View our location map in Phonsovan.
The bone rattling journey to Phonsovan was long. When we boarded the bus at 7.30pm in Vientiane we were told that the bus usually arrives in Phonsovan at about 6am. After travelling through some stunning landscapes, watching the mist swirl around the mountains beneath us at dawn and seeing very different scenery to the rest of Laos, we arrived at 8.30am. We both felt surprisingly good, and were glad of our decision to take the bus; we had considered flying here but as dedicated travellers wanted to see the scenery and have whatever experiences the bus journey threw at us.
The main reason for coming here was to see the Plain of Jars, there are fields full of large jars, some made of sandstone, some made of granite and some made of breccia. Throughout the past few decades many researchers have sought to learn the origins of the jars – what were they for, how did they get there, and so far no one has come up with any kind of conclusive evidence. Even dating the jars seems impossible, because no organic remains of any kind have been found in or near the jars. Apparently one Japanese scientist found some human remains quite far from the jars that were from around the 5-6th century, but other than that, nothing. There are theories that they could have been used for burial urns, or making rice whisky, or storage jars, but still no one knows the real use or reason for their existence.
We spent a day riding around on a motorbike on the worst roads we have been on in Laos (and that is really saying something!) and our backs and bums still hadn’t quite forgiven us the following day.
The other reason for visiting was to learn more about the province. Xieng Kouang is the most bombed province in Laos, which is the most bombed country in the world. Everyone knows about the Vietnam war, but so few people have heard of the ‘secret war’ that happened in Laos. The ‘passage’ that Vietnamese were using to travel from north to south Vietnam ran through Laos, often directly through Lao villages and during the 60’s America dropped more bombs here (trying to kill the Vietnamese) than it has ever dropped on any other country. What is most shocking about this, is that still every single day in these regions in Laos, someone is killed or injured by UXO’s (unexploded ordnance) left over from this war. Most of the land in these areas cannot be farmed, because around 30% of the bombs dropped didn’t detonate so the land is still riddled with live bombs. This has led to extreme poverty for many people living here; some people still choose to grow rice, and risk their lives by doing so, but feel they have no other way to get food or money. Many rice farmers die or lose limbs when working in their fields. Other people have turned to collecting the bombs, taking them apart (often this is fatal for them and anyone nearby) and selling the metal. Other people simply die walking into the forest to collect food. It really makes you think twice as a westerner – it’s pretty normal for restaurants in Laos to run out of various ingredients because they haven’t bothered to buy it from the market – but when the entire town has actually run out of rice, so you can’t order it, and you compare that to being annoyed when your favourite cafe at home might have sold out of whatever your favourite food there is, suddenly it puts things into perspective.
One amazing organisation who are helping Laos to clear the UXO’s is MAG – we visited their office and were amazed by the work they’re doing here. Over the past 3 months they have cleared around 3000 UXO’s!! It seems unbelieveable that every day, they are still finding more bombs. They teach Lao people how to safely and methodically find and destroy the bombs, we were really impressed by them. We went to visit a waterfall out of town near the Jar sites 2 & 3. As we arrived we saw their truck and they had a team of people at work there, and an area sectioned off where they were currently removing some bombs. Not very confidence inspiring when we were just about to walk to the waterfall! It’s worth saying though, that all of the areas tourists are allowed in have been cleared of all UXO’s, and any areas that haven’t are clearly marked. We would never consider walking on area that wasn’t cleared. Any area that isn’t marked as cleared / uncleared, the rule is to only walk on well-worn paths, or don’t go there at all.
Onto more positive stuff! On the way to Tad Lang Waterfall we had to cross a river to get there. There were a couple of local guys nearby to the river crossing who assured us we should be able to drive through there on the motorbike. So, even though the water was deep-ish, and the rocks were huge, Dre thought he’d attempt the crossing. We found that the middle section was actually impossible to cross on our bike, the shape of the frame meant that there was no way we could get over the concrete pipe because the bike was scraping the pipe and failing carrying it over, there was no way we could cross. So, we both had to manoevre the bike backwards, through the giant rocks, for a good 10 minutes or so to get it un-stuck from the river. :-) We walked across the river and went to the waterfall from there. It was much more huge and impressive than we could show in a photo, more like cascades with heaps of swimming pools.
We also went to visit a cool stupa surrounded by mountains, in the old town and hung out there for a while.
Anyway, now we’ve just arrived in Luang Prabang after yet another long bus trip – we had hoped to go straight to Nong Kiau from Phonsovan but alas the road are so bad in between there that there is no bus. So we set out for Luang Prabang back along the same road we got here on. The journey started fairly eventfully actually, within about half an hour of leaving Phonsovan our bus got sideswiped by a truck, luckily the impact was very minimal, more just a bit of scraping and neither driver seemed concerned as both just kept driving and waved at each other in their mirrors. Then 2 hours into the trip the road was blocked by an accident – a truck carrying a digger crashed into another truck going around a corner. No one was hurt, it just meant that the trucks were stuck together and taking up the entire road. Eventually a guy who could drive the digger (and very skillfully too!) drove the digger off the truck’s trailer, and used the digger to pull the truck trailer out of the way so that smaller cars could get past. We were in a big bus, so had to wait until they finally managed to break the two trucks apart and move one truck away. So a 7 hour journey turned into a 10 hour one…but we still made it. In many ways having to come here is good – we love Luang Prabang so will spend a few days here now. Our photos of Phonsovan are here.