The mysterious Plain of Jars – Phonsavanh

September, 2014

This regional town in the Xieng Khouang province is surrounded by flat plains, winding raked bands for roads, and with an altitude of over 1,000 metres, a pleasant climate all year round. Heavily carpet-bombed by the US in the “The Secret War” but also during the Civil war, many UXOs (Unexploded Ordnance) still scatter the outskirts of this town and surrounding region.

Stunning scenery en route!

The minibus from Luang Prabang to Phonsavanh takes about 6-hours and although the journey moves you through some stunning scenery, the windy roads are a trigger for car sickness! Again, locals don’t travel well so bring mints to mask the vomit smells and an iPod to drown out the throwing-up sounds, otherwise, you just may find yourself with your head in a plastic bag!

Phonsavanh is one of the most heavily bombed places in the world. Thus, you can see many NGO and INGO 4×4 vehicles in this town, as seen throughout Laos. Because of all the ex-pats living here, prices are inflated compared to other towns in Laos, especially accommodation and food.

When visiting this town, take care to stick to well-worn paths and roads, especially when visiting the Plain of Jars, as not all areas around the sites are cleared. Keep your eye out for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) markers scattered at all three sites, which denotes the area up to where mines have been cleared; remember, beyond the markers lies uncleared territory. Throughout the town, scrap ordnance is scattered in front of shops, restaurants, offices, and more.

Accommodation
Excellent service in The Hillside Residence, which is a homestay offering a good room with a lovingly made breakfast served with panache by Mr Kay (owner). The homestay is in a residential area so a few dogs may keep the light sleepers up at night. The room is serviced daily and contains everything you need. Mr Kay goes out of his way to make you feel at home; he is very sweet. Location is about a 10-15 minute flat walk to town, so not a problem.

Arrived from Luang Prabang and to our surprise, there was a chap with a Hillside Residence sign waiting for us – our lift. The chap was from Sousath Travel (we didn’t do the Plain of Jars tour with him as too expensive for us being only 2 people).

BBQ in front of restaurant – note the pot plants, which are Cluster Bomb canisters

We stayed 4 nights, not cheap but Phonsavanh is not cheap overall and lacking in any real middle-ground prices in accommodation that we could find.

Food

Certain unscrupulous locals (not all) seem to have cotton on to ripping tourists off as we experienced when ordering a coffee in a local restaurant. I pointed to the picture of the coffee next to the price and after we had one of the worst coffees in Laos so far, asked for the bill. The owner tried to charge double for the coffee saying we had a large coffee not a small one as shown on the menu. Although she insisted that we pay the higher price, I left the amount on the table that was advertised on the menu, nothing more.

Food is pricey in this town and I believe it’s a result of all the NGO and INGO ex-pats, which typically, are paid a lot higher than locals. I’ve lists a few here:

  • Bus station – although many may disagree with me, this is my pick for this town.
    Walk to the bus station and you’ll find a small nightly market of clothes, toiletries, and the small crowded food stall with several ladies and a man flat-out cooking fried rice and 4 different types of fried noodles. All plates are 5,000K, cooked fresh on the spot and very delicious. Across from the markets is the bus station’s undercover waiting area with a huge TV screen and seats. Sit here and eat your delicious take-away cheap meal whilst watching a local film – great people watching, at locals and by locals!
  • Sanga Restaurant – one of the cheaper restaurants in Phonsavanh. The food is average to good and prices are good. The service is average.
  • Nisha Restaurant – serves Indian fresh and delicious food, good service, and a reasonable price for Phonsavanh. Try the freshly made Naan, it’s excellent!
  • Bamboozle! Restaurant & Bar (Number 73 Unit 5) – only had red wine here, which was good and priced at 22,000K for a generous glass. Good atmosphere and service; and menu is reasonably priced.

Blue area marks the location of the Plain of Jars

Sites
Plain of Jars
The main reason for diverting east from Luang Prabang and not heading directly south to Vang Vieng at the Phu Khoun crossroad town, is to visit Phonsavanh’s Plain of Jars; also known as the ‘Plain of Scars’ from the heavy bombing between the 1960’s and 1970’s. The experience is well-worth the bumpy 135 kms from Phu Khoun on Hwy 7 to get here…I passed through Phu Khoun in 1989 when it was a mere tiny village with thatched huts and no power.

