We visited Phonsavan on a whim, as an alternative to the usual destination between Luang Prabang and Vientiane–Vang Vieng, the party-centric tubing paradise. While using an inner tube as a prop to legitimize serious day drinking is a novel adventure of legendary proportions to the fleet of backpackers hailing from Europe and colder climates, I’ve participated in the very same activity on the Guadalupe River in San Marcos, Texas too many times (twice, if you’re curious) to get excited about doing the very same thing in a very different country.
So onwards to Phonsavan on a 6-hour bumpy, bumpy bus it was, the destination selected not out of its own merits, but out of availability. However, what I found inside the borders of the tiny town, was certainly worth the emerging tourism board’s new catchphrase, “Phonsavan: The Land of Secrets.”
Phonsavan Secret #1: The Mysterious and Vast Plain of Jars
Jar Site #1 in Phonsavan.
Phonsavan (pronounced “Ponsaban”) is a quiet town, just getting used to the tourist industry with a handful of western-friendly restaurants, english-language menus, a small flock of beggar children, and a rather dank set of guesthouses lining the major road. The burgeoning industry is fostered by the proximity to the town’s first secret:
…dun dun dun
The Plain of Jars!
Huge, bronze-age urns left by a mysterious ancient people litter the rolling hills around Phonsavan in 60 areas throughout the region. Local legends would have you believe the jars were used for the distilling of whiskey to celebrate a lauded military victory over 2000 years ago, but archaeologists aren’t so sure, given the discovery of burial chambers beneath some of the sites. Though the prospect of the jars being just another ornate burial site is less exciting than the prospect of an ancient and sprawling booze factory, it’s still very exciting to be able to walk freely among objects of great archeological significance.
For scale: I was taller than almost all the jars! And I still carry that backpack everywhere!
Despite tourists having largely free reign over the jar sites, only a few showed signs of degradation. Aside from the wear-and-tear of 2000 years of exposure to the elements, most of the jars’ damage came as a result of Phonsavan’s second secret.
We accessed the Plain of Jars rather easily on rented motorbikes, following a rough map and signs on the road. There are also tons of tours that can arrange transportation for you from as far as Luang Prabang. The little travel shops along the main road in Phonsavan can also help you out with transportation, often just loading you into van with a few other wanderers and an english-speaking driver for a reasonable price. It’s easy, so easy, to get here once in Laos, and it’s a wonder we had the most popular, densely jarred site all to ourselves.
Phonsavan Secret #2: The Network of Unexploded Ordnances Left by the US Military in the 1970′s
The sign warning Plain of Jars visitors about UXOs.
Probably every American over the age of 12 knows at least something about the Vietnam war due to its embeddedness in American pop culture and identity, if not from the country’s educational system. Very few know about the war waged in Laos during the same time period. I was shocked to learn that Laos is the single most heavily bombed country per capita in the world, and that those bombs fell from American planes.
The USA dropped over two million tons of bombs on Laos from 1963 to 1974 to destroy resources streaming south from Hanoi to the battlefront in Vietnam and to wage ideological war against the emerging Lao People’s Democratic Republic. These bombs killed around a half million people, destroyed or damaged many of the ancient jars, and left a deadly legacy buried in the soil, as many did not explode upon impact. Unexploded ordnances (UXOs) have killed over 800 people in Laos since 1999, despite organizations like Mine Advisory Group (MAG) investing in clearance. The poverty in Laos keeps farmers ploughing new, uncleared lands and sends people searching for UXOs in hopes of cashing in on some scrap metal, putting the population at risk.
Recovered bombs decorating a store front.
To tourists, the danger of the bombs is most clear at the Plain of Jars sites, where MAG signs teach visitors about the meaning of the clearance markers. After looking at the jars got a little boring, we followed some of the trails around the site, making sure to stay between the white markers, and more than once having to turn around when an ominous-looking skull and crossbones sign indicated danger ahead.
Amazingly, the population of Phonsavan has adopted the bomb shell as a sort of mascot. We rented scooters from a travel shop with a wall decorated with cluster bombs. A café on Phonsavan’s main street uses spent bomb casings as a fence. A nearby factory manufacturers spoons from the scrap metal, and all the restaurants in the town use them. Allegedly, a nearby Hmong village has integrated bomb remnants into their architecture, design, and jewelry. Though we motorbiked through many surrounding villages hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous houses, we could not find it.
Creeper shot of a farmer hauling in the daily harvest.
We did, however, pass through a beautiful idyllic countryside and quaint tribal villages that the tourists meandering around Thapae Gate in Chiang Mai hope to visit on their tours and treks. My creeper motorbike shots didn’t turn out perfectly, but I did snag this one shot of a very small woman carrying a very large load to a village pretty far from the fields.
Staying Safe and Getting Informed:
Walking in the town of Phonsavan and the surrounding villages is very safe, as are roads and marked hiking paths. However, it is considered unsafe to blaze your own hiking trails and off-road with your motorbike in unexplored rural areas. MAG runs an information center of sorts on the main drag of Phonsavan that is open until the late hour of 8 pm. The center provides a ton of information on the UXO situation in Laos, including heart-breaking up-to-date displays of the most recent explosions and their victims.
Phonsavan Not-So-Secret#3: The Adventure of the VIP Overnight Bus to Vientiane
Phonsavan’s Bus Station.
If I had done a bit of research, I wouldn’t have been surprised by the final element of my jaunt through Phonsavan: the terrible overnight bus to Vientiane. I shelled out for the VIP overnight bus in hopes of a reclining seat, air-conditioning, and the freedom to pursue sleep. However, as far as I can tell, the Laos definition of “VIP” bus just prohibits barnyard animals from accompanying passengers on their journeys or selling seats to families of 30 with no place to sit, but the center aisle.
The road through the Laos mountains is windy, and I would have been much more uncomfortable if not for my Thai motion-sickness miracle tablets. Yet, not being nauseous yourself does not detract from the fact that there is a woman vomiting loudly a few rows up. Not being nauseous does not teach you the proper Laos pee break etiquette, when the bus simply stops on the road, by a waterfall, with no gender-specific areas, let alone bathrooms in sight. Not being nauseous does not prevent one from picking up a nice case of Traveler’s Diarrhea from the complimentary (VIP!) bowl of noodles served at a sketchy bus stop at 2 am. Not being nauseous does not mean you can sleep while being thrown violently from side-to-side as the maniacal bus driver skirts round the corners of cliffs and mountains.
When we reached Vientiane at dawn, my starvation wasn’t even enough to keep from collapsing for hours into a possibly infested bed. If you know me, you know that’s bad.
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