Originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

Jan. 28, 2000

Beyond the Battlefields of Laos

By DANIEL LOVERING

My journey through Laos began early one morning when I boarded an enormous Russian bus
in Vientiane that was packed with local farmers, sacks of rice, dried fish and clucking
chickens. For hours the bus traversed mountains on a road going north, lurching between gears
and spewing plumes of diesel exhaust. At the end of the day we reached Vang Vieng, a dusty
town halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

Vang Vieng isn’t much more than a few hardscrabble roads dotted with guest houses, a
natural stopping point for anyone traveling north. Walking along a dirt road outside Vang
Vieng, wishing I had a blow torch to fend off encroaching mosquitoes, I crossed a field where
a local family was planting rice. Seven or eight people were crouched in knee-high water.
Their conical hats flipped up as I passed, and they laughed at the sight of me in my
sunglasses and shaggy beard. They waved me over, full of giggles, and called out the
ubiquitous Lao greeting, “Sabai-diiii!”

Three generations were working the field together. One of the sons who was about my age
held out a bushel of rice seedlings as I approached. I took it, kicked off my sandals, and
joined in. For the next hour, I plunged fibrous roots into clay-like mud under a foot of water.
One of the sons showed me how to grab measured clumps of roots and plant them precisely
in a row. Invariably my rows turned out crooked, which was a cause for uproarious laughter.
The white-haired grandmother cackled. The father guffawed. The young girls tittered.

As a freelance journalist touring Southeast Asia for the first time, I had gone to Laos to write
a story about the millions of unexploded bombs that litter the Lao countryside, one of the
Vietnam War’s most insidious legacies. I had hoped to visit bomb removal sites to see how
cluster bombs, mortar rounds and other deadly leftovers were defused or blown up. But my
plans went askew when Lao government officials told me they couldn’t provide me with an
escort — a requirement for all visiting journalists. I had spent hours in the stale air of Soviet-
era offices filling out forms and explaining my intentions, and now it was all for naught.

With several weeks on my hands before my scheduled return to New York, and without the
story I had come for, I had to dream up an alternate plan. Coming to Laos, I had been
preoccupied by the events of 25 years ago, the carpet bombing, the sputtering helicopters and
the political upheaval of the war. I decided to spend the next 16 days traveling through
northern Laos, with nary an unexploded bomb site on my itinerary. During that time, I came
to see Laos as much more than a battlefield.

From Vang Vieng I went north to Luang Prabang by bus, an arduous trip because of intense
heat, a road riddled with potholes, and some questionable chicken soup I ate at a roadside
stand. I arrived in Luang Prabang — a world heritage site known for its immaculately
preserved architecture — a little off my game. Nevertheless I was swept away by my
surroundings, unbothered by the bomb story I wasn’t writing.

At a temple called the Wat Mai in Luang Phrabang I met 19 year-old Sishavat, a young monk,
or “novice,” in the Buddhist tradition. He described his way of life in soft tones and walked
me through the incense-laced air of his living quarters. Sishavat invited me to go to his
village, which was tucked in a ravine about two hours by road from Luang Phrabang. I
happily accepted the invitation.

We set out early the next morning in the back of a pick-up truck loaded with leather-faced
farmers returning to the countryside with bundles of clothes and farm implements. Wearing
the traditional saffron robes of a young monk, Sishavat was granted free passage. Tuk-tuks,
trucks and motorbike taxis were his for the taking. As an apparently unenlightened being, I
had to pay. But I wasn’t going to gripe about what amounted to $1.50 for a trip of about 60
miles.

We jumped out in the middle of a lush jungle gorge and walked down a dirt path to Sishavat’s
village. Heads poked out of bamboo huts. Sishavat said only some of the villagers had seen
foreigners before. I wasn’t so sure; a young boy made a two thumbs-up gesture at me and
yelped, “USA!”

Sishavat’s father was the head of the village, which produced sticky rice. He held a small
dinner in my honor featuring lab — ground, seasoned meat — and basket after basket of
sticky rice. I was shown how to compact handfuls of the stuff, then use it to dip into stews or
grab chunks of meat. Sishavat had invited two of his friends who were studying English, and
I traded vocabulary words for tips on how to eat Lao-style. They laughed as I fumbled with
slices of pork and gobs of rice. I played it up and found that I could send them into hysterics
by simply gnawing on an ear of corn or scooping up boiled greens. The easiest audience in
the world, I thought.

