Laos – Phonsavanh and the Plain of Jars, Xieng Khouang province

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A Laotian couple wave from behind the largest of the jars at site number 1, Plain of Jars

There are two main reasons to visit Phonsavanh and Xieng Khouang province – the Plain of Jars and 1960’s/early 1970’s military history. The town draws backpackers and bikers driving round Indo China, as well as archaeologists and military historian types.  I was interested in the jars, but more so the military history, and I started to see evidence of this as my flight approached Xieng Khouang airport.  These are not a golf course bunkers, they are bomb craters…

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Laos has a very sad and unfortunate place in history – it is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. Between 1964 and 1975, there were over 580,000 bombing missions carried out over Laos; one bombing mission every eight minutes. The USA dropped more bombs on Laos than Germany and Japan combined.  It was Laos’ geographical position and two opposing political ideologies that made it such a fierce battleground – the population at the time was just 2.5 million, comprising mainly farmers in hill tribes. Phonsavanh and Xieng Khouang province was the most heavily bombed areas during this period – closely followed by Savaanaket province to the south. This military campaign became known as “The Secret War” and was fought most fiercely by air over the Plain of Jars though sustained carpet bombing and abortive Vietnam missions dumping their lethal loads.

Phonsavanh

Unsurprisingly, Phonsavanh  was flattened with this bombing.  25 km away, the original provincial capital of Muang Phuan also suffered and was all but destroyed too. After the war, only Phonsavanh was rebuilt and became the provincial capital.  Today, it is a modern and unremarkable looking town that has a “wild east”  feel, albeit laid back and without horses…

The airport terminal – baggage reclaim is collection from the back of a trailer..

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The main street and intersection, linking roads to the north, south east and west of Laos …

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Shops and market..

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Two other places I popped into were the Mine Awareness Group (MAG) centre and the Quality of Life Association.  the MAG explains in full the unexploded ordnance (UXO) problem in the area and the Quality of Life Association, started by five young Laotians, supports UXO victims and their families.  You can support both organisations by purchasing t-shirts and handicrafts or make a donation …

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MAG office, Phonsavanh

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Quality of Life Association office, Phonsavanh

For my visit, I tried to book a tour to take me to the main sites – you can’t just wander round this area due to UXO’s.  Unfortunately few tours were running and all were fully booked, but lucky for me, Will, my guest house manager was available and I hired him as my private guide/taxi driver. You can contact him via facebook or at Kong Keo guest house.

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Hiring Will exclusively was pricey but it enabled complete flexible with the day.  First stop was the provincial centre for LXO, the Laotian government de-mining department.  This reminded me of my training for my deployment to Bosnia back in 1998.

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The British humanitarian organisation, the Mine Awareness Group (MAG) started de-mining activities in Laos in 1999. They are still operationally active in the area, with LXO swelling efforts.  Both organisations cannot however keep up with the demand for clearing areas where UXO is either reported or has killed and maimed.  I’ll be blogging in more detail more about Laos’s UXO problem in a later blog post.

Next stop was a Hmong village to see one of the craft skills skill used today – paper making.  I hadn’t appreciated just how much work goes into this high-grade paper, which is sold to artisans for paintings, crafts and high-grade packaging.

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 Ban Tha Jok, or “bomb village”‘ close by was next on the day’s itinerary.  Seeing a village that had ingeniously recycled cluster bomb shell casings into all sorts of things was a truly unique and memorable sight….

A stockpile of casings waiting to be used…

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The heavy iron casings can no longer be sold for scrap – there were too many injuries and fatalities suffered as Laotians attempted to salvage UXO’s themselves.  So now the scrap is used as termite free stilts, among other things…

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This villager has even used one as an onion planter!

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..and children use cluster bomb casing stilts to hide from tourists.  This is one of my favourite photos …

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Close to the village is a cleared trail to a lovely waterfall and local beauty spot.  Will guided me down a sometimes steep, but well-marked path until we got to the bottom of the hill.  It was a lovely walk and at the bottom we had a simple lunch and admired the view …

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After relaxing for a while, we began our assent, traversing the river and taking in more beautiful scenery…

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As with our descent, the path was clear and Will was an excellent guide …

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At one crossing point, he told be to be careful, pointing out a “bombie” – what Laotians call ordnance.  He had found it the previous day, marked it and reported it.  My pre-deployment Bosnia training kicked in — but not before I took a photograph! It was a rocket propelled grenade (RPG), had a hole in it and I believe it was inert…

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In the mid-afternoon heat I suddenly found a second wind, and got up the hill like a rat up a drain pipe.  Will ended up behind me a few metres and eventually said “I thought you old, I thought you slow”.  Seeing a dead RPG spooked me a bit – there laid bare in front of my eyes was the UXO problem in Laos. Yet this was a cleared area and I felt perfectly safe throughout – plus it was a gorgeous walk. I would do it again tomorrow.

