Craters from U.S. air strikes, often used as fishponds or for irrigating crops, pock rice fields in Xiangkhouang Province. Years of bombing didn’t oust communist forces in Laos.
Craters from U.S. air strikes, often used as fishponds or for irrigating crops, pock rice fields in Xiangkhouang Province. Years of bombing didn’t oust communist forces in Laos.

Laos Finds New Life After the Bombs

The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos from 1964 to 1973 during the Vietnam War. That’s equal to a planeload every 8 minutes for 9 years. How does a country recover?

For days up there on the Plain of Jars I’d been trying to capture an image, find a metaphor, crystallize an idea that could convey what it means for Laos to have been one of the most heavily bombed nations in history and then to have gone on and somehow found a future. Finally, right there on a busy main street of Phonsavan, the provincial capital, I found it: a giant pile of bomb casings left over from the American bombing campaign in Laos, a stupendous and futile torrent of airborne destruction. And just beyond the junk heap of weaponry, a new ATM machine. Bright blue and gleaming white, this beckoning pagoda of money dwarfed the rusting debris of a half-forgotten war. After inspecting the bomb casings, I walked over to the ATM, stuck in my debit card, and pulled out one million kip, about $120. All those 50,000-kip notes spewing out of the machine told a new story about Laos, where an age of bombs has given way to an age of money.

Once, here in Xiangkhouang Province, children grew up barely seeing the sun. People spent years hiding in caves and tunnels. Now Phonsavan is so busy it has traffic lights with digital displays showing how many seconds pedestrians have to cross the street—not that you need cross the street to find a bank, a restaurant, a market full of fresh fruit and vegetables, a shop selling running shoes. Along with the fabled megalithic urns on the Plain of Jars, whose purpose still mystifies archaeologists, the debris of the American air war that lasted from 1964 to 1973 has become part of a public relations campaign to attract tourists: That heap of bomb casings is displayed in front of the local tourism office.

With its undulating hills and grassy flatlands, the Plain of Jars in some places resembles a giant golf course. The sand traps here were made by falling bombs, millions of which exploded. Millions more did not, creating a permanent danger, especially to those entrepreneurial Laotians who make money salvaging valuable metal from unexploded bombs.

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