We had one of those events today that gives you a slap in the face. We took a walk on a well trodden tourist path to visit a cave, used by locals to shelter from US bombing during the Vietnam War. (Muang Ngoi lies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail along which weapons and supplies were trafficked into Saigon.)
En route, perhaps 25 minutes from Muang Ngoi, we noticed that one side of the path had been slashed and burnt; then we passed a team of men with metal detectors, shovels and picks.
It crossed our minds that they were looking for unexploded ordnance in preparation for bringing in excavators to widen the path. But the way they were using thong-clad feet to scuff and kick at the ground as a follow up to a beep from the metal detector, together with complete absence of protection, we surmised not. We thought no more of it.
As we were stopped a few minutes later to pay our entrance fee to the caves, a European tourist excitedly told us that yesterday he had the opportunity to see the tail flutes of a roughly 60-70 cm long bomb (probably a mortar) exposed just above the surface of the ground and to have watched the detection team remove it from a location just two or so metres from the side of the path we had walked along. This is where it had been buried:
That was sort of confronting, but the worst part of it was the emotional impact it had on the villagers. Little did we know but, off the back of the news of the bomb find, pretty much all of the villagers - certainly the older members - evacuated themselves last night whilst we slept. They made their way along the same path, past the same site of the excavation, to the same cave they used decades ago to shelter from US bombing. No logic; no sense; just a highly disturbed expression of profoundly ingrained fear.
The woman who owns the guest house that the European guy is staying in was one of those who walked there. She was born in that cave.
There are empty bomb casings displayed in every town and village throughout this part of Laos. They're grim reminders of some pretty dirty times.
We were sure not to wander from the path on our way back.
Shane, Helen, Rosie and Tom
Location:Muang Ngoi Neua, Laos