Asia : Southeast Asia : Laos : Central Laos : Phonsavan
Phonsavanh is the provincial capital of Xieng Khouang province. It was built in the late 1970s and replaced the old Xieng Khouang which had been destroyed during the Second Indochina War. It is located in the centre of the Plain of Jars and has a pleasant climate all year around, although it can become pretty cold during winter nights (it is on an altitude of 1100m). The long winding main street of Phonsavanh looks like the setting of a David Lynch inspired Spaghetti Western minus the tumbleweeds. As soon as you leave town the countryside is dominated by green hills and pine forests. Villages consist of colourful wood houses and often raise cattle. You will see more than one Hmong cowboy with brown and violet cowboy hats. During Hmong New Year there are even bullfights in Phonsavanh.
Its most famous attraction is the nearby Plain of Jars, which is to be nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. The main economic activity in Phonsavanh is based on government administration, mining companies from China and Australia, tourism and the work of NGOs related to UXO clearance.
Phonsavanh is home to various ethnic groups, such as the Phuan, whose ancestors once founded the kingdom of the same name, the Hmong, which New Years celebrations in Xieng Khouang are famous throughout Laos, and the Khmu and Tai Dam. There is also a minority of Laotian Chinese and Vietnamese as well as some international workers and missionaries from Korea and the USA. Typical local products from Phonsavanh and the surrounding area are natural dyes and textiles each with individual pattern depending on the ethnic group, basketry, mulberry paper umbrellas, spoons made from war scrap or Hmong embroidery. A special drink is Mastake Whiskey made from Hed Wai, a highly valued mushroom from the pine forests of Xieng Khouang.
For general information vist the Provincial Tourism Department near the market, Thalat Nam Ngum, on the road to the airport. [email protected]
Lao Airlines offers six flights a week in peak season and four flights in low season. 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, from Hanoi there is one bus per week.
If you are travelling 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 serpentines. 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. Shared minivan options to the most popular destinations (Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane) are now offered by travel agencies.
As of early 2011, there were two buses running daily from Vinh in Vietnam, going from the main bus station at 6:00am (no reservations necessary). Vinh can be easily reached by train from Hanoi or Ho-Chi-Minh-City.
Bus tickets can be bought online via Pombai.
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 about 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 from a tout or 70,000 kip from an agency along route 7. Mr Vhong of Sabaidee Xiengkhouang Travel Services (open 08:30-21:30) next to Nice Guest house opposite Nisha Restaurant is an easy going and amiable man who speaks good English. He rents motorbikes for 70,000 kip per day, and can also arrange a guide for 80,000-100,000 kip per day. To rent a minivan costs about $50-80 US, but a four-wheel drive costs over $100 US. This includes or excludes fuel, depending on the company. All prices vary hugely 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.
There's been a recent surge in motorcycle accidents due to poor brakes and equipment. Ensure the fundamentals are in good working order before taking it out any further.
Recommend using Happy Motorcycles which contain some level of insurance.
Phonsavan is not well catered for tourists and foreigners, with little representation for tourists, please beware there are some very corrupt locals who will try any avenue to rip you off. Despite the unique attractions and pending world heritage site tourism seems to be something of an afterthought here as the tourist office next to the tourist police is located in the middle of nowhere and closed on weekends. Maps are in scarce supply and despite being free many places will not issue one unless you do business with them. It pays to do your research before you come here. Some petrol stations have been known to over charge by adding an extra zero to the cost of fuel.
Warning - Phonsavan is one of the most heavily bombed places in history. There are unexploded ordinances everywhere. On average 60 people die each year due to UXO's. Take extreme caution when wandering around any off-beaten paths. Stay within the paths unless it is necessary.
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 Ban Khai, 36 km northeast of Phonsavanh and Jar sites 1 and 3; here 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.
Pho Kod War Memorial 20km 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. It is one of the tragedies of the so-called Secret War when on 24th of November 1969 a single rocket fired from an aircraft caused the death of an estimated 374 people 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. Directions: From Phonsavan head NW along route 7 for about 55km until you reach Bang Sa and turn left just after the Western Union next to the Post Office. Drive past the signposted road to the Plain of Jars (50 km) and over the bridge and past the small cemetery on the left for about 5 km until you reach the sign to the cave for then turn left. From here the road becomes extremely cracked and uneven. After short drive (about 3 km) you will arrive at the Tham Piu entrance. Route 5 will also lead you there (signposted on route 7 but after the post office/Western Union) however, the way is not direct and nor signposted after the initial left turn so you will have to ask for directions or make educated guesses. The entrance fee is 5,000 kip. The caretakers are friendly, and more than happy to show visitors around the grounds which conatin statues, shrine and a small museum; they will even open up the shrine if it is locked away and conduct prayers if you purchase incense and candles. To reach the caves walk past the shrine/museum and follow the winding concrete steps past the Buddha and aqueduct for about 5 minutes to the mouth of the cave. Small piles of rocks with incense and offerings are there to honour the dead, and there is a simple shrine at the entrance.
