So now I’ve been to the Plain of Jars. Among places, it has among the most evocative of names. It sounds so plain, yet so poetic, because we simply don’t associate any plain, or meadow, with jars, and we’re not talking about Mason ones here, but stone, and huge, with the largest ten feet tall and weighting 14 tons.
The average Lao man is only 5’3”, and the average woman, 4’11,” so these tiny people used iron tools to shape and hollow out thousands of these funerary urns made of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone or breccia, except that they didn’t, because the current inhabitants of Laos weren’t here two thousand years ago, when these jars were made.
Laos have their own explanations. Some believe these jars were used by a race of giants to brew and store alcohol, in celebration of a hard-fought military victory. Whatever their size, they had the surplus time and wealth to make such expensive coffins.
Even when well-documented, history is filled with distortions, if not outright lies, and though some of our greatest achievements may survive our protean and often gleeful destruction, their significance is often lost.
The Plain of Jars has many more secrets, not least the CIA’s Secret War. Initiated by Eisenhower, it would be clandestinely sanctioned and escalated by Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. It was here that the “intelligence” agency became a rogue fighting force, accountable to neither the Pentagon nor Congress, much less the eternally clueless American public. Using unprecedented airpower and a proxy army, the Hmong, the CIA’s Secret War in Laos provided the template for other American interventions, down to our days. Instead of using troops to conquer an enemy, America would just bomb the targeted society into submission. It would be machine against flesh, often civilian. Drones have no conscience, never cower and cannot be mourned.
Tiny, thus weak, Laos has long been intruded on, however. Just since the 19th Century, this Land of a Million Elephants has been invaded by the Thais, Burmese and Vietnamese, not to mention the White Tais and their fearsome Chinese ally, the Black Flag Army.
Bet you haven’t heard of this punk band. Led by the Hakka Liu Yongfu, the Black Flag were bandits and mercenaries. Fighting against the French on behalf of the Vietnamese, it killed Francis Garnier, the conqueror of Hanoi. Always looking for a blood bath, Liu ended up in Taiwan in 1895, where he was immediately made a brigadier general of the fleeting Formosa Republic. Promptly defeated by the Japanese, Liu fled Taiwan on a British ship, disguised as a coolie. Don’t you believe, not even for a second, slanderous accounts that insist Liu was dressed as a hag. May the nearest black flag lance, repeatedly and with a twisting motion, such reckless rumor mongers!
Visiting Laos in 1950, Norman Lewis never made it to the Plain of Jars, for the roads were much worse then. Plus, there were the Khmer Issarak and Viet Minh guerrillas to avoid. With frightful understatement, here’s how Lewis describes an accident in his convoy, “On our right was a precipice, but the vegetation was so thick that you could get no idea of the drop […] we were nosing our way round the hill, keeping a lookout for occasional gaps in the road left by subsidences, when the lorry ahead suddenly turned off the road and went over the side. Gently, almost, it was lowered from sight amongst the bamboos. Up till the last fraction of a second before a thousand graceful stems screened it from our view it was still upright and quite level. The soldiers in it had hardly risen from their seats and raised their arms not so much in alarm, it seemed, as to wave farewell.” Even then, multiple deaths in Laos hardly registered.
My 10-hour minibus trip from Vientiane to Phonsavan, the portal to the Plain of Jars, was nowhere nearly as eventful, but with all the potholes and switchbacks on endless mountain passes, I disembarked feeling like hell anyway. I am not young.
In the lobby of my one-star Nice Guesthouse, I noticed some Pathet Lao weapons on the floor, as decorations, but over the next several days, it was much more common to run into American bombshells, literally hundreds of them. They fronted restaurants, hotels and travel agencies, and were used in the countryside as columns and fence posts. Inside the Dokkhoune Guesthouse, cluster bombs, artillery shells and ammunition belts were stacked on mesh wired shelves, and outside a huge wedding banquet hall, several dozen yellow bombs, with many rusted brown, stood sentry to lend, I don’t know, a macabre tint to each matrimony.
Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane and Si Phan Don all receive many more visitors than out-of-the-way Plain of Jars, so on my minibus, I was the only non-Lao, yet even in Phonsavan (pop. 40,000), there’s an excellent Indian restaurant, and even a highly regarded Italian one, with a Genoese owner and a Spanish chef, one who had learnt his craft in il bel paese.
