After three fun and relaxing days in Vang Vieng, it was time to explore Phonsavan. The city is noted for a UNESCO nominated site named the Plain of Jars. It is also noted for having the dubious honor of being the most heavily bombed area in the history of war.
Getting to Phonsavan from Vang Vieng required a 6-hour mini-van ride through narrow and extremely rough mountain roads with an untold number of hairpin turns. Add in the fact that the mini-van, with an old and abused suspension, was packed with 11 passengers plus luggage resulted in an extremely unpleasant experience. Check out the little video I shot during our trip on my (Pat’s) Facebook page. Unbelievably, only one dog was killed during the drive. However, many pigs, chickens, and children nearly met the same fate as that poor old mutt. But, in hindsight, it was worth the effort. Not just for the ancient stupas and the giant Buddha temples, but for the sobering effect of seeing up close the lasting effects of war (the bitter part of the trip).
The city itself, our least favorite so far in Laos, was nothing to write home about. Spread out and industrial, there was only a small area for guesthouses and restaurants and was where we saw mostly tourists walking the streets. We stayed at the Namchai guesthouse. Functional, clean, and at $13US per night for 2 people the price was right.
We don’t normally do many tours, as we prefer to wing it, seeing sights at our own pace. However, it wasn’t that easy in this case, as the Plain of Jars and the Old City (completely destroyed during the war) were a significant distance from the ‘new’ city where we were staying. Although the tour was expensive at $110US for two people, we bit the bullet and it turned out to be a great decision. Our
guide, Mr Lee yong ying, was of the Hmong people, indigenous to the region (you can find his info on Facebook). He spoke English very well and knew the area’s subtleties, as well as its history. The day’s touring began with a visit to a family that he knew, whose business was to make rice noodles for sale at their street-side stand. They were very inviting and offered us one of their uncut noodle sheets to snack on while showing us the entire process. Truly a family affair, it was really a gas to get a feeling for local life. After all, that’s why we travel, right?
Next stop: The Old City, which was ravaged by the Vietnam war, was littered with bomb craters, destroyed buildings. Even the temples, which dominated the landscape could not escape the carnage. We had a very cloudy day and I was worried about a flat light for taking photographs, but it turned out alright, I think.
Once we had our fill of photographing the Old City, it was time to head for the Plain of Jars sight #2. Amazingly, we were the only people there. Imagine seeing something this incredible and you get to see it in private. Only as we were leaving did another couple show up. Carrie noted a couple of blocks identified with the letters MAG marking the trail. She asked Lee what they represented. He said that MAG stood for Mines Advisory Group. MAG is a non-profit organization whose function is to clear areas of unexploded ordinance from areas. So, as long as we didn’t stray from these marked areas, we were safe from stepping on an unexploded bomb. He went on to say that MAG estimates that there are over 80 million unexploded ordinance in this part of Laos and that it has a devastating effect on the local economy, as farmers cannot use the land for fear of being killed.
MAG is actively working the area, but as you can imagine, clearing an area of this size takes time and money. On our way to sight #1 of the Plain of Jars, we stopped roadside to watch MAG workers clearing a field. Talk about a dangerous job, huh? MAG accepts donations for this important work.
OK, that’s the end of the ‘bitter’ part of the tour.
After a nice lunch at a local restaurant, which was included in the price of the tour, we headed off for the main attraction. Needless to say, we were not alone at The Plain of Jars sight #1. But still, an amazing place to see. There were many theories about who built them and their function, but only theories. The area was still an active archaeological site and we had the opportunity to speak to a few of the archaeologists. The areas that were being excavated were burial sites.
Sight #1 photographed, it was time to head back to Phonsavan. On the way, we stopped to take a picture of one of the new McMansions going up in the area. Like many places we’ve visited, Laos was a place of the haves and have nots.
Just to be complete, the road out was no better! And yes, I was very, very, cranky: >)
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