Plain Of Jars
Still unsure of their true significance, historians and lay people alike continue to be intrigued by the huge stones of the Plain of Jars in northern Laos, some of which weigh about six tons. Some stand tall as a man and tilted by time, others are eroded into the ground; many have moldered for millennia, perhaps the remnants of a trade route or the markers of burial pits. While the Plain of Jars’ ancient origins remain cryptic, in the last century they have gained a different unfortunate notoriety. Between 1964 and 1973, American planes carpet bombed Xieng Khuang province, where the Plain of Jars is located, due to its close proximity to the North Vietnamese border. In just under a decade, Laos achieved the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country in the world. This sorrowful chapter in Laotian history is commemorated by the nearby Vietnamese and Lao war memorials.
Indochinese war sites
During the Second Indochina War, Xieng Khouang was the scene of extensive ground battles and intense aerial bombardment due to its strategic importance. The provinces of Houaphan and Xieng Khouang had been the stronghold of Pathet Lao forces and their Vietnamese allies. Extremely heavy carpet bombing by the US turned the Plain of Jars into the Plain of Scars, and it is the most heavily bombarded area in the world. In addition to bombs massive quantities of defoliants and herbicides were dropped.
Evidence of the intense fighting can be seen in the cratered landscape and in war relics such as bomb shells, tanks and military positions. The resourceful locals refashion war scrap into items for everyday use, e.g. spoons in Ban Napia village, vegetable planters, fences, tools, pumps and barbeque fireplaces.
The extent of the bombardment is in particular evident at Baan Khai, 36 km northeast of Phonsavanh. The landscape is pockmarked with craters. Driving north along Route 7 plenty of creatively modified war scrap used in local architecture catches your eye. In Tajok, a Hmong village along Route 7 (30 km northeast of Phonsavanh), you can discover lots of bomb casings reused as barn pillars, fences and for other uses.
Baan Tajok is located on the main road (Route 7) northeast of Phonsavan. Drive to Nong Phet, then 2 km further to Baan Tajok. Once in the village, turn right to a side road and explore the houses. Although not littered with structures built from UXO, with a bit of browsing you will find some scattered about (such as corn and grain storage with the occasional planter) the village. There is a good mechanic directly opposite the petrol station.
Baan Khai: From Phonsavan, drive northeast to Nong Phet, then turn left and proceed a further 7 km or so. The turn is located in a market area. If in doubt, show the locals the name of the village written in Lao script (ບ້ານ ຄາຍ), and they will direct you to the turn. Look for a large, reddish brown plain dotted with craters on a small hill to your left.
Pho Kod War Memorial 20 km SW of Phonsavan along route 7
Caves – refuges for thousands of people
During the war thousands of local residents took shelter in caves and set up hospitals and schools; the army used the caves as well to store weapons and medical supplies. Two major caves are open to the public:
Tham Piu Cave is located 6 km north of Muang Kham. In one of the many tragedies of the so-called Secret War on 24 November 1969, a single rocket fired from a US aircraft killed an estimated 374 people, rumoured to be an entire village, who had taken refuge in the cave. Their bones are still buried in the rubble. The cave is far away from Phonsavan but it’s an amazing drive through pine forests, mountains, fields and past the many villages along the route. The journey to the cave also allows for stopovers at other points of interest, including Baan Ki, Baan Tachok, Baan Nathong & Tai Dam/Khom crafts provided you leave no later than 09:00.
The Tham Xang Caves are located in a scenic karst area, the caves were used by the revolutionary fighters. Inside the cave complex they set up a hospital, an arsenal and a medicine depot. Evidence can still be seen. Besides its war history the illuminated residential cave is worth visiting to see its natural beauty. The Hmong community of Ban Ta takes care off the caves and offers a local tour guide service.
Scenery & nature
Xieng Khouang is widely known for the Plain of Jars, but beyond its jars the natural beauty of the province is waiting to be discovered. Xieng Khouang’s scenery is characterised by the highest mountains in the country (Mount Phou Bia), its pine forests, deciduous woodlands, rolling hills and grasslands. In the cold season the green hills of the Plain of Jars turn reddish brown giving it a touch of the “Wild West” with yellow sunflowers and pointsetta in full bloom. Nam Ngum, the largest river in the province originates from the mountains in Paek District and is one of the major tributaries of the Mekong. Nong Het and Phaxay District in particular offer stunning karst scenery with plenty of caves, cliffs, underground rivers and waterfalls. Visiting the area is very beautiful during peach and orchid tree blossom in February.
Nong Tang Lake. Nong Tang is a large picturesque natural lake flanked by high limestone cliffs. Locals use it for fishing and it is a favourite picnic site. Enjoy the peaceful setting in the local restaurant. Overnight stay is available in a guesthouse along the shore. Nongtang is located 48 km from Phonsavanh on Route 7 going to Phou Khoun.
Hot Springs can be visited in the vicinity of Muang Kham off Route 7. The big hot spring Baw Nyai is 67 km from Phonsavanh, has been developed as a resort with bungalows and indoor bathing facilities. You can walk through the forest to the spring source, but swimming in the pool is not possible. The Jar Site of Ban Nam Hom is just a 2 km walk away. This jar site offers an insight in how the jars were made as part of the jar site is a jar quarry area. Taking a guide to visit the site is recommended.
Tad Ka Waterfall in Nong Het. This impressive waterfall is surrounded by spectacular limestone karst. The water runs down in cascading steps alternating with steep areas for more than 100 metres and flows all year round. To get to the falls follow Route 7 to Nong Het, at Khang Phaniane Village turn left into a graveled road (100 km from Phonsavanh) and drive for about 3 km; take the trail to the left and walk about 30 minutes to get to the waterfall. Taking a guide is recommended.
Tad Ka Waterfall in Tajok. The waterfall is located near Tajok village, 32 km north of Phonsavanh. The water flows over several tiers. A spectacular jungle trail winds its way up the waterfall crossing it several times. Tad Kha is a popular picnic spot for locals, especially during the Lao New Year holidays. To get there turn right at the end of Tajok village; follow the road until you see a building to the right. Walk along the ridge and take the right trail down. Local tour companies offer day tours including a picnic lunch and a hike up the waterfall.
Tad Lang Waterfall. Tad Lang is located near Jar site 3 just 700 metres off the road to Ban Nakang cascading down ca. 800 metres. To enjoy its whole beauty follow the trail down to the bottom of the valley. It is a good picnic spot, but because you must cross a river to reach it, access is difficult in the rainy season.
Thathom. Travelling to Thathom, located 130 km south of Phonsavanh, is still an adventure. Driving mainly on dirt roads you pass thick deciduous forests, stands of bamboo, remote villages and cross rivers several times. Thathom offers a gorgeous karst landscape with plenty of rivers, caves and historical sites, but so far, tourist services are scarce. Song thaews (pick-up trucks) leave Phonsavanh daily, but there are no regular trips in the rainy season. Boat services are available once you reach the Nam Xan River going to Paksan in Bolikhamxay province.