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. Directions: The caves are 36km northwest of Phonsavanh. Take Route 7, pass Nong Pet, then in Nam Ka village turn left into a dirt road; follow the signs to Tham Xang until you reach Ban Ta.
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 67km 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 2km 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 (100km from Phonsavanh) and drive for about 3km; 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.
The SOS orphanage in Xieng Khouang was founded 1998 to take care of the many children who lost their parents in accidents related to UXO. Today 145 children live in 12 family houses. The associated kindergarten and primary school are open to local children. You are welcome to visit the centre during office hours Mon - Fri from 8:00-16:00, Check in at the administration building first.
The local fresh food market is an excellent place to sample the variety of unique foods that Xieng Khouang has to offer. The cool climate and high altitude of the province produces many food items and forest products that are not available in other parts of Laos, e.g. mushrooms, peaches, plums and passion fruit. Some people also sell exotic meats, such as living bamboo rats or pheasants. Please remember to support wildlife conservation and do not eat endangered species.
The Navang Craft Centre is famous for woodcarving. This family business produces wood crafts made from scented Long Leng Wood (Fujian Cypress), a rare wood. You can watch the carvers work and buy souvenirs daily from 7:30-20:00.
There is a Hmong Crafts Centre in the city centre offering products made by Hmong. In the same shop is also a Thai massage parlor run by a group of 4 experienced Thais. The boss is training locals in masssage.
There are several War Memorials in Phonsavanh that were constructed to commemorate the thousands of Pathet Lao soldiers who lost their lives during the Indochina Wars and to honour the Vietnamese soldiers who fought alongside them. Climb up the small hills and you will be rewarded with great views of the town and surrounding areas.
The Mulberry Silk Farm of Lao Sericulture Co,  a fair trade company, is dedicated to enabling Lao village silk producers in the Northern provinces to revive the art of high quality local silk production. Villagers are trained in sericulture, the process of raising silkworms, processing and improved weaving techniques and natural dying. Leaves, bark, vines, berries and seeds create colour choices to match virtually any taste. To learn about the whole process you are welcome to visit the farm. A free guided tour which takes about 30 minutes leads you through the production process. Any purchase of souvenirs will help the local communities and enabling them to rise out of poverty. It is located in Ban Li (just west of Phonsavan on Route 7) and is open Mon - Sat 08:00 - 16:00.
At the MAG Office-UXO Visitor Information Centre  in the centre of Phonsavanh (opposite Craters restaurant) the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) informs about the UXO (unexploded ordnance) problematic in the province. MAG began its Lao program in 1994 and started the first internationally supported UXO clearance operation in Xieng Khouang. MAG works to help people to rebuild their lives and alleviates suffering by responding to the needs of conflict affected communities. Local staff has been training to clear away the brush, to use a metal detector and recognize ordnance. Their village assisted clearance approach allows communities to participate in the process. Open Mon - Fri 08:00-20:00 and Sat/Sun 16:00-20:00. Documentaries are screened daily (16:30/17:50-18:30-'Bombies') free of charge. Visiting local UXO clearance sites can also be arranged but only if you have obtained permission from the Veng Vieng office. Visiting the centre is free but donations are appreciated. T-shirts are available for $10.
A UXO survivors Information Centre is next door to MAG. The organisation World Education recently opened this centre (Late 2009). It has a gift shop with products made by UXO survivors and also accepts donations. Sometimes, trainees who are about to take their English exams will request English speaking tourists to chat with them for 10 minutes to help them improve their spoken English. Informal sessions where you can talk about anything. They are a bit shy, but will appreciate your time and effort. If you can't donate money or buy souvenirs, spending a few minutes helping someone improve their chances of getting an English diploma can be just as rewarding. Open all week until 8pm.
Old Cemetery and Lake Jao Supanouvong. This large cemetery is located on a hill 1 km north of Phonsavanh. What makes it unique is that Tai Dam animist tombs are mixed together with Catholic tombstones, Chinese graves and Lao Buddhist reliquary. The hill top offers sweeping views and is an ideal spot for watching the sun set of the green hills. The lake 3km north of town is named in honour of Prince Supanouvong the first president of the Lao PDR. Once the site of the provincial jail, it is now a place for relaxation.
