My sombre visit to UXO Laos Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang revealed some staggering facts – more than 2 million tonnes of explosive ordinance were dropped on Laos in the Secret War. This is more tonnage than was used during the whole of World War II!
Laos is the most bombed country in history. More bombs were dropped here per person than any other country in any other war. The carnage from UXO’s (UneXploded Ordinance) continues to this day with more than 20,000 killed or maimed in the 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War.
This free museum is in a small building within the UXO property not far from the centre of Luang Prabang and is extremely informative. There are a number of panels and physical displays that provide an excellent background to the circumstances that lead to the bombing of Laos and the massive impact and legacy it has had on the country. In an adjacent room they present two videos. One showing how the situation came about. The second shows how 4 different children came across bombies (small baseball sized bombs) and the impact it has had on them. It would appear that the second video is used as an educational tool.
I have included the second video below – it’s well worth viewing (approx. 10 minutes).
Why was Laos bombed?
During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese developed an elaborate system of mountain and jungle paths and trails through Laos and Cambodia to infiltrate troops and supplies into South Vietnam. This was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Secret War, which the Americans always denied, involved bombing raids over Laos to disrupt and destroy this supply line. It’s important to note that America was NOT at war with Laos.
The most disturbing thing that I found from my visit was that there were ‘rules of engagement’ for bombing Vietnam. For example, the Americans were not allowed to bomb within half a mile of a temple. However, no such rules existed for Laos as America was not ‘at war’ with them. Subsequently, they could bomb wherever they felt like!
Close to 240 million bombies were dropped on Laos over the nine years of the Vietnam War and it’s estimated that as many as 80 million failed to explode and are scattered throughout the country.
Bombies is the local term for the small baseball sized bombs that were released by cluster bombs dropped over Laos. The cluster bomb canister breaks open in mid-air and carpet bombs a wide area releasing anywhere from 680 to 4800 of the small bombies. Each bombie has a killing radius of 30 metres.
Here’s a video showing the devastation these cause.
The bombies are attractive to children that find them as they think they are balls and play with them. This has disastrous consequences. Additionally, they are also found by locals searching for scrap metal to make a few extra dollars to feed the family.
UXO Laos is an organisation that finds and removes UXO’s to make areas safe for local people and communities. They have an enormous task with the sheer volume and geographical spread of these bombs all over Laos and do a magnificent job with their limited resources. They also provide education to children, schools and communities on the dangers of UXO’s as a preventative measure.
This is not a well known ‘attraction’ in Luang Prabang but one that I recommend everyone who visits this beautiful town should seek out.
It is stark reminder of the cruelty that man can inflict on his fellow man.
I arrived in Laos via a Mekong River trip from Chiang Mai however fellow travellers Eveline and Ferenc made their way to Laos overland from Europe. They had some amazing experiences and have written an informative blog and recommendations about their adventure. You can read all about their trip here.
Footnote: There are also many other videos on YouTube about UXO’s in Laos – just do a search for UXO and Laos and you’ll find them. Here’s another one I found interesting.