The beauty of NE Laos lays in the Laotian people’s remarkable spirit, ingenuity, laughter and smiles for all that pass by their villages. Late in the afternoon, after pedaling up and down the mountains for about 90 kilometers, I stop, hungry again for some noodle soup. As I lift my spoon full of mysterious meat balls, I notice my spoon has been handmade, is heating up quite quickly, is a matt grey color and is very strong and light. As I lift my spoon and thoroughly enjoy my noodle soup, I ponder how such a beautiful people can endure such a sad history and persevere with such kindness for all who cross their paths. The spoon in my soup has been handmade out of scrap metal that has been harvested from the hillside from the left over bomb metal that was dropped overhead by the Americans during The Secret War (1963-1974).
The mountains roads of North Eastern Laos are full of twists and turns and noodle soup as I climb my way through the Xieng Kuouang Province. The hills climb at 20-30km stretches, crest the top and cascade downward through endless switchbacks to reach the bottom and climb again. Pandemic The Magic Bicycle is a giant fan of these high mountain roads and seems to have perked up since the rice patty flat roads of southern Laos and Cambodia. Around each sharp corner, a village full of smiling, waving, friendly people awaits dressed in traditional attire heightening the beauty of pedaling here.
This region, the most heavily bombed in Laos holds the record for the most bombs dropped on them by the Americans in history, every 8 minutes for 9 years, tones of explosives dropped from the sky, a ½ ton of bombs per person in Laos. The Secret War, was keep hidden from the media, US Congress and the outside world as thousands of people perished or hid out starving in mountain caves.
As I pedal through the many villages to reach the capital of Phonsavan, there are remarkable number of children smiling and waving without limbs, while others are waving and saying hello with a huge amount of scaring on their faces. 30 years later, unexploded cluster bombs litter the province and there are many accidents involving the bombs exploding and killing people or taking their limbs. It is estimated that 30 percent of the bombs were dropped too low to the ground and didn’t explode. Today, the bombs are disturbed while people farm for much needed food, while children play near their schools and while access roads are built. Many regions still have so many bombs that people continue to be unable to farm and remain impoverished and hungry out of fear of the bombs that have already taken many a limb or life.
As I sit holding my bomb metal spoon I guiltily eat my noodle soup and can only imagine the starvation and fear of the Laotian people during the war. Today with local initiative and some NGO support the people continue to slowly clean up the mess and turn lemons into lemonade, fashioning the bomb metal into everything from spoons, cattle water troughs, plant holders and house supports. Make Spoons Not War is a powerful thought that will stay with me as I continue through the province to reach the Nam Ou River and load Pandemic The Magic Bicycle onto a wooden barge and continue by river through the region.