National Geographic : 2015 Aug
112 national geographic • august 2015 For days up there on the Plain of Jars I’d been trying to capture an image, find a metaphor, crystallize an idea With its undulating hills and grassy flatlands, the Plain of Jars in some places resembles a gi- ant golf course. The sand traps here were made by falling bombs, millions of which exploded. Millions more did not, creating a permanent danger, especially to those entrepreneurial Lao- tians who make money salvaging valuable metal from unexploded bombs. “ Welcome to Mr. Phet Napia Making the Spoon and Bracelet,” announces the ad on Phet Napia’s house in the village of Ban Naphia. In his backyard foundry Phet melts aluminum from ammunition shells and locally collected metals. He then pours it into a mold to create bomb- shaped key rings as well as eating utensils. Local restaurants all seem to have forks, spoons, and chopsticks made of war-era scrap metal. The fruits of Phet’s industry are on show: a new house, a satellite TV, electric lights. Like many Laotians, Phet is an artisan with a flair for entrepreneurship, but he’s still trying to get his mind around the idea that in a market economy the costs don’t stop when you pay for something. By T. D. Allman Photographs by Stephen Wilkes Only a few places on the Plain of Jars have been cleared of unexploded ordnance and are safe for visitors. Some archaeologists suggest that the giant 2,000yearold jars held burial remains. that could convey what it means for Laos to have been one of the most heavily bombed nations in history and then to have gone on and somehow found a future. Finally, right there on a busy main street of Phonsavan, the provincial capital, I found it: a giant pile of bomb casings left over from the American bombing campaign in Laos, a stupendous and futile torrent of airborne destruction. And just beyond the junk heap of weaponry, a new ATM machine. Bright blue and gleaming white, this beckoning pagoda of mon- ey dwarfed the rusting debris of a half-forgotten war. After inspecting the bomb casings, I walked over to the ATM, stuck in my debit card, and pulled out one million kip, about $120. All those 50,000-kip notes spewing out of the machine told a new story about Laos, where an age of bombs has given way to an age of money. Once, here in Xiangkhouang Province, chil- dren grew up barely seeing the sun. People spent years hiding in caves and tunnels. Now Phon- savan is so busy it has traffic lights with digital displays showing how many seconds pedestrians have to cross the street—not that you need cross the street to find a bank, a restaurant, a market full of fresh fruit and vegetables, a shop selling running shoes. Along with the fabled megalithic urns on the Plain of Jars, whose purpose still mystifies archaeologists, the debris of the Amer- ican air war that lasted from 1964 to 1973 has become part of a public relations campaign to attract tourists: That heap of bomb casings is displayed in front of the local tourism office.