August 14, 2015

Life After the Bombs

Source:  National Geographic August 2015
By: T. D. Allman, Photographs by Stephen Wilkes

For days up there on the Plain of Jars I’d been trying to capture an image, find a metaphor, crystallize an idea 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 money 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.

Photo Credit:  Stephen Wilkes.

Once, here in Xiangkhouang Province, children grew up barely seeing the sun. People spent years hiding in caves and tunnels. Now Phonsavan 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 American 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.

With its undulating hills and grassy flatlands, the Plain of Jars in some places resembles a giant 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 Laotians 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. “You get 60 channels on it,” he said as we admired his satellite dish, “but you must pay for the electricity.” His mobile phone helps attract new business, “but even after you purchase it, you must pay to talk into it also.”

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