As we ate, I noticed a poster on the wall that showed diagrams of round objects with fins.
Bombs. It was a community service poster to help villagers identify unexploded bombs they
might find in the jungle around them. For a second I was reminded of my unwritten story.
Rather than bring it up, I reached for a fresh basket of sticky rice.

The next day Sishavat offered to take me to a Hmong village. The Hmong were a separatist
hill tribe that fought for the U.S. during the war. Sishavat said he had transportation for us,
and surprised me by rolling a most unlikely vehicle out from under his parents’ hut. From
behind bamboo doors came a two-stroke, liquid-cooled, race-ready motor scooter.

I considered the scene in my head. I had a monk on the back of this thing, riding side-saddle.
His head was shaved and he was wrapped in abundant wads of vibrant orange cotton, a patch
of it flapping behind us like a huge flame. As the engine whined and a light rain set in, I
thought, “So, this is the road to enlightenment.” At the same moment, Sishavat leaned
forward and yelled against the wind and into my ear. “Daaaaniel, GO FAAAASSTER!”

I flew in a puddle jumper from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, near Xieng Khuang. Xieng
Khuang is the old capital city of Laos, in the section of Laos most heavily bombed during the
war. The Plain of Jars — ancient stone vessels eaten away by erosion and sitting cockeyed in a
vast mossy plain — was nearby. My mind was consumed by everything but bombs. But in
Phonsavan bombs and the war were hard to avoid.

At the Phonsavan airport I met Boualin Phommasin, a 34 year-old English teacher who
watched American bombers darken the skies over Phonsavan for the first time when he was a
boy. Never having seen anything like it, Boualin and his neighbors initially thought the
bombing runs were a form of entertainment and applauded each thunderclap explosion.
Then the human destruction began, and they sought refuge in caves and underground
shelters.

As Boualin left his family’s shelter on an errand one day in December 1968, a phosphorous
bomb dropped behind him, directly into the shelter, instantly killing his baby sister and
spraying burning white phosphorous on his arm. The skin on his right hand and forearm is
still discolored from the burns.

When I told Boualin I had originally come to Laos to write about unexploded bombs from the
war, he showed me artifacts — the rusting turrets of old tanks and bomb casings that had
been transformed into fence posts. He eagerly took me to visit local people in the old capital
who had lived through the war.

Ksamsy Sintsavont, a 68 year-old monk in Xieng Khuang, described the bombing of his
temple — something that wasn’t meant to happen under the war’s rules of engagement.
Wearing a knit orange cap that matched his robe, the elder monk sat by a window in his
partially reconstructed temple, carving scriptures on wooden placards in rune-like
characters. Ten yards behind him towered a Buddha, still charred from the blasts of 30 years
ago.

“Everything was destroyed,” Mr. Sintsavont told me. “I was very sad. I didn’t want to leave
because this was my temple.” As afternoon rain thundered on the tin roof above, he told how
he fled Xieng Khuang in March 1970 when “they were bombing hard,” and walked to a
monastery near Phonsavan. By the end of the war, one building stood intact in Xieng
Khuang.

“More people died after the war than during the war,” he said, referring to the lethal bomb
blasts that have haunted the area since the war ended in 1975. “A young monk died in 1976
while cleaning the temple. He was digging in the dirt floor and hit a bomb.”

Mr. Sintsavont smiled easily. Young monks, or novices, scurried around him in preparation
for lunch. The temple’s drum was sounded. Mr. Sintsavont put down his chisel and turned
his wrinkled face to the light coming from the window.

While I had set out for Laos with a certain topic in mind, a topic rooted in the gloomy past of
the Vietnam War, I came away thinking about this small country in broader terms. Laos was
tragically scarred by the war, and the threat of unexploded bombs continues to be a part of
everyday life. But I left Laos with the story of the people and traditions that live on despite
the bombs.

Mr. Lovering is a New York-based journalist and a recipient of the 2000 Pew Fellowship.