Will knew I had a special interest in the military history of the area, so on the way back to Phonsavanh he took me to an area full of bomb craters.  The area was cleared only a few weeks before.  Quite an unusual holiday snap…

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I sent this picture to one of my US military connections and it was subsequently reviewed by a retired USAF B 52 pilot.  He confirmed that this crater was caused by a bomb dropped by a B52, probably around 2000lbs in weight. Looking around the landscape, it was very obvious this site suffered from carpet bombing, or from abortive B 52 Vietnam missions. At the time, B 52’s  operated out of two air bases in Thailand – Udon Thani and U-Tapao, close to where I live.

I also noticed the larger craters were close together and came in groups of three…

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DSC_0284My visit was during the dry season.  During the wet season, this landscape is transformed into lush green pastures and the craters often become fish ponds. Laotians are so resourceful.

To finish off the day and to catch the sunset, we headed to the Plain of Jars site number one.  There are three main jar sites, although five sites are open to the pubic.  Many more jar sites are in the area, but these have not been cleared of UXO’s.  Site number one has the most jars and was the first to be cleared by MAG, with a clearly marked path to follow. The path is about 3km in length weaving its way around over 300 jars and bomb craters …

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The origin of the jars is shrouded in mystery and is still being studied by archaeologists.  They are considered to be megalithic from the iron age around 500 BC.  The site is under UNESCO consideration as it is significant in “Southeast Asian prehistory”.   Sadly a number of the jars were destroyed or badly damaged during the secret war – here is a broken jar right next to a crater …

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The site really is remarkable and one can only wonder how they were made, why and what was put in them.  The most popular belief is that the jars were used for burial purposes.  Another theory is that they were used to store rice and wine.  Whatever the reason, they were built to last and will keep many more generations wondering who put them there and why …

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I wasn’t very lucky with my sunset – the sun melted into the haze before it went down.  Despite its recent violent history and scars, I did enjoy the view at the Plain of Jars – it was a lovely peaceful place and the perfect end to am amazing day ….

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Eating out in Phonsavanh was surprisingly good with a handful of restaurants geared up to Western tourists.  I enjoyed eating at Bamboozle and Craters, the latter famous for its décor as well as its food …

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I also ate at a couple of local restaurants on the main street.  They serve hearty bowls of noodle soup and delicious curries, and are about half the price of the tourist restaurants.

Getting to Phonsavanh

By Air – Lao Airlines have a regular service to Vientiane. The flight is less than one hour. Check their website for details

By Bus – A new bus station on the outskirts of Phonsavanh connects travellers to all major destinations in Laos.  Tickets can be bought in advance via agents on the main street, or tour guides. More information can be found here.

Where to stay

There are various places to choose from but you won’t find five star.  A full list can be viewed on tripadvisor.  This hobo map is also a useful guide. As I had splashed out on an air fare, I went for the backpacker budget option, took a chance and headed for the legendary hard-core backpacker haunt Kong Keo guesthouse.  I couldn’t resist staying at a place that had these for a fireplace and key fob…

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keyfob

I stayed in a non air-conditioned “chalet” for 60,000 kip per night (£4.50 or $7.50).  For me this was basic as it gets; the mattress was a thick piece of polystyrene! You get what you pay for, yet and there is a friendly enough atmosphere at Kong Keo.

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Overall, I really enjoyed my time in Phonsavanh – it is well worth a visit.  There is no where else on earth like it.  Despite having so little, I greatly admired the maturity, resilience, forgiveness, fortitude and resourcefulness of the Laotians I met there.  All are working hard to make a good life for themselves regardless of having so very little, the challenges and dangers that remain and the struggle to get investment and resources to clear the area of UXO’s.  This is VERY unusual for a post-conflict country.  Ah – of course – it was a secret war that now appears forgotten. Please do visit Phonsavah – as well as the sights, it’s an inspirational place that has survived by making something out of absolutely nothing …

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Village mill made from discarded bomber fuel casing, or similar

One thought on “Laos – Phonsavanh and the Plain of Jars, Xieng Khouang province

  1. Pingback: 2014 summary in pictures | The Coconut Times

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