Arriving at Phonsavan airport, the internal immigration checkpoint reminds me that sleepy little Laos is still a one-party state. It goes quickly enough however, and soon I'm charging the wall of touts at baggage claim. I pick a shy-looking guide from the back exactly because he isn't shouting at me. My Phonsavan adventure begins.
The excitement actually started 30 minutes earlier, when the Lao Airlines Y-12 turboprop descended through the clouds, bringing the valley into view. Though it's been decades since the last bomber passed overhead, the landscape is still pockmarked with craters of all sizes. Phonsavan saw more than its fair share of battles during the Southeast Asian conflict, with Lao communist, royalist, and neutralist forces frequently trading possession of this ground. But the reason more bombs fell here than any other location on earth is a fluke of geography. During the war, US warplanes unable to reach their targets in Vietnam dumped their payloads here on their return flights to bases in Thailand.
After my guide loads my pack into his taxi, we make a quick stop at a guesthouse, then set off for my primary objective, the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars is a collection of large, stone carved jars scattered throughout the area. I've read how archeologists believe these jars were simply burial urns for ancient funeral rites. But my guide relates the local legend that the jars were used to brew particularly large amounts of particularly strong alcohol to celebrate a particularly great victory in battle. Despite my disbelief, I'm particularly fond of the story.
Either way, the jars are both impressive and disappointing, other worldly and ordinary at the same time. They are spread across the entire valley, with several areas of high concentrations of jars available for viewing by tourists. We visit a few of these locations, my favorite being Site One with its many easy-to-reach jars. This site is also adjacent to a cave, which the communist Pathet Lao soldiers used as a command post and makeshift air raid shelter during the war. It hardly looks like it would offer protection from a good rain; much less a hail of 500 pound bombs.
Returning to town, we pass the rusted hull of a US-made tank abandoned by anti-communist forces during the war. Sadly, this isn't the only hardware left over from that conflict. Unexploded ordinance, or UXO as it is known, is still routinely discovered in the region, and empty bomb and cannon shells used to decorate homes and businesses in town are a chilling reminder that this seemingly peaceful place wasn't always so.
Safely back, I set out on foot to see the twin war memorials on a hill just outside of town. The first, the Vietnam Monument, honors the many Vietnamese soldiers who fought and died during the war. The second is a similar memorial for the Lao patriots. What strikes me the most however, is that the memorials are deserted and modestly maintained. Despite the huge impact the conflict had on this area, the locals tell me it is ancient history, something to be forgotten.
Phonsavan, loosely meaning "heavenly", is oddly misnamed. It's definitely different than other places I've been in Laos. The cities along the Mekong River get much of their flavor from neighboring Thailand, but Phonsavan takes its cue from Vietnam, and the goods in the markets are clearly from Laos' socialist neighbor. Even during a soccer match between Vietnam and Thailand that evening, I overhear residents cheering for their ideological rather than ethnic cousins.
The government's "multi-ethnic Lao people" slogan gets a good photo op here too. In the market, I encounter a mixture of highland, midland and lowland Lao. I buy oranges from a brightly dressed hill tribe man who struggles to speak a few words in the national language. On the street, a small child sees my western face and bursts into tears.
Walking about later that night, it's dark, nearly pitch black. There are only a few lights on in homes and on the street. But the strangest thing I notice are the public address speakers on power poles all over town. Their 1984-ish message includes party slogans and tips on how to be a better citizen. Stranger still, these speakers are perfectly placed in locations outside the earshot of even a single home or business, where they won't disturb anyone.
Phonsavan is off-the-beaten path. It may not be the end of the universe, but it seems close. While places like Luang Prabang and Vientiane are slowly being homogenized by tourism, Phonsavan is still unique. It's charm is in its simplicity. Historically rich, culturally poor, Phonsavan makes me feel like I've been somewhere special; somewhere few others have been lucky enough to see.
story by Mark Foley, aka exacto
By Mark Foley.
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