The most conspicuous foreigners, though, were Vietnamese. They ran all types of businesses throughout town. At Phonxay Restaurant, I noticed two scrolls on the wall with Vietnamese writing, so I talked to its owner. Seventy-one-years-old, she came to Phonsavan in 1955.
Nineteen Vietnamese families were recruited to this area by the Chinese Communists, she said, to clear the land. Chinese Communists in Laos? So that’s another secret. Struck by various jungle sicknesses, some Vietnamese died soon after arrival.
“There were so few doctors, and almost no medicines,” she said.
“Of those 19 families, how many are left?”
“We’re the only one! Most left for Vientiane, or even overseas. They dropped a lot of bombs here.”
“Were you here during that entire time?”
“Yes, I was. When you hear them coming, you have to jump into a hole. We had holes dug all over.”
A bomb shelter at a home received a direct hit, so 11 people died, she said, from two families, “It was worst for three years. From 1969 until 1971. In 1972, it stopped.”
“How long would it last, each bombing?”
“It would last for ten minutes, but another wave would come, then another wave!”
“So how long would it last altogether, sister?”
“On the worst day, it went from 6 in the morning until 7 at night.”
“So you just had to stay in the hole all day long?”
“Yes, but some people got out early…”
“And they died?”
“Yes. When we came out, all the houses were gone,” and she swept her arm to indicate the entire street. “All gone, so we had to go into the woods to dig up cassavas to eat. We also made soup with wild flowers.”
Roses, daisies, banana flowers, cowslip creepers, Egyptian riverhemps and mountain ebonies are all edible, among others. There’s a proverb, “A phoenix, starved, will eat chicken shit.”
The horrors of war are often drowned out by heroic propaganda or rendered much less bloody through dry historical accounts, penned by academics, but there’s a slim book, Voices from the Plain of Jars, that allows suffering civilians to recount their terror filled existence under constant American bombs.
Edited by Frederic R. Branfman, it has a foreword (in the second edition) by Alfred W. McCoy, who notes, “Since there is no other book written by the villagers of Indochina, these ‘voices’ can, in a sense, speak for the countless Vietnamese and Cambodians who also suffered under the U.S. bombing. Not only does the 2.1 million tons of bombs dropped on Laos from 1965 to 1973 rank among the largest air wars of the twentieth century, exceeded only by the 2.7 million tons dropped on Cambodia, but it also was a precursor for the way wars would be fought in the twenty-first century and beyond […] this book recovers an obscure yet significant moment in military history and documents an air war so intense that it became a testing ground for a new form of global force projection.” The CIA’s Secret War in Laos reverberates into everyone’s life, in short, as long as the American Empire is extant.
When not conducting secret wars, your clean-cut CIA merely runs drugs, for the American government is the world’s largest, most successful and coolest criminal outfit. Losing nearly every war, it always returns a boffo profit for its handlers. McCoy is known for his groundbreaking book, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, Central America.
In Voices from the Plain of Jars, there’s a drawing by a 33-year-old woman that shows three planes dropping bombs on a decapitated head, a severed arm and two mangled bodies, with this narration, “A life whose only value was death. I saw this in the village of my birth, as every day and every night the planes came to drop bombs on us. We lived in holes to protect our lives. There were bombs of many kinds, as in this picture I have drawn. It is not beautiful but it shows the shooting and death from the planes, and the destruction of the bombs. This kind of bomb would explode in the air and was much more dangerous than other ones. I saw my cousin die in the field of death. My heart was most disturbed and my voice called out loudly as I ran to the houses. Thus, I saw life and death for the people on account of the war of many airplanes in the region of Xieng Khouang. Until there were no houses at all. And the cows and buffalo were dead. Until everything was leveled and you could see only the red, red ground […]” The book is filled with such accounts.
For the record, about 40,000 Laos have died from American bombs, with nearly half of these killed after the war, from the millions of ordnances, especially cluster ones, left all over eastern Laos, an area corresponding exactly to the Ho Chi Minh Trails or controlled by the Pathet Lao, before they took over the entire country.
