A remote town in Lao’s eastern province of Xieng Khouang that has a fascinating history. From the mysterious and ancient Plain of Jars to the more recent heavy bombardment of the 60s and 1970s, Phonsavan has much to offer international visitors with an interest in history and Laos and Hmong culture. In this article we will cover all you need to know about getting to and from Phonsavan, finding your way around the town, where the best places to stay are and what attractions the town has to offer. We’ll also give you the lowdown on the Plain of Jars which is the town’s biggest drawcard.
Phonsavan – A Brief Summary of its Modern History
Phonsavan, in province of Xieng Khouang, is well known as one of the most heavily bombed areas in the country of Laos, which is, in turn, the most heavily bombed country on earth per capita. That’s right. The most heavily bombed nation on earth.
If you want to understand Laos as a country in the 21st century, then a basic explanation of this clandestine conflict is needed. Let’s start with the facts. 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped in Laos during what is euphemistically named ‘The Secret War’ that the USA waged against Laos from 1965 to 1973. In an attempt to curb the spread of communism that was so evident in neighbouring Vietnam, the USA employed madman tactics against Laos, hoping to bomb the country into submission and eliminate the Viet Kong who were using Laos for supply routes.
So why was it a secret war? Because it all happened despite the fact that Laos had been guaranteed neutrality by Geneva in the conflict i.e. it happened illegally. War was never officially declared against Laos and was, in fact, denied by American politicians in front of the public.
Nevertheless, when the truth was exposed with the declassification of government reports in 2000, light was shed on the sheer magnitude of destruction that was inflicted upon the Laos people. 2 million tonnes of ordnance dropped on civilians. And not by accident. The abovementioned ‘madman’ tactics focused on creating terror and destruction specifically within rural Laos where farmers had nowhere to hide. And to a large extent they focused on the Xieng Khouang province where Phonsavan is located.
But the situation within Laos itself was not so simple. American soldiers had recruited young soldiers from the local minority group in the province of Xieng Khouang, the Hmong, to fight against the Laos people. The Hmong were promised American citizenship in return for their service. This never happened.
With the victory of communism in neighbouring Vietnam, America left Laos and abandoned its former comrades, who then became refugees in their own country. A country that had now had 2 million tonnes of bombs dropped on it – that is one bomb, every eight minutes, every twenty-four hours for nine years. Many of these Hmong soldiers called Phonsavan home and this had led to a most interesting history developing in Phonsavan where Hmong and Lao reside together.
The effects of this aerial bombing are still very much visible and tangible in Phonsavan. Demining teams can be seen daily on the town’s outskirts working through the countryside so it will be safe again for farming. Many cafes, hostels and even some houses either display or are in fact made of shells and remnants from the many bombs that exploded, and continue to explode, in the area.
The most gut-wrenching of all is that there is a high amount of unexploded ordnance still lying in and around Phonsavan, buried in or protruding slightly from the ground. This ordnance consists mostly of cluster bombs and bombies (small, round bombs that look very similar to tennis balls). These weapons regularly explode when they are picked up by children or disturbed by farmers working the land.
We don’t need to explain what the results of this look like. If you are travelling around Phonsavan, or any part of Laos for that matter, do stick to the touristy tracks that have concrete plates either side showing that they have already been demined.
How To Get To Phonsavan
Phonsavan is connected with major cities in both Laos and other South East Asian countries by road and this means the cheapest way to travel is bus. Bus tickets in Laos can be bought at hotels, hostels and travel agencies but will almost invariably be cheaper if you buy them at the bus station itself. If this is your plan, make sure you arrive at the bus station at least an hour before your planned departure time.
The roads in Laos are in quite bad condition, sporting regular (deep!) potholes, lacking bitumen in many places and often bearing the threat of landslides. Thus, if you decide to travel around Laos on a motorbike, make sure you are an experienced rider and take extra extra care. We also recommend travelling by day as the safety of making journeys around Laos at night is, in our eyes, questionable.
Below we have collated the prices of bus tickets from various Laos cities to Phonsavan. This is a guide only and prices will vary depending on where you book them.
Luang Prabang – Phonsavan – 150,000
Vang Vieng – Phonsavan – 100,000
Vientien – Phonsavan – 90,000
Note that Phonsavan has several bus stations so be sure that you know which one you are arriving at and whether you’ll need transport from the station to your accommodation.
Phonsavan also boasts Xieng Khouang Airport (XKH) which is less than 5 kilometres from the city centre. You can get tickets for as little as $65 and you’ll arrive in about 2 hours.
Our Experience Of Getting To Phonsavan By Minibus
We made the trip from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan by minibus. Despite reading terrifying reviews of this route online, we decided that we couldn’t miss visiting this out-of-the-way but fascinating town and bought our tickets. The purchase was made through our hostel in Luang Prabang (Y Not Guesthouse) and cost 150,000kip per person. You could probably save at least 40,000 by booking at the bus station itself.
The road was incredibly windy and one man on our bus spent much of his journey heaving up the contents of his stomach, meaning we had regular, hurried pull-overs. We were driving through the mountains and could look DOWN from the road to other mountains. This gives you a sense of how high we were.
Nevertheless, our driver drove dangerously, speeding around corners that were sheer drop-offs to the green valleys far below and slamming through potholes without any consideration for his passengers. He did not use the brakes. Despite not suffering from motion sickness in normal conditions, we felt queasy and on the brink of death for the entire 9 hours journey. 7 of those 9 hours were spent going up and down and around and around the mountainous road to Phonsavan.
Only did the last hour bring some reprieve with straight roads on a flat plain. We left Luang Prabang at about 8.00 and arrived in Phonsavan at about 17.30. If we’d had the money, we would have hired a private van in the interests of safety.
Be Warned. If you choose to take this route, you will most likely encounter the same experience. Bring headphones, music, a sick bag and some snacks.
Where To Stay In Phonsavan
Phonsavan is very different from other Laotian towns. It is quite dull with no real party scene or backpacker atmosphere. This has its advantages though, as accommodation is quite cheap. The main street in Phonsavan is where the (limited) action is so we recommend finding a place within walking distance of it.
Using scooters at night in Laos can be dangerous due to the roads!! Our pick is Sengsavanh. It was a five-minute walk into town, close to supermarkets, the room was nice and clean and the staff were also kind and helpful. There was a breakfast option too.
Where To Eat In Phonsavan
As we mentioned before, Phonsavan is not well-known for its tourist scene. There are a handful of restaurants on the main drag that offