When I arrived in Luang Prabang it was still sizzling after a visit from Barack Obama, who flash-fried the town with his presence only hours before my own unremarkable arrival. During his visit Obama gave a speech in which he acknowledged the US’s secret war in Laos and its ongoing legacy of UXO, the unexploded ordnance left buried across the country. It contaminates a quarter of Laos’s villages, exploding when people plough their fields. During the secret war the US dropped over two million tonnes of bombs on Laos. “We’re happy Obama came here and said these things,” one young man told me, “because a lot of people are dead.”
I saw some of these bombs up close in the main backpacker bar, Utopia. The bar lies on the banks of the Nam Khan river, just before it joins the Mekong. It wasn’t far from my hotel at all, but it’s hidden up such a maze of back alleys I was sure I was completely lost up until the moment I stumbled through its gates.
Night doesn’t so much fall in Luang Prabang as collapse over the town as if exhausted by the heat. It was very dark by the time I got to the bar, and it was only lit by a few handfuls of guttering candles. It wasn’t until later, when I went to inspect the establishment’s facilities, that I noticed the outlines of great bombs looming out of the darkness.
I went back to Utopia a few days later and saw the rusty bombshells in daylight. Utopia is certainly a backpacker paradise, a lotos-eating, hazy sort of place where people spend whole days lying on the cushion-covered deck by the river, maintaining a steady buzz with cans of Beer Lao. I ate a lot of chicken satay and checked my email.
It reminded me of a time years ago when Mum and I were on a day trip in Croatia. Our coach rumbled slowly down broken roads which cut through ravishing meadows of tall soft grass and colourful wildflowers thickly growing everywhere you looked, growing in greater abundance and variety than I could ever have imagined. We stopped at a roadside stall offering sun-warmed honey and I said to our guide, whose name was, of all things, Elvis, that I’d never seen such beautiful wildflowers before.
“Yes,” Elvis said. “There are still landmines in the fields so the farmers can’t work them, and the flowers grow.”
I’ve never been more humbly silenced. The bombs in Utopia were different, of course: neutralised and artfully arranged as decoration. I still can’t decide what I think of them. In Croatia the bombs had created a completely inaccessible, fragile paradise, as dazzling as it was deadly. In Utopia the bombs were so stunningly incongruous they seemed to defy explanation, an amazing achievement for such unambiguous objects. A single bomb might have been a monument to the dead, but this jaunty set lacked any sense of poignancy. They seemed more like a joke. Were they scenic bombs? Ironic bombs? Were they there to laugh at war, or were they laughing at us, the lotos-eaters? Or did they simply say, here we are. You can’t have paradise without us.
Paradise is slippery at the best of times. I’m writing this from Koh Rong Samloem, a so-called paradise island in Cambodia, a place of white sand and palm trees. It is wonderfully peaceful and beautiful here, although each day is punctuated with spectacular thunderstorms and tropical showers. On the way here a woman I met was horrified to hear I was planning to stay for six nights – not long enough in my book, but she kept asking “what will you do there?” What I saw as peace she considered to be an unimaginable lack of entertainment.
Before here I was in Siem Reap, where an intricate carving on the walls of Angkor Wat shows the various heavens and hells of Hinduism. Hell was seething with detailed activity, with demons and struggling souls. Heaven was a bunch of people standing repetitively under trees. We struggle to picture perfection, even while we seek it.
We’ve been bombing our way to paradise for decades now, whether it be the homemade bomb and heavenly paradise of some young deluded terrorist or the industrial, mass-produced bomb and political paradise of arrogant, war-hungry nations. Countrysides are saturated with bombs. People answer bombings with bombs. And where has it led us, ask the rusty, hollow bombs of Utopia? Nowhere.