What’s left in Laos | NevadaAppeal.com

What’s left in Laos

Rick Gunn
Special to the Appeal
A young boy sits at the preserved remains of a bullet-holed Buddhist monastery near the city of Sepon in southeast Lao. The monastery came under fire as the U.S. Army pursued the North Vietnamese in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Photos by Rick Gunn/Special to the Appeal

My life had become a freak show. And my love life, well, as Eric Clapton once sang: “If it wasn’t for the afterlife, I wouldn’t have no love at all.” Or something like that.

Case in point were the two women I’d slept with in the last year. One in an over-sized store closet in Budapest, and the most recent in the attic of my new host’s home in Southeast Laos. They’d shared similar characteristics. Both were older, noisy, provocative. But most of all, both were long-since dead. Ghosts.

“I think she hung herself somewhere up here,” my host Juenger Hinderlich informed me as he showed me to my room. “My neighbors won’t come within an inch of this place – they say it’s haunted – but she shouldn’t bother you.”

I laid out my inflatable mattress in the eerie darkness, then drifted to sleep. Sometime around midnight, I awoke to creaking floorboards. Then a strange voice groaned: “Uhhhuhhhhh!” I sat upright.

In all honesty it may very well have been gasps between snores, or perhaps the verbal response to someone’s ever-shrinking prostate, but my fearful mind was having none of it. For the rest of the night I remained awake. I listened with such intensity that I could hear plants breathing, snails crawling, atoms whirling through space.

I cursed every scary movie I’d watched between the ages of 7 and 9. When the sun finally shot through the window, I got up and went downstairs. There, I leaned heavily on two cups of ultrastrong Lao coffee and reflected upon my night’s sleep, all 45 seconds of it. Just after that I heard Juenger jingling a pair of keys.

“OK, are we ready?” he asked as he lit a cigarette.

“As ready as I’m gonna be,” I replied and we headed out the door.

I’d met Juenger two nights previous, in the restaurant of a nearby guesthouse. There I learned of his job as an Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) Senior Technical Advisor for the non-profit organization UXO-Lao. After clearing my request with his superiors, he’d allowed me to tag-along with him for a day’s work. His job description: find bombs and destroy them. Stepping into his awaiting Landcruiser, I climbed into the back seat. Two circular emblems adorned the doors. Both consisted of a large blue-bomb within a red circle emblazoned with the insignia UXO-Lao.

Juenger smiled and said: “Sit down and enjoy the ride, your American taxes are paying for it.” He wasn’t lying. Although Juenger was technically contracted by Norway’s People’s AID through UXO-Lao, the work was overseen by the United Nations, and funded by the United States.

Joining us in the passenger seat was Juenger’s Lao translator, Meksavanh “Mek” Rattanabandith. Within moments, we’d traded asphalt for dirt, then bounced along a mountainous jungle road that snaked through a host of obscure villages.

We were traveling through one of the country’s most bombed provinces. An area made famous by the Ho Chi Minh trail, the North Vietnamese Army supply-line that ran through Laos during the Vietnam war.

As we crested through a mountain village, Juergen popped in a cassette tape of Ricky Martin’s “La Vida Loca” then began to explain his background.

“Becoming an EOD expert wasn’t easy,” he said tilting his chin up to look at me through the rear view mirror. “During my level-3 testing, I had to sit in front of a panel and identify 38 different bomb fuses from around the world.”

He explained that he’d gotten his start as an East German Marine in 1979. It was there he’d started his EOD training. After that, he’d worked as a de-miner in Northeastern Germany, clearing unexploded bombs leftover from WWII. Then, in 1997, after continuing higher levels of training, he traveled to the war-torn provinces of ex-Yugoslavia, where he worked as a peace-keeper for the United Nations clearing mines.In the year 2000, after achieving the rank of a UXO Senior Technical Advisor, Juergen came to Northern Laos.

There was no shortage of work here. In fact during the “Silent War” (1963-72) the U.S. flew 580,944 Sortie missions over Laos. They dropped on average 1 plane load of bombs every eight minutes, 24-hours a day for nine years. By 1973, at a cost of $2 million a day, 450,000 tons of ordinance had been let loose on Laos – over a half-ton for every man, woman, and child.

Today it is estimated that nearly 27 percent of those bombs, (nearly a million tons), lie in Laos’ countryside unexploded. Each year on average, those bombs kill more than 150 people, 40 percent of which are children.

“Did you see that” Juenger asked, as he whipped the car to the side of the road. When I looked out, all I could see was a bulldozer clearing a field.

“No, that,” he said redirecting my line of sight with his finger. It was three children, one with a metal detector, running across the road. They ran and jumped into the back of a pickup truck.

“You see that metal detector?” Juergen pointed out, “it’s Vietnamese. These children find bombs, dig them up, and if they successfully dismantle them, they sell them for scrap metal.”

“And if they aren’t successful?” I enquired.

Juergen turned to me with a serious gaze.

“Five farmers died last week trying to dismantle a 500-pound bomb for scrap metal,” he replied. “They couldn’t even find any remains.”

To get involved or learn more, go to http://www.uxolao.org

• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.

To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

WHEN: Jan. 1-30, 2007

WHERE: Laos – Vientiane, Paksan, Hin Bun, Tha Kek, Savannaket, Donghen, Muang Phin, Sepon, Desavanh

MILEAGE LOG: 13,250-13,739

ELEVATION: 325-1,200 feet

On the Net

To read Rick Gunn’s entire entry, go to http://www.nevadaappeal.com and click the Wish Tour icon.