Published: February 20th 2009February 3rd 2009
On Sunday 1st February we awoke early, checked out and marched up the hill with our backpacks towards Sam Neua bus station to catch the early bus to Phonsavan. The 8-hour journey again took us through endless Blue Hmong villages and up and down numerous hillsides, with a brief lunch stop at a small town on the way. We finally rolled into Phonsavan bus station at around 4pm, grabbing a tuk-tuk to take us down the road to a Lonely Planet-listed guesthouse called Kong Keo's, located at one end of a disused airstrip and run by tour agent extraordinaire, Mr Kong. The guesthouse is actually a collection of small wooden bungalows in a little oasis littered with all sorts of war paraphenalia, from bombshells and hand grenades to ammunition belts and rusty kalashnikovs. After checking in for a couple of nights, we set off in search of an ATM. The last ATM we'd encountered was in Luang Prabang four days ago so funds were running a little low. We ate dinner at a Lonely Plant-recommended restaurant called Craters, located next to the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) Office. After dinner, I went and watched a short film in the MAG
MAG UXO warning
Do as your told!
Office about the training of locals to deal with unexploded ordnance (UXO), whilst Polly caught up with some internet-based errands.
Phonsavan is a laid back town consisting of one long strip of highway with businesses running for about two miles down either side. There's a vibrant local market one block back from the main road, selling anything from live eels to loose tobacco. There's not a fat lot to do in town but it's on the tourist trail due to the Plain of Jars, a series of locations in the surrounding countryside with clusters of very large sculpted stone jars. Nobody knows where they came from, or what they were used for, but the popular belief is that they were either used to store rice whisky (the dreaded 'Lao Lao'), rice itself, dead relatives or maybe a combination of all three.
The local government has banned tuk-tuk drivers from taking tourists to the three main sites so our only option was a tour through an agency, something we neglected to arrange on the first evening. As we were planning on only staying for one day we woke the next morning slightly panicked - the majority of prearranged tours
A very big jar
No, they're not made of glass. Sorry.
had already departed for the day. We needn't have worried because, after a few quiet words in the ear of a local tuk-tuk driver, we soon found ourselves being ushered into our own exclusive air-conditioned minibus, complete with driver and the aforementioned tuk-tuk guy as our guide.
First on the agenda was the principle jar site, aptly named Site 1, and sure enough, after marching a few hundred metres, we came upon our first cluster of one hundred of more jars. Some of the jars are a couple of metres in diameter and at least a couple of metres tall, randomly scattered about the place, either standing upright, listing over or lying flat. Most of the jars weigh about a tonne, but the largest weighs in at a staggering six tonnes. Dotted around the area is the occasional bomb crater or dug-out trench, stark reminders of the Secret War. When wandering around these sites, it's highly advisable to remain within the MAG markers, an indication that a particular path has been cleared of UXO, both through visual inspection and sub-surface techniques - stray off the path at your peril.
The whole UXO issue is very sad indeed. As
rice is the only staple to be grown in the region, poor local families often resort to scavenging in forests for fruit and small animals. Due to a lack of education, coupled with relatively high scrap metal prices, the discovery of unexploded mines, bombs, grenades and mortars in the surrounding forests often results in these items being careless lugged to the local scrap metal dealer on the back of a moped and sold on, with little regard for the potential dangers involved. A small 'bombie', a legacy of US cluster bombing, will fetch US$20 in scrap, and a large bomb shell will feed a whole family for a year. International organisations like MAG work to clear this unexploded ordnance where possible and educate the community about the dangers, but all to often it's a case of too little, too late.
After Site 1, we were whisked off to the remains of a Soviet tank, then on to Site 3 and finally Site 2. All the sites incorporate much the same array of jars, but Site 1 definitely takes the grand prize for vastness. With hindsight it's probably unnecessary to visit all the sites but it was an enjoyable day
The white side is the safe side. I was dicing with death taking this photo...
out all the same. During the course of the day we happened to bump into a couple from the Netherlands, Prenette and Stefan, who'd also managed to wangle their own exclusive tour.
After a long day of roaming the countryside we arrived back in Phonsavan early evening. Our tuk-tuk driver guide spent a long time on the way back trying to convince us to make up the numbers in his friend's minivan to Vang Vieng the following day. After demanding to be taken to the bus station to check ticket prices, we agreed to go with the flow and take the minivan for a fraction more than the public bus. We crashed out for the night to the croaking of geckos and the buzzing of mosquitoes.
At 7.45pm on Tuesday, our pickup was waiting for us to take us to Vang Vieng. Prenette and Stefan were also on the minibus, having been exposed to similar coaxing by their respective guide the day before. The journey to Vang Vieng took about six hours, down Route 7 and Route 13, the latter being notorious for it's hijackings. Luckily, we escaped unscathed. Towards the end of the journey, the road drops
out of the hills and meanders between towering limestone karsts and monoliths, before finally rolling in to the popular backpacker destination of Vang Vieng.
There are more photos below