Sunday, 12 August 2012

The City of Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars.

Behave !

Phonsavan is a city in northern Laos, ~170kms as the crow flies north from Vientiane, and the capital of the Laos province of Xieng Khouang. A land of rice, green hills, a very small quantity of local industry, and one major tourist attraction.

The city can be reached by automobile or aircraft. From Vientiane a bus journey on the long, winding, hilly, and sometimes non-existent road will take ~12 hours. There are regular and low cost buses available for this trip.  You can take a bus from the official bus station, the "Northern Bus Station" on the western side of Vientiane, or from the informal bus station found next to the Lao National Museum in the town centre. Cost is around $10 for an aircon bus. If you are unsure any tuk tuk driver in town will set take you where you need to go. If you take the bus route I suggest a stop over in the town of Vang Vieng, unless you are in a big hurry.

Time immemorial, growing rice.

Older, wooden style house.

New house, on the outskirts of town. Cost $20,000.

Upon my arrival I was approached by the usual gaggle of guys offering accommodation. I stayed at the "Nice Guesthouse", in the town centre. With a name like that how could things go wrong?   I even took a room without aircon. One night in a private room costs 60,000 Kip ($7).

My guesthouse
Phonsavan is a not overly large city, approximately 35,000 people call it home. During the Vietnam War the USA airforce bombed the province extensively, turning the green hills of the province into the most heavily bombarded area of the world, per capita. In addition massive quantities of defoliants and herbicides were also dropped here. The devestation was so great that the then capital, Muang Khoun, was abandoned. It was in the 1970s that the City of Phonsavan was constructed. The province has slowly recovered and is now moderately busy and prosperous.

In the streets of this city you will see lots of small buildings, numerous guest houses, a multitude of small restaurants, and more than a few tour companies. An oddly amusing and ironic feature of the town is the use of bomb shells as decorative and utilitarian devices. Several restaurants and cafes have bomb shells at their entrance, several fences in town are constructed from bomb cases, and these shells are even used as garden planters.

Outside the tourist office. Eye catching !

One of the local markets.

Unlike Vang Vieng, my previous stop in Laos, Phonsavan has a local economy separate from tourism. Locals live and work in the city itself. Many of the buildings look old, but there is a smattering of new construction, including a new multi-story hotel in the centre of the city. The streets are mildly busy with motorbikes, cars and trucks, and tuk tuks.

UXB exhibit / shop.

"Craters" restaurant.

Locals, cruising around town.

Phonsavan itself has few attractions. To the east there are two war memorials, one for Vietnamese and the other for Lao troops, who fell during the war. There is a small shopfront UXO-Visitor Information Center, where various locally produced artefacts are on sale, with part of the proceeds in aid of bomb victims. There are several local markets. Outside the city there is an
increasing variety of potential tourist

destinations. To help you find your way, a little to the east of the town centre, is an excellent tourist information office, where maps, phamphlets and displays can be found. A visit here is recommended.

I visited the city in August, the rainy season, and it was rainy. Every afternoon there was rain, and the rain continued into the evening. Not really that bad, but Phonsavan has a cool climate. At night I almost felt cold! The temperature was in the high teens—for south east Asia, this is practically the arctic.

The local watermelon.

Vietnam / Laos war memorial.

Getting around town is easy enough. It is a small town, so walking across town takes no more than half an hour. If you are in a hurry take one of the many tuk tuks.

Local public transport.

Your vehicle around town.

A local restaurant.

Looking down the main street.

The Plain of Jars

Looking at section B of site 1, from a nearby small hill.

The "King Jar", largest jar on site.

The main attraction of the city and province is the "Plain of Jars". These are a group of sites where ancient stone jars, dating to between 500 BCE to 500 CE, are scattered across the landscape. The jars themselves range in size from 1m to 3m metres tall, and a metre or less in diameter. They are found on the lower slopes of hills, and possibly indicate the position of ancient villages. There are currently 88 sites positively identified, with site 1 being the main site, closest to Phonsavan and with the most jars. Your tour will start here. The number of jars varies, some sites have only 1 jar, a few 100+. The stone for the jars comes from a quarry site on a hill ~8kms due east of site 1.
Entrance, buy your ticket here!

First view of site 1
Not a great deal of research has been carried out on the Jars to date, however, there is a strong push to have the Plain declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, possibly within two years. This would assist with their preservation and raise their tourist profile. To achieve this will require further bomb clearance—UXBs are visible as you wander through site 1—also direct international flights and other infrastructure improvements. Best wishes.

Evidently, as they have raised lips, suggesting the use of covers, the jars were intended to store goods of some type. They may also have been used for mortuary purposes, the production of whisky (so I was told), or ... something else. It is most likely that they were used for a multitude of purposes and functions.

Unfortunately, as I visited during the rainy season there was lots of rain and mud. Thus only site 1 was accessible, however, site 1 was worth the visit. Apparently October is the best month to visit.

Your first view will be of the ticket office, 10,000 Kip ($1) to enter. The ticket office is also a shop (surprise) selling themed items. There are aluminium spoons and other knick knacks made from recovered bomb fragments, also t-shirts, silk handbags, etc. Nothing very expensive. Worth buying a stack of stuff for gifts for the folks back home.

Then, to the Jars! You walk maybe 50m up a slight hill, and there you are—the Jars! The jars are a dark grey in colour, they come in various sizes, but most here are 1m-2m tall. Most also rest at an angle, showing their years. Site 1 runs in a curved line due eastwards covering maybe 500m, an easy walk. There is an impressive range of jars. Site 1 has the only non-grey coloured jar, a dark orange colour. Also, site 1 has the only jar with a carving. This is known as the "Frog Man".

This carving is maybe 60cm tall on one side of the jar, facing due west. It is not overly visible, being a bare outline. The man has his arms and legs bent, thus the "frog".
"Frog carving"

Site 1 is broken into two segments. The first is reached directly from the entrance, the second is approximately 100m due east down a short road. Between the two is a cave. This cave has a recent interesting history. During the bombing campaign of the Vietnam War locals hid here from the devastation. Two holes were made in the cave roof to permit cooking smoke to escape.

The lid jar.

close up of lid.
One disturbing and sad aspect of the four decade old bombing campaign is that children still search through the bomb craters for fragments. These fragments are made into souvenirs for tourists. This is a dangerous activity. I am not sure who is responsible, the parents for allowing this, but families need money, or ... who?

Reaching the jars requires a guide and transport. Everywhere around town there are booking agents, even the convenience stores. Prices are in the $20-$30 for a group tour, depending on the itinerary.

The city and the Jars are certainly worth a look, if you happen to find yourself in northern Laos with a few days to spare.

jars of all shapes and sizes.

coloured jar.

cave entrance.

inside cave.

mine clearance marker,
walk only within these boundary stones.

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