A tourist day. Kong Kee’s guesthouse is recommended by reviews on booking.com and in
Lonely Planet (the latter a nice bonus for me when I spotted it, having booked). The owner, Kong’s, tours are also recommended, and after getting up early to keep my options open, I decided to splurge the money (280,000 kip with three people, prices vary with the no. of takers) on a tour of all three sites, rather than rent Kong’s bike. That freed the bike up for a German girl, who later reported that she hadn’t been able to find any other bicycles to rent in town (so be decisive if you want one, though
the town is growing so quickly that maybe it will not be an issue – currently 52,000 people, but it is a tourist hotspot and will be the site of the ‘Lao Olympics’).
Immediately it felt like a good decision, with Kong’s initial warmth and good humour setting the tone, albeit qualified early on by the gravity of what he told us about the secret war. The war was secret in the sense that no one really acknowledged it was happening; even now information boards will tell you that US airplanes flew out of Thailand to bomb Vietnam, dropping bombs on Laos only when they couldn’t drop them on Vietnam, because returning with a full load was dangerous. In reality, though, some areas were clearly targeted. For a start, Vietnam only took c.20% of the munitions dropped, which seems low if they were always the target. Near Phonsavan, 60odd people were killed in a cave, by a rocket strike (not a simple bomb dump, that). Plus friendly soldiers were told that to stay safe they should avoid temples, and avoid livestock. That’s because those were targets, the logic being that people would be nearby.
We headed straight for the tourist information centre (which is not in the centre of town, so fairly quiet, at least at this time of year) for war info and a sight of the munitions. Kong pointed out the secret area, between Phonsavan and Vientiane, which is still closed to tourists, and showed how tourist travel routes have to go round it. He wouldn’t tell us what was in the area till we were out of the info centre, showing that it is still sensitive, even in English. All that’s there is whatever the US left – it is said that people are still fighting, but Kong has been many times and not found them. More likely that as part of the deal done at the end of the war, it was agreed to not allow foreigners too near the area – military secrets, or proof of involvement, hidden.
With the scene set, we headed for Site 1. There are many many sites with Jars on;
Kong explained that the numbering is just done by proximity to the town (and some sites are as yet uncleared of ‘UXO’, unexploded ordnance, possibly they are being cleared in order, too). My cousin came here some years ago and so won’t have seen the new visitors’ centre (opened in 2013) and possibly the site has been further developed. The flowers look well maintained, at least. Kong’s tour covered the entry fee, but it is just 10,000 kip to each site (<£1).
The largest jar, 10 tonnes or so, is on site 1. All are big and heavy, though, so moving them from the mountain at which they were carved is in itself an impressive feat. The original thought was that people were cremated in the central cave, then their ashes spread, then that bodies were placed into the jars to decompose, then the bones buried next to the jars. That would account for the bones found by the jars, when excavated, at most sites (site 52 is an exception – maybe it was for storage). Really, the truth is not known, though it seems most likely that people were buried first, then a jar erected by the body as soon as the family could afford/move one. But work is ongoing in Australia to identify and age the bones, and to prove bones can be found next to jars at sites other than the mysterious area… er, site, 52. Kong’s parting shot was that the ancient Lao people must have wondered ‘how will we get Falang people here in 3,000 years time’ and worked on a long-term tourism project, which is a good gag to end on.
We moved on to sites 2 and 3, which are not as large, but both different. Although all the sites are called ‘plains’, they are always on a hill of some kind, even if not the highest around, probably to spare them from flooding. Site 2 is mystical feeling, at least with the peace and quiet we had, midweek, out of season, while Site 3 is a brief walk through rice paddies. The infrastructure is changing rapidly, though.
Ignore the signs that say there is a waterfall between 2 and 3, as that doesn’t exist any more. And if your guidebook says it’s a 2km trek to site 3, don’t worry – right now, it’s 500m or so and who knows, maybe it will be even shorter by the time you get here. If your day is punctuated by explosions, don’t worry – that’s the MAG teams working to remove UXO.
We headed back, avoiding cows who are just as happy walking across the ro
ad as standing in the middle of it, though mostly they were heading home at 4pm, as conscious of the time as the MAG groups who head away around then, so you might see their vans parked by the houses they’ve rented in the area, assuming they haven’t cleared it by then.
For one final bit of sightseeing, I walked out the back of Kong Kee to the Wet Market. I wasn’t shopping (though I did get some flip-flops for $2.5), just curious to see it – it is on the site of the old airbase, until 1997 a civilian airport, but during the war, a US one. Plenty of space to grow, but I found it heartening to see a
thriving market, Garden hotel and, at the end of the runway, a golf driving range, bouncy playpark, bars and a restaurant – repurpose the infrastructure of war for entertainment. Which, incidentally, is what Kong has done, with a fire lit each night in an old bomb casing in the covered social area.
For more about the Secret War, see legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/, and there are documentaries on Youtube.
Stayed: Kong Kee guesthouse. Saw: bombs, guns, stone jars, saddening and happy info.