Most people traveling through Luang Prabang are either going to or coming from Vang Vieng. Initially we considered this option as well. We had heard mixed reviews on Vang Vieng, but knew that outside of other peoples’ personal experiences it was supposed to be a naturally beautiful area of the country. Much like our situation at the border crossing, it can be hard to make a decision as to which direction to go. Part of doing long term travel is learning that you can’t go everywhere and see everything. Sometimes you have to make a choice, even if it is just closing your eyes and pointing to one of the options in front of you. And regardless of what you encounter, if you approach it with an open heart and accept the choice you made, then you will always find joy in where you are. This fear of missing out is something that can be very real both on the road and in our settled life. Part of the process for us was trusting we will make the decision that was right for us and to stick to our present course and destination we had chosen to move toward. In the end we chose to skip over Vang Vieng and instead head to Phonsavan.
Phonsavan is an area rich in history and also home of the well known ‘Plain of Jars’. For Ben, this was a place he did not want to miss during our time here in Laos. We already had a good taste of the natural beauty the country had to offer (not to say we didn’t want to experience more) and now we decided to dig deeper into the recent history to broaden our understanding of the people and country.
Elixirs of the Mountains
The bus ride from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan was another full day excursion. It was similar in many ways to our journey between Luang Namtha and Nong Kiau, only this time there were far less people throwing up into tiny plastic bags. The one main paved road climbed high into the mountains and descended on the other side into the valley and plains. At the top of the mountains we made a lunch and bathroom stop. The air was cool, fresh, and filled with life as we stood to stretch our legs and take in the views. We browsed through the food options displayed in large pans that they would then scoop into a bag for you to take on the bus if you wanted. The idea of eating food (all of which were curries or dishes of a semi-liquid form) from a bag reminded us a bit to much of the other stuff we were used to seeing go into those plastic bags. We opted instead for some succulent sweet baby oranges, a common Southeast Asian treat. It was apparent we were in a distinct ethnic area as many of the dishes were different from the typical Laos cuisine we had seen so far. Amanda also discovered some ‘elixirs’ that were being brewed with the feet or hooves of different animals soaking in a large jars filled with liquid. We considered getting her the ‘eternal youth’ elixir since her birthday was just around the corner. The most surprising one for us had to be this one — see if you can guess what it is!
Town of Phonsavan
Even with a full day on the bus we managed to arrive in Phonsavan before the sun had set. From the bus station we hopped onto a shared tuk-tuk and got shuttled to a part of town that the driver insisted was the best place to find a guesthouse. From here we divided up to start collecting information on guesthouse prices, availability, and cleanliness. Ben checked out a few places on one side of the road while I checked on another. In the end we decided to stay at Lao-Falang Guest House & Restaurant. It is an easygoing place – simple and cheap – which was all we really wanted. The owners are a nice couple (Italian guy and Laotian women). The Italian guy speaks many languages and can help you out with just about anything you need to know about the town or surrounding area. With his guidance we planned out our next couple of days.
The town itself is fairly young. Phonsavan was constructed in the 1970’s to replace the old town of Xieng Khousan which was destroyed in the Vietnam War. There was nothing special or beautiful about the town, although had it been a different time of year we have been told the surroundings are much more colourful and vibrant. Supposedly the area us usually lush with beautiful scenery. For us it was very dry and brown. The Italian owner told us that this year had been an exceptionally cold winter which also played a part in the many dead flora. It had a bit of a ‘wild west’ feeling minus the cactus and tumbleweeds.
Plain of Jars
As we mentioned above, Phonsavan’s claim to fame is the Plain of Jars. The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape of large jars. The jars are said to be one of the most important sites for the studies of Southeast Asia’s prehistory. Today, this plain is divided into three main sites, all within a few kilometers of the town of Phonsavan. The first ongoing research and investigation into the history of the jars began in the 1930’s. The jars are said to be dated back to the Iron Age (500 BC – 500 AD) and by researchers are speculated to have been used for burial practices. The Laotian people have many different theories and legends behind the presence of the jars. These include everything from giants that once inhabited the land and used the jars to ferment alcohol to a more practical story of travelers constructing the large jars to collect rain water so they could then boil and drink it while traversing the lands.