Participate in English classes at Phonsavan school (English Centre, Phonsavan school). English speaking tourists are welcome to participate in English evening classes in the local primary - junior high school. It is a beautiful experience, and you don't have to be a teacher! My friend had seen a sign in the Craters Cafe. The lovely staff transfered us to and from the school, which is not far from the bus terminal.
Nathong Cultural Village from Phonsavan head NW along route 7 (towards the Tham Piu caves) for about 45 km and turn right at blue the sign in Laos/English for about 1 km until the the gravel road forks out. The village itself is nothing special and pretty much the same as any of the others you'll pass, however, the locals are extremely friendly and will burst into laughter when you ask to take their picture!
Muang Nam from Phonsavan head NW along route 7 for about 40 km on the way towards the Tham Piu Cave. There is little of interest here aside from the view from the Kham bridge, the house just past the bridge surrounded with UXO and the friendly locals.
Typical local products from Phonsavanh and the surrounding area are natural dyes and textiles each with individual pattern depending on the ethnic group, basketry, mulberry paper umbrellas from Ban Mixay, spoons made from war scrap from Ban Napia or Hmong embroidery. A special drink is Mastake Whiskey made from Hed Wai, a highly valued mushroom from the pine forests of Xieng Khouang. Recycled UXO bracelets, bottle openers etc can be purchased for 20,000 kip from Khom Districts Crafts Centre far from town and spoons can be bulk purchased from the local market on the road parallel to route 7 behind Nice guest house. Finely woven silk scarves and textiles can be purchased from the UXO Survivors Centre, Mulberry Farm and Khom Districts Craft Centre.
Phonsavanh has a surprisingly broad offer of food for a provincial town its size. There over 30 restaurants and many Pho soup shops. You can easily find Chinese, Vietnamese and Lao restaurants but also some specials:
Nisha is an Indian restaurant that serves Indian and Lao food for both vegetarians and meat eaters. The interior is unassuming but the food is recommended. Service can be very slow when busy (1-2 hr from ordering to table).
Bamboozle is a popular foreign owned and run restaurant located next to Nisha with an extensive bamboo-designed interior. It caters for Western and Asian tastes - specialities including goat cheese, mulberry-everything sourced from the local silk farm and "the best burger in town." There is live music on some nights. The owner, Mike, is an extremely friendly Scot and a good source of local information.
Craters caters to Western tastes with a menu of pizza, burgers. It has a nice interior compared to the other places in town.
Nirvana is a bamboo style bar and restaurant that offers both Lao and Western food. Located on a side street off the main road, at the edge of the old airstrip in the centre of Phonsavan.
The best Lao Food you get in Maly Hotel including a unusual interior design made using with bombs.
A favourite with visitors is the Vietnamese Simmaly at the corner opposite the MAG visitor centre. Portions are large, and the service is friendly.
Next to the ATM there is now the only coffee shop in the town; Plain of Jars Coffee.
A long time favourite with Lao and NGO workers is the Sangha Restaurant. This restaurant serves simple but good food at very reasonable prices. Food is mainly Lao but there are nice steak or chicken and chips. Service can be indifferent.
Vasana Hotel has a good and nice restaurant with a pleasant view.
Auberge de la Plain des Jarres - Phoupadeng Hotel has an excellent French restaurant with cuisine influenced from the Alsace. Recommended but not cheap.
If you are a group of people have some Lao-style hotpot, called Sindard. Best place is Sindard Phompid (also known as Wave Bar in some travel guides) opposite Maly Hotel.
More Information on restaurants at the official Lao National Tourism homepage Lao National Tourism Organisation, there click through to Phonsavan
The restaurants are the natural place for a drink. On the main street, Bamboozle! is an ambient spot with a range of beers, wine, cocktails, etc. and live music on some nights. However there are many Lao beer places in town. The One ,opposite Maly Hotel, is located on a small lake. They serve Tiger Beer and have a good menu with fresh fish. There is a similar place on the other side of the lake, directly opposite the hotel. There is a discotheque at Chittavanh Hotel popular with the locals and well, catering to local tastes. The only alternative is a very similar place aptly named Highway Karaoke, which is at the crossing from the mainstreet to the airport street. Opposite Highway Karaoke is a new place popular with the village youth (and owned by the same family that runs Simmaly restaurant and internet cafe).
There are 12 hotels and 39 guest houses in Phonsavan. Most guesthouses are located on and around the main street - travel books normally recommend Nice Guest House, White Orchid or Dok Khoun Guesthouse (there is a hotel of the same name).
There are plenty of internet cafes located on the main street with connection sufficiently fast for skype. There is a DHL drop off point at the main market and a post office. Nisha restaurant and sometimes the post office sell postcards, which can otherwise be difficult to get in Phonsavanh.