A Trip Around Laos: ‘Secret War’ Remains in Phonsavan

A Trip Around Laos: ‘Secret War’ Remains in Phonsavan

Above Photo: Just some of the enormous amount of war debris lying around Phonsavan

I took an eleven hour bus ride from Vientiane to Phonsavan, up in the north of Laos. It was a terrible journey, but I was prepared for it as I’d done it before – and swore I’d never do it again. Yet here I was, obviously a total sucker for punish­ment, wandering around a remote bus station outside Vientiane, trying to find my bus to Phonsavan.

Half-formed eggs from dead chickens anyone?

Half-formed eggs from dead chickens anyone?

Supposedly a ‘VIP’ bus, a term I have learned to treat with much amusement when travel­ling in Laos, it was old and very beat­en-up, there was no aircon, people sat on small plastic stools down the middle of the aisle, in between sacks of rice and clucking hens, and it speculatively stopped all along the way for anyone it thought might want to take a ride.

Scenery on the way to Phonsavan

It’s hard to believe believe how dangerous this part of the country was during the war (if you were a US Special Forces soldier or downed airman, that is), as it was mostly held by the North Vietnamese army and their Laotian comrades, the Pathet Lao, who were battling the US-backed Royalist Lao government.

Karst mountains

Karst mountains

I arrived in Phonsavan around 7pm and quickly found an accept­able hotel, improbably called the ‘Nice Hotel,’ where I set about trying to ar­range a tour for the next day.

More karst, near the site of the infamous Lima Site 85.

More karst scenery.

Phonsavan is a cold and strangely featureless town, built after the total destruction of the old town of Xieng Khuong in the war (see photos of the ruined town at the bottom of this article) although the market is interesting and the people are friendly. It’s normally deserted by 10.30pm.

An early night is always in order in Phonsavan

An early night is almost always in order in Phonsavan

A gloomy, cold and grey morning in Phonsavan

A gloomy, cold and grey morning in Phonsavan

Because I was there doing research for my novel, BACK, I had some unusual agendas, and it would be fair to say the Vietnam War was my biggest prior­ity. Mind you, in Phonsavan it is im­possible to escape the war, even if you only visit to use it as a base to see the world famous Plain of Jars, which is what most visi­tors go there to do.

The war at breakfast…mortar bomb candlestick holder and cluster bomb table decoration

The war at breakfast…mortar bomb candlestick holder and cluster bomb table decoration

Even on the Plain of Jars (called the PDJ during the Vietnam War, from the French ‘Plaine des Jarres’), the Viet­nam War is everywhere. It was a much-fought-over battlefield between the CIA-backed Hmong, supported by many Thai fighters and Royalist Lao forces, against the North Vietnamese army and Pathet Lao forces.

The war at lunch…outside a cafe

The war at lunch…outside a cafe

At the Plain of Jars you can still see bullet damage to some of the jars and large B-52 bomb craters litter the site. It was only finally cleared of UXO (unexploded ordnance) a few years ago, and still the guides warn you to be careful and not stray off the paths. Looking at old photographs of the PDJ in wartimeit’s amazing any jars are still standing.

In Phonsavan town, war remains are everywhere, from yellow cluster bomb casings used as napkin holders in restaurants to a (hopefully defused) Chinese hand grenade sitting in my hotel reception area.

Even the café where I ate every day was sur­rounded by large bomb casings.

The War at Dinner – the wall of a restaurant

The War at Dinner – the wall of a restaurant

A walk around town, day or night, gives a clue to the area’s violent past, with the number of war remains stacked up and used as decorations outside homes, shops and restaurants.

1,000lb Bombs

1,000lb Bombs

US M26 fragmentation grenade and a US .50 cal casing.

US M26 fragmentation grenade and a US .50 cal casing.

Recoilless rifle, possibly Chinese copy of US M20

Recoilless rifle, possibly Chinese copy of US M20

Turret and gun from a Russian-built BTR-60 armoured personnel carrier

Turret and gun from a Russian-built BTR-60 armoured personnel carrier

Bomb casings, including a 3,000 lb Fat Albert

Bomb casings, including a 3,000 lb Fat Albert

This all attests to the area’s strategic importance in the war.

Phonsavan is in fact a modern town, built to replace the old town of  Xieng Khoung which apparently used to look like Luang Prabang but which was destroyed in the intense fighting in and around the Plain of Jars during the war.

The pock-marked remains of Xieng Khuong 1969 (tlc-Brotherhood.net)

The pock-marked remains of Xieng Khuong 1969 (tlc-Brotherhood.net)

The remains of Xieng Khuong 1969. Note the two large bomb craters at the bottom of the photo (tlc-Brotherhood.net)

The remains of Xieng Khuong 1969. Note the two large bomb craters at the bottom of the photo (tlc-Brotherhood.net)

I went to Phonsavan so I could see as many war remains and sites as I could in the area, and, much more importantly, so that I could go into the jungle to a village where they smelt down aluminum from Vietnam War scrap metal, in order to make spoons.

For POWs left behind in Laos, see:

© Peter Alan Lloyd

Reviews: Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews 

UK: Amazon.co.uk: BACK Parts 1 and 2 

US: Amazon: Back Parts 1 and 2

Smashwords: Back Parts 1 and 2

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Website: www.peteralanlloyd.com

Twitter: @PeterAlanLloyd

modern-day Vietnam War novel of backpackers encounter secrets of the Vietnam War

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

modern-day Vietnam War novel of backpackers encounter secrets of the Vietnam War

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

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