Heading to the east to check out some unusual house decorations and solve archaeological mysteries...


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Asia » Laos » East » Phonsavan
July 21st 2013
Published: September 22nd 2013
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The original plan was to take a usual (meaning sitting) bus to Phonsavan but since we left the booking for the last moment it appeared that we had missed the only sitting bus that day already so we were left with a choice of either staying another night somewhere in Vientiane and leaving the next morning or taking a sleeping bus the same evening instead. We really wanted to move on further so after bargaining on the price a bit, in the end we chose the latter. We were picked up from our hotel and on the way to the bus station we realised that we were missing the best sunset in Asia so far! Every evening I was hoping that finally we would see some decent sunset (as they have been quite disappointing until now) and now all we could see was a small piece of this incredibly pink sky from the back of a noisy tuk-tuk! Ah well… At least we saw a bit of it though. 😊 Just like with most of the bookings so far, the bus didn’t exactly look the same to what was presented to us on the pictures at the travel agent, well maybe it looked the same from the outside but the sleeping arrangements were a different matter... Looked like they had double beds in this bus only! It was fine with us, but then I started thinking what if I was travelling on my own? Would they just put me with someone in one bed??? I’m not exactly sure how I would feel about that and I seriously doubt whether the travel agents would mention anything about it at the time of booking… The woman we were booking with sure didn’t say anything… Thankfully I didn’t have to worry about that now… I have to say that the beds, even though veeery short, were quite comfortable – definitely way better than the seats on the last bus to Vientiane! It seemed like it was going to be a long journey though as already the first part of the trip, getting out of the capital that is, proved to be quite scary… I don’t know whether it was due to monsoon rains or in general whether they just didn’t bother to repair the roads at all, but as we were driving through the huge holes in the road the bus started swinging so bad that at some point I really thought it would flip over! It got a bit calmer after a while though… The driver switched off the lights inside and everybody went to sleep unaware of what was going on around… I stayed awake for a little bit longer just looking outside of the window… What a beautiful night it was! Think it might have been full moon as it was very bright all around… Listening to some guy singing Lao ballads accompanied by a piano sounds, I started thinking at that moment how lucky I was – being able to travel through this beautiful, laid-back country and on top of that having this gorgeous guy next to me sharing this incredible experience with me! With a huge smile on my face, forgetting all about the bad roads and the dangerous swinging of the bus I slowly drifted away in my dreams and fell asleep…



Thankfully they dropped us off right in the middle of Phonsavan in the morning. To be honest I was expecting to be getting out somewhere out of town and be surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers again, but guess I was wrong this time… In the end we didn’t even have to walk further than 200metres and were surrounded by guesthouses already. Just perfect! We dropped our bags, freshened up a bit and set off to explore the town. We didn’t do too much on our first day in Phonsavan though. The town is really small actually, so we walked around the main street and the market and basically walked the whole of it already… It was so strange to see the bombs being used as ‘decoration’ in some shops, cafes or houses! After a breakfast at Craters (its entrance was surrounded by huge bombs!) we went to MAG (Mines Advisory Group) as it was just on the other side of the street. Just like COPE in Vientiane, MAG deals with UXOs (Unexploded Ordnance) in Laos. Their roles are very different though – while COPE helps UXO victims to move on with their lives, MAG investigates different areas in Laos searching for UXOs in order to clear these areas and make them safe again. Once again we were reminded of how this amazing, relaxed country suffered during the Vietnam War… and how it still is affected by it now… Many UXOs are still being discovered and detonated by MAG every year. Unfortunately not all of them are cleared in a safe way as many times they are detonated accidently in poor, rural areas by farmers or their kids… Many people are still being killed or badly injured each year due to these kind of accidents. Not to mention that many poor people and many kids, looking for additional income, are searching for UXOs hoping to be able to sell it as scrap metal… MAG is definitely a place to visit once in Phonsavan. They are also showing some documentaries there, including one of the more famous ones ‘Bomb Harvest (The Secret War in Laos)’, but we left it for another day. Here’s the website of the organisation just in case: http://www.maginternational.org/