Since the Vietnamese Communists were responsible for both the Ho Chi Minh Trails and the creation of the Pathet Lao, it can be said they brought war into Laos, though of course, they’ve always characterized themselves as liberators, but this is typical of invaders. Vietnamese Communists were also instrumental in building up the Khmer Rouge, one must remember, and a Vietnamese, Pham Van Dac, even became head of the Malaysian Communist Party.
In any case, Laos on the Plain of Jars didn’t ask for Vietnamese soldiers to be on their land, an introduction to Karl Marx or American bombs to shatter their entire society. Like the littlest people everywhere, throughout history, they simply suffered the consequences of outrageous if not incomprehensible decisions, made by unseen hands, way above their wretched station.
Returning to Phonxay Restaurant several times, I found out more about its owner. A widow, she had been married to a Lao, with whom she had eight children. One had become a doctor in Vientiane, and another was an IT whiz living in India, “He’s very smart. When he was still here, he told me, ‘I must learn English. If you know English, you can do everything.’ It took him three years.”
“That’s very good. So the schools here are not bad?”
“No. He learnt English right near here.”
This son had actually been to 45 countries, she proudly repeated, “When he was small, he didn’t go out, he only studied, so everybody thought he was just a nerd. He never smoked or drank alcohol, but now he’s traveling everywhere!”
She herself had been nearly nowhere, and had only returned to Vietnam three times in 65 years. On one of those week-long trips, she was reunited with a lost brother.
Towards the end of the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during World War II, up to two million Vietnamese starved to death. To stave off this fate, her parents sold two of their children, a 7-year-old son and a 9-month-old girl, to rich but childless families.
“My parents missed my brother so much, they kept coming by his new family to visit him, until they were told to stop it! Fifty years later, in 2004, we were reunited. My brother Dai remembered that his ancestral village was called Làng Tre [The Bamboo Village], so that’s how he was able to find our relatives.”
“There was just that one meeting?”
“Yes, my mother cried so much.”
“And has he come to visit you in Laos?”
“No, but he has visited a brother in Vientiane, several times.”
As for the nine-month-old, she was lost forever.
Of my traveling, the old lady said, “That’s good. It’s good to see things. We’re like a lamp. Today, it’s still lit, but tomorrow, it’s out, and that’s it!”
The nearest jars were miles outside Phonsavan, so I could either join a tour, no way, or hire my own driver. The guy I found was a 50-year-old Vietnamese tuk-tuk operator.
In Vientiane, I had stumbled onto graves of Vietnamese who had been born in Laos. Even if they had never been to Vietnam, they never ceased to see themselves as Vietnamese. Later in Luang Prabang, I would encounter many more Vietnamese graves, including one of an indigent, judging by her modest grave, who was known only as “Mrs. Fat Five.” With no proper name, birthplace or age at death, she was still Vietnamese and buried among her own kind, by her own people.
In 2017, I met Vietnamese in Chanthaburi, Thailand, whose ancestors had come as early as the mid-19th century. Though almost none could speak Vietnamese, they persisted in praying in what they thought was Vietnamese in their grand church, the biggest in Thailand.
A third-generation immigrant, my tuk-tuk driver, Trung, was married to a Lao, and in day-to-day life, almost no one even knew he was Vietnamese, he stated.
His grandfather had come to Laos, “to help the Lao Revolution,” and his father and two older brothers had also fought for the Communist cause there. As a reward, the Vietnamese government had given one of Trung’s two children a college scholarship, so the kid had been in Vietnam for three years, with everything paid for. Barely making a living, Trung had never been to Vietnam.
From Trung, I found out another Plain of Jars secret, “The Hmong used to shoot at passing cars and buses.”
“No, at everybody. At Laos, too. They didn’t want anybody here.”
“When was this?”
“Until the 80’s, then our troops [meaning the Vietnamese] came in to sweep them away. Only we could do it. We cleaned them from the caves.”
Speaking of caves, there was one right at the Plain of Jars Site 1 that had been used by the North Vietnamese Army as a command post, a fact that was casually relayed to me by a Vietnamese woman in Phonsavan. Inside and outside this cave, there were many tiny, crude rock memorials, like the most infantile stupas, which indicated many people had been killed there, but there was no explanation.
On my last evening in town, I invited two Laos out for drinks, for I was told they needed to practice their English. For my part, I wanted to hear their stories, and everyone has hundreds of them, at least.
