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Visiting Laos 5 Decades after the Bombings

The street food smells draw us closer from the centre of the city. Through the meandering stalls of the night market we are occasionally distracted. The rainbow of colours and sounds are so evocative of South East Asia and yet Luang Prabang is so different. The ancient and distinctive city in North Eastern Laos is to be the final stop on our journey through Laos,  Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

Luang Prabang is a city of lore and legend where the Buddha rested on his travels near the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers. They say He smiled on the wonderful people and prophesied that one day it would be a rich and powerful city.  Once on the Silk Road and known as Lan Xang, the kingdom of a million elephants, the city of Luang Prabang became the centre of Buddhism in the region. The city takes its name from the statue of the Buddha, the Prabang presented by Cambodia.

In historical terms, colonialism in Laos was short lived but its influences and negative effects are beyond dispute. The establishment of the French Protectorate 1893 saw that Luang Prabang become a royal and religious capital under French domination. The city’s rich amalgam of architectural styles and heritage meld the last vestiges of the colonial era with the rich and unique older ancestry. The cityscapes are not in any way a pastiche but are a vibrant reminder of a proud past and a confident future.

This built heritage reconciles with the natural environment. The sacred Mount Phousi at the centre of the city beckons both visitors and devout citizens. The daily dawn procession of monks on their quest for alms adds to the virtue of public worship. The ceremonial appeasing of the nagas, half-serpent, half-human water spirit, and other evil spirts remind one of darker times in the long history of landlocked Laos.

Panoramic views are often so deceptive while being evocative. The South East Asia backstory is so often in jarring conflict with the concept of tourism rather than the more effusive notion of traveler on an experiential journey. The statistical league tables of  ‘most bombed’, ‘most maimed’ and ‘most mined’ attach very uncomfortably to Laos of the 2020s. But the living memory and the experienced trauma are all too real for the young and old in Laos. And yet, the idea of moving on is beyond the beyond in a land so polluted with the detritus of war.   

The 1960s and 1970s black and white images of bomber aircraft meld into vivid colours of orange and red. Smug politicians and generals of that era were all too clear with their pious platitudes and rational arguments. Thankfully, the new environmentalists have taken up the cudgel and good fight against climate change and environment degradation. For so many in Laos the reality is beyond the measure of one degree. It is a real and present danger.

The night street market in Luang Prabang throbs in action. Tastes are shared and flavours are experienced. We laugh and banter with cooks and their families. The younger ones seem to have a better grasp on English but only marginally so. But it matters not a jot and smiles and signs are bartered while eating the dessert of mango sticky rice, a real treat. 


Cold War Laos may have been a forbidding place and the Lao economy is now indicated in world abstracts as ‘medium development’. The declaration by the Obama administration in 2009 that Laos was no longer an Marxist-Leninist state opened the way to US investment. The reality is that Laos depends on much of its trade and investment on its neighbours, with China being their major ally both politically and economically. Hydropower, mining, and tourism are now the growth sectors. UNESCO recognition of  Luang Prabang as a World Heritage Site has made a big difference for Laos’ tourism sector. 

In mainstream web based economic analysis of Laos, the mine and mine clearance issue is rarely referred to. But the legacy issue hampers growth, making fertile land unusable and re-traumatises again and again. In fact 20,000 people, of which 40 percent are children, have been killed or injured by cluster bombs since the end of the war. These innocuous looking bombs, some the size of a tennis ball,  were specifically designed to maim. Their size and shape are attractive to children. Mine clearance is both dangerous and time consuming. Mine awareness is now a vital component of all development projects in affected areas. Consciousness raising in an era  of climate change is vital. Areas once cleared are often ‘re-seeded’ when heavy rains expose bombs hidden below the surface. 

One of my favourite trips while in Luang Prabang was to Kuang Si Falls, 18 miles south of the city. The day trip is a clear indicator of the environmental tourism potential of Laos. The natural beauty and landscape are stunning and varied and the falls and park are akin to a magic kingdom away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The turquoise water pools are suitable for a casual dip and the whole park area is managed in a natural respectful way. One can only imagine the potential if eco-tourism could be developed.

