Journalism: Laos.

You are now entering the gates of Indo-China.’ These were the farewell words written on a wooden sign as we exited Thailand and crossed the border into Laos. A communist country, Laos is landlocked by the giants of South-East Asia – Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma) Vietnam, Cambodia and China. It holds the unfortunate record of being the most bombed country in the world. During the Vietnam War, it is estimated that the US Air Force dropped over two million tonnes of bombs and other ammunition to weaken support for the North Vietnamese resistance. A lot of these didn’t detonate and now the land is scattered with UXO’s (unexploded ordnance – a fancy name for Landmines). There are about 25 million pieces of unexploded ordnance around the countryside, injuring and killing around 50 civilians every year. ‘Bombies’ (The Laos term for UXO/landmines) from Britain, France and Japan have also been recovered. Planting crops has become impossibly dangerous, causing widespread poverty and starvation.
Centred in a region of growing tourism from the west, Laos too is becoming a number one destination for backpackers and holidaymakers alike. However, the government is unwilling to sell-out completely to western influences and Laos society still maintains a lot of it’s culture and traditions. Most of the population believe in magic and spirits, and tourists are still a novelty. It has a notoriously slow transport system and 80% of the roads are not asphalted, so most people travel by boat. Vientiane, it’s capital, is the most advanced area, while the rest of the population live rural and simple lives. Until recently, Vientiane had the only ATM in the country.
So, is there are bitterness towards western society?
You won’t find answers from the locals. They’re too afraid to talk about politics. In Phonsavan, I asked a tour guide about his opinion of America. He said: ‘We must be polite. To say we don’t like the U.S. is impolite, and we cannot say that. Yes, we like America.’

Couple this answer with the poster on the wall. It’s a typical animated display of do’s and don’ts in Laos. But unlike other countries, it’s not all about cultural taboos. Rather than illustrations of social etiquette, it shows how to avoid getting blown up.
Don’t dig in uncleared grass.
Don’t stray into fields marked with red stones from the MAG (Mines Advisory Group.)
If you find a mine, or a potentially explosive device, Don’t meddle with it: it WILL explode.

Memorabilia are everywhere. Some guesthouses use old bombshells as a makeshift fireplace. More often than not, you notice empty missiles serve as pillars and it’s not uncommon to see used grenades and rockets hanging on the wall. There’s a restaurant called “Craters”, but if you want to see the real craters, you only need to go a few kilometres outside the town. Close to the famous Plain of Jars, you can find a small cave where more than 100 people hid for years as the U.S. forces bombed everywhere around it. The craters look like they came from a meteor and are large enough to fill a small lake.
The people smile a lot. They’re quick with a joke, and quicker to tell you that you’ve just dropped your wallet. They’ll starve but they won’t rob you. It’s not uncommon to see kids stand at a restaurant window, hoping for leftovers. One U.S. dollar could feed a local family for two days. At any given time, the average tourist is a relative millionaire; capable of buying anything they want. The guidebook says not to give money to beggars, because it discourages work and self-sufficiency, but it’s hard to see the logic in that. The best effort at self sufficiency is to go to the fields and try dig up the mines. The parts are very valuable when dismantled, but it takes expertise. Every second person seems to be missing a limb from failed attempts at defusion.
We left on a Monday morning. It was raining and the bus leaked water from the gaping holes in the roof. There weren’t enough seats and some people sat on the floor. A young child squatted on the ground beside the door and relieved herself. Mine victims begged by the luggage compartment. Some had no arms; others were lucky enough to only lose a leg. Dental hygiene is poor and most locals have few or no teeth. They wave as the bus departs, showing gums that rarely taste food.  The rain cleared and the sun burst open, shining like a ring on God’s finger, but it’s just another day in Laos.

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