Danger Fields – Gourmet

Farming in the developing world is never an easy occupation, but for farmers in Laos there is a particularly grave complication.

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
June 9, 2008

Danger FieldsJoy, a 36-year-old villager, works her way through a muddy Laotian forest of thorny rattans, machete in hand. “I was looking for food—bamboo shoots and vegetables—when I found the rocket,” she says. “I didn’t touch anything. I just marked the spot on a tree. This was the first time I saw unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the forest.”

The first time for Joy, but not for thousands of other farmers across Laos, where the land remains littered with explosives from the US bombing campaign between 1964 and 1973. In that time, the United States dropped 2 million tons of explosives over Laos in an effort to eradicate Communism and destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Up to 30 percent of those bombs never detonated, for various reasons, and the Laotian soil remains contaminated today. There are no accurate death tolls, but villagers are killed and injured by ordnance every week. “Digging is dangerous,” says Jim Harris, a retired school principal from Wisconsin who spends part of the year in Laos working with the New Zealand–based Phoenix Clearance Limited, an ordnance removal company. While the entire world contends with rising food costs, Laotian farmers face the ultimate price: the danger of losing life or limb.

Joy leads a PCL team on a hunt for the rocket. “It was long like this,” she says, stretching her arms three feet wide. But when we reach the spot, it’s gone. READ MORE

Up in Smoke – Rambling Spoon

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
Feb. 7, 2008
Rambling Spoon

shaboomIt’s a thrill to blow up bombs – old bombs, evil bombs, from a war that ended decades ago but continues to kill today. This is what a couple of white phosphorous canisters look like when they’re up in smoke. A little Lao kid, no higher than my ribcage, recently found these toxic containers in his rice field. He and his buddy did the smart thing by telling Phoenix Clearance Limited (PCL). The next day, the canisters were gone. BANG! A little TNT, a lot of preparation, and the field turned just a bit safer.

I personally pushed the button on these canisters – what a liberating feeling. READ MORE

Pumpkin Crisps – Rambling Spoon blog

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
Oct. 22, 2007
Rambling Spoon

USA bomb

We sit near the Nam Phu fountain, eating a snack of fresh yogurt and sweet pumpkin chips with sesame. A man named Khampa takes a seat beside us. He begs us for food, then money. He has traveled to Vientiane from Savannakhet, presumably to make some money. I hand him the bag of pumpkin crisps and he clasps it with his upper arms.

Khampa has no lower arms. His right eye is botched, and he has scars on his neck. His right arm is cut clean, but the left is split in two. We ask him what happened, and he raises his shoulders.

“Pow! American,” he says.

Leuk la but?” I ask. Was it a bomb?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, OK,” he says, then continues his story in a quick, long string of Lao that I cannot fully understand. But it’s clear he is one of the country’s thousands of UXO victims, maimed long after the United States stopped pummeling the Laotian landscape with bombs. READ MORE

These Bowls – Rambling Spoon blog

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
Sept. 4, 2007
Rambling Spoon

This photo for use on the website www.ramblingspoon.com ONLY All other uses prohibited DO NOT STEAL PHOTOSHave I told you about these bowls? I don’t think I have, althouth some of you may have heard me talk about them in another venue. The contents of these bowls are not so remarkable (though tasty—stir-fried tofu with miso, cabbage with ginger and garlic). What’s intriguing is the story of how these bowls came to be.

A simple story, really.

A tragic story.

We bought these bowls in Laos. They’re aluminum, handmade by a blacksmith. They came from a heap of war scrap. Most likely, before these bowls came to life as kitchenware, this metal was used in the fuel drop tank of a US bomber. READ MORE

My Kind of Neighborhood – Rambling Spoon

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
May 12, 2007
Rambling Spoon

This photo belongs to Jerry Redfern. Not for reproduction in any means.A few weeks back, while my stomach still suffered from the pasty and other Midwestern delights, I went hunting for familiar food. Asian food. Chile and rice, spicy and nice. The stuff that makes my gut feel at home.

I went straight to 35th and National, a nifty little block of Milwaukee where the flavors of Mexico and Laos mingle, door to door. Actually, I was looking for the Vientiane Noodle Shop, which came highly recommended by friends with good noses for good Asian eats. But by twist of karma, I ended up across the street at the Noodle House, where I stumbled upon a community of Hmong refugees who had settled in Milwaukee via the refugee camps in northern Thailand. READ MORE

Isaiah in Laos – Orion

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
November/December 2005

Isaiah in LaosAn American bomb detonates on Laotian soil. Thirty years later, a villager exhumes the pieces and delivers them to a scrap metal yard. There they sit in a heap until Lee Moua, a Hmong man, plunks down a little money for a mangled chunk.

He takes the metal to his homemade blacksmith shop in a parched backyard among pineapples and sugarcane. He fires a bed of coals, working beneath a rusty roof on a bamboo frame. His bellows are made from a parachute flare canister, his anvil is an artillery shell driven into a stump. Moua heats and pounds his bomb fragment, toiling most of a sweltering afternoon.

When he finishes his work, he has a silvery object, straight from a blistering fire. Its blade is wicked sharp, capable of practical things. It is a simple creation really: a garden hoe. READ MORE (PDF)

Plain of Jars – Archaeology

The explosive implications of archaeology at Laos’ most puzzling site.

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
July/August 2005

POJ ArchaeologyI’m following Belgian archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh around Laos’ remote Xieng Khouang Province. We’re inspecting giant ancient vessels, which are scattered through rice paddies, forests, and hilltops at more than 60 sites across what is known as the Plain of Jars. Archaeologists think the jars were mortuary containers, perhaps 2,000 years old. But no one knows for sure their precise age, who built them, or why. They are swathed in mystery and surrounded by unexploded bombs.

Xieng Khouang Province is one of the most heavily bombed places on earth. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dumped four billion pounds of bombs on the country in a “secret war” against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists. Up to a third of them never exploded, and they litter the land today. While generally safe to tread upon, buried UXO (unexploded ordnance) can detonate when an erratic fuse is inadvertently triggered. The earth around here is dangerous to farmers plowing fields, children staking buffalo out to graze–and to archaeologists. READ MORE