Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Fascinating Laos

From October 19-24 we had the privilege of traveling to Luang Prabang and Phonsavan of the Xieng Khouang province. We were totally unprepared for the beauty, adventure, and painful truth that awaited us. Consisting mostly of mountains, we were blessed to enjoy view after view of valleys, sunflower dotted hills, pine trees, villages, and vegetation with flowers of varying sizes, colours, and types. We were fascinated with not just the beauty of the country but its uniqueness. Where Thailand would at times have elephants on the road, Laos had lots of cows (!) and Hmong kids pushing their bikes up hill and riding them down, depending on the terrain. We visited their waterfalls and enjoyed the adventure of a lifetime trekking beside, across, on, or over the falls. We hiked for 1.5 hours on fallen logs, through a tree trunk, on rushing waters, and even through leech infested areas. The blood suckers got me twice but were thankfully removed before they became fat!

We also visited the Plain of Jars, a site that has hundreds of massive jars. The jars’ ancient use might have been to hold dead bones, or to hold something ceremonially used by their former king. Whatever they held can no longer be visibly seen but the jars are still standing there not willing to reveal their secret. What’s most eerie about the plains is the presence of bomb craters. Huge holes on the ground made by bombs dropped during the Vietnam War (1964-1973) are part of the scenery. The strangeness of huge jars sitting in the middle of a beautiful landscape with massive holes connected the ancient past with the not so distant past. Questions naturally arose. Since Laos was not part of the war, why was it bombed so much? We later found that the country is the record holder for being most bombed per capita in the world. Xieng Khouang is one of the most bombed province in the whole country. What were we doing there? We possibly stood in the most bombed place on earth!

There were actually foot markers so that we would know where to walk. If we left the marked path, we risked possibly stepping on an unexploded bomb. Sadly, many Lao have lost their lives or limbs doing just that, walking, or farming, and tragically connecting with a bomb or grenade cluster. Before we arrived there, 3 preschoolers lost their lives and two others were maimed when they found a grenade. Unfortunately, the effects of the bombs still haunt Laos today as it did then. Each year many Lao continually die. The majority of their un-farmed land is also due to the presence of bombs. The bulk of the countryside remains undeveloped until a team of bomb experts are able to sweep the land clean of them.

Laos is fascinating; stunningly beautiful, but painful to be in. Please pray with us for the Lao to rise above their plight, for progress to come, for healing to happen, and for forgiveness to be given.

Laos facts: in 9 years at least 1.36 million metric tonnes of bombs were dropped in the country. This is equal to 14 aircraft carriers. 1 metric tonne = 1000 kilos. Many of the bombs remain unexploded.