LAOS, May 2017—Laos appears, when looking at it from the seat of a motorbike, like an enchanted land. A heavily forested nation of mountains, karsts, and valleys that are often covered in mist in the early morning. The food is terrific; you see and taste ethnic Lao influences in parts of both neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. The people are lovely.
It is, however, a difficult place to get people to speak freely.
Communist governments tend towards paranoia, imagining the CIA around every corner and in this case—though many years have passed—that fear has at least a historical basis.
From the late 1950s until the last days of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, CIA intelligence and paramilitary officers worked from remote mountain villages and secret airstrips throughout Laos, recruiting and training Hmong tribesmen to fight the North Vietnamese, and the Laotian Pathet Lao, as well as controlling a vast secret air war. The undeclared and largely unknown war on this tiny Southeast Asian nation continued for nearly two decades—and in the end, more high explosives had been dropped on the country than on Germany and Japan during all of World War II.
A lot of those explosives did not detonate, leaving unexploded bombs and bomblets scattered throughout the countryside today—enormous amounts—left for farmers and their children who weren’t even born during the conflict to stumble across and cause to explode—usually with horrifying results.
We’ve looked at this situation before on a previous series. But it is worth reminding people—as well as examining again, to see how the relatively tiny, but determined clean-up effort is going.
Most Americans aren’t aware of Laos—much less the secret war there—or the scale of the problems left behind. And this is sad and wrong.
We should know where we are talking about when we finally do talk about Laos, and who was involved.
Laos, like I said, is beautiful. It is a place, despite its government’s archaic policies and behavior, worth visiting and experiencing. It is—and feels like—a gentle place where one encounters many kindnesses. The wounds of war are still fresh in Laos—and still causing harm, both physical and psychological. The sooner they are healed, the better for those who live there, and the better for those of us who love to visit it.
(Editor’s note from Explore Parts Unknown: CNN and Roads & Kingdoms have been alerted by another website to instances of plagiarism by the writer of the article “The Perfect Day in Luang Prabang.” Specifically, sections of the paragraph referring to the Tangor restaurant were plagiarized. We have removed the piece and the writer is no longer working for Explore Parts Unknown. Trust, integrity and simply giving credit where it’s due are among the tenets of journalism that we hold dear, and we regret that we published material that did not reflect those standards. We also believe in letting audiences know when we’ve remedied situations that threaten to compromise that trust. We apologize to Travelfish and Cindy Fan, who wrote the original article.)