One man was tiny and had a triangular face. He wore a white dress shirt with a burgundy tie. A 23-year-old student of business administration, his name was Chue Ha, so he was a Hmong.
Square jawed, unsmiling and even rigid, the second man wore a military jacket, which was appropriate, for he was a colonel in the Lao Army. Thirty-five-years-old, his name was Xai Thong.
They’re both from Xieng Khouang Province. Xai Thong had traveled around Laos, but never beyond it, and Chue Ha had only ambulated within a hundred-mile radius. For four years, though, he did live in a Vietnamese boarding school in Nonghet, near the Vietnamese border. Over and over again, I would run into Vietnamese influences in Laos, for their footprint there is second only to the Chinese.
The younger man was already married, with two kids, while the grave colonel was still single. He did have a girlfriend, “Next year, she go to Vietnam, to study, so I go to see her.”
“Where will she be?”
“Ah, you should go to Hoi An! Hoi, An. It’s near Da Nang.”
“Where you go next?”
“After this, I will go to Luang Prabang. I will stay there for maybe a week.”
“Very beautiful, Luang Prabang. I know Luang Prabang.”
“I am looking forward to my visit.”
“In Luang Prabang, you should see Mount Pussy.”
“Huh?” I tried not to smile, even with my eyes.
“Yes, Mount Pussy. Very beautiful. On Mount Pussy, you will see Pussy Temple. Also very beautiful.”
“I will ask for it.”
“After Luang Prabang, where you go?”
“If my English is good, I can travel.” If this man ever smiles, his face might shatter. “Next time you come here, I show you around, with my truck.”
From Xai Thong, I found out another Plain of Jars secret. About a hundred Russian soldiers, he said, were training in the immediate area.
“Wow! I haven’t seen any Russian in Laos!”
“I see them.”
With Uncle Sam and his bombs out of the way, other foreign players are busy plotting Laos’ next chapter. In Luang Prabang, I would skip Mount Phousy and its lovely temple, but in nearby Pha O, I spent half an hour inspecting an impressive Chinese railroa d bridge, under construction, that spanned the Mekong, plus a tunnel, one of many, that drilled deeply into a mountain. All the supporting facilities and suppliers were Chinese, not to mention nearly the entire workforce, with its familiar dormitories. A vast shopping center nearby was also Chinese. Though empty, it will undoubtedly be flushed with tenants, shoppers and cash once the trains start rolling.
Just as the Hmong have no choice but to be integrated into Laos, Laos seem destined to be sucked into an increasingly Chinese universe, and so will you, short of this chessboard being kicked over by you know who.
In Voices from the Plain of Jars, many refugees spoke of their desire to return home as soon as possible. A seventeen-year-old man related, “Since I have come to live in Vientiane, the only good thing has been that we are not afraid of airplanes; nothing else. If there were no war, truly I would not want to be here […] Although my region is in the countryside and not developed, that does not matter to me, for it is the place that nurtured me and has been the home of my ancestors long gone, a place once full of pagodas and prosperity, with a fresh and pleasant climate […] If the war ever ends, I will return to my village that very day. And if there is no plane to take me, I will walk all the way.”
This echoes what Norman Lewis wrote in 1950 about the Hmong, “They are utterly incapable of bearing, even for the shortest time, other than cool and temperate climates. Being self-supporting, they rarely come down to visit the markets of the plains and valleys, and when obliged to cultivate fields below the 3000 feet line, they always return to their villages to sleep […] Besides the [Hmong’s] predilection for mountain tops they have other claims to distinction. They are utterly independent and quite fearless. Their passion for freedom compels them to live in the smallest of villages and, apart from such rare events as the invasion of 1860, they will not tolerate chiefs or leaders. If forcibly brought to lower altitudes they are soon taken ill and die.”
Living in a mountainous and landlocked country with hardly any roads, Laos often relied on their isolation as a shield and refuge, for even when Luang Prabang or Vientiane was sacked, burnt and looted, there was always the jungle, with its tiny, hidden hamlets, to flee to or hide in. With modern aerial warfare, and now new highways, bridges and media to accelerate the importation of everything alien, what it means to be Lao has been much whittled down, just like its fauna, just like us all.
We, too, are Hmong wrested from our mountains. Forward!