Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita. The horrific story behind this and its ramifications are found at the UXO Museum in Luang Prabang.
What is the UXO Museum
UXO stands for UneXploded Ordnance. In other words, bombs that didn’t detonate. During the Vietnam War, from 1964 to 1973 the American military extended the war into Laos, fearing reinforcements by China into Vietnam. At least that’s one of the reasons the history books give – if you believe them. The books also mention an attack on the Pathet Lao, a communist group in Laos, but that doesn’t account for bombing the entire country. Personally I think the Vietnam War was a front to bring opium products into the US, as depicted in the movie American Gangster (except that it wasn’t black gangsters behind the operation).
In order to keep out the Chinese, the US military dropped millions of bombs all across Laos. How many? An estimated 280 million bombs totaling two million tons – i.e. four billion pounds! That’s almost the same tonnage of bombs that the US dropped on both Europe and Asia in the entirety of World War II. There were 580,000 runs, amounting to a new bombing every eight minutes over the full nine years! The worst part is that an estimated third of the bombs didn’t explode upon impact. That means that there are roughly 80 million unexploded bombs in Laos. 80,000,000!
What really doesn’t make sense to me is that the majority of the bombs were dropped in the southern end of Laos, furthest away from China. Not only that, China didn’t have to go through Laos to get to Vietnam. I guess when you’re doing something as stupid as dropping a couple billion pounds of bombs on a country needlessly, you’d also target the wrong part of the country. Then again, I’ve never really withheld what I feel about the men who run America…and I’m not even talking about the President.
The UXO Museum in Luang Prabang documents the bombing of Laos – which the US called the Secret War. There wasn’t a lot about it that was secret. Furthermore, the UXO is more than just a museum. It’s the team of people across the country who are clearing out the live ammunition shells so that farmers can return to the fields, children can explore the jungles and the daily casualties can cease.
Visiting the UXO Museum in Luang Prabang
The UXO Museum is about a mile away from the city center of Luang Prabang. Perhaps I should mention where Luang Prabang is too. This is the city in the center of northern Laos on the Mekong River. It was the capital of Laos from 1949 to 1975 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can get there by bus from Hanoi, Vietnam or Udon Thani, Thailand, or you can take the slow boat down the Mekong River from the border of Northern Thailand. Oh, and Laos is that country between Thailand and Vietnam in SE Asia.
I consider the center of town to be the beginning of the night market street. To get to the museum, just walk up the street (from the intersection where the night market is) away from the Mekong River. After three quarters of a mile, the street ends at a T-junction. Make a right, walk three streets and make another right (just before the park with the golden statue of the king of Laos). The museum is a little ways down on the left just before the road curves. Or you can just follow the link below.
The pathway to the front door is lined with inert bombs, some rising 10 feet out of the ground. There’s no one around to give you information. I’m assuming these bombs are just a fraction of those that the UXO have already pulled out of the ground from around the country.
The museum is actually only a single room with several displays. Each display has several old munitions from the war, weapons, suits and different artifacts, each one with a full information display.
In the center of the floor is a huge SUU 30 B Cluster Bomb. Designed to hold up to 600 “bombies” (little bombs), this one has 400 softball-sized explosives piled in one of its halves. Cluster bombs were banned from warfare in 2008 (incidentally the same year that Iron Man came out showing the Jericho Cluster Bomb destroying a mountain range). The damage had already been done in Laos, and now there’s a new UXO-related injury or death nearly every day of the year.
Taking my time, I spent about half an hour reading all the displays and taking photographs of the artifacts. It’s a really chilling experience to see what the country went through…and continues to go through with all the live bombies strewn around the countryside.
Well, technically the museum is two rooms. The first is the display room, while the second is the video room. There’s a large flatscreen where they play two different videos on a loop…at least when there are visitors.
The first video focuses on the missions of the US airforce pilots that were dropping the bombs, and what the war was like. There are some veterans from both sides recounting stories. It essentially goes over the information you saw in the previous room, but with videos to go along with the data.
(The above video on Youtube isn’t the one shown in the museum, but it’s just as informative.)
The second video is way more brutal. It’s a training video recorded in Laos and shown to young students across the country to educate them in the dangers of UXO. It documents three victims of UXO explosions and the scenarios in which they occurred – digging in the fields, picking up old scrap metal and making fires directly on the ground. All these things make it nearly impossible for an agrarian society to survive, especially when you factor in how the scrap metal from a single UXO can net a farmer a full eight months of wages.
Fixing the Problem
As I mentioned, the UXO isn’t just a museum. It’s the government-led organizational to clean up the unexploded ordnance in the country. To date, just in the Luang Prabang region (one of the less-bombed regions of the country), they’ve spent countless hours clearing the fields and detonating live ammunition.
The real mind-blower in this is what the US has contributed to these efforts. Since 1993, the US has been making donations to the UXO…at the rate of $4.9 million every year. That equates to just under $118 million over 24 years. On the other hand, when you adjust for inflation, the US was spending $13.3 million on their efforts to bomb Laos…every…single…day! If you factor in the nine years that the US spent bombing Laos, it comes out to a staggering 40 BILLION DOLLARS after you adjust for inflation.
Can you tell I’m not too happy with what the US did to Laos?
- Location: Click Here for Google Maps’ Location
- Opening hours: Mon-Fri 8 a.m. to noon; Closed Saturday and Sunday
- Admission fee: Free
- When to visit: All year. It’s indoors, so you can also visit if it’s raining.
A Visual Tour of the UXO Museum
Click to Pin It
Planning to visit Laos? Here are my other stories on what to do there, and some of my personal adventures.
- Journal Entry: Putting Up With the Scams in Asia
- A Guide to Spending Three Days in Luang Prabang, Laos
- The Ultimate Guide to the Slow Boat in Laos
- A Full Itinerary for a Day at the Kuang Si Waterfalls
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.