Photo: Plain of Jars.

Introduction

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Set on a high plateau of wide open plains and rolling green hills, Phonsavan is a long drive from anywhere to reach—the provincial capital of Xieng Khouang is a day’s bus ride from Vientiane or Luang Prabang, but visitors make the journey to see its archaeological wonder, the Plain of Jars.


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The name is self-explanatory: there are plains and they have jars but the reason why people left clusters of up to 400 large stone jars all over the province is an enticing mystery. How did they get there and why? There are over 100 jar sites in Xieng Khouang alone, but Site 1, 2 and 3 are close to Phonsavan and they receive the bulk of visitors. Tour guides or the visitor centre at Site 1, which boasts the most impressive concentration of jars, will explain the prevalent theory they were funerary urns. The popular theory is that giants used them to brew rice whiskey.

They were not kidding when they named it Plain of Jars. Photo taken in or around Phonsavan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

They were not kidding when they named it Plain of Jars. Photo: Cindy Fan

Fast forward from ancient history to modern tragedy, Xieng Khouang is also known for the heavy bombardment it suffered during the Secret War. Though Laos was guaranteed neutrality in Geneva, the country would become engulfed in the conflict between the North Vietnam-backed communist Pathet Lao and the Royalists with the Americans. The US, fearing the spread of communism, conducted a covert CIA operation that included recruiting the Hmong, a hilltribe group drawn into the conflict for want of independence and autonomy. In Laos, Xieng Khouang was the Hmong’s heartland.

While tens of thousands of Hmong boys and men fought and suffered heavy casualties on the ground, the US unleashed an intense aerial bombing campaign. By the time the war was over with the communist victory, when the last American plane evacuated and 120,000 Hmong suddenly became refugees in their own homeland, more than two million tons of bombs had been dropped. This works out an average of one bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years. Xieng Khouang was one of the most heavily bombed provinces in Laos, and that’s saying something in the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita.

Wet season can deliver impressive views (and appalling roads!) Photo from 2004. Photo taken in or around Phonsavan, Laos by Caroline Gaylard.

Wet season can deliver impressive views (and appalling roads!) Photo from 2004. Photo: Caroline Gaylard

The past is inescapable when sightseeing in Phonsavan. Site 1 is dotted with fox holes, trenches and bomb craters. Caves were shelters and hospitals. Quaint villages recycle bomb shells casings for practical matters, from flower planters and house pillars to barbecues. The village of Ban Naphia turns bomb scrap metal into spoons.

Two million tons of bombs were dropped, and most were cluster bombs, a single bomb shell containing hundreds of tennis ball-sizes bombies. An estimated 30% did not detonate and Xieng Khouang has some of the worst unexploded ordnance (UXO) contamination in Laos. People continue to be maimed or killed farming their land, walking through the forest or making a cooking fire. Children are especially susceptible because a bombie looks like a toy ball.

The demining goes on and on and on. This photo is from 2004. Photo taken in or around Phonsavan, Laos by Caroline Gaylard.

The demining goes on and on and on. This photo is from 2004. Photo: Caroline Gaylard

In Phonsavan travellers can learn about the war’s legacy and the work being done. Xieng Khouang Quality of Life Association and Mines Advisory Group (MAG) have visitor centres on the main street with displays and documentaries; spending time at both is a must. Don’t be surprised to see de–mining teams in the field. Signs and markers in the ground indicate places that have been cleared. Tourist sites are safe. When exploring, keep on the literal beaten path.

Most travellers spend only a day in Phonsavan covering Site 1, 2 and 3 and the jar quarry before moving on to Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Sam Neua or the Nam Nern Night Safari, but there are plenty of other rarely visited jar sites. A number of attractions in outlying areas and ethnic villages, prominently Hmong, make for scenic day trips, especially by motorbike or bicycle.

Some of the attractions, like That Chompet, are a bit niche. Photo taken in or around Phonsavan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Some of the attractions, like That Chompet, are a bit niche. Photo: Cindy Fan

Allow time for places like Muang Khoun, once the opulent seat of the Phuan Kingdom, then the provincial capital before all but a temple and a stupa were obliterated by bombing. Visit Tham Piew Cave in Muang Kham, where 374 civilians were massacred by a US rocket. Muang Soui and CIA airbase Lima Site 108 was an area intensely fought over during the war. Nearby Phou Khout has a newly opened peak with sensational views.

The town of Phonsavan itself isn’t the most memorable and is heavily influenced by its Chinese and Vietnamese population. What it lacks in charm it makes up for with convenience as budget accommodation, travel agencies, motorbike rentals, a handful of good restaurants, cafes and bars are all found on the main street. In between jar site hopping, fill up the day with places like Mulberries, a silk farm and craft centre (Route 7, Ban Li, 4 km west of centre; T: (021) 263 371; http://www.mulberries.org; open Mon-Sat 08:00-16:00).

Not all the hotels in Phonsavan are lemons. Photo taken in or around Phonsavan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Not all the hotels in Phonsavan are lemons. Photo: Cindy Fan

The professionally curated Xieng Khouang Provincial Museum will open at the end of 2018, with exhibits on history, archaeology and ethnography. Admission will be 15,000 kip, open Monday to Friday. Find it a kilometre away, one major road south of the main street.

In Phonsavan on a Sunday? The Hmong Sunday Market is in Ban Tajok (Tachok), 30 kilometres east on Route 7 in the direction of Muang Kham. Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky with our timing to see it, but by all accounts, expect a truly local market with a wild variety of vegetables and meat. It’s not for those who can’t deal with early mornings. Locals told us you must be there from 04:00-07:00 to catch the action.

Hungry? Photo taken in or around Phonsavan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Hungry? Photo: Cindy Fan

Phonsavan also has the biggest Hmong New Year in the country, an enormous gathering of people decked out in dazzlingly colourful traditional garb, with young men and women playing a flirty ball tossing game. It’s slightly challenging to plan your trip around it, as the exact dates are hard to find out until the month leading up to it. Hmong New Year usually occurs in November or December.

Make a difference
Both MAG (Mines Advisory Group) and Xiengkhouang Quality of Life Association are undertaking highly valuable work clearing UXO and assisting those who have been injured and their families. Both have visitor centres in Phonsavan which should be considered a must see.

Grab a scooter (and a helmet!) and explore. Photo taken in or around Phonsavan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Grab a scooter (and a helmet!) and explore. Photo: Cindy Fan

Donations are welcome and we would suggest all visitors to Phonsavan should consider making a donation either in person at one of the two centres or via their websites. Every donation, regardless of how small, helps. See their websites below and also read our piece on UXO and the legacy of the Secret War in Xieng Khouang for further information.

Mines Advisory Group https://www.maginternational.org/mag/en/blog/mag-in-laos/
Xiengkhouang Quality of Life Association http://qlalaos.org/




Orientation
Route 7 is the throughway that connects Phonsavan to Sam Neua and Route 13. It runs through the city and a kilometre long strip forms the main street, which has the concentration of accommodation, restaurants and travel agencies. There are also ATMs along here, and a BCEL bank branch at the big intersection (west end of the tourist strip).

Who invents this stuff? Photo taken in or around Phonsavan, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Who invents this stuff? Photo: Cindy Fan

Free WiFi is standard at accommodation. 4G works well in the city centre, networks include Lao Telecom, Unitel and ETL.

The Hmong and their involvement in the war remains a sensitive subject. There are rumours of continued persecution, oppression and “cleansing” by the Lao army. The subject is taboo and should be avoided.

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