In the end a very quiet and relaxing day, taking in the fact that this small relaxed town was once one of the most bombed towns in the world! It’s just beyond comprehension… We ended up later on in Craters again, having a meal and some drinks and watching a master at work – a spider making a huge web just next to the entrance that is. Amazingly creative creature, so precise! I thought that watching a spider creating its web in this post-war town would be as bizarre of a finish of that day as it could be but it turned out soon after that it wasn’t exactly the end of our day yet! As we went to the travel agent to check if our Plain of Jars tour was going ahead the next day (in the morning the guy working there told us they needed minimum 4 people for the tour and at that time it looked as if we might have been the only tourists in town!), we saw a guy lighting up the candles in front of his shop next to the tour office, so after confirming our tour indeed was taking place the next day, we asked they guy at the office what the candles were all about… It turned out that there was a special Buddhist ceremony taking place that evening – which only happened once a year around this time at full moon! The guy from the shop was going to the ceremony at a nearby temple and said that we were free to join him! Well… We couldn’t miss this opportunity right? A couple of doubts flew through my head of course as we didn’t have a clue where we were going and didn’t know the person we were going with at all, as trustworthy as I was before, I am a little bit more cautious lately… And not to stereotype but the guy’s personality just didn’t go with his image at all! He was covered in tattoos with big earrings and cigarette stuck in his mouth all the time but once he started talking it was all smiles and little giggling here and there. He just did everything possible that evening to make us feel welcome at the site and was constantly checking up on us if we were enjoying ourselves and if we knew what was going on around us. Really friendly guy! Once we got to the temple, we were welcomed by a few fireworks – there was definitely something big going on in here then! We each got a bunch of flowers with a candle and incense inside and wandered around the temple waiting for the ceremony to start. Apparently after this ceremony the people are not allowed to get married for the next three months – kind of like a lent for weddings. We got a couple of blessings around from the monks – I was surprised how young most of them were around here! We got quite a few looks and smiles from many people around as well – after all we were the only ‘falangs’ around! Suddenly people started lighting up the candles and incense – it looked like the ceremony was about to start. We did the same and joined the crowds in their rotation around the temple – we had to walk three times around it. It was such a beautiful sight! Walking around the temple with all the locals, each person holding flowers, candle and incense in hands, sky all bright from the full moon… Truly unforgettable experience… Our friend seemed to know all the monks around as he was chatting and laughing with all of them – later on we found out that he was ‘serving’ as a monk there before actually. Suddenly he started laughing like crazy…I didn’t know what was going on at first but it looked like some poor girl’s hair caught on fire! I say laughing at it wasn’t really monk-like… 😉 I thought then ‘Thank God I have more or less short hair’! I definitely wouldn’t like to come back bold from this ceremony… 😉 Then the drums sounded and people started leaving their bouquets all around on the ground. We did the same and it was time to go home… What an unexpected evening it turned out to be! And it was only the first day in Phonsavan…



The next day we joined our group for the tour of Plain of Jars. First we headed to site no. 3. Our guide said that since it was good weather it was best to take advantage of it now – if it was raining it would be almost impossible to get to this site. We soon found out why – most of the drive was through a dirt road and without the puddles it was already tricky to go through some parts of it… Once we got to the site, we had to walk a bit through some rice paddies to get there… What a lovely sight! Still the little MAG signs on the path remind you that it’s not that safe to venture on your own around here… One side white – free to walk on, one side red – site not cleared yet, possible UXOs around! When you look at the lush green fields, beautiful hills and people farming all around, it’s hard to imagine that there might be bombs hidden somewhere here… Our guide Long, apart from doing tours with Sousath Travel, was working for the last 5 years for MAG as well – so he was more than well informed about the UXOs and the ways of clearing them. He said that the fields around the Jars sites haven’t been cleared yet, but they couldn’t start clearing them at the moment as seeing that we were in the middle of wet season now, the farmers needed their fields to support themselves so the clearance had to be postponed until dry season. Apart from that there are still so many sites to clear in Laos that who knows when these particular ones would get their turn… The first thing you notice once you get to site 3 are not the jars themselves but a big bomb crater at the entrance which is now covered with bushes and trees…When it comes to jars, there are different stories as to where they came from and what their purpose was. I guess the most logical one is that they were used for burials – there were smaller clay jars found under the big ones with bones inside them. They say the big ones were used to decompose the bodies first. Then there is a question why the people chose to put the jars so high up on the hills and how they were moved there – the closest quarries were located 60 km away from these sites? As to why they are here, well… it’s beautiful around, maybe closer to heaven… take your pick… Not too difficult to picture how they were moved here either since it was once the country of million elephants right? Still there will always be some doubts and unanswered questions left right? One of the archaeological myths left unsolved… Wherever there is some kind of mystery it sure will bring some curious people around… this place surely got my attention! 😊



