One of the reasons I enjoy traveling so much is that I learn so much about history and politics that I would never understand just reading out of a book or listening to a lecture. Laos was a particularly educational country as I honestly had very little knowledge of the realities there or the country’s role in the Vietnam War, and the lasting legacy that the war has left.
In an attempt to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran down Laos, the United States dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives between 1964 and 1973. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world. Worse yet, 30% of those bombs did not explode on impact and there are still millions upon millions of unexploded ordnances (UXO) littering the countryside. Every other day somebody is killed or injured by a UXO, most often a child who is hunting for scrap metal to sell on the black market.
There are two centers in Laos that I visited to learn about this horrible history: The UXO Laos center in Luang Prabang and the COPE Visitor Center in Vientiane. Both are free museums (though donations are of course accepted) that illustrate the impact these UXOs have had on the population of Laos. The UXO Laos center focuses largely on cleanup efforts and the COPE Visitor Center more on personal stories of victims of the UXOs and their rehabilitation and road to recovery.
There are some heart-wrenching stories told, like the mother and father whose young son was injured when his friends set off a bombie (a part of a cluster bomb). His two friends died instantly, but he was still alive, and his parents drove him for hours to different medical centers, but none of them had enough supplies to treat him. He died at home.
Visiting each of the centers is a very heavy, sobering experience, but I believe a necessary one if tourists in Laos are to understand the context of the country. The number of UXOs in a region directly correlates to the poverty level, and there will never be substantial economic development until the UXOs are cleared out.