Laos’ Violent Hidden History

Quick, do you know which country has had the most bombs dropped on them in history?

It’s not Germany or England. It’s not Vietnam, although that’s a pretty reasonable guess.

The most bombed country of all time is Laos.

Small, quiet, unassuming Laos, wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, has had almost as many bombs dropped on it as all the countries in World War II. Combined.

This is not something that I ever learned in history class. This was and still is a HUGE issue for people living in Laos. I was interested in knowing more, so I used my first afternoon in Laos, to bicycle out to the COPE center in Vientiane.

At COPE I met Nam, a handsome young guy in a suit who insisted I take his picture, before asking me out on a date for later that night. Charmed, but taken, I let him down easy. He then insisted I watch an hour-long Australian documentary called Bomb Harvest. Nestled into the soft cushions of the center’s “cave” I learned quite a bit about the bombing of Laos and Laos’ violent history.


The 30-second version of Laos’ violent history:

During the Vietnam War, Viet Cong forces used Laos as a pipeline for moving supplies and troops. As a result, the United States lodged a “Secret War” on Laos, basically pummeling the crap out of the central and eastern parts of the country. We’re talking “one B-52 bomb load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973” according to Wikipedia. That’s nine years during which the United States dropped 1.8 million pounds of explosives on “anything that moved.”

Children’s memories of the Secret War

The general public had absolutely no idea this was going on at the time, and I’m willing to bet most people still have no clue about Laos’ violent history. That’s pretty horrible, but here’s the real problem nowadays: a lot of those bombs never went off. Like 80 million pounds of them. There’s millions and millions of pounds of active explosives, just lying in wait.

People are stumbling across these every day in Laos and getting blown to pieces. Each huge cluster bomb dropped on the country broke apart into hundreds of small round “bombies.” They look like grapefruits or tennis balls and can go unnoticed for years. An average of one person and 4 cows a day are maimed or killed by unexploded ordnance (UXO).

This is where COPE comes in. It’s a non-profit organization that aims to help people who’ve been affected by the explosions leftover from Laos’ violent history. It particularly focuses on individuals who require prosthetic limbs- very expensive but necessary pieces of equipment. In a country so devastatingly poor, with so many injuries, their work is really invaluable.

UXO art work

One of the biggest hurdles is educating rural people about the dangers of cluster bombs. Particularly at risk are children who are unfamiliar with the bombs and may not even know what they are. Many people are unaware that these explosives are still dangerous and are purposely seeking them out and handling them. Scrap metal is a precious commodity which causes people to take absurd risks with live bombs. The metal from one bomb casing could feed a family for months.

There simply isn’t the money or the resources to find and defuse all the bombs. They are everywhere, some hiding deep underground, waiting to emerge. So work like COPE’s which minimizes and manages the damages is really important.

By the way, this isn’t just a problem in Laos. UXO’s are a huge danger, spanning three continents and including countries like Serbia, Kosovo, Uganda, and Cambodia. Oh, and Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because if you can believe it, the US is STILL using cluster bombs. Or at least they were in 2006. As an American, I find this horrifying. Over 108 countries have signed the “Convention on Cluster Munitions” in Oslo, Norway. The United States was not one of them.


As you can see, this was one really eye-opening afternoon. I know there’s more to Laos beyond Laos’ violent history, and I can’t wait to discover it, but I think it’s really important, as backpackers and world travelers, to remember the greater context of the places we visit, and the problems they face.

Find out what you can do to stop cluster bombs.

And Look into Laos’ Violent History with Part Two

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Laos' Violent Hidden History

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35 thoughts on “Laos’ Violent Hidden History”

  1. Thank you for sharing the past and present situation of these country. I’m not into studying this place but because of our academic requirement, I’ve opened this link – now, I’m pretty much interested in studying more about Laos; and any other countries as well. Thanks much for that.

  2. The following is not an argument, I only felt the need to comment because of the total blame, in the comments section, of the US for what happened there with no regard for the role Laos played in helping the NVA. I am not trying to change minds, just make people aware of the truth and to be fair about both sides. The only way to make right on wrongs is to be truthful. Please read it all as I am not some hot head and it is not as rash as it may seem at first.

