Other than human acquaintance, there’s hardly a more suitable or reliable traveling companion in a strange country than a book, especially a good guide about the country you’re visiting, written from the experience of previous travellers. But every once in a while, there comes along a book, not in the form of a guidebook or travel memoir, but rather a well-researched historical novel. The Plain of Jars, a newly released novel about the secret war in Laos and the years that followed it, may just qualify as such a book.
The first half of the book deals with mutual cross-cultural understandings and misunderstandings, as a sixty-four year old woman travels through Laos with a Laotian guide named Kampeng, looking for answers concerning her son’s fate, a pilot who was shot down during the secret war in Laos. In the first part of the book, the culture of the country is mainly experienced through her eyes as an outsider, while the second half is a more intimate and profound description of the many elaborate aspects of Southeast Asian traditions.
The last half of the novel is actually a separate, yet connected story about the transformation of a prisoner of war into the mythical figure of the Chao Baa, a monk who rides an elephant pushing a device known as a flailer to set off and rid the countryside of the remains of cluster munitions, little brightly colored ball-like grenades that up to this day kill more than one hundred people each year, more than half of them children.
More than just an entertaining action adventure, the story also portrays the plight of the simple peasants caught in the middle of a Cold War conflict of little relevance to their own daily lives, and, in doing so, reveal the personal workings of village society – the hopes, dreams, cultural norms, as well as the diverse Buddhist and Animist ceremonies that give the local populace the faith to get through the vagaries of life.
The author wrote the book with the aim of introducing people to Laos (now known as Lao People’s Democratic Republic), a small country that in the past not only had to endure being branded as an enemy state by the West, but suffered tragically from a war imposed on them by outside forces, resulting in Laos becoming the most heavily bombed nation in the history of modern warfare.
The Plain of Jars by N. Lombardi Jr is published by Roundfire books. More about the book, the secret war, and the culture of the Laotian people can be found at http://plainofjars.net.