Phonsavan and Luang Prabang

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First published 13th January, 2010

The laid-back charm of Laos is present wherever you travel in the country, but tourism has certainly developed at dramatically different rates. Both the Plain of Jars and Luang Prabang are internationally known historical sites, the key difference between the two is that the latter is a well-established World Heritage site, while the former is an unsolved archeological mystery scattered throughout several rural fields. Traveling by bicycle these two stops on the tourist trail fall within a few days travel of each other, but their differences could not be more apparent.

Approaching from the west, the Plain of Jars was our first destination, a welcome site after more than a week of cycling through some very rural and extremely mountainous terrain. The tourist town conveniently located nearby is Phonsavan, built to replace Xieng Khouang, which was destroyed during the American War.

Today, land mines still litter the landscape, a very genuine and constant risk for the people of Laos, as we learned during an afternoon spent at the Mines Advisory Group's tourist centre MAG is an NGO that runs de-mining operations all over the world, and they screen two different informative movies daily: Bomb Hunters and Bombies.

A tale of two cities Luanag Prabang and Phonsavan

Waterfall leaping

The covert efforts of the CIA rarely make me proud to be an American, but the devastation that was unleashed throughout the '70s on the eastern half of Laos was simply terrible. Dubbed the “secret war,” or the “chaos in Laos” according to JFK – not that those two words ought to rhyme in the slightest – it lasted for over 20 years and resulted in countless deaths. History lesson concluded, the Plain of Jars is arguably the best example of where Laos' distant and more recent pasts meet.

Long before the war, this area was used by ancient people doing, well, something with enormous containers carved out of stone. Various theories abound, all as-yet-unproven, of whether or not they were funerary urns, water stations along a caravan route, vats for making lao lao rice whiskey, or something else entirely. There are hundreds of jar sites throughout Asia, stretching from India to Thailand and Laos, which lends some credence to the water-storage/caravan theory; there are at least 400 documented groupings of these interesting remnants of a forgotten people. But tourists primarily visit one, 10km outside of Phonsavan, or at most the few other principal sites buried on red-dirt roads out in the country. We pragmatically visited two, since there's a limit to the number of jars one really needs to behold, but we didn't just want to see only the main site.

Travelling by bicycle was easy enough, south of town enormous billboards point down the proper roads to the different collections of jars. At Site I, amidst bomb craters and trenches now overgrown with grass, the path is well-marked with small two-coloured concrete MAG signs, the white side has been thoroughly cleared of mines and other UXO (unexploded ordinance, the generic term for the multitude of deadly weaponry that malfunctioned when dropped and lies dormant and deadly), while the red side provides tourism with more than a hint of danger. We stuck to the path, losing a limb in Laos would probably be even worse than it sounds.

As advertised, the Plain of Jars features numerous large jars haphazardly scattered throughout a vast meadow. Its an enchanting place to a certain extent, basically how long you'd like to snap photographs of jars while walking primarily on a marked path. You can interact with the jars as much as you'd like, the area directly around these archeological wonders has been thoroughly de-mined, both visually and with metal detection equipment. Site II, further south by about 15km, had fewer jars but a scenic hilltop setting. It was so scenic that we wandered off on an ever-diminishing path in the hopes of finding some higher ground, but ended up making a hasty retreat when the forest, and the possibility of hidden mines, had taken over.

At the Plain of Jars

The terrain was generally smooth and flat, and day-trips are always fantastic since the bikes don't have to be loaded down with the almost 20kg of baggage we each carry, so we were able to speed about quite leisurely despite the constant heat and the dust from passing vehicles. The return to town was highlighted with the usual series of hellos and waves, followed by plenty of fresh fruit from some road-side vendors.

Having exhausted the sole glory of Phonsavan, we set out for the city of temples under a bit of time pressure. Our thirty days in Laos were disappearing quickly, and more time at our remaining destinations was desired. Plus, the body and mind can only handle so many consecutive days of cycling, as the daily grind of riding is both physically demanding and at times it can be quite mentally exhausting.

So an easy afternoon of riding to the small town of Muong Sui (signposted as Ban Nong Tang) was followed by a chilly night-time ride in the flatbed of a rented truck, the stars gleaming brilliantly overhead as we drove over mountains and through valleys in the peaceful and total darkness. After another time-saving van ride the next morning, filled with us staring at both the scenery and at the large groups of organised cyclists along the road – the first we'd seen since Cambodia – and soon enough we arrived in Luang Prabang.

