Do yourself a favour: get off the beaten track and onto the dusty trail through central Laos! Bus rides in Laos will have even the most seasoned travellers clutching their backpacks with white knuckles, or in some cases, decorating the side of the bus with their breakfast. It is possible to fly into Phonsavan but, let’s be realistic, we are backpackers, so you’ll most likely arrive by bus.
So even if you’re not emptying your stomach, it’s worth sticking your head out the window to see the changes as you head towards the Xiang Khouang Province. After winding your way down through the jagged mountains, the road flattens out to gentle hills, the lush, smothering jungle that towered over your bus gives way to fields and grasslands, and, most likely, your driver floors it on the straight roads.
Far from the green mountains and bar-riddled streets of Vang Vieng, and the bafflingly-French streets of Vientiane, Phonsavan is not the Laos you’ve already seen.
Phonsavan – Things to do
The town of Phonsavan could almost star alongside Clint Eastwood in a western movie. Centered around one dusty main street, there are a few quirky places around town definitely worth a visit.
Everyone’s first stop should be the UXO Information Centre. Laos has the unenviable record for the most bombed country per capita in the world. During the Vietnam War between 1963 and 1974, the US military dropped more than 2 million tonnes of explosive ordnance on Laos, a declared neutral country. More bombs fell here than on all of Europe during World War II.
The legacy of this secret war remains, particularly in Central Laos. Unexploded Ordnance, UXO, kills more than 300 people in Laos every year. Most of them children.
Initially it seems quite kitsch: seeing bowls, spoons and other household items made out of the casings of bombs, a nifty trinket to take home and show the family. In reality, kids get used to seeing bombs inside their homes and don’t associate them with danger. So a game of catch played with something they found on the ground can turn into something terrible. Do your part and don’t buy any souvenirs made from old bombies.
The Plain of Jars
After getting some history, it’s time to head to the main attractions scattered outside town: the Plains of Jars.
There are a few theories floating around about these mysterious, ancient jars covering everything from funerary vessels to alien eggs. The local favourite is that, long ago, after 10 years of war, a king defeated his enemy. This king ordered hundreds of giant stone jars built to hold the LaoLao for a year-long celebration of the victory.
Chances are, at your guesthouse you’ll meet someone very friendly who just happens to have a friend/family member who just happens to be a tour guide. Be sure to shop around if you plan on taking a guided tour, because there are friendly people with tour guide relatives all over town. Bear in mind the DIY experience can be just as rewarding. By far the best way to explore these remnants of an epic, ancient party, the Plains of Jars, is by motorbike. The roads are quiet and generally, in kind of, almost reasonable shape by Laos standards for any uneasy riders and the scenery is breathtaking.
Sites 1,2 and 3 – What to see
There are heaps of jar sites surrounding Phonsavan to choose from. Sites 1, 2 and 3 are the closest, biggest and are mostly cleared of UXO, but are also, obviously, the most popular with other tourists. That said, the Plain of Jars hasn’t experienced the tourist boom that has blessed/plagued Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.
Site 1 is speckled with giant stone jars and bomb craters in almost equal numbers. It’s home to some of the biggest stone jars spread across a rolling hillside with views stretching far beyond Phonsavan. The biggest jars weigh up to a tonne and would hold an awful lot of LaoLao, if the rumour is to be believed, your head almost thrums with the potential hangover. While it’s easy to get distracted by these incredible whisky cups, be sure to watch your feet. The areas between the red and white markers have been thoroughly and professionally cleared of UXO. The hillside is scarred with trenches and craters that act as a constant reminder of what can potentially happen if you disobey those little markers. Threats of an explosive demise aside, the Plain of Jars is a magical place, no matter how many tourists charge through, it always seems to be quiet enough to hear the wind in the grass.
A deserted tank in Phonsovan – Photo by Nick Lombardi, author of ‘Plain of Jars’ novel
Heading to Sites 2 and 3 takes you past fields, schools and a few villages. If your visit to Phonsavan and the Plains of Jars teaches you one thing, it’s how to drive a motorbike/hold on for dear life one-handed while waving frantically at locals with the other.
But it’s not all about the Jars…
Exploring the Countryside around Phonsavan
The hills around Phonsavan are also home to some beautiful waterfalls and even hot springs. If it’s more of a cultural experience you’re after, head a bit further out of town to visit a Hmong village and learn a bit more about one of the most mysterious and persecuted ethnic groups in South East Asia.
Scooting through the centre of Laos gives you a better look at a country renowned for being unbelievably friendly and welcoming. It only takes the occasional crater, red and white marker or skull and crossbones sign to triggers the harsh reminder of just how much this country has gone through.
Wat Pia Wat – Bombed out temple in Phonsavan
All things considered, the warmth and optimism of the Lao people is even more incredible after a visit to Phonsavan.
By Bridget Backhaus
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of the Plain of Jars, check out the following website and novel bi Nick Lombardi.