Plain of Jars & Phonsavan
The Plain of Jars & the history of the secret bombings
Phonsavan (or Phonesavanh) and the Plain Of Jars has probably one of the saddest stories in Laos. The city lies in a valley the borders Vietnam on the east. Phonsavan itself is not really worth a visit, it's still a rough dirt town with nothing much that makes you happy. However, the surrounding valley is spectacular for two reasons: the Plain of Jars and the crater holes as a result of heavy bombing.
It's much easier these days to reach the valley then in 1995 when I first visited the valley. At the time you could only fly in from Luang Prabang or take the long way around overland and very bad roads through Pak Mong and Muang Ngoy.
At the time I flew in from Luang Prabang and went back bus and truck by going out of Phonsavan in the direction of Ban Ban (there's a basic guesthouse).
From here I had to change transport to a truck. Sitting on vegetables and flower, I had a very rough ride. I haven't been back but from what I have heard, nothing has changed much since then. In Pak Mong, it took me 3 days to reach Pak Mong by bus and truck (!), I could find better transport.
There is nowadays a decent road from Phoukoun to Phonsavan. The road is safe and is 100km long. It leads through the mountains, so be prepared to do some serious climbing.
Besides, in Paxan I have not been able to locate road going north. Locals told me the road is no longer in use and totally overgrown. It's a NO GO.
Phonsavan is the new capital of Xieng Khouang Province in Laos. It was built in the mid 1970s, because the old capital of Xieng Khouang was utterly destroyed during the fighting between the Pathet Lao and American backed anti-communist troops.
According to the Nelles maps there is supposed to be a road to Paxan, about 250 km south of Phonsavan along the Mekong river. There is a road to Muang Khoun and there is also a road going south from Muang Khoun. However, this area is technically under control of the Lao government, in reality the village chiefs do what they want. This means it's a seriously dangerous road. I spoke to a guy who tried to do this on motorbike and he was seriously scared during this.
Phonsavan main street in 1999
The town is not much more then a few streets big and although dusty, reasonable modern compared to many other Laotian towns. Many houses are build with remains of bombshells and it's hard to find a household not using or having remains of the heavy bombing.
The town has plenty of small basic guesthouses. Food is basic but OK.
Phonsavan has some good hotels available. With the opening of the road to Luang Prabang more travelers visit and more hotels and guesthouses open their door. Some hotels are there for many years and have proven themselves. The town center has some rock bottom (and sometimes not so clean) guesthouses. But there are some really good hotels.
The Plain of Jars
The main reason people visit the plains is the 3 main sites of jars, hence the name: "Plain of Jars". It's indeed a plain full of jars, literally thousands, from small to man sized. As said, there are 3 main areas where it's littering with jars, from small to huge, even as big that a full grown man can stand in and disappear out of sight.
No one is sure how old the jars are and who made them but archaeologists believe the jars are about 1500 to 2000 years old. Excavated material in the area has been dated around 500BC to 800 AD. Archaeologists assume the jars come from the same time period as the excavated materials but there is no proof. They assume they were used by an ancient Mon Khmer race now totally vanished without a trace.
The locals have several stories themselves about the origins of the jars. Some stories talk about a race of giants and an ancient king Khun Cheung. This king created the jars to brew lao lao rice wine to celebrate his victories in war.
During the Vietnam war, many jars were destroyed. When you walk in the valley you still see everywhere the craters, sometimes almost next to the jars. It's amazing after such bombing there are still so many jars left!
Laos was officially not involved in the Vietnam War. It was officially neutral but the Vietcong used parts of the Phonsavan valley to smuggle weapons and food to South Vietnam (part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail).
This was reason enough for the Americans to violate the neutrality of Laos and bomb heavily the valley. The CIA went also in this area to recruit Hmong using the anti Vietnam feelings of many of the Hmong.
As a result, Xieng Khouang was almost totally destroyed and after the war, Phonsavan became the new administrative center. In the late 1980's, when Laos was opening its borders, Phonsavan started to become a tourist attraction but only since a few years it's relatively easy and safe to travel over land to see the Plain of Jars.
You will need a local guide to visit the best places in the valley, even though there are clear signboards. The Laotian caretakers of the Plain of Jars are currently applying for status as a UNESCO World Heritage site which would save the Plain of Jars for further destruction.
Other pages about Laos:
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Tourist attraction #1 and easy to reach from Vientiane, Van Vieng is now a small backpackers paradise.
Map of Laos
Luang Prabang to Phoukoun
Crossing the mountains on the way from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng.