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  1.  Arriving exhausted in the early evening in Phonsavannh (or Phonsavan)) after an 8-hour journey across the mountains, it was a bit daunting to be driven straight to the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) centre to be told that we had been booked into a 50-minute film, “Bombies”, about the effects of unexploded ordnance (UXO).  However, the film turned out to be riveting, horrifying, and should be compulsory viewing. You can watch it here.

    For me one of the most chilling facts to emerge from the film was that the US dropped more bombs on Laos than they did on Germany and Japan together during the whole of World War Two, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world. And this in spite of the US signing the 1962 Geneva Agreement in which they pledged to uphold Lao neutrality and non-interference. However, the CIA harnessed the support of Hmong villagers to wage battle in what is known as ‘the Secret War’ against the Communist Pathet Lao in the north (particularly the Xieng Khuoang district where we were) and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the south (the Vietnamese of course, having also violated the Agreement by constructing this supply route).  

    The MAG Centre in Phonsavannh


     The following, annotated from the MAG website gives some idea of the work of MAG and the situation in Laos.

    MAG was set up in 1989, by two brothers in the north of England after witnessing the suffering to civilians caused by landmines and unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan. Later Princess Diana developed close ties with MAG, which focused world attention on the problem of UXO.

    MAG states thatMore than two million tons (1.8 billion kg) of bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1973, including over 270 million submunitions (also known as "bombies"). [NB Bombies are cluster bombs, each containing 300 ball-bearings primed to explode on impact]. Up to 30 percent failed to explode, remaining ‘live’ in the ground after the end of the war, but there is no reliable estimate of the extent of contamination remaining.

    By the end of 2012, there had been at least 50,000 casualties (including 29,000 deaths) from incidents involving this unexploded ordnance (UXO). All 17 of the country’s provinces and around a quarter of all villages still suffer from UXO contamination. 80 per cent of people in affected areas are still using land that they know or suspect to be contaminated with deadly explosives.

    The presence of UXO is also a major cause of poverty, preventing people from using land and denying access to basic services such as healthcare and education. Forty-one out of the 45 poorest districts in Laos are affected by UXO contamination.

    MAG became the first international humanitarian mine action organisation to start working in Laos in 1994.

    Between March 2004 - April 2015 MAG has helped 612,186 men, women and children; returned 46,808,448m² land to safe and productive use; removed & destroyed 149,497 UXO  items; held 1,511 risk education sessions:

    The film we watched highlighted the issues raised above and showed the work of MAG and some of its partners in action.  There has also been a focus on building teams of female bomb disposal squads, thus improving the status of women in the villages.

    The cafe opposite the MAG Centre calls itself Craters and its decor is self-explanatory.


    The hotel we stayed in, The Hillside Residence, also made a decorative feature of various items of ordnance.


    The hotel must have been a rather grand house once; not so grand now, though the proprietor was very friendly.  I can honestly say, that even after a strenuous journey and a traumatic film, I hardly slept a wink because of the night-time chorus that assaled my ears. Firstly came the delightful tokay gecko. He woke up the gangs of marauding, squabbling dogs who spent the night fighting over the contents of the town’s dustbins. They were finally shut up at about 3 am by a retinue of crowing cockerels that went on till I could stand it no longer and got up at about 6 am. Luckily the day to follow was so interesting that I didn’t nod off at all.

  2. To get to the Xieng Khouang Plateau from Vang Vieng by road involves a journey of some 6-8 hours (depending on how often you stop) across part of the highest mountain area in Laos. The tallest peak, Phou Bia stands at 2819 m (compare with Ben Nevis at 1344 m) and is a little further south than the road we travelled. Nevertheless we were surrounded by mountains of up to almost 2000 m for most of the route. The views were stunning – forested (and, alas, deforested) ranges stretching to the horizon. We were really on top of the world. Of course here also the results of slash and burn agriculture were never out of sight.

    The road into the mountains




    Before we started to climb in earnest, we made some notable stops not far from Vang Vieng. Two years ago we had climbed off the road into a temple complex, the far side of which afforded spectacular views of a village beneath a particularly awesome peak. I was very pleased to have found this place again – and I could actually ‘guide the guide’, as he did not know it. The area is well-known for producing Lao oranges.

    View from the temple near Vang Vieng


    An Australian Aid poster warning about Foot and Mouth Disease was a reminder of the vulnerability of a country where cattle abound and which is surrounded by so many other countries. Cattle in Lao are small and chestnut brown.


    We also stopped at a roadside market that sold wild-life products. This, alongside deforestation is a major problem in Lao – as it is in the whole of Indochina and the Far East. It was a distressing stop for all of us. All kinds of animals, including squirrels and rat-like creatures, birds, tortoises, lizards, amphibians and land crabs, crammed into tiny cages ready for slaughter and consumption. Deer parts, drowned creatures in wine bottles, just as I have seen in China.  Although the government is ostensibly trying to stamp out trapping and hunting of wildlife, tradition is very strong among tribes that have relied on this method of survival throughout their history - the concepts of cruelty to animals, conservation and ecotourism are alien to the culture. It will take many years and a huge international funding effort to change these cultural perceptons. The people selling these products are well aware that what they are doing is illegal, and tried to stop us from taking photographs.

    Stalls selling wildlife products


    As we drove on up and through the mountains I reflected on the fact that Indochina has an drained kind of beauty – stripped of so many of its wild creatures the gorgeous hills are something of an empty shell. I tried to suppress my depressing thoughts and focus on the breath-taking vistas.

    We stopped at the Phou Pieng restaurant at the top of the pass though the mountains. The views from here are certainly unsurpassed in Laos. If the restaurant was mind-blowing, the toilets were even more so. I have no hesitation in saying that they are the most spectacular toilets I have ever seen. Show me any, anywhere in the world, that come close. A row of ladies toilet cubicles – some western sit-upons, some the crouching type, all clean enough to eat your lunch off (almost...)  Enthroned upon your perch you look straight out at the distant ranges – no window to impede the view, all open-plan! The only construction between you and infinity is a wide area of decking adorned with elaborate pots of orchids and other exotics. We spent a good half hour trying to get decent photographs of the toilet plus the view but because of the bright sunlight outside it was almost impossible.

    View from Phou Pieng restaurant at the top of the world


    View from the Phou Pieng toilets!


    After this exotic lunch break we carried on through the mountains. Our guide, Mr Koh, pointed out some Hmong (mountain tribe) villages with their thatched roofs. We asked to stop at one. The elderly lady inhabitant invited us inside her house. We admired the huge, tidy room, with a small sleeping room at the side. Huge sacks of grain were piled against the far wall – the fruits of the harvest from their surrounding fields, where the young people were all hard at work.

    Hmong village






    We rolled into Phonsavan, the capital of Xieng Khouang district in the early evening. It had been a long, thought-provoking day.