Before we went to site no. 2 we visited Bai Naipa village where we had a chance to see local women weaving. It’s just incredible that it takes them on average three days to make one piece of fabric and they are only selling it for either 60,000 or 110,000 kip (depending on whether it was cotton thread or silk one)… Unbelievable! Working 3 days to make 6 to 11 euros… Next we went to a local house where they were making spoons and some other items from scrap metal. I had a chance to hold a cluster bomb in my hand… even though disarmed holding it still gave me shivers! There was another van from our tour agency as well in here and it looked like they had a comedian for a tour guide as he surely had a lot of funny stories up in his sleeve. And he just couldn’t stop talking! One story after another, followed by some beers, which he was happily sharing with everyone around… He started talking about old days in Laos when people were being introduced to family planning and how they couldn’t comprehend the use of condoms or why they didn’t work for them – he said they were putting them on their thumbs (followed by the doctor’s instructions) or cutting them as they were too big… I say the way he was telling these stories was more funny than the stories themselves though… Then a local woman showed us how to mould a spoon from scrap metal. Once she made the first one, the funny guide said ‘Pretty good for a woman!’, which obviously got a few sighs and boos. He didn’t stop at that though… Since not many people wanted to join him in drinking beer, he said he needed a first cup of beer for one leg, the next one for the other and the third one just was making him fly, so needed it as well. And then just casually added that if the men weren’t drinking any it just meant they were ladyboys… Another mystery solved right? 😉



Then we headed to site no.2. The first part is just up on the hill surrounded by little forest. The locals apparently call it the love site – there is a legend that a young boy and a girl were meeting here secretly but since the relationship wasn’t approved by their parents they committed suicide at this side and the boy was transformed into a jar and a girl into a tree that grows right on top of it. So romantic! 😊 As usual you could see a few bomb craters around and our guide said they cleared a 250 pound bomb from near the ‘love’ tree, thankfully they managed to disarm it instead of detonating it on the site otherwise there would be no more jars left around here. After a short while we had to run away from there quickly as we were (mostly I was!) being eaten alive by mosquitos! The other part is set up on the hill as well but it’s more out in the open as you can see the surrounding fields from here as well. Once we got there we suddenly heard a huge explosion somewhere – it seemed quite far away though… First thought – maybe it was just a thunder? I’ve heard many thunders in Laos and it definitely didn’t sound anything like that though… And then far in the distance we saw smoke coming out from a forest… Maybe there was a quarry around there somewhere? Sound of explosion is definitely not the one you want to here in Laos…



Then we headed to the last site, the biggest one – site no. 1. There are 334 jars on this site, including the biggest one – 2,5m diameter and more than 2m high. The moment we started walking up the hill it started raining… Thankfully it didn’t last too long and we managed to hide behind the jars while waiting through the rain. There was a big cave at the site as well, lots of bomb craters around it – our guide said that people were hiding in that cave during the war, but once the Americans found out about its location, the site was heavily bombed… We walked around the site for a while and it was time to head back to Phonsavan. Really glad we decided to go to the jars site with the Sousath Travel as our guide provided us with a lot of information. Besides looking at some road conditions in here, especially going to site 2 & 3, it might have been a bit tricky going there on a scooter. Apparently the jar sites will soon be listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites so soon enough the roads will be improved all around – you could actually see a few roadworks here and there already. It will definitely make moving around the sites much easier and hopefully will improve the lives of people living close by to these sites as well…



We didn’t really plan anything for the following day – just chillaxing and catching up on blogs (such a backlog!). We just walked around the market in the morning and were quite surprised to find some unusual things there – for example some wasp nests full of larvaes! I assume they were sold for eating? Some of the larvaes were hatching already though… Then there were some little birds – they almost looked as if they weren’t fully developed yet and just snapped out from the eggshells… well, maybe they were actually… I was really surprised to see some nutrias in cages on sale as well – haven’t seen them for years! I was wondering if they were being sold for fur or maybe as food? I was pretty sure they were sold illegally here though as they were basically hidden amongst other things… We walked around the town for a while until we got to a restaurant we spotted the previous day. It looked pretty decent so we decided to have a break here. 😉 It turned out to be a karaoke restaurant – full of Lao youngsters having meals and beers and singing a bit in between… Loved it! This is way more fun than being locked up in some cubicle! They even played a couple of English songs (when I say couple, I really mean like two 😉), probably to encourage us to sing along as well. Hmmmm… We didn’t take the hint though. 😉 Since the monsoon came in the afternoon again, we spent a good part of it in that place – listened to quite a lot of cats singing… at least that’s how some of the people sounded like… Maybe that’s why I didn’t try it myself? Lovely afternoon though… 😊



