A Trip Around Laos: ‘Secret War’ Remains in Phonsavan
Above Photo: Just some of the enormous amount of war debris lying around Phonsavan
As part of a reseach trip for BACK, 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 wartime, it’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.
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.
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.
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
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