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Plain truth

Atop a lonely hill in a wide, windswept basin ringed by mountains, the full weight of mankind's ingenuity, ability and cultural enigma stood before us — backdropped by the even fuller weight of its occasional hubris, jingoism and inhumanity.

Atop a lonely hill in a wide, windswept basin ringed by mountains, the full weight of mankind's ingenuity, ability and cultural enigma stood before us — backdropped by the even fuller weight of its occasional hubris, jingoism and inhumanity. First to the former.

There's Stonehenge in the U.K., the Moai of Easter Island, and then there's Laos' Plain of Jars. Least-known of the world's great anthropological mysteries, massive limestone vessels weighing several tons were quarried and moved tens of kilometres to forlorn, exposed locations by an unrecorded culture some 2,500 years ago. Some archaeologists believe the jars to be funerary — sarcophagi used to decompose bodies prior to cremation — while others suggest strong drink was fermented in them to appease gods or giants. In any event, the preternatural jars constellating 20-some sites clustered around the dusty town of Phônsavan in Xiang Khoang province remain mesmerizing and imminently question begging.

Equally question begging are the many depressions in the earth at some jar sites, and, more often than not, shattered jars. What could possibly tear such huge rocks asunder? The answer is as unfortunate as it is clear.

One of the more despicable acts of wartime denial was the clandestine and illegal bombing carried out by the U.S. during the Vietnam war on the neighbouring states of Laos and Cambodia. From 1964 to 1973 more than two million metric tonnes of ordnance fell on Laos, equivalent to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Thousands died, many more were maimed, and fleeing civilians became internal refugees. At the secret campaign's nadir, a missile fired into a cave killed all 400 people who had sheltered there. Most sadly, bombs were often dropped randomly because no pinpoint targets could be found in the underdeveloped countryside and it was unsafe for planes to return to their Thailand bases loaded with bombs. Likewise due to a lack of targets, 30 per cent of bombs didn't detonate on impact, resulting in 80 million pieces of unexploded ordnance (UXO) littering the countryside, much of it tennis-ball-sized cluster-bomb projectiles known locally as "bombies." As a result Laos, never at war, is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world, and Xiang Khoang one of the most heavily bombed provinces. While southern Laos was hammered to disrupt use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this area was bombed because it was controlled by the Pathet Laos communists.

Walking the area now is eerie and puts a lump in your throat over this sad chapter in our history, but enterprising locals have, as usual, found ways to capitalize. In Phônsavan, bars and restaurants trade in names like "bomb" and "crater." It's more than humour, it's art, with shell-casing pillars and even a sculpture of three gold-painted bombs, noses embedded in the sidewalk, labeled The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. Every souvenir shop hawks chintzy beer openers, key fobs, and spoons made of aluminum scrap recovered from casings. One village's entire livelihood is dependent on the trade, many of the craftsmen UXO survivors.

On main street you can visit the Quality of Life Association, which provides assistance and support services to UXO victims and people with disabilities. They screen films, distribute literature, and sell products made by UXO survivors. They also operate the UXO Survivors Information Centre to educate about the impact of UXOs on people's lives. Since cessation of hostilities some 20,000 people have died as a result of UXO. Between 2012 and 2015 alone there were 61 UXO accidents, with seven deaths and 81 injured. Individual stories are heart-wrenching and ongoing; children injured playing with a bombie from a potato field, a man badly burned while watching a friend try to pry open a bombie for scrap metal, a dangerous and ongoing problem; farmers killed as they ploughed fields or tried to open new ground, a spectre that keeps people in poverty. The horror of the Secret War is far from over.

Supported by foreign aid from various governments including the U.S. State Department, and in conjunction with UNESCO and the Lao PDR's National Tourist Authority and Ministry of Information and Culture, U.K.-based MAG International (Mines Advisory Group; ran an Unexploded Ordinance Clearance Program at seven Plain of Jars sites to created somewhat "safe" tourist destinations. At Site 3, for instance, cleared in 2005, 22 UXO were found and destroyed, plus 6,863 pieces of scrap from earlier explosions — again emphasizing the danger faced by scrap collectors who often find live bombies among their haul. Naturally all Plain of Jars archaeological sites are heavily prescribed by trailside markers: white on the side facing the trail indicates areas that have undergone subsurface clearance; red on the side facing away from the trail, those that have undergone only surface clearance — a powerful carnet for staying on trail.

Though the anthropology of the Plain of Jars itself is startling, the craters and remnants of our more recent misdeeds are just as much so, left in place for us to remember. Because to remember, hopefully, is to end all war.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.