The next day we rented a bike from our friend from Sousath Travel and headed to Muang Khoun. It was a lovely drive on an almost empty road through small villages and rice paddies. Muang Khoun was the ancient capital of Phoun Kingdom. It was almost fully destroyed during the Vietnam War though. One of the remains is a stupa, That Foun, visible from the main street, which was built in 1575 and is said to have been built on Buddha ashes (which were brought here from India). Another site which still stands after the war is Wat Piawat (the remains of it actually) – only a few pillars of the temple and a statue of Buddha survived the bombardment. After visiting both sites we sat down at one of the local eateries to have lunch and to wait through the heavy rain… yep! Got caught up in monsoon again… Had a chance to look closer at the village though, so no complaints. A big market set in the middle of the village, surprisingly only with fabrics, clothes, shoes and cosmetics though. There must have been another market with food somewhere but we didn’t come across it. We didn’t really have a chance to walk around town that much as once it started raining there was no end to it. Eventually we just put on our raincoats, jumped on the bike and headed back to Phonsavan. Before dinner we headed to MAG to watch a movie. We ended up seeing two – both very interesting and informative about the post effects of Vietnam War and bombardment of Laos by the Americans. Still it’s just beyond comprehension that even though USA signed the Geneva Convention declaring peace with Laos, they still bombed this country for the next 9 years, later on only to claim that nobody in the States was aware of what was going on there? So obviously the government was just free to spend billions of dollars on whatever without asking what the money was used for… And then how come they are not the ones cleaning the mess they left behind in this poor country? There is a mention of American Defence Authority putting ‘some’ money in MAG, but they are not the main funders at all – how come countries like New Zealand and Ireland are putting more money into clearing bombs in Laos then the one country who actually made all this mess in here? The saddest part of it all is that the poorest part of Laos is affected by the UXOs, it’s the poor farmers who are dealing with the presence of UXOs on daily basis… Really powerful movies...



On our last day in Phonsavan we decided to walk around the town a bit more. First we headed to Mulberry Silk Farm. It looked pretty close on the map so a walk sounded like a good idea. It still was a good idea, but we started having a few doubts along the way as to how far it actually was from the centre. We were getting mixed information on the way, our map wasn’t exactly the most accurate either and with some heavy clouds coming our way the walk just was becoming less and less exciting. We made it to the farm though and even though first it looked like we would be heading back without actually seeing it, as it seemed closed, finally a girl came out and walked us around the farm explaining the whole process of silk making and how they were dying the fabrics. Very interesting actually! Later on we had a chance to see the final products in the shop. I was slightly taken aback seeing the prices – 450euro for a big scarf, 190 euro for a usual size scarf? Hmmm… I was never really into fabrics, so wouldn’t really know how much things made of silk cost in the western world, but it sure did seem like a lot of money in here! But then when you look at it from a different perspective, when you take into account how long it takes to make a scarf like this – 2 months to make a big one, well… then it just seems damn cheap and when you slowly compare the cost of the final product and all the labour, it just makes you wonder how much actually the person who made it can earn from it? The girl said that the local women from poorer communities are hired there. Probably whatever they earn there can support their families at least. Let’s hope so… Beautiful scarves made there, but not for my pocket though…



In the evening we headed to Nisha restaurant – we only discovered it the day before, which was quite unfortunate as the food was simply exquisite! Definitely one of the best Indian foods I’ve ever eaten. I haven’t been to India yet, so might be that I am still totally missing out… Ah well... Maybe one day… It was a lovely finish to our stay in Phonsavan – the town really surpassed my expectations! Friendly, lovely people all around, everybody smiling and saying ‘sabaidee’ to us, crazy karaoke bar, nice food, so much history and so many places to visit around! Simply incredible! It was time to move on to next destination though. Next stop: Sam Neua!


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so peaceful all aroundso peaceful all around
so peaceful all around

area not cleared of UXOs though...
bombs supporting the roof...bombs supporting the roof...
bombs supporting the roof...

at Bai Naipa village


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