We decided to travel from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the Lao capital city on the newly built high speed rail line. The Chinese initiative links both countries and since its opening in 2021 has been a boon to tourist travel and commercial traffic between the neighbouring countries. The Belt and Road Initiative is not without its critics and the debt incurred by Laos will be a burden on its economy for some time. The train whizzes through wonderfully scenic countryside at speeds of 100 mph and there is no doubt this vital link will reduce cargo and passenger costs and travel times. Airline type security on the route is managed and operated by China. The ticket purchasing system where tickets can only be bought three days in advance is perplexing. We decided to book through our hotel and destress on the two hour journey. We marvel at the sleek comfortable carriages. 

Vientiane has its own charms considering it is a modern city with a population of one million. The city on a bend of the Mekong River borders Thailand. It is hot and humid and attracts many tourists and pilgrims to its temples and monuments. Its most impressive memorial monument is Patuxai. Inspired by the Parisian Arc de Triomphe and built between 1957 and 1968 in the centre of the government district, it features Lao designs and motifs. Needless to say the city lacks the charm of Luang Prabang but has a greater range of facilities and amenities.

My travels for work and pleasure have brought me to former war zones on three continents and the lessons of war are all too apparent. The inclination to airbrush history and to remember a sanitised past in museums and galleries is an understandable inclination. It is a near certainty that all wars do end eventually. The soldiers go home to their lives and families. Some are maimed physically and many others are traumatised for life. Nation states all endeavour to move on and rebuild. It is natural and we all remember in some way or other. In South East Asia the putting aside the spite and rancour of war and conflict has seen a focus on economic development and the recovery of sanity in an age of globalisation and mass tourism. 

The stratospheric progress made in Vietnam has not been mirrored in Laos or Cambodia. 

Both countries peripheral to the war but still damaged beyond recognition. Vietnam was bombed to near oblivion in plain sight but Laos was secretly peppered, strafed, and seeded with every known and unknown piece of ordnance ever invented or perceived. Whole districts of Laos were sprayed with the defoliant Agent Orange. Today, the legacy of birth defects is intergenerational. The shadow of war legacies are real and for so many in Laos the war has not ended. While the tragedy in Laos is palpable, time tends to erode the memory. A nation living is constant memorial is not politically sustainable but countries that forget are doomed to repeat the evils of the past. 

The people of Laos do not forget and cannot forget the decades of war. They live with it day in, day out. They get on with their lives in whatever way they can, focusing on the next generation. The people of Laos know their family stories and strive to do better for the coming generations. We too must remember the wars of the past and the legacies of those wars. The banning of the antipersonnel mines and munitions has been a first step. Their use must be an anathema and an abomination. Telling the story of Laos is part of the healing process and clearing the land of mines is the manifestation of that care.

The smiles are warm and genuine and the Lao children want to be photographed with a westerner. There is not an iota of angst or animosity. There is the hand of friendship and the joy of sharing. The faded elegance of a bygone era is recalled and the hurts of the past are not brushed aside but it is by no means stoical. And yet. There is so much to be done. We are getting there. We have to. We owe it and let that be our legacy.

Frank Reidy is a retired Commandant having served 25 years in the Irish Army both in Ireland and overseas with the United Nations. He served in Lebanon with the UN on peacekeeping missions. In 1994 and 1995 Frank served in Rwanda and Uganda on post genocide recovery missions. In 2000 he managed UN reconstruction projects in Rwanda  focusing on school building and rehabilitation. In recent years Frank has written travel books in Irish, his native language and has been on the board of TG4 one of Ireland’s Public  Service TV stations. He is currently in Kenya working on a new writing project.

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This post beautifully captures the essence and complexity of Luang Prabang. From the rich history and cultural significance to the modern challenges and opportunities, it paints a vivid picture of this unique city in Laos. tunnel rush

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