The Most Bombed Country in the World
Notice bomb shells integrated into architecture
Laos has the dubious distinction of being “the most bombed country in the world”, a record that no country wishes to hold. The province of Xieng Khuang, where we are currently traveling, is “the most bombed region” in “the most bombed country in the world” meaning we are surrounded by shrapnel, craters, blown up tanks, trenches, and no-growth zones.
Missiles, mines, mortar shells, and cluster bomblets litter the landscape. Reminders of the various wars are everywhere including in the local architecture. We saw shells and missile casings decorating stilt houses, shacks, guesthouses and even the local Internet cafe. Talk about surreal.
So who dropped all this on Laos? Well, various conflicts have left their marks on the country, but the Vietnam War, known as the second Indochinese War here in Laos, caused most of the damage. It is estimated that America dropped an incredible 260 million bombs on Laos during the course of the conflict, more than all of World War II. And all this despite the fact that America had signed treaties stating that it would recognize Laos as neutral and stay out of the country.
So why did America bomb Laos more than it bombed Vietnam? This was a very perplexing question to me. Wouldn’t Vietnam be the most bombed country in the Vietnam War? As part of the Indochinese conflict, America was waging a secret war against the Pathet Lao resistance in the north while making cross border raids on the Ho Chi Minh trail in the south. This explains some of the attacks. But, shockingly, much of the bombing of Laos was pure laziness. American bombers called off attacks on northern Vietnam used to dump their loads on Laos so that they didn’t have to go through special procedures required when landing fully loaded. Unbelievable.
The shocking level of bombardment was worsened by the types of munitions used. Cluster bombs exploded into thousands of bomblets which rained down into the surrounding landscape. A large percentage of the bomblets didn’t explode on impact but rather fell into rice fields, the jungle, and the mountainous karst landscape.
Even today, locals regularly step on bomblets while tilling their fields or stumble across bomblets lodged in trees or cliffs. The small ball-like, metal objects are painted bright yellow attracting children who do not understand what they are picking up. Because bomblets are specifically designed to kill rather than wound, such accidents often result in death rather than losing a limb.
Cement markers guide tourists through unsecured fields at the famous Plain of Jars
Even for tourists, the UXO problem in Laos is quite obvious. Huge sections of the landscape are still uncleared, so you can’t just hike around the countryside. While visiting the Plain of Jars, visitors bear witness to huge bomb craters among the jars, and several of the jars have been destroyed by bombs or damaged by shrapnel. But what really brings the message home is that visitors must explore the various jar sites on clearly designated paths marked with red and white cement markers. It was amazing to me that we were walking around past fields that had still not been cleared. No shortcuts here, you stick to the beaten path, or else.