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

Pin for Later:

Laos' Violent Hidden History

35 thoughts on “Laos’ Violent Hidden History”

  1. Thank you so much for giving me, and all of your readers, a much needed lesson in history. I am shocked and disappointed in learning this. In fact, I was looking for an organization to volunteer with for Laos and I think I may have found it. Thanks so much!

  2. I visited COPE when I went to Laos, they are a great company doing good work. Some very sobering stories in there.

    I encourage people in SE asia to go as it’s nice to get your feet grounded as most people are just there having fun. At worst it makes you appreciate your trip more as it’s easy to forget how privileged we are to even be there.

    Was a bit disappointed with the lack of comments on my website for this one:

  3. Hi all,
    This is a fantastic article, and I really appreciate the photo of the cluster bomb hanging sculpture at COPE. My photos just didn’t capture its truth.

    I found out about the Secret War back in 2002, when I was outraged by cluster bombs dropped in Afghanistan, at the same time as emergency food packets that were cruelly and fatally similar to dud cluster bombs. I’ve been campaigning since 2002.

    I found out more in 2002, thanks to a Canadian named Jack Silberman who had just finished a film called “Bombies”. It tells how country people in Laos live with this deadly threat.- it’s well worth byying the DVD watching. I would rate it PG – no gratuitous suffering and lots of hope.

    Last November, I was privileged to be in Lao PDR, for the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). This groundbreaking UN treaty was signed by many countries in December 2008. currently there are over 100 signatories and over 40 of those have ratified the treaty..

    Laos pushed hard for the CCM. If you’re from the USA, your country hasn’t signed the treaty yet, and is doing everything it can behind the scenes to water down other countries’ involvement. Canada has signed but not ratified, and recently a top diplomat and negotiator resigned because the current Canadian government relayed the pressure to him, and he found that to be morally repugnant.

    Australia is currently being pressured to ratify the treaty with laws that will leave big loopholes for cooperation with the USA, so that cluster bomb use and/or the threat of use can continue. Ireland, NZ and the UK have ratified the treaty. Ireland has included disinvestment as an added means of stopping this horror.

    By all means support COPE and other NGOs on dealing with the damage, but kindly consider working toward +preventing+ more of this cruel and stupid destruction. 40 years after the secret war, cluster bombs are still killing Laotians, over 4 years after the Israel-Lebanon war, Lebanese men, women and children are still being murdered and maimed by cluster bomb duds.

    If you’re Aussie (like me) or Yank or Canadian, please contact your federal legislators and talk to them about what you saw at COPE.

    If you are interested in learning more, visit

    Thanks for your consideration.

  4. I felt the same embarassment about the US use and continued use of cluster bombs after visiting the Cambodian Land Mine museum in Siem Riep. Similar to Loas, due to the close proximity with Vietnam, so much of Cambodia was targeted during the war.

  5. The U.S. tried to keep the Secret War under wraps for many, many years, even after the war was over. During the time we had troops in Vietnam, nobody had any idea we were also bombing the crap out of Laos and Cambodia. I had no idea just how MUCH we were bombing Laos, though. Wow.

    It sounds like COPE is a great organization, and I’m glad you got to visit and tell us all about it!

  6. Thanks for this post Steph. I agree with @Sarah, you often don’t hear about Laos’ unfortunate history because of the history of some of the surrounding countries.

    And I loved your closing comment “it’s really important, as backpackers and world travelers, to remember the greater context of the places we visit, and the problems they face”. And not only in order to have respect for the people of that country, but it makes the experience all the more enriching.

    Can’t wait to hear more about your travels in Laos 🙂

  7. I had no clue anything like this had happened in Laos. Thank you for sharing this information; it’s an important part of history that more people should be aware of. The fact that COPE is out there acting in support of those in the community who have been affected by this is amazing.

  8. Thanks so much for writing this – really an eye opener. I had no idea this type of devastation happened/still happening in Laos. When and if I ever go to Laos, I will definitely put COPE on the list of places to visit.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top