Anthony Bourdain spends most of his time in the landlocked Southeast Asian country of Laos digging through the tragic history of the Laotian Civil War and its messy aftermath. This conflict is sometimes referred to as the Secret War, because during the ’60s and ’70s, Congress and the American public did not know about America’s involvement in this fight against the Communist Pathet Lao. During this period, America dropped more bombs on Laos than the USA deployed in Germany and Japan in World War II. As Bourdain point out, Laos is “the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of the world,” and the countryside is still littered with bombs from this era that were never detonated.
In this episode of Parts Unknown, Bourdain talks to people who fought in the war and were injured by UXOs — unexploded ordinances — as well as the professionals who are working to find the bombs and carefully detonate them so that they are no longer a threat to civilians. There’s still a lot of work to be done in this field, and, in his notes about the episode on Explore Parts Unknown, Bourdain points out that awareness about these issues, in America at least, is very low among the general public. “We should know where we are talking about when we finally do talk about Laos, and who was involved,” Bourdain writes.
During his journey through the country, Tony takes time to eat and drink with his tour guides, most of whom have lived in Laos their entires lives. Bourdain stops at Phosy-Market for khao soI and khao piak sen, he samples imperial cuisine at the Ban Lao hotel, and he enjoys some meat and fish skewers at an open-air restaurant on the banks a river where people are practicing for a boat race. Acclaimed Oakland, CA-based chef James Syhabout — whose parents fled Laos on the ’70s — joins Bourdain for part of his journey.
There are great shots of Laotian food in this episode, and some breathtaking footage of the mountains and river-adjacent communities. But most of the screen time is devoted to conversations about the war with the people who lived through it and the generation born after the bombings.
Here are the most memorable lines from this intense, powerful episode of Parts Unknown.
The Quotable Bourdain: Laos
Bourdain on his initial interest in Laos: “From the first time I heard of Laos, I was hooked, and filled with a desire to see the place. Once a storybook kingdom of misty mountains and opium. At one time a protectorate of France. A mysterious land-locked nation bordered by China, Thailand, Cambodia, and, as fate would have it, Vietnam.”
Bourdain offers some context on Northern Laos: “Enchantingly beautiful, sparsely populated by remote mountain villages. For centuries, home to ethnic minority hill tribes like the Hmong. This is where the CIA recruited, trained, and armed over a hundred thousand fighters.”
Bourdain on the end of America’s involvement in the Laotian Civil War: “In the end, when the last choppers hurriedly left Vietnam, Laos and many Lao who fought with us were left behind, too. What had been a kingdom was now a Communist regime — yeah, the bad guys won.”
Bourdain on his favorite mode of transportation in Laos: “Motorbike: the only way to see this part of the world. The thick, unmoving air. The smell past rice patties. Water buffalo. What feels like another century. Laos is the kind of place that can easily capture your heart and not let you go.”
Bourdain drops some facts about the Secret War: “Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of the world. 80 million is the number of cluster bombs that did not detonate.”
Bourdain on the progress of the bomb cleanup operation: “So far, only half of one percent of the country has been cleared.”
Bourdain on why it’s difficult for the Hmong people to talk about America’s involvement in the war: “While these days talking about UXOs and the cleanup are receiving more attention, much of how we got here remains off-limits. The CIA’s relationship with the Hmong, in part because there are still insurgents deep in the jungle is, well, sensitive.”
Bourdain explaining why some people don’t want to talk about the war: “Unfortunately, Laos is a country where there can be repercussions from the government for talking politics with outsiders.”
Bourdain on how America’s presence in Laos has changed over the last four decades: “Here, on one hand, we have Americans dropping bombs that at the time blow this child up, and then there are American doctors to put them back together.”
For more on the history of the Laotian Civil War and the de-mining effort that’s currently underway head over to Explore Parts Unknown.