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Although briefly a part of the Lan Xang kingdom in the 16th century, Xieng Khuang has more often than not been an independent principality or a vassal state of Vietnam under the name of Tran Ninh. From the early 19th century until 1975, central Xieng Khuang –including the Plain of Jars – was a recurring battle zone. In 1832 the Vietnamese captured the Phuan king of Xieng Khuang, publicly executed him in Hué and made the kingdom a prefecture of Annam, forcing people to adopt Vietnamese dress and customs. Chinese Haw also ravaged Xieng Khuang in the late 19th century, which is one of the reasons Xieng Khuang accepted Siamese and French protection later that century.

Major skirmishes between the Free Lao and the Viet Minh took place from 1945 to 1946, and as soon as the French left Indochina the North Vietnamese commenced a build-up of troops to protect Hanoi’s rear flank. By 1964 the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao had at least 16 anti-aircraft emplacements on the Plain of Jars, along with a vast underground arsenal. By the end of the 1960s, this major battlefield was undergoing almost daily bombing by American planes, as well as ground combat between the US-trained and supplied Hmong army and the forces of the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao.

A single 1969 air campaign – part of the secret war waged in Laos by the US Air Force and the CIA – annihilated at least 1500 buildings in the town of Xieng Khuang, along with some 2000 more on the Plain of Jars, permanently erasing many small towns and villages off the map. Continuous saturation bombing forced virtually the entire population to live in caves; ‘The bombs fell like a man sowing seed’ according to one surviving villager.

North Vietnamese troops did their share of damage on the ground as well, destroying nearby Muang Sui, a city famous for its temples, and virtually all towns or villages held by the Royal Lao Army (RLA) in the west of the province.

Now that eastern Xieng Khuang is peaceful, village life has returned to a semblance of normality, although the enormous amount of war debris and UXO spread across the central and eastern areas of the province are a deadly legacy that will remain here for generations to come.