Most hostels and hotels can organise a day-tour, which covers all 3 sites with smaller activities (Hmong village, Russian tank, waterfall) thrown in, or a 2-day tour, depending on your purse and available time. You can visit the sites independently but you will need transport between the 3 sites as they’re spread out, although it’s an easy hike between Sites 2 and 3.

Scrap ordnance, seen throughout the town

Wanting only to concentrate on Sites 1, 2, and 3 to give us more time at each site without the extras thrown in, we started at 09:00 and finished at 14:45, which I found was enough. This included a half-hour lunch stop at a local noodle shop near Site 2, which was both delicious and cheap (10,000K per bowl).

As it’s the wet season and quiet on the falang front, this also meant, only 2 of us on the tour. Sousath Travel quoted 800,000K for the day (you could have more bodies on the tour). As this was too expensive, we went with Lao Highlander Tour, which cost 500,000K (400,000K for a car and driver, and 100,000K for the certified guide). Note: The day tour doesn’t include the entry fees for the sites: Site 1, cost is 15,000K; Site 2 and 3 cost is 10,000K for each site.

Our tour, guide, and driver were excellent! Tomsi (guide) went to great lengths to explain everything and was very knowledgeable but still provided enough space and time to explore the sites on our own while he waited.

The site dates to the Iron Age (500 BC to 500 AD), with each site containing from 1 up to 400 stone jars, hewn out of rock. Jars vary in height and diameter between 1 and 3 metres, and weigh up to several tons each. This whole plateau is amazing and the actual sites will leave you dumbfounded as to how these massive jars came to exist here and still today, a possible explanation is not really forthcoming.

Plain of Jars – Site 1

Plain of Jars – Site 2

Plain of Jars – Site 3

Plant graffiti at the site!

Laos UXO and MAG Visitor Centres
Both visitor centres are well worth the visit. Laos UXO helps to rehabilitate landmine victims to lead a better life and return to some sort of normality after an accident, such as losing a limb. There’s locally made handicrafts on sale with donations going to the cause.

The MAG office is also very informative and worth visiting whilst in Phonsavanh. Learn about the fantastic work this non-government organisation has been doing in Laos since 1994 but worldwide since for 1989.

Both these organisations work very hard for landmine victims and UXO clearance.

MAG signs throughout the Plain of Jar sites – evidence of MAG’s fantastic work!

Quality of Life Association UXO Survivor Information Centre & Village Shop (41, Unit 3, Phonsavanh Village)
Make your way to this informative and moving centre, which is well laid out and provides a lot of information regarding UXO Survivors, and how this organisation is helping these people. The chap that works there speaks English and is very helpful, and answers any questions you may have.

Rocket, mortar bombs, and cluster bombs – display in front of a restaurant near the bus station

Volunteering

As we completed about 2 months of volunteer work in Thailand (Khao Lak and Mae Sot) earlier this year, decided another good reason to visit Phonsavanh was to look for volunteer work.

Basically, we door-knocked here but were always knocked back and told to go through an agency or government. This goes against the grain as I’m not interested in paying someone in Australia money to volunteer for free in another country – something doesn’t sit well with this philosophy. As an example, my partner is a qualified EOD Level 3 Technician. Whilst never expecting to be accepted as a volunteer in the field, was also knocked back to work in administration or even write SOPs for many organisations.

After doing much research on what agencies and NGOs retain in administration and advertising costs, it’s understandable why their protecting their turf! Although prepared to stay here much longer if we secured volunteer work, only stayed 4 nights, which apparently, is double of the 1-2 nights’ average stay for this town.

Leaving Phonsavanh
If you’re not interested in travelling further east and into Vietnam, then the next obvious place to visit is back-track to Phu Khoun then south to Vang Vieng. The last time I visited Vang Vieng was in 1989!

Very friendly staff in the ticket office at the bus station and one speaks English well. Buy your minibus ticket (60,000K) directly from this office a day in advance or on your travel day; you leave from this station.

Visit my Nilla’s Photography Laos gallery for more images and more blogs on Laos.

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