Did you know that Laos is the most bombed country on earth?

That more bombs were dropped here by the U.S. than during all of World War II?

And that it was all done in secret?

Welcome to a world of stories so bizarre, you can’t believe they’re true. Histories that are stranger than fiction. And the sad, sad legacy of ‘unexploded ordnance.’


From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians during the nine-year period.

Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased. The wounds of war are not only felt in Laos. When the Americans withdrew from Laos in 1973, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the country, and many of them ultimately resettled in the United States.

The Legacies of War organization provides some startling facts about the U.S. bombing of Laos and its tragic aftermath:

  • Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 million more bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate.
  • Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed.More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.
  • Each year there are now just under 50 new casualties in Laos, down from 310 in 2008. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children.
  • Between 1993 and 2016, the U.S. contributed on average $4.9M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
  • In just ten days of bombing Laos, the U.S. spent $130M (in 2013 dollars), or more than it has spent in clean up over the past 24 years ($118M).

Read more: 

For a potted summary of US involvement in Laos, labelling it a ‘war crime’, see this commentary.

For a neat history of documented CIA involvement in Laos, see this Wikipedia article.

For an informative piece challenging the standard genocide view, read this exhibition review.

Viengxay caves

The beautiful limestone-karst countryside of the remote Houaphanh Province in Laos’ north east is picture postcard perfect. This excellent start- or end-point of the Northern Heritage Route, situated near the Vietnamese border, is a charming idyll of peace.

But for nine long years it hid a secret city while death rained from the air. Within those limestone walls, an interconnected series of more than 400 caves and tunnels not only provided shelter for 23 000 people from the incessant bombs dropped by the Americans in the ’Secret War’, but also bakeries and schools and a hospital, printing press, radio station, theatre and – most significantly – offices for the fledgeling Pathet Lao leadership – the seven-man politburo that would go on, post-war, to become the communist leadership of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
Though access to foreigners was previously forbidden, tourists are welcomed these days, and an excellent 18-point audio tour provides real insight into the lives and workings of this hidden wartime city, with the first-hand accounts particularly moving.
“A moving, balanced and uniquely fascinating glimpse of how people struggled on through the war years.”
“Compared to anything else you’re likely to encounter in Laos, the sheer professionalism is mind-boggling.” – Lonely Planet

Ho Chi Minh Trail

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a network of roads built from North Vietnam to South Vietnam through the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, to provide logistical support to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War. It was a combination of truck routes and paths for foot and bicycle traffic. The trail was actually a 16,000-kilometer (9,940-mile) web of tracks, roads and waterways.

The network, initially coded 559, eventually became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was on one of Ho’s birthdays, May 9, 1959, that the trail’s construction began with the establishment of Military Transport Division 559, comprising 440 young men and women. Over the next 16 years the trail carried more than one million North Vietnamese soldiers and vast quantities of supplies to battlefields in South Vietnam — despite ferocious American air strikes.

Read: Bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Recently international mountain biking champion Rebecca Rusch brought the trail to the world’s attention again with the release of the Red Bull-sponsored documentary of her nearly-2,000km cycle in search of the location that her father – a US air pilot – crashed his plane and died when she was still a toddler. 

Long-time resident of Laos Don Duvall, aka the Midnite Mapper, served as Rusch and Red Bull’s guide, cartographer and make-it-happen man. Find him on Facebook or see his website for ongoing updates of his adventures on the HCM trail and motorcycling exploits across the region. 

The Most Secret Place(s) on Earth

Long Chieng

During what is variously known as the Secret War, the Second Indo-Chinese War, the American War or the Laotian Civil War, the busiest airfield in the world was also such a top-secret location that it became known as “the most secret place on Earth.” Long Chieng (also spelled Long Tieng, Long Cheng, or Long Chen), also referred to as Lima Site 98 (LS 98) or Lima Site 20A (LS 20A) was a covert military base in what is now Xaysomboun Province, operated by the CIA and home to the war’s infamous, charismatic Hmong leader, General Vang Pao. 

For many long years, entry to Long Chien was forbidden, but with the building of a nearby dam by the Chinese in 2015, motorcyclists started sneaking in. 

Read one traveller’s account of her surreptitious visit.

A mile-long strip of tarmac still in surprisingly good nick, despite years of disuse. A strip of tarmac that had hosted flight after relentless flight bent on bombing the shit out of ‘the enemy’, the nameless, faceless people believed to be Vietnamese militants but who were also merely farmers and rural peasants being turned towards the fledgling Pathet Lao communists by a meddling world. A strip of tarmac at a military base which saw 12-year-old platoon leaders return from battle with their even-younger troops to be berated at having lost the ground they should have been defending. Armies of child soldiers, paid for by Americans never held accountable. A strip of tarmac that sent and received opium and guns and rice and mercenaries and loyalty and heroism and death in such a bizarre barter and extraordinary quantity, it’s hard to believe even now, when much of the documentation has been declassified and the memoirs published.”


Further to the north, not far from the entrance of the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park in Houaphanh Province, the little ‘tin drum’ town of Nakout is testimony to the presence of another secret landing strip, Lima Site 36. Once it was hurriedly evacuated in the dying days of the war, the jungle reclaimed the airfield, but the original earth-flattening equipment and large artillery still remain. 

More importantly for the local Tai Phuan people, the masses of oil drums left behind proved perfect metal for the construction of homes, roofs, fences and pig-pens that, though heavily rusted, do duty to this day. 


The COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane is consistently voted by visitors as TripAdvisor’s no. 1 thing to do in Vientiane, if not in Laos.

The exhibits cover the history of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos, the way it affects life in the country, and how the work of COPE and others is improving the quality of life for people in Laos with mobility-related disabilities.

You can watch a range of short documentaries about UXO and COPE in the Cave Cinema, built to resemble one of the underground bunkers used by the Pathet Lao in the war leading up to the revolution in 1975.

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