Our favorite so far in Laos, because it is genuine… What a relief after the hyped-up Luang Prabang! Phonsavanh is a quiet little town with a tragic history that is evident at almost every corner. Apart from the mysterious jars scattered around at three different sites, it was the more recent history that captivated us: Xinuang Khoung Province was among those areas in Laos most heavily bombed during the “Secret War” between 1964 and 1973. An incredible 1.36 millions tons of bombs were dropped on the northeast and southeast of the country, making it the most heavily bombed place on this planet. A war on a purely civilian population that officially never happened!
Relatively few tourists do the seven to eight hour trip to Phonsavanh from Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng. Although it is only 220 kilometers away, the small, very windy mountain road makes it a tough journey.
It rained most of the trip, fog obscured the road and it was cold in the front part of the bus because the door of the bus was kept open most of the trip. This is indeed where Heidi sought refuge, hoping it would help to overcome her motion sickness, in vain! Neither did it help that people right and left were vomiting into the ever present plastic bags on Laos’ busses… All in all not exactly our most pleasant bus trip!
In Phonsavanh, we were greeted by touts selling “their” hotels and afterwards their tours. None of the places recommended in the Lonely Planet inspired us, so we decided to accept the free ride into town and check out some of the places. The “White Orchid”, our choice, was the most expensive one for 8 Euros, a good investment, especially when we were rained in on the second day and enjoyed our relatively comfortable room.
Naturally we joined a tour to the three sites of the “Plain of Jars”, which also included a stop at a Lao Lao manufacture, at an old destroyed Russian tank and lunch. Each one of us 6 participants had paid a different price, ours was the cheapest with 120.000 Kip per person, others paid 200.000. It seems those who booked in their guesthouse paid a lot more.
We were in great company and truly enjoyed this day trip organized by Lao Youth Travel, a rather relaxed but competent operator with guides who have a good sense of humor. This visit to the “Plain of Jars”, and the walk through surrounding countryside has been the best trip so far in Laos. The three sites are very different in setting, with site 1 probably featuring the most spectacular jars, but again we equally enjoyed the scenery and the nice company, especially our animated guide Te.
There is only very little knowledge so far about the 350 mysterious jars that dot the landscape in clusters. There are no less than 50 sites in the Xinuang Khoung province, though only 3 are accessible to tourists: the others are still not cleared of unexploded ordnance. Those jars differ slightly in shape but significantly in size. The biggest one is 2.6 meters high and weighs 6 tons. Historians estimate the jars are about 2.000 to 2.500 years old, but nobody knows it for sure.
Lacking profound scientific explanations, the purpose and possible use of those jars is the topic of many legends and folk tales. Some claim those jars were used as urns to hold the ashes of cremated bodies. More extravagant ones allege they were huge jugs used by giants to have Lao Lao during feasts.