In the mid-14th century, a Lao prince named Fa Ngum, founded the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, which roughly translated to “Land of a Million Elephants.” The name persevered long after the fall of Lan Xang. Today, however, there are only about 700 elephants remaining in Laos, and a new nickname has sprung up: “Land of a Million Bombs.”
Laos, a nation smaller than the state of California, has the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed county per capita in history. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped over 260 million cluster bombs, largely concentrated in the northern provinces of the country. According to Legacies of War, these 580,000 bombing missions equate to a planeload of bombs dropped “every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day” for a total of nine years. Over 40 years later, the legacy of the war lives on: one third of the bombs dropped never exploded, leaving the country littered with an immense amount of unexploded ordnance (UXOs).
UXOs are a commonly discussed issue, so it was no surprise when the topic came up during a recent filter installation at an organic farm two hours outside of Vientiane. Pommalok Farm, a small, organic family-run farm working to educate local farmers on sustainable agricultural practices, houses many villagers who have been injured by UXOs and must travel across the country to seek medical treatment in Vientiane. In addition to working with victims of UXOs, they also accommodate and school many children suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, a herbicide used during the Vietnam War. This is where I met Noi, a thirteen-year-old girl suffering from spina bifida, a birth defect fairly common in children born in regions sprayed with Agent Orange.
I had never heard of Agent Orange before our visit to Pommalok, and I felt somewhat ashamed for being completely naïve and unaware of the impact of the Vietnam War. I traveled to Laos to learn about a new country and experience a different culture. I did not expect to learn about American history during my time here.
Despite the legacy of the Vietnam War, there is no overt sense of resentment or antipathy in Laos. Americans are treated with the same Lao hospitality that all visitors are privileged to experience. I am thankful for being seen as more than just the country I come from and being treated with kindness and respect at every turn during my time in Laos. The country may lack many of the commodities of a developed country, but it has taught me more about unconditional hospitality than I’ve learned over the last 24 years.