Taking the advice of our Italian guesthouse owner, we decided to only visit site #1. This site is supposed to be the most impressive and easiest to get to. Directly before the entrance to the site there was a free information center which went into a brief history of the jars as well as the impact of the war on the area. This center was completely new, having only been opened in August 2013. It was evident at various points on the site that there have been (and continue to be) steps to make the area a bit more official for visitors.
The old entrance seemed to be slowly becoming a part of the ancient ruins as the new center and entrance had been set up at a different location in it’s place. Still, the site was simple and we were practically the only ones there when we visited.From the new entrance there were a couple of different paths you could follow around the site. These were marked by the distinctive ‘MAG’ (Mines Advisory Group) markers on either side of the path, which indicated that the areas between the markers had been professionally cleared of unexploded devices. Several years ago this was much more of a concern, and today the markers are slowly becoming buried and covered by growth. Site number one has been cleared of devices for many years. It is still a concern to those who wish to do the optional hikes between a couple of the sites; but on the sites themselves things are pretty safe.
As virtually the only people on the site when we visited we took our time to explore the scattered jars, climbing and peering into them. The path we took was roughly a 1.5 kilometer loop. Site #1 also happened to be the home of a large limestone cave in the side of a hill. The cave had two holes at the top which were speculated to be man-made and used as chimneys for a cremation process linked to the burial ceremonies. In addition to the many jars (or fragments of jars that remained) you could see the evidence of the bombing throughout the plain. This evidence is everywhere in this region, being it was one of the most heavily bombed areas during the Vietnam War. Today vegetation has grown over the dirt but the cratered landscape remains as a constant reminder of the past as well as to the fact that the impact still remains with many unexploded devices here today.
Overall the site was well worth the visit – giving us a quick overview of a deep history, from ancient to recent times. It was hard at times to wrap our brains around the entirety of the site; jumping from the idea of peoples’ greatest struggle being to find food, shelter and protection to the carpet bombing that went on in the area more recently.
Beginning to Understand The Impact of the Vietnam War in Laos
Our visit to the information center at Site #1 of the Plain of Jars was a good primer for our plunge into the history of the war and it’s effects on the area and the country. While the aftermath continues to become less evident each decade, the impact is still very real and alive today, forty years later. We learned that between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos, roughly a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 straight years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history to date. These bombings were part of what is now referred to as the U.S. Secret War in Laos. These bombings not only destroyed many villages and displaced and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians during the nine year period, but they also continue to kill people today. Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos and it is estimated up to 80 million did not detonate. Since the time that bombings ceased, over 20,000 people have been killed or injured and there continue to be roughly 100 casualties a year to this day with roughly 40% being children.
We were shocked to learn all this, having never once heard anything about it back in the Unites States or in our schools growing up. What was even more amazing to us was the openness and friendliness of the Laotians towards us. We had never hidden the fact that we were from the United States while traveling through the country and there was not one person who held our citizenship against us or even slightly faltered from treating us out of kindness.
Not only did we see the craters as we drove our scooter bike trough the landscape but we also would see the old bomb shells everywhere. They were used as pots to grow vegetables, metal stilts for homes, and other handy metal containers in the villages. We smiled at this seeing it as very much a reflection on their entire approach to the situation. Take something ugly and grow something beautiful out of it. It was incredible how these people could take such a horrible situation and yet carry on with their lives moving forward day by day. If there was blame or hatred they put it behind them, were grateful for the present, and took small steps toward a better future for them and for Laos. We found this quality rippled into most aspects of their lives, not just the circumstances surrounding the war. The Laotian people are simple and their Buddhist philosophy radiates throughout the country like gentle heat warming your heart.
