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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Jars of Friendsombies

Surrounded by hordes of circling Friendsombies we fled for the local bus stop on the far side of the airstrip. In the distance the low rumbling engine of the Louang Probang bus could be heard. Slowly it wound around the village hillsides. Just moments from certain zombification and it braked frantically, the driver pulling us aboard - we had escaped the zombifing curse of Vang Viang!

But not the machine gun wielding bus conductors; we weren't long coughing up the dough for the trip! The mission for Louang Probang, and we chose to accept it, was to visit some of the local temples and plan a route through China and the various sites we wanted to see; apparently they have a rather large wall there or something that's worth visiting.

Temples, wats (including one with a disco ball elephant's head!) and another visit to the yummy Joma cafe and we'd ticked all the boxes on our todo list - it was time to venture into 'The Plain of Jars' (PoJs)!

The PoJs is located around 8 hours weaving and winding from Louang Probang in a wee spot called Phonsavanh. The jars themselves lie in the heart of this region, which was the most heavily bombed area in Laos. As a little bit of scary trivia: More bombs were dropped on Laos by the United States than over Germany in the whole of the second world war; averaging one plane-load of bombs every eight minutes for nine years.

Unfortunately the legacy of this blanket bombing lives on as approximately 30% of the bombs did not explode on impact, effectively carpeting the landscape in a layer of mines. You see, most of the ordinance dropped were cluster bombs which open while descending and scatter tens of mini-bombs which arm themselves after they've dropped a certain distance. The trouble is though that the Americans often flew low due to heavy cloud coverage but proceeded to drop their payload regardless of the fact that the bombs would not have sufficient time to arm prior to impact, meaning they arm after crashing to earth and lie dormant until disturbed.

To further add to the tragedy, the Vietnamese are offering (a paltry sum of) money for the retrieval of scrap metal thus encouraging the locals to scour the land for UneXploded Ordinance (UXO). The week before we arrived four children were killed while searching for metal fragments, all too common an occurrence according to our guide.

That the jars themselves remain mostly intact is no small miracle. There are hundreds of them scattered around several sites in the region, although only three of the sites have been sufficiently cleared of ordinance to be opened to the public. Even these three are only sub-surface cleared along narrow paths lined with M.A.G. (the British Mines Advisory Group) markers.

It's quite an unusual experience to be threading a path through a potential mine field and it's hard to forget that straying too far from the M.A.G. white and red brick road could lead to a grisly end.

The jars are really worth seeing though, with some of them towering several feet over our heads! Careful examination of the jars and their sub-surface suggests that they were used as funerary urns, though the people that created them and their history have long since been lost to the passage of time.

Next stop: Xam Neua and the heart of the Laos resistance movement!


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