Phonsavan might be a historically important tourist attraction, but Luang Prabang is a true tourist town, the northern mecca of Laos. The temples may be the main draw, but there are plenty of other distractions to keep even weary cyclists entertained and desiring to “stay another day” – a much mentioned mantra in Laos as well as an NGO's advertising campaign.

The massive night market is hard to miss, since the entire main strip of downtown closes to through traffic mid-afternoon in preparation of the capitalistic ritual. The booths seem endless, though the goods quickly become monotonous. Paintings, bags, lao lao, blankets, and way too many Beerlao t-shirts line the cramped road, prices marginally negotiable but all sufficiently affordable. At the far end of the makeshift strip-mall lies a true culinary feast: stalls and carts offer up cheap sandwiches (10,000kip), fruit shakes (5,000kip), and spring rolls (1,000kip), plus there's even a delectable vegetarian buffet (5,000kip/plate).

As for the temples, they are numerous. Some are hidden on back alleys, while others dominate entire city blocks. All are active, especially before dusk when the resident monks perform traditional music and prayers. Doing a walking tour, a guidebook favourite, is a handy way to quickly reach temple overload, so if you have the time it's better to space things out over several days. Numerous spectacular examples of Buddhist artwork exist, as well as some very peaceful gardens. Mount Phousi is great for sunset views over the city, just follow the hordes up the temple stairs in the late afternoon.

More waterfalls

If you need to escape the city, perhaps the most popular day-trip is to the Kwang Si Falls. About an hour away by songthaew, its blue-green waters cascade 60 meters down a rock-face. Hiking up to the top is unfortunately rather unrewarding, since a good view over the falls is impossible to find and the path upwards is long and steep. Luckily beneath the falls themselves are several calm pools for swimming, one of which has a rope swing and a small waterfall available for jumping off of. The water might be cold, but it's clean and refreshing, especially after a lengthy and futile hike. If kitsch is what you're after then you're also in luck: there's a bear park, with a group of rescued Asiatic black bears sharing a large caged compound, outside of which are bear statues of all species available for photo ops.

For some therapeutic pampering beyond the typical massage – for which there are numerous spas catering to a wide variety of budgets – there are several steam rooms scattered throughout the town. The one we visited was simple yet effective, the dry heat from the wood stove was embellished by freshly picked lemongrass and other herbs, and a cold bucket shower was available outside to extend the experience.

But the true joy of Luang Prabang, at least for those with flexible bed-times and hearty livers, is the late-night party that develops at the bowling alley. Ask any tuk-tuk driver what there is to do after dinner, and bowling will certainly be mentioned. The bars legally have to close around eleven, and even the disco is only able to remain open until midnight, but pins and cold Beer Laos are able to be pounded until 3am. The police, having been sufficiently bribed apparently, look the other way since the lanes are located several kilometres outside town. It's also a local hangout, as bowling appears to have the power to bridge cultural divides in the name of entertainment.

Luang Prabang and Phonsavan may be dramatically different towns, particularly in regards to the activities and entertainment available for travellers, but the reality is that they each reflect equally important aspects of Laos. The country is changing relatively quickly as tourism firmly takes its hold, and while the government and people are motivated to provide the desired services and infrastructure, much of the allure of traveling here is that the traditional way and pace of life are very much intact.

The development of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane and elsewhere demonstrates the progressive post-war mentality that is finally sinking into the least Westernised SE Asian nation; the minimum of change reflected in Phonsavan, Sam Neua, and everywhere else off the main tourist trail, shows that while parts of Laos may be changing and developing quickly, it retains the rugged traditionalism that attracted adventurers in the first place.

We'll be running a new entry from Anderson and the team every week for the duration of their trip across Asia. We hope you find it an interesting view into what another's journey through Asia can be like. There's a delay of a few weeks between where they are and the story appearing on Travelfish, so if you want to know where they are right now, be sure to check out their blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.

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  • An interesting and worthwhile entry. I'd like to offer a couple of comments and minor corrections that in no way affect the substance of the piece. The town formerly known as Xieng Khouang (of which little remains beyond a couple of stupas) is now Muang Khoun. Although it had been flattened (except for one building) when I first saw it in 1970, Phonsavan was in its current location and had the same name it now bears. Most of the destruction occurred in the 1960s, and by the end of 1974 the war was over apart from some continuing guerilla activity carried on by Hmong fighters. As an American I remain distressed and indignant (and embarrassed) with regard to my government's continuing failure to assist meaningfully in the clean-up of unexploded ordnance and the reconstruction of demolished towns.

    Posted by Charles Felsenthal on 12th October, 2011

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