    Yes the US is not in the clear, but don’t forget the Lao government was far worse at that time, actually still to this day. If you are going the hold the US responsible, you must also hold the Lao government and its people responsible.
    I will agree that the use of certain weapons is horrid, even during war. but I will say killing a person with a bullet or a bomb is equally bad to me, after all it is war. The US dropped so many bombs because they could not stop the hidden advance of NVA troops not because they were going to kill millions.. ie- They didn’t know where the Nva were in the jungle, couldn’t send troops into Laos to find them, so they bombed as much of the jungle as they could. Much of it did nothing but blow up trees at the time, there was much more death in ratio to bombs dropped on europe in ww2. If the US wanted to kill millions and end the war that way, they would have carpet bombed the cities in N. Vietnam, they didn’t because of the guilt they still felt over carpet bombing the cities in Germany. Still those bombs will unfortunately will kill civilians who find them up to this day.

    On the other hand the Lao gov. and NVA were and are still killing those original residents of the Plane of Jars area, the Hmong civilians….only they are still doing it deliberately in 2012! How to stop them in their current secret genocide which has lasted 30 years, the longest in history? War or intervention is the only way, but no one will go there now. We don’t even hear about it, we don’t even know it is going on!

    I will agree that many of the locals there may be nice and friendly, but it depends on who you are. There is a huge Hmong community in the US and in Thailand as refugees because the Lao people hunted them down after the war to slaughter them for helping the Americans. The Lao people still hunt the Hmong in the jungles of Laos to this day. I know people here in the US who can’t go to visit Laos for fear of their lives.

    So how to make it right? For the US to help with the clean up, they would first have to stop the genocide, that means the Lao gov. would have to admit to it or the US or Nato would have to step in, with weapons….maybe just repeating history, neither will happen.

    Visit to learn about this other side of the coin and the evil genocide still happening in Laos. Please, if you really care about the genocide of civilians watch, read, and spread the plight of the Hmong people so we all can make others aware of what is happening to day and then we can pressure both governments to do what is right. I know this is just an comment on a old post, maybe you can write a secret war part 3 highlighting their plight. Thank you. Remember,
    Here is a video to start:
    “bloody wednesday”
    also a must watch:
    “hunted like animals”

  3. RIP to the POWs that were tortured and killed in hidden camps by NVA in Laos. Politics kept this a “secret” war. It should have been made public.

  4. I watched ‘Bomb Harvest’ a couple of years back and although I knew that lots of bombs had ended up in Laos I never realised just how many until I watched it. I was astounded! And to think so many people are still suffering today! It’s so sad that the people are still suffering all these years on from a war that was never really anything to do with Laos!

  5. To see areas in Laos where bombs were dropped first hand (particularly on relgiious sites) is a truly harrowing experience, especially when you know that your own government was responsible.

    Laos was the first country I had ever visited that the U.S. had attacked and I initially felt very awkward telling people I was American. But as others here have commented, there was no animosity, just like in Vietnam.

    I wish I had known about COPE when I was in Vientiane!

    Oh and @Gray, the U.S. will hardly even ACKNOWLEDGE that this happened nonetheless do anything to try and rectify the horrors we inflicted on this wonderful country.

  6. Thanks for the write up and great comments, I was in Laos 11 years ago and found the people to be honorable and proud. I expected a cool response when I told them I was American, I will not hide that, and I will take my lumps. When it was uncovered that Nixon was secretly OK’ing the bombing of Laos we protested in High School, there were a lot of us who were quite upset in the 9th grade in Wilmington Delaware.

    To Kam Moon and his family who fed me and watched over me in Luang Prabang, thank you

    1. As in Vietnam I didn’t feel too much animosity for being an American, which I was grateful for considering all of these things happened before I was even born. I do think it’s really important for Americans to learn about these things.

  7. Well, very very interesting post, thanks for sharing, I confess I did not know anything about this. My first thought was shame on you America but that’s just useless and not fair for all the good fellows American that have nothing to do with the decision politicians took ages ago. So I just say well done COPE keep doing what you are doing and let’s hope we’ll all learn from this.

    1. Thanks, as an American I appreciate that. It happened well before I was born, but I think that most Americans knew nothing about what was happening and the government still downplays it to this day. A real tragedy.

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