Old Xieng Khouang
Once the royal seat of Phuan Kingdom in the 14th century, and more recently the provincial capital during French colonial times, prosperous Muang Khoun was renowned for its lavish stupas and temples before suffering a series of attacks.
First plundered by the Chinese Haw bandits in the 19th century, then devastated by heavy bombardment during the war, it is said that bombing destroyed everything except for Wat Phiawat, That Dam and one French colonial building. The provincial capital was subsequently moved to Phonsavan and today, Muang Khoun has been rebuilt from the ashes into a small town that doesn’t warrant an overnight stay. It can though be of interest as a daytrip from Phonsavan.
Travelling 30 kilometres down paved Route 1D which runs eventually to Paksan on the northern bank of the Mekong River, the first temple that heralds the arrival into Muang Khoun is That Dam, the ruins of a stupa just off the main road on the righthand side in the grounds of Wat Si Phom. The temple was the town’s most sacred, but like everything else in town, was obliterated and the building is now a modern construction.
The first road on the left after the market leads up to the top of a hill dominated by two stupas, That Foun and That Chomphet. A ticket costs 10,000 kip, and included in the price is use of one of the cleanest loos at any attraction in Laos. Toilet facilities aside, 30-metre That Foun was built in 1576 and housed a treasure trove until those pesky Chinese invaders burrowed in and plundered it. It was rebuilt after the war but when we visited in 2018, things were looking dire as the crumbling structure was covered in bamboo scaffolding and seemed to be getting redone with new bricks.
Further along the ridge is a less elegant pile of bricks. That Chomphet, built around the same period as That Foun, and also levelled by bombs. The current stupa is quite dilapidated, but it offers a good view of the town and surrounding hills.
Back on Route 1D and down the hill at the southern end of town, 16th century Wat Phiawat has been rebuilt over the centuries. Its current claim to fame is that a few pillars and the large seated Buddha remarkably survived the bombing. It’s not grand and if you can ignore the modern patch job on the brick wall and the new tile floor, the Buddha with the little Buddhas and offerings around it are photogenic. A ticket costs 10,000 kip.
If you have a hankering to see more jar sites and can handle riding on a dirt track, here’s a chance to see some that are rarely visited. From Wat Phiawat, continue east on the main road for four kilometres (do not follow Route 1D south). After 1.5 kilometres there is a bridge, followed 800 metres later by a junction in a small village with Phosy Primary where you should veer left, then 1.5 kilometres later, turn left into the village taking the road up the hill. Follow the undulating unpaved road for 1.5 kilometres and there should be a sign for a dirt track on the left leading to “Plain of Jars Site 16”. You can also climb up the rise of land on the righthand of the road/sign where you’ll find another cluster of jars in the brush.
If travellers breeze through Plain of Jars sites 1, 2 and 3 in the morning, Muang Khoun can be added, making it into a full daytrip as they are both south of Phonsavan. This is easier to manage by tuk tuk or guided tour than by motorbike unless you can handle the long drive and are efficient with your time. Many tour agencies offer this combined option, except that as Muang Khoun is not a popular choice, it may be difficult to find others to join the tour, meaning you would have to shoulder the cost of a private trip.
Like the other daytrips we’ve suggested such as Muang Soui, Phou Khout and Muang Kham, the drive out is paved, reasonably scenic and pleasant enough, a way to broaden the experience in Xieng Khouang rather than simply staying a day to see the jars.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you'll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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