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LAOS: Bombarded

November 7, 2000

Between 1960 and 1973 the USA dropped more bombs on the country of Laos Peoples Democratic Republic (the PDR, then the Royal Kingdom of Laos) then it did in both World War I and World War II combined. Now, some 30 years later, riding by pirogue, small wooden river boat, through the heaviest bombed area in the country I have a hard time distinguishing between cleared off land and bombed out land.

The region of Attapu was the heaviest hit due to its location. As the head of the Ho Chi Min Trail that connected North Vietnam with Cambodia, this part of the country was a natural target – bombs and Agent Orange, as well as other unknown chemicals, ripped through the place.

Cruising along the river (because at this point in time trekking anywhere outside the established towns is impossible due to UXOs: Un-Exploded Ordinance) some people on the banks and in other boats wave, others smile – they all stare. There are over a dozen different ethnic groups in this tiny district in the southeast of Laos, consisting mainly of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao Loum people.

Travel through the area is relatively easy. The moment you step outside you’re immediately bombarded by people asking: “Where you go?” But you have to be considerately patient with the mode of transportation and equally patient with the amount of time it’ll take you to get where you’re going.

Leaving Pakxe on our way to Xe Kong, Bill, my good friend and one of the key people helping me with therewewere, and I sat in the back of a huge chicken truck turned open air bus for a full hour and a half before it left. Benches spaced one foot behind another, perfect if you’re Lao, little better than sitting inside a Happy Meal box if you’re a falang, a foreigner. Fairly soon we started up a conversation with a Lao student a row in front of us. He had been smiling in agony – trying to think of something to say in English no doubt – for a few minutes when Bill finally helped the poor guy.

Sambadi. Hello.” Said Bill. With that the fellow almost fell off the bench he was sitting in. He responded immediately.

Looking directly at me he said, “You are beautiful!”

Okay, I thought, I like these people. Bill and I laughed and we all proceeded on with the conversation, which didn’t last too much longer due to language barriers. As soon as the bus got moving we exchanged a few “Very cold”s, because of the air blasting through the truck, and I would occasionally say my few Lao phrases – Hello, Thank you, Bread – just to get a smile and some laughs out of him. “Speak Lao,“ he would say and giggle.

After four hours of sitting on a wooden bench and saying “bread” in Lao while the bus stopped every 100 yards to pick up/drop off people, I was ready to disembark the vehicle. The town of Xe Kong was, as a UNDP funded brochure said: “A place where nothing happens.” Bill and I sat sipping tea doing not much more than that. The idea of getting on another bus for four hours certainly didn’t make me clap my hands together with excitement; we decided to stay in Xe Kong and do nothing for a day.

The next and only thing we had to do then was to find a hotel in town. Hiking around the handful of streets, Bill and I walked into the empty Sekong Hotel.

“Sambadi,” I said, asking the girl behind the desk if we could get a room. She seemed to understand and the two of us grunted back and forth about fans, air-con, bathrooms and floors. Ready to checks us in, she handed me the ledger. I pointed to my eye however; I wanted to see the room first, not that we had much of an option, it being the only hotel in town.

What she showed us looked fine – nice fan, working shower, clean sheets – but there was only one bed. “No. Two beds.” I said and the girl smiled. We walked back downstairs to the desk, only to have her shove the ledger back under my nose. “No,” I said to her. “We. Need. Two. Beds.” And to Bill, “What’s the word for bed?” As he looked through the guidebook the girl and I went deep into debate. The more Lao she spoke the more English I spoke. We would take turns pausing though, to smile at each other making sure neither of us was too upset.

“It’s not in here,” said Bill and I grabbed the book out of his hands. Now I know how all those poor non-English speaking people feel when they’re yelled at with what must sound similar to what this girl was saying to me: noise.

“Khoi wao phasa lao dai noi neung. I only speak a little Lao.” I said, as the only word that kept popping into my head was khao djii, bread.

Eventually, with some drawings and hand gestures we found a room.

“Okay?” She said and I nearly fell on my face.

“See!” I said. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Okay!”

In every interaction I’ve had with the Lao people I’ve yet to come across one who didn’t manage a smile, a grin or two, and a few laughs. While Bill and I were in Attapu watching the sunset over the Xekong an overheard conversation made me think harder about the incredible friendliness of these people. A few ex-pats were sitting at the table next to ours. One of them was a Norwegian working for the UXO in the area. He was explaining that they had just found another unexploded bomb nearby – painted with a large American flag. As it turned out the bomb was some type of chemical weapon and when the UXO asked the American government about its contents America said only “secret weapons act” and closed its doors. The Norwegian continued on to say that their only option now is to dig a hole and push the bomb into it, bury it and place a chain fence around it; time will see to its outcome.

It’s my guess that with all the new tourist influx into southern Laos recently, and a new dam being constructed on the Vietnamese border by foreign companies, the Lao people will have that much more reason to practice their English: “Where you go? Watch out for the bombs.”

-Sarah Reed Bargren
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