still scarred by the bombs of U.S. imperialism
Unexploded U.S. bombs dropped on Xiengkhouang Province during the Second Indochina War; Phonsavan, Laos, 2022. | Michael Christopher / People's World

PHONSAVAN, Laos—Xiengkhouang Province, in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is a vast, ancient plateau extending over 6,000 square miles between the Luang Prabang mountain range in the west, and Annamite range in the east.

Home to nearly a quarter-million people from five local ethnic groups that have settled in the region over the previous centuries, as well as Vietnamese and Chinese communities, it served as the ancient capital of the Muang Phuan principality. It was also the prehistoric home of a people who left behind vast fields of massive stone jars believed to have been used for burial purposes, though the exact purpose of the jars remains a subject of fascination and study to this day.

As of 1975, however, it is also one of the most heavily bombed places in human history.

Trench line at the Plain of Jars, Site 1, Xiengkhouang Province, Laos, 2022. | Michael Christopher / People’s World

Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its importance to humanity in July 2019—alongside the Great Wall of China and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat—the Plain of Jars is a collection of multiple sites spread out over a vast area, each containing anywhere from one single stone jar to several hundred.

However, the ancient megalithic sites scattered among the rice fields and forests also bear another legacy, one that is far less often discussed in the West today. Buttressing the hilltop of Site 1, the most commonly visited and documented of the jar sites, is a bomb crater, roughly 50 feet wide and 10 feet deep, and the remains of a trench line.

The trench line, which overlooks the modern city of Phonsavan, was once a communist (Pathet Lao) position during the conflict Americans know as the “Vietnam War.” The crater, one of at least three at Site 1, is the result of a U.S. bombing campaign aimed at dislodging and suppressing advancing communist forces—a reign of terror that claimed the lives of thousands of Lao soldiers and civilians alike in the 1960s and ’70s and continues to scar the land and people.

Around a hundred yards from the trench line at Site 1, near another bomb crater, stands the entrance to a small cave. Local legend holds that it was a kiln used by a giant to bake the large stone jars now scattering the landscape. Archaeologists in the early 20th century came to believe that it was a kind of ancient crematorium. In the mid-20th century, however, the cave was used as a refuge against the indiscriminate American bombing.

Despite never officially declaring war, the United States dropped more than 270 million cluster bombs on Laos; equivalent in total to one bomb every eight minutes, nonstop, for nine years. The Xiengkhouang Plateau and the so-called “Ho Chi Minh Trail” would be the hardest hit; with Xiengkhouang becoming one of the most heavily bombed provinces in the most heavily bombed country in the world.

Buddha of Wat Phiavat; last remnants of the ancient capital. Muang Khoune, Laos. | | Michael Christopher / People’s World

Today, local Lao visitors to the cave at Site 1 stack small pebbles and stones into the shape of stupas along the cave’s interior and leave offerings at a small Buddhist shrine—prayers and tributes for the spirits of the dead, both ancient and contemporary.

Hiking briefly through the pristine rice fields to reach Site 3 of the Plain of Jars, one is likely to notice—or to be directed towards—small flagstones every couple of hundred meters. The stones, altogether unremarkable in comparison to the ancient jars nearby, show only three letters: MAG.

Of the over two million tons of bombs dropped by the United States on the Lao people between 1964 and 1973, an estimated 30% failed to detonate. In the ensuing decades, these unexploded ordnances (UXO) have been responsible for the deaths of another 20,000 Lao people—almost half of them children.

From 2004 to 2005, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), in cooperation with the governments of Laos and New Zealand, painstakingly swept the areas of Sites 1, 2, and 3 for unexploded U.S. bombs. In 2007, four more Sites were swept. Exploring the less commonly visited areas of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, travelers are warned to be careful where they step—only 1% of total UXO left behind by the United States in Laos have been cleared.

Phonsavan, the current capital of Xiengkhouang Province, is a young city. Roughly 20 minutes south of the modern city sits Khoune District. In many ways, Khoune District appears not dissimilar to other modern villages and developing areas in the country; with its large Development Bank of Laos building taking center-stage in the market area, one might even think Khoune is an up-and-coming young area just like Phonsavan.

