Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars combines ancient and contemporary history with insights into Phuan, Hmong, Khmu and Tai Dam culture. Nature encounters are easily accessible off the beaten track.
Unlike Ancient Greece or the First Emperor of China that date from around the same time very little is known about the civilization that created The Plain of Jars. More recently the area suffered badly due to heavy bombardment by the Americans during the Vietnam War. The locals have found imaginative ways to rebuild their lives and surroundings, sometimes using the remnants as part of their daily life; bomb fragments became spoons, and a distinct Xiengkhouang style of architecture created incorporating shells as building material & décor for houses.
If you are travelling to Phonsavan from Vientiane you can either take VIP buses or local buses. The buses leave from the northern bus terminal and take about 10-12 hours. Note: The roads are paved but there are plenty of bends. The bus trip from Vang Vieng takes 7-8 hours. Buses run daily from Luang Prabang via Route 13 and 7 and take 8 hours. You could also hire a minivan in either Luang Prabang or Vientiane.
Note: the road from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan is incredibly windy, with many sharp turns and very few straight sections. If you are susceptible to motion sickness bring sick bags (several) and travel tablets. The distance is 270km, with only the last 50km on the straight.
Coming from Vinh or Hanoi in Vietnam visas are available on arrival at the Nam Ka border, which is open daily from 6:00 – 18:00. The bus from Vinh leaves four days a week and takes 12 hours and one per week from Hanoi.
To get to other towns in the province you can take local buses or pick-up trucks. Inside Phonsavan there are plenty of tuk-tuks, which might not be available without prior booking very early in the morning or late at night. A normal tour inside the town should cost 3000 to 10,000 kip. There are 9 travel agents in Phonsavan that arrange bike, motorbike and car rentals. A bike costs depending on quality from 20,000 kip per day. You can rent mostly scooters for about 100,000 kip. To rent a minivan costs about $US50-80, a four-wheel-drive costs over $100 US. Depending on the company the cost either includes or excludes petrol. All prices greatly vary depending on season and availability.
Note that tuk-tuks are not allowed to take tourists to the Jar sites. You can visit the site with a certified guide or individually.
Take a motor-bike, all of them are semi-automatic, so you do not need to be an experienced biker. You can visit all the three Jar sites even though sites 2 and 3 can get a little tricky if it rains. You may not go to few other places like War Spoon Village unless you have an expensive tour guide. Even if it is a a planned move by the tour companies, it still is fun to ride through the villages. Ask for a map at the renting place or your guest house.
You can also cycle to Jar Site 1 from Phonsavan. Depending which map you believe it's 8-15km away and although the roads have some inclines it's possible to cycle there without being especially fit (approx 45 mins or less). It's easy to find - the junction off the main road is signposted and from that village it's 2.5km. Parking your bike at Jar Site 1 costs 2000 Kip on top of the entrance fee.
In Phonsavan many different companies offer tours of the Plain of Jars and optionally around surrounding villages and other sights. See the Phonsavan section for activities and attractions around the Plain of Jars.
Despite Plain of Jars being the most famous attraction in this region, it can be surprisingly hard to book a place in a group tour of the attraction. Many travel agents are willing to conduct a group tour only if there are enough people. But since there are so many agents, each agent may get anything from 1 tourist to 10 tourists, or none at all. If the group is small, the prices will be obviously higher. When there are several tourists in a group, the price falls to 150,000 kip or lower per person.
Many agents are not willing to commit to a price or even an itinerary until he knows how many tourists will sign up, and he will only know so around 19:00 after the last bus arrives from Vientiane/Vang Vieng/Luang Prabang. A good bet is to ask around to get a feel of which agent you are comfortable with, and return at 19:00 to double-check if he's still doing a group tour the next day. A simple lunch of beef/chicken noodles is usually included in the tour price.
Should you fail to get into a group tour, agents are willing to do a private tour for 1 tourist in a minibus, but the price vary greatly from 300,000 kip to 500,000 kip or more.
The tour itinerary typically includes 1-3 Jar sites, plus 1 or 2 other minor attractions (a rusty decrepit Russian tank, a Hmong village, Ancient Capital, whisky village, etc, none of which are particularly note-worthy). If you have a choice, opt to see all 3 jar sites rather than these lesser attractions.
There are hundreds of jars across the various sites. Some were damaged by US bombingand, and some during the invasion of Chinese bandits; unfortunately more recently they are showing wear and tear caused by repeated climbing by tourists. Some of the sites have large bomb craters and jars split by the force of the bombing.
