Phonsavan is a town that is rarely on the tourist’s trail from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, however, I was determined to make it there after doing a bit of research and coming across the intriguing Plain of Jars sites.
The overnight bus from Vientiane was like nothing I could have imagined, and if I knew what I was getting myself in for, I’m not so sure I would have opted for the experience; nonetheless, I will forever remember lying there thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?!’ when I was transferred to a bus full of locals by myself, away from the few other travellers I had met along the way to the bus station. It actually turned out to be just fabulous, considering everyone shares a single mattress with their bed buddy, I had been quite lucky, scoring myself a small lone Laotian woman. She spoke very little English, myself close to zero Lao. But she showed me the ropes, handed me a blanket, kept her distance as best she could agains the window and led me to “dinner” at the truck stop around 2am in the morning. I was half asleep but didn’t want to offended her by not eating a crumb of the interesting rice and ??? she opted to hand me. I will point out here that this meal was included in the price of bus ticket thus I had already paid for it, however, this didn’t make it any more appealing. I grazed on the plain rice and mystery meat and fiddled with the green vegetables until it was time to board the bus once more. Back to sleep we went, wrapped in the complementary fluffy blankets- who knows when they were last washed, but I didn’t dress for the occasion and above par air-conditioning, so I had to make do with what I was given!
Eventually my gentle companion hopped off early to join her family outside of town and I had the whole bed to myself. By now it was daylight and there was no point trying to get back to sleep, instead I sat up, took in the surroundings and waited. It often would occur to me on these long journeys that by the last hour or two I would much prefer to stay on the bus than reach the next destination and have to find my way around another foreign town. Nonetheless, the journey would always comes to an end and I was forced to embrace what was before me.
Now we’re up to about day 4 of my 4+ months in Asia, I have no sim card, I am in a completely rural town where NO ONE speaks English and there is not a single other foreigner on my bus. Hmm. Well, in a tuk tuk I hopped, jam-packed with locals off I headed in what I hoped was the right direction towards the main town. Eventually the tuk tuk stopped. There were still about 7 people in the tuk tuk that weren’t going anywhere but they pointed to me and directed me to leave the tuk tuk, still there was no one around that spoke English, so that was what I did and I am eternally grateful for these people for putting me in the right direction and not allowing me to be kidnapped and sold somewhere down the track to a sex dungeon or something of the likes.
So 7am, still everything asleep as always in sleepy Lao and no sim card and no accomodation booked. Soon I would make one of the worst accomodation mistakes of my trip, oh well, you live and you learn eh? I panicked in my sheer loneliness and desire to rid myself of all my bags and headed to a highly rated guesthouse according to Travelfish that I had taken a screen shot of the day before. Unfortunately the website hadn’t been updated in a while and I stumbled into a half renovated Sabaidee Guesthouse that I didn’t find out didn’t have Wifi until I had already paid for my nights accomodation. Well my own fault for not checking before handing over the cash and their fault for taking me in when they hadn’t taken a guest in a long time and really weren’t prepared for me. Oh well, it just meant I had to stumble down to a nearby cafe and grab something whenever I needed wifi.
Anyway, after a quick brekky and check in with the parents, I took a stroll down the street. Now to get to the Plain of Jars sites, its impossible to push bike and without a companion I wasn’t going to jump on a scooter any time soon and end up completely lost in the Laos countryside. Thus joining a group tour was the only remaining option. I knew that I needed to book a tour of the Plain of Jars sites today in order to stick to my semi-planned itinerary that would enable me to see everything I wanted to before I had to get to Vietnam. Well this too proved far more difficult that I had anticipated. I traipsed up and down the main street- there really isn’t much more to the town- and popped into every “travel agent” that I came across. Many weren’t yet active at 8am- understandably- and those that were did not have any tours running today. Finally I stumbled upon another guesthouse- the White Orchid Guesthouse– that I had also seen on Travelfish- slightly more pricey, but much more put together and with wifi- AND they had a travel agency. I enquired and the man at the desk said there was a tour running however his brother who was the tour agent wasn’t around and he would need to ask him. Eventually after waiting a solid 10 mins, the good news ensued and I was booked in, WOOHOOO! We were headed to the 3 Plain of Jars Sites, a Whisky Village, Bomb Craters and a Hmong Village. I knew I couldn’t be picky seeing as though I had jumped aboard an already organised tour and in the end it was good to have the other extras thrown in with the Jar sites.
I returned at 8:30am, camera in hand, picking up the other group members along the way. All in all there were 4 of us- a couple from Ireland, a Japanese man and myself. I was by far the youngest, but it was amazing hearing all the incredible travel stories from them over the course of the day! Our first stop was to see some bomb craters. These were made during America’s bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War and many of them remain as huge craters without a single seed of green plant life 40 years later. They are enormous, it is so hard to imagine the bombs being dropped and what would have been there beforehand. It was just an open field when we visited but it is likely that whole villages and communities used to once live on such land.
Next up was a Hmong Village. This was also incredible to see. To witness first hand the effects of the War on once a thriving community. This group were all forced from their homes during the war, everything flattened and turned to brown dirt as the war proceeded. After the war, many UXOs remained on the ground, but villagers slowly returned and began the difficult tasks of rebuilding their homes. Thousands of individuals were disabled or even killed by landmines during and after the War, however these days, the area we visited had been cleared of any UXOs. Throughout the rebuilding effort, communities took apart missiles and broken ordinances and made what they could from them. Gardens, grinding instruments, huts, anything they could think of. Soon enough, selling off the metal became a profitable business for villages like the one we visited and piece by piece the village was taken apart, with only a handful of pieces remaining. This trade slowly dried up and once again the villager were left to find another occupation among the dried lifeless dirt. This was an incredibly touching experience, and I will forever treasure the smiles we received from villages as we were told their stories.
Finally we were onto some of the jar sites! The first site we visited was site 3. The furthest from town, Site 3 was incredible, mainly because of its serenity and the extraordinary nature of the never before seen Jars. Along the way to the sites, it is important to stay within the marked tracks- there are brick MAG signs along the path that mark where landmines have been cleared and the edge of the clearing is about 5m beyond these points, slightly unnerving to think about as you walk along the way! This jar site is an open field with about 150 jars- the largest of the three and perhaps the most incredible.
We visited Jar site 2 next, it was more of a jungle scene with many trees having grown into and through these jars. And finally jar site 1 was had a few interesting jars that had been completely blown up and destroyed by bombs dropped on the area during the Vietnam War. All 3 Jar sites were incredible, and such an interesting relic of the past that still has not been fully understood and may never be.
Although Phonsavan was out of the typical tourist route up through Laos, I strongly recommend going out of your way to see these fascinating structures. I had such an incredible experience with my little group of travellers from and will treasure this whirlwind of 24 hours in this rural town. Soon enough unfortunately it was time to keep moving, I stayed that night in my average guesthouse room and caught an early local “bus” – actually turning out to be a minivan – to Vang Vieng. It is good to be aware that when travelling from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng you actually pay the full ticket price to Vientiane and get no discount for the shorter trip, so maybe work out a more efficient route for yourself, nonetheless it only comes down to an extra $5 or so, not going to break the bank and 100% worth it.