After learning more about the war effects in Laos we decided to visit the MAG office in Phonsavan. MAG, which stands for Mines Advisory Group, was established in 1989. It works primarily in conflicted affected communities to clear areas contaminated by land mines, cluster munitions and other explosive items. The organization is present in countries primarily in Africa as well as Laos and Vietnam.
At their office in Phonsavan they had set up an exhibit for visitors education. Here we got to explore at a deeper level the continued impact unexploded devices have today on locals’ lives. They had displays of the various types of bombs that had been found throughout the country along with four inch thick manuals documenting all the types of devices and bombs that were, and are, used during warfare. We read first person encounters and stories of the impact these unexploded devices had on lives. Families would tell of how they lost a child that had been playing in a field. Farmers would explain how they fear expanding their farms due to the possibility of encountering an unexploded device, which would keep them in a cycle of poverty. The exhibit took the facts we had learned at the information center and now made them real, bringing them to life with first encounter stories and examples.
The MAG organization not only works to clear these unexploded devices but also trains and educates locals on risk potential and what to do when you encounter a device. They work to empower the local communities through both education and employment. Their professional clearance teams are made up of mostly locals, with a large number of the employees being women and amputees. The past year alone MAG removed over 230,000 of these unexploded ordinances across 15 countries in South East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. This mortar, bomb and landmine clearing has made upwards of 50 million square meters of land safe to dwell upon and grow crops again. This is huge, as many of the current day injuries that come from these unexploded items comes when local villagers discover them accidentally when trying to farm their land.
To augment all the knowledge that we had soaked in during our first couple days in the area we decided to partake in the free screening of the documentary “The Most Secret Place on Earth“ which our hostel, Lao-Farang, showed any night requested. The documentary was a great way to follow-up our visit to the exhibit at MAG and really gave us a better understanding of the events that occurred relating specifically to Laos during the Vietnam War. Overall the documentary was very fascinating and we would highly recommend it to anyone, especially Americans. It was truly shocking how the government and the people had made so many mistakes that we seemed to have not learned from at all today. It is deeply depressing to soak up a good amount of information like this and see what any country (especially one you are from) can do to another country and culture without caring one bit about the repercussions during or after. And to not even bother to educate their own people on mistakes made only agitates that anger that arises. It is hard to approach situations like this from a loving outlook but it is also inspiring and empowering to see that somehow people do it. People all over the world who are aware are spreading the knowledge, forming groups like MAG, and doing what they can as an individual to make a difference.
When you have an hour we highly recommend watching this documentary, especially if you are American and know little about the war’s affects in Laos. But regardless of who you are or where you are from it is a documentary that we think anyone can learn a bit from about ethics, governments, and the effects of warfare.
There wasn’t all that much to do in actual Phonsavan other than visit the various sites Plain of Jars sites or to visit the exhibits and organizations related to the post-war effects on the area. Once again taking the advice of our Italian hostel owner, we decided to head out of town for an afternoon and do a romantic overnight trip at the Baw Nyai Hot Springs. These hot springs are located about 70km east of Phonsavan along a main road that connects with Vietnam. Usually during this time of year the drive is supposed to be beautiful and surrounded by cherry trees in full bloom. However, the unexpected cold winter this year had left things looking pretty bleak.
The drive was fairly pleasant and only passed through a couple steeper grade areas. Even without the trees in full blossom the views along the way were much better than anything we had seen in the local Phonsavan area and the feeling of simple life surrounded us once again. We would pass the huts we were now used to seeing along with occasional school houses surrounded by hundreds of bikes. When school let out the children flooded the roads as they walked shoulder to shoulder in groups of three or four on their way home. There was no need to worry about cars because there just weren’t that many of them passing by on this road. We saw many women out sitting near their looms weaving. Herds of cows would cross the street at any given moment, also lacking the fear of vehicles on the road. Colorful fields of greens (grown for eating) would stretch in perfectly square or rectangular patches with those maintaining the fields wading about waist high in the water where the greens grew.
