27 April 2022: Past and present in Xieng Khouang

After American planes had finished their bomb run, a six-year old girl joined others in escaping the cave in the hills of Xieng Khouang where they’d been hiding. But as she and the other children played, one plane returned and dropped one last bomb.

Inside the cave at the Plain of Jars Site 1. The hole in the ceiling of the cave is artificial to let out smoke and let in light. This cave and many like it in Xieng Khouang were used as places of refuge during the Indochina War.

A piece of shrapnel hit the girl in the right leg. Her grandmother, who’d also been outside, was killed outright. Her father carried the girl on his back for 25 kilometres to the cave where a medical team could be found.

That six-year old girl grew up with one damaged leg. She could not labour in the fields like her parents and siblings, nor could she weave. Instead she opened a small store at the junction of three roads in Phonsavan, the province’s capital, selling beer and cigarettes, school exercise books and biscuits, and soap and toothpaste.

Now, 54 years later, her daughter Sakhone Bounthala runs the store and the small pharmacy she herself opened next door.

‘I grew up working in my mother’s shop. It was the last thing I wanted to do when I grew up, so I studied pharmacy. And yet here I am.’

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Plain of Jars Site 1.

Xieng Khouang is a province about 200 kilometres north of the Laos capital, Vientiane. For Westerners it is best known  for the Plain of Jars, a megalithic archaeological location of great importance which in 2019 was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Plain of Jars is set among rolling hills at the end of the Annamite Range, Indochina’s long mountainous spine. The thousands of stone jars that give the place its name were built during Southeast Asia’s iron age, between 500 BC and 500 CE. No one knows who made the jars, although it seems likely they were related to the Hmong population now living in the province, and no one really knows what happened to their civilisation.

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Sakhone doesn’t just run the pharmacy and general store. With her husband David Deweppe she also operates a bed and breakfast in Phonsavan called PuKyo – Lao for Green Mountain. While David, a Belgian who found his true love and true home in Laos, looks after the guest house, Sakhone takes time from the two stores to take guests on guided tours to the Plain of Jars and other nearby sites.

The PuKyo B&B in Phonsavan, Xieng Khouang’s capital.

The Covid pandemic hasn’t been kind to any country’s tourism industry, but developing countries like Laos have been hit particularly hard. Recently, however, borders are opening up and the flow of tourists is now a steady trickle.

AJ and I were part of a small group of friends that stayed at PuKyo for a brief three days, the first time the guest house had been filled for over two years. During our short visit there was the definite sense that life in Phonsavan was returning to something like normal: the roads were busy with traffic, shops were open, people were frequenting restaurants and cafes and promenading on the walkway around the town’s reservoir.

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Bomb casings at the Plain of Jars museum.

For the nine year from 1964 to 1973, Laos suffered on average a bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day. The USA dropped more ordnance on Laos than it did on Germany and Japan during WWII. For the size of its population, Laos is the most bombed country on Earth. Up to 30% of those bombs failed to detonate, and still litter the countryside.

Xieng Khouang was the second most bombed province in Laos. Unexploded ordinance (UXO) contaminates 25% of its villages. Between 1964 and 2008, there have been 50,000 casualties of UXO, and 20,000 of those casualties have occurred  since the Second Indochina War ended in 1974. It’s estimated that over 80 million bomblets (from cluster bombs) remain undetonated.

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Not all the jars are the same size or shape. These elongated jars can be found at Site 2.

In the 1930s a French archaeologist, Madeleine Colani investigated the Plain of Jars. There are 17 sites in total, scattered over the province, and only the main one, Site 1, is actually located on a plain. The other sites are located on hills or ridges.

Some of the jars have trees growing out of them.

Colani thought Site 1 marked the centre of the civilisation that built the jars, and from the bones, ash and beads she found thought the jars were built to hold cremated remains. Burials were also found around the jars, containing tools, pots, knives and jewelry, possibly because family members belonging to whomever was cremated were interred around them.

After Colani, the next major investigation was well after the war, during the 1990s, followed by a Lao-Australian dig that lasted from 2016-2020. The results of these later expeditions seemed to confirm Colani’s original hypothesis about the purpose of the jars.

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One of the heroes of Laos is Kommaly Chanthavong, a woman who learned the art of silk weaving from her mother when she was five years old.

Weaver at work at the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm.

In 1976 she used what little money she had to buy looms and employed war-displaced women to operate them. At first known as the Phontong Weavers, they eventually became better known as the Phontong Handicraft Cooperative, a network of Lao artisans that now spans 35 villages and connecting 450 artisans.

Impressed by her success, in the 1990s the Lao government gave the cooperative 42 hectares of land just outside Phonsavan for use as a silk farm. But there was one catch. Like the rest of the province, the land had been heavily bombed and was littered with UXO. The cooperative itself removed the bombs and then set about planting mulberry trees. Those 42 hectares of land now makes up the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm.

All the silk is dyed with colours made from locally sourced leaves, berries, bark and roots.

As with the PuKyo guest house, we were among the first tourists to visit the farm in more than two years. During that time they had continued their work, growing trees and raising silkworms, then collecting, spinning, dyeing and weaving the silk they got from the animals’ cocoons. With the silk they make extraordinarily beautiful clothing and accessories such as bags and scarves.

Kommaly Chanthavong travelled from village to village throughout the country, encouraging young people to become involved in the industry, and the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm has played an important part in training more than two thousand farmers and weavers from five provinces, helping to create over three thousand jobs.

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One of the bomb craters that pockmark the Plain of Jars.

Because Site 1 at the Plain of Jars offers sweeping views of the surrounding area it became a prime target of bombers during the Second Indochina War. Ancient jars were blown apart or completely obliterated. Even today, when wandering around the site, tourists run the risk of falling into bomb craters and trenches.

It’s a terrible irony that a place used to cremate and bury the deceased became a killing field two thousand years later. The descendants of those who made the jars have paid a heavy toll in dead and wounded for the Second Indochina War, a toll many of them still pay when they till their farms, or when children play in the fields, or when they simply walk along the hills, the ridges and valleys of Xieng Khouang.

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The walkway around Phonsavan’s reservoir.

The people of the province – and its landscape – have been scarred by war, but while the past is something they cannot forget they’re not allowing it to shape their future.

AJ and I will definitely return to the PuKyo in the near future, not only to treat ourselves to Sakhone and David’s hospitality once more, but to visit the gentle rolling plains and hills with their megalithic stone jars, and to revisit the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm, and to spend more time with Xieng Khouang’s gentle, enterprising and resilient inhabitants.

(All photos: Simon Brown.)

For those interested in visiting Xieng Khouang, PuKyo B&B can be found here on Facebook.

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