Mr. Ken, a local guide, was born in Khoune District in 1984. He recounts that, in his youth, no more than a handful of wooden buildings existed in the area; the area was left so devastated and underdeveloped following the war that he had to leave Khoune in order to go to school, only to return later after he had graduated.

Deactivated U.S. bombs from the Second Indochina War. | Michael Christopher / People’s World

Khoune District, however, is not a young place.

Established in the 13th century, Muang Khoune, as it was known then, was the capital of the Muang Phuan principality—named after the Phuan people who had migrated into the region in that period. As a crossroads between the Luang Prabang mountains in the west, and Annamite range in the east, the Xiengkhouang plateau became an important center for overland trade and logistics.

Wars and politics would come and go, but Muang Khoune would become renowned for its many stupas, and its key geographic location. Centuries later, that same geographic importance would see the province also become the site of the fiercest struggles in the Lao theater of the Second Indochina War, and the target for one of the most heinous U.S. bombing campaigns in history.

By the time Mr. Ken was born, the city of Muang Khoune was little more than a memory. Of Muang Khoune’s 62 stupas and centuries of development, only one piece, the badly damaged Buddha image of Wat Phiavat, remains; all other remnants of the city, its great culture, and centuries of history, were destroyed.

It was because of the destruction of Muang Khoune, and the dangers of remaining UXO, that the young city of Phonsavan was born—the current capital of Xiengkhouang Province.

Of the over 270 million bombs dropped by the United States on the Lao people, roughly 81 million (around 30%) are believed to have failed to detonate. And as mentioned, only around 1% have been cleared. So ubiquitous and unrelenting was the American bombing campaign in the region that, today, deactivated and repurposed bombs can be seen in the unlikeliest of places: canoes, planters, doorstops, or even as load-bearing supports for traditional-style Lao homes—typically built on wooden stilts.

However, the most common usage of UXO in Laos, by far, is in the making of handicrafts.

Not far from Plain of Jars Site 3 sits Ban Na Pia: better known as spoon village. There, families once targeted by American bombs take the deactivated UXO, melt them down, and mold them into a variety of trinkets and goods—spoons, keychains, bottle openers, and bracelets, just to name a few.

For the price of 20,000₭—around $1.15 USD—little by little, bombs that had once cost U.S. taxpayers over a billion dollars, as well as the lives of thousands of Lao people, are being turned into useful objects and souvenirs, and sold back to visitors from the West.

One local father shares that his family produces 200-300 pieces per day; as his daughter files the freshly-made bracelets, he displays his forearm for the visitors to see—a bright pink streak runs from wrist to elbow: a testament to the millions of American bombs that remain unaccounted for, often until it’s too late. “Now buy back the bombs,” one souvenir vendor’s sign in Luang Prabang reads.

A vendor’s sign in Luang Prabang, Laos, 2022. | Michael Christopher / People’s World

Leaving the village, one is bid farewell by the remains of a Soviet-made tank, resting where it stood some five decades ago when struck by an American plane. Though both public and private offers had been made for the wreckage, the family, whose land this testament to the past rests on, refuses to sell—ensuring instead that visitors are able to see it for free. It is one more in a long line of monuments to the sacrifices of the Lao people.

As of Aug. 18, 2022, some 8,470 square kilometers (3,270 square miles) of Laos are believed to still be contaminated by unexploded U.S. bombs.

The 2008 international Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) bans the production and usage of cluster bombs such as those used by the U.S. against the people of Laos. As of this writing, the United States refuses to sign the Convention, and a 2008 internal U.S. Department of Defense memorandum claimed that “[c]luster munitions are legitimate weapons with clear military utility,” that they “provide distinct advantages against a range of targets,” and classify them as “an integral part of U.S. forces capabilities.”

Formally established following the U.S.’ withdrawal from the region, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic continues efforts to clean up left-behind American bombs. It is a nation that is both incredibly young, and ancient, forever marked with the scars of imperialism from a war that many have forgotten. It was a genocidal secret war that claimed the lives of one-tenth of the Lao population.


Michael Christopher
Michael Christopher

Born and raised in Southwest Virginia, Michael Christopher is former secretary of the Virginia District of the Communist Party USA. He studied in Chinese Taipei in 2016, and in Mainland China in 2017. In 2022, he became the editor of Mount Tai Press. He currently resides in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.