Vientiane, Laos

11 11 2009
Jar of jam?

Jar of jam?

We took a quick flight from Siem Reap to Vientiane ($120) on Lao Airlines (possible motto: It is not as bad as you think). The plane was new and the flight went smoothly. Actually, security at the Cambodian Siem Reap Airport was very thorough.  They carefully went through Alexa’s carry-on bag, even checking her book to see if it hid anything, looked in the pack of cards, and finally took away our tweezers.

Our last day in Siem Reap we visited the land mine museum, run by Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier who has a lifetime of experience setting and now removing mines. Most of the mines and other nasty handmade traps using explosives demonstrated a gruesome creativity in setting traps designed to kill and maim. In a country that has seen so much warfare in the last century, maybe something as seemingly harmless as a set of tweezers can be used as a weapon when in the hands of a creative and dedicated killer. We had seen cruder explosive devices at the mine museum, so we let them keep the tweezers without any protest and got on the plane.

Along the Mekong

Along the Mekong

In Vientiane we visited the U.S. Embassy to get extra pages in our passports (we are lucky enough that our passports are close to full of stamps and visas from all of our travels) and walked around the capital city of Laos, located on the banks of the Mekong River. We visited some nice wats (temples), museums in the city and rented a motorbike to drive along a dirt track next to the Mekong River and through farm fields outside of the capital city.

Jason also visited a Mines Advisory Group (MAG) office in Vientiane that serves as an information center and central office for their work in Laos. We have seen MAG de-mined areas in Vietnam, where unexploded ordnance (UXO) removal groups are working to make areas safe for farmers and children. If you lived in Laos and also mistook the object in the photo above as a jar of jam or anything else, you could have suffered from a blinding explosion and received a face full of shrapnel and a blown off hand (at best) for guessing wrong. We had never seen cluster bomblets before and had no idea what they looked like, but in the museums of SE Asia, they are common sight. The scary thing is that they do not look like normal bombs or explosives.

UXO map

Laos UXO map

According to MAG, 80% of the UXO they have cleared in Laos is from cluster bombs. For those that don’t know, cluster bombs are large bomb canisters that are dropped in order to disperse roughly 100 to 1,000 bomblets (submunitions) that fall over a wide area. These bomblets have an internal fuse intended to ensure that they detonate either in the air, upon reaching the ground, or in a delayed mode with the goal of killing all of the enemy in the area. Unfortunately, MAG estimates that up to ⅓ of the most commonly used cluster bomb submunitions dropped in Laos by the United States did not explode. The CBU-24 was the main type of cluster bomb dropped on Laos by the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s and one CBU-24 bomb contained 670 bomblets. With up to 30% of the bomblets not exploding (and a total of 250 million submunitions dropped from 1965-1973), many areas of the country are still littered with these deadly devices.

Buddha statues

Buddha statues

In Cambodia (and Vietnam), it was common to see young children who had lost arms, legs and eyes from UXO accidents. While touring the ruins of Angkor Wat, we were serenaded by traditional musicians who had set up near the temples to provide Khmer music as people wandered the ruins in the hopes of receiving tips from tourists. Many of these musicians were UXO victims. At one restaurant in the tourist section of Siem Reap, we had over five different children or young adults who had lost limbs and eyes from UXO accidents come to our table to beg. Trust us, it is difficult to ignore an injured child beggar who has been horribly maimed while trying to enjoy a meal. What do you do, do you give a dollar to each (and there are many) of the maimed panhandlers? To assuage our conscience we chose to give a lump sum to MAG in the hope that more UXO will be removed and fewer children will be maimed in the future.

Vientiane wat

Vientiane wat

In 2008, 100 countries signed a treaty to ban the use and manufacture of cluster munitions. The Bush administration, along with China and Russia, refused to sign the treaty. Maybe the new Obama administration will take a new stance on these weapons that have such a tragic long-term effect for civilians, mainly farmers and children. According to our guidebook, 40% of the victims of UXO accidents in Laos are children.

As we head north into the remote areas of the country of Laos, we will tread lightly and keep to well-traveled areas. Next stop is the tourist loony-land of Vang Vieng.

***click to enlarge photos***


Aerial 'gift'

Aerial 'gifts'


Temple complex

Temple complex




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