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.’


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

16 February 2022: Laos

I’m writing this 50 days after moving to my new home in Vientiane, Laos. I’ve spent half that time sequestered from my fellow human beings: 14 days in quarantine on my arrival and a week later a further 11 days in self-isolation after contracting Covid 19 (and yes, from which I’m now recovered, thank you for asking).

Covid restrictions have pretty well eliminated tourism in Laos. This is part of an abandoned circus by the Mekong. Photo: Simon Brown

In the remaining 25 days I’ve managed to get a handle on my local area – a village called Ban Donepamai in the district of Sisattanak – but other than a couple of walks through the city centre and along the Mekong River, I can’t really claim to have seen much of Vientiane let alone Laos.

For a city in southeast Asia it’s remarkably compact and small, with a population somewhere between 800,000 and a million, depending on which source you ask (compared with the eight to nine million people inhabiting Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, or even the two million plus living in Phnom Penh).

The Mekong from my quarantine hotel room. Photo: Simon Brown.

But then Laos itself seems remarkably compact, with an area about the same as the state of Victoria. It looks like an apostrophe tucked in between Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and China, and is southeast Asia’s only landlocked country. The Mekong runs through it the way the Nile runs through Egypt, providing not just water, silt and a transport route, but character as well. The Mekong also acts as a border between Laos and Thailand, and one of the most pleasant things to do in Vientiane is listen to the sound of bells and gongs drifting across the river from Buddhist wats.

Laos, a socialist country embracing communism, is controlled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The party’s hand lays very lightly on us foreigners. From our point of view, life in Vientiane runs just as it does in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, if at a much slower pace. People own their own small businesses and mainly serve their local community. At this level at least, entrepreneurship seems to be encouraged. Everybody works, and everybody works hard.

Laos has plenty of its own wats, most beautifully decorated. Photo: Simon Brown.

I’m sure censorship exists at some level, but so far I’ve not encountered it personally, and AJ has been told that she can teach any text relevant to her course. The only sign that we’re living in a one-party state is the slightly Orwellian speeches given every morning over loudspeakers. None of the loudspeakers seem to be near us, so what we hear is a metallically-distorted monologue that drifts across our district like a mumbled prayer from heaven. The tone is completely even, without any emotion at all, as if all that was being delivered were aircraft boarding announcements or department store messages.

As AJ told me soon after she arrived six months ago, Vientiane in 2022 is probably what Phuket was like in 1982. In my limited experience, the locals are formidably polite and quite reserved. They are always bustling and busy, either riding their scooters to or from work, or selling vegetables, take-away food or lottery tickets from behind makeshift stalls or shop-houses (with the living accommodation on the second floor or out back). As in Thailand, thick skeins of electric cable are suspended above every main street, and the faint waft of sewage drifts up from drains.

Electric cables so thick birds lay nests in them. Photo: Simon Brown.

Traffic is only busy at peak times, but even then everyone drives under 50 kph. If there are traffic rules, they’re interpreted differently by every driver, but drivers – and by necessity, pedestrians – are courteous and patient. There are some big SUVs and pickups around, but most cars are small Toyotas, Hyundais and Kias, and all of these are vastly outnumbered by the swarm of motor scooters that cough around the streets like asthmatic beetles. It’s a marvel to watch scooter-drivers spend half their time looking where they’re going and the other half checking their mobile phones while using some internal radar to avoid collisions.

AJ and I will be here for at least two years, possibly three or more, so plenty of time to get to know the city and the country, starting with the Plain of Jars in a couple of weeks and Luan Prabang in April. And, of course, once Covid restrictions ease (fingers crossed), Vientiane will make a good base for visits to Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. Rainforest, rivers, rapids, monsoons and the world’s best food bar none. I have to say, it’s wonderful being back in the tropics.

12 February 2022: Interregnum

Apologies to everyone for the long interval between blogs.

Over the last six months, AJ and I moved from Johannesburg, South Africa to Vientiane, Laos, travelling via Australia to catch up with family and friends. Because of the Covid 19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns, quarantines and interrupted international travel, this has been a long, long process.

As well, I’ve been planning on working on a major piece on human evolution for some time, something I’ve slowly – and somewhat painstakingly – put together over the last 10 months. The piece is based on a book a friend, palaeoanthropologist Colin Groves, and I were writing together. From the short few chapters we managed to write before his death in 2017, from memories of our many weekly conversations, and from subsequent conversations with his wife Phyll and colleague Debbie Argue, that piece is now all but done. Although nowhere near as comprehensive as the book would have been, it’s still far too long to be viewed in one go, and will appear on this blog over the next few weeks in six sections.

Pha That Luang, Vientiane. Photo: courtesy of Creative Commons (photographer unknown)

Almost as a counterpoint to thinking about human evolution – dealing with relatively deep time – I’ve also been thinking about more recent human history, something spurred on by the pandemic, as well as crises in the Ukraine and the West’s fumbling, erratic handling of the inevitable rise of China. In the process, I came across this short piece I wrote for a workshop two years ago, arguing that the Napoleonic War (or perhaps more accurately, wars) were an essential ingredient in the making of the modern world.

So here it is, the first in what I hope is a much more regular series of blogs.

Napoleon and the modern world

I know … boring Euro-centric, male-centric, and military-centric history. Not really history at all, at least not as its understood these days. But still, the effects of this long conflict did two things that helped establish the world we now live in. First, it saw the creation of the most dominant modern European states. Second, it led to the rabid drive to colonise and exploit Africa.

The so-called First World War – the Great War of 1914-18 – was no such thing. The first true world war was the Seven Years War and occurred in the 1750s . It was fought in Europe, the Mediterranean littoral, west Africa, North America, southern Asia and the Philippines. The Napoleonic War was more of the same – the Second World War, if you like – but with extra countries thrown in and fought on a much more massive scale: bigger armies, bigger battles, greater civilian casualties and dislocation, and huge fleets of giant wooden ships sailing across all seven seas.

Artist: Paul Delaroche. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons (photographer unknown)

One thing you have to say for the Europeans, when they throw a party they make sure everyone’s invited, whether they want to join in or not.

The Napoleonic War involved military, economic and social mobilisation on a scale never seen before. Just two examples: between 1805 and 1813, Napoleon conscripted over 2,000,000 soldiers, and by the end of the war British national debt reached 200% of GDP.

Of course, Napoleon was a megalomaniac, but he also introduced dramatic reforms or consolidated reforms brought in by the French Revolution. Just three examples: the legal system, the Civil Code, influenced similar codes throughout Europe; the metric system is now used almost universally; and state-sponsored voyages of scientific discovery.

The Napoleonic War entangled the US in its first international conflicts: first against the French themselves (their previous ally during the American Revolution), and then, in 1812, against the British (their previous opponent during the American Revolution).

Prussia’s success resisting the French during the war cemented its position as the leading German-speaking country – a process begun 50 years before under Frederick the Great – leading to the creation of the German state itself under the direction of the Prussian Bismarck.

It’s hard to measure to the last centimetre or the last centime or the last degree Celsius the effect all of this had on the rest of the world. But when we talk about nation states, modern economies, science, art, culture and yes, even history, we are dealing with many ideas that had their origin or first great flowering during the Napoleonic era. When the wars were finally done, the continent of Europe – exhausted and battered and Napoleon sent to his last exile on St Helena – experienced nearly a century of peace, something that had never happened before. Instead European states competed with each other overseas, most dramatically in the race to colonise Africa during the 1800s.

The raw materials of the modern world can be found in early European colonialism and 18th century industrialisation, but for all its benefits we enjoy and all its crosses we bear, it was forged during the Napoleonic War.