The ride out to the hot springs was roughly an hour and a half. When we did arrive we weren’t 100% certain we were at the right place because there was a gate and a couple of kids wanted to charge us to enter. We tried to explain that we planned to sleep there that night but other than ‘hello’ and ‘yes,’ English was no good. We mimed a few things and the kids at the gate tried their hardest to communicate with us. Eventually Amanda sat with them as assurance that we weren’t trying to rip them off while Ben entered just to be sure we were at least at the right spot. Once we knew this was the place, we paid the kids the small amount (apparently for bringing the motorbike in?) and then headed over to our room for the night.
The unimaginatively named Hot Springs Guesthouse wasn’t exactly what we had been expecting, but somehow it was still wonderful. Supposedly the grounds had been taken over by new management recently and the plans to develop the hot springs into a ‘resort’ were in swing, but not full-swing. We didn’t see too much of these supposed renovations, but the elements of the old mixed with a bit of the new were all around. For example, in the middle of the grounds there was an oddly, out of place, ancient and abandoned-looking ferris whee. However, the huge concrete baths that they pumped the hot spring water into looked spanking new. These baths were funny to us, as they were right in front of the restaurant and just looked like large concrete outdoor holes that could fit maybe ten people.
Other than a family that had come to the springs just before us and an Austrian guy motorbiking the same road with us, it seemed we were the only ones on the entire grounds for the night. As we settled into our room and explored area we got to take a peek at the family that was squealing with excitement as they splashed around and bathed in the hot water that filled their little outdoor pool. When they were done bathing and soaking they all gathered in the restaurant for a food before heading home (as they seemed to be local or at least spoke the language well enough).
The hot spring source itself was a bit off into the woods. We were able to hike there but actually swimming in the source wasn’t allowed anymore. Now the water was pumped over to the main grounds area where you could either soak privately in your room tub or you could pay for one of the outdoor ‘pools’, such as the one the family had. After enjoying the nature and taking in the peaceful setting we retired to our room for our mineral soak. The only faucet for the tub was the one that came from the hotsprings. The water was a bit hot coming from the faucet but after only a few minutes of cooling in the open air would arrive at the perfect soaking temperature. We soaked and soaked and soaked in the warmth and health benefits of the water for a couple of hours – emerging from the tub in a complete state of relaxation. Then we dined on some healthy soup and tea before falling into a blissful slumber. We were beginning to fall in love with Laos. First the herbal steam saunas and now this – both in some of the most scenic and relaxed places we’d ever been. We could now add this to our ‘blissful nights for less than $10 total’ list.
In the morning we shared a coffee and had one last mini-soak in the hot water. The sun was shining bright and we wanted to draw out this completely relaxed feeling as long as we could before jumping on the scooter for an hour ride back to Phonsavan. Before leaving we explored the ‘resort’ area a bit more. It was such a funny little hotel/resort with many different buildings and all kinds of animals. I mean we are talking ostriches, porcupines, ducks, and more. It also appeared that they grew all the vegetables that they used for their meals right there in the garden behind the restaurant/kitchen. They even had a raised concrete pool with fish in it which we are most certain they use to cook any dish that requires fish. Talk about fresh!
The ride back was as pleasant and inspiring as our ride there (if not more so because of our renewed energy). The time on our way back seemed to fly by even faster. Taking a day-trip eastward probably isn’t high on the list of things people do when they are in the Phonsavan area but it is something we would both highly recommend. Peaceful, beautiful, simple, remote, relaxing – all of the wonderful things we had become so fond of.
We may have missed out on Vang Vieng, but as dried up and unappealing as this landscape was in Phonsavan at this time of year we were still happy we had made the choice to come here. After only two days we had learned so much about the recent history of Laos and the huge and devastating impact our nation made in this area. We now feel that as part of our ‘global education’ it is our responsibility to learn about these events and share with others what we have had the chance to learn about firsthand. We are all well aware that people aren’t politics but hopefully if enough people shine light on the mistakes our government and officials have made (and that continue to make), over time the people can help undo some of the continuing wrongs.
For more photos from The Plain of Jars and the road to the Baw Nyia Hot Springs, click HERE.