Entrance to each of the Jar sites is 10,000 Kip for Lao people and 15,000 Kip for foreigners.
Jar Site 1 is one of the most impressive and the easiest to get to. Make sure you stop at the Visitors infromation centre just at the bottom of the hill Jar site 1 is situated on. It is excellent and free. Then go up the hill about 200m where you can park and pay the entrance fee.
Take a tour to Jar Sites 2 and 3 as well, but be warned that the roads near to Sites 2 and 3 are bumpy, unpaved and dusty/muddy. They are definitely do-able by motorbike, but do take note of the poor road conditions, dust and/or mud. On the bright side, traffic is very light. There are few signs, so don't be afraid to ask local people for the way or look for the blue and white painted sign to go to Site 2 or a spray painted sign on an electric post to find Site 3. Site 3 is a short but scenic hike across some paddy fields and farmland from the parking area.
Jar site 2 has two parts on either side of the road. West is where you'll find large jars under trees. East is where most people go and you'll find jars under one or two trees with some wonderful views. At the entry point to Jar site 2 there is a noodle shop which is a good lunch stop prior to heading on to jar site 3.
There is a nice easy hike between the sites 2 and 3, and is suitable for families. The path was cleared of unexploded ordnance in 2007, however visitors are strongly advised to follow the red and white markers.
Between the white markers means that MAG have cleared surface and deep ordinance. The read zone means that only surface ordinance has been cleared.
Other visitable sites include Jar Site 16, 23 and 52.
Check the Phonsavan section for activities and attractions around the Plain of Jars
Typical local products from Phonsavanh and the surrounding area are natural dyes and textiles, each with individual pattern depending on the ethnic group, and basketry, mulberry paper umbrellas, spoons & bangles made from war scrap or Hmong embroidery. Be aware that bringing antiques home from Laos may be illegal. A special drink is Mastake Whisky made from Hed Wai, a highly valued mushroom from the pine forests of Xieng Khoung.
Don't bank on eating a meal along the road between Phonsavan and Jar Site 1 as once you leave the outskirts there's only one village - with no restaurants though you can buy water and snacks. There is a small cafe at Site 1.
The nearest place for food is Phonsavan.
There are several salabeers around Phonsavan overlooking small lakes. The best to find are opposite Maly Hotel or on the road to the airport near Nam Ngum market.
Check the Phonsavan section for hotel descriptions. Phonsavan has a wide range of hotels from simple guesthouses to 3* hotels and a French boutique hotel on top of a mountain.
America undertook a "Secret War" in Laos during the conflict with Vietnam. This war resulted in Laos becoming the most bombed country in the world, and Xieng Khuang the most bombed region in the country. Some of the bombing was against the Pathet Lao in the north, and parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail in the south. However, a many bombs were dropped due to laziness: when US bombers called off attacks on northern Vietnam the air-crew dumped their loads on Laos so that they didn’t have to go through special procedures required when landing fully loaded. During the nine year Secret War the US conducted 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, and dropped the equivalent of two tonnes of bombs per person. A substantial amount of unexploded ordnance (UXO) remains, and tragically still continues to kill or maim Laotians. However, since 1994 the international charity Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been demining the country, and with special attention to the Plain of Jars sites to make them safe for visitors.
Visitors today are quite safe so long as they stay within site boundaries that are clearly marked with MAG marker bricks. The white side of the marker indicates the safe side, and the red side indicates an area that has yet to be checked for mines. To learn more about UXO around the Plain of Jars, the continuing MAG operations and, perhaps make a contribution, visit their information centre in central Phonsavan. Also, every evening they show films about their demining activities and the devastating effect of UXOs in Laos.
There is a daily (morning) bus to Luang Prabang, with the 8 hour journey costing 95,000kip.
The many minivans going to Luang Prabang cost around 110,000 (April 2010), and takes 6-7 hours. Easiest to book them through the many travel agents in Phonsavan. The mini-bus does not make many stops for toilet breaks(why do you think it's a full hour faster than the regular bus?), so make sure you empty your bladder and bowels before traveling. Females should probably bring an umbrella as a shield in case the toilet break happens on the highway (which happened to my bus and the 3 lady passengers had to empty their bladder by the roadside in full view of all passing vehicles). Women travelers can also wear (full) skirts to provide privacy while crouching by the roadside to go to the bathroom.
There is also a daily bus to Vinh in Vietnam. A night buse to Vientiane, scheduled to arrive the next day morning, costs around 130,000 Kip for a VIP bus and 110,000 kip for local bus: prices updated February 2011. See Phonsavan for more details.