Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita. Embarrassed about my ignorance of war history in this part of the world, I set out to the most bombed province in the country to learn more. And to see jars. Really big, old jars. And spoons.
In eastern Laos lies the ugly town of Phonsavanh - ugly for a good reason. The town was decimated during US aerial bombing campaigns then completely rebuilt in 1975 - an era not known for its architectural splendour. It is, however, the gateway to the soon-to-be-declared UNESCO world heritage sites called Plain of Jars.
A sort of 'Asian Stonehenge', there are over 2,000 enormous stone jars, spread across multiple sites around Phonsavanh. Estimated around 3,000 years old, there are varying theories about the purpose of the jars. Archaeologists think they were used as funeral urns and dragged to the sites by elephants. The more fun Lao legend theory is that they are giant whiskey vats and that the sites were a 'party central' zone for the spirits. Whilst they are clearly made of very heavy rock, Lao legend also claims they are made from sand, buffalo skin and sugar cane.
Before UNESCO would declare the sites world heritage, they had to be cleared of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Between 1964 and 1973, during the conflict with Vietnam, more than two million tonnes of ordnance (bombs) was dropped on Laos. That's roughly one planeload of bombs, every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years. 30% failed to detonate on impact, so the country is still riddled with bombs yet to go off (which they do). Each year, hundred of Lao villagers (many of whom are children) are killed or disabled after playing with or collecting the bombs for the highly-prized scrap metal dollars.
Clearing fields of UXOs is a dangerous and time-consuming task, but necessary to allow villages to live in safety. Not normally one to stick to a marked track, I made an exception on this occasion - straying off the tracks = potential "kaboom".
But there is some good news. One village is now funding its community by making spoons and bracelets out of aluminium and selling to people like me, who are now less ignorant about the horrors of war.