It’s only 260 km from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan but even the “fast” minivan takes a good six hours for the journey. If you only get a little bit motion sick, be prepared to get badly motion sick here. The road has approximately 1000 bends. At least.
The Plain of Jars
Phonsavan is on a high plateau and it can get quite cold at night in winter. The landscape around the town is beautiful, very dry in winter, and unlike anything we’ve seen so far in Southeast Asia or had expected to see in Laos.
The main reason we came to Phonsavan was to visit the Plain of Jars, long-since a dream of mine. Thousands of huge stone jars of different shapes are scattered across the plains of northern Laos. They date back to the Iron Age (500 BC – 500 AD) and were most likely used in burial practices.
Laos, and especially the region around Phonsavan, was heavily bombed between 1964 and 1973 during the Secret War. Today, only a few of the jar sites – the jars are arranged in clusters of up to several hundred jars – have been cleaned of UXOs, unexploded bombs. Only three sites, all around 20 km from Phonsavan, are accessible to tourists.
We went on a tour from Phonsavan that included visits to all three sites plus a visit of a temple, a stupa, and the noodle and the spoon village. What? I’ll explain later.
The jars are amazing, especially if you’ve always dreamed of visiting that place. Of course, it’s different than expected but that’s what makes traveling interesting and that is why we travel; the places are always different from what you’ve imagined.
The jars are huge and even knowing what their purpose (most likely) was, they remain mysterious. All three sites are different but all are special and worth a visit; don’t leave any one out. The first site is the biggest one and impresses by it’s size and the open terrain. Site two (most tours visit this one last so it’s often mistaken as being site three) is in a forest’ which somehow adds to the mysterious atmosphere. Site three is very compact and close by there should be other jars but we couldn’t find any of them, not even with a map one of our group had.
A temple, a stupa, and two villages (sort of)
The temple and the stupa are both decaying, one because it was bombed and the other one, the stupa, because of its age. They’re both much more interesting than we expected and definitely worth the stop. The villages, however… not really.
Our guide described the spoon village as a village where people make spoons and other things out of shells of cluster bombs. It sounded like a good thing: Turn something bad into something good and useful. However, the “village” is just a small hut where a woman makes spoons and (mainly) other things out of scrap aluminium. Not bombs. But don’t tell anyone, the stuff is sold all over the country as being made from bombs.
While we felt we had been promised too much regarding the spoon village, the noodle village was even worse. A village where they make noodles? No. A roadside stall where they sell dried noodles, among other things. The driver could’ve just taken us to a supermarket. At least we could have bought a cold coke there.
An old war that still claims victims
In the Secret War, during 9 years, the USA bombed Laos every 8 seconds, 24 hours a day. Cluster bombs with a total of 270 million bomblets were dropped. 30 % of them didn’t explode and remain undetonated. A very small amount has been removed but the remaining bomblets, the UXOs (unexploded ordnances), still cause damage to Laos’ predominantly rural population. The bomblets present a great danger because they can and do still explode and accidents happen often. People lose limbs, go blind, and children die.
The UXO Information Centre on Phonsavan’s main street is a good place to learn about that dark and disturbing chapter of Laos’ history. You can watch videos, read books, and learn about the history of people affected by the UXOs. The Quality of Life Association, that manages the center, helps people injured by the bombs. They pay for doctors, help people to get prosthetic limbs, and provide assistance to the injured and their families. Many of them can’t work in the fields anymore, either because of their injuries or because they are too afraid other bomblets might explode, and lose their income and livelihood. The center sells beautiful handicrafts made by women of affected families. Buying souvenirs here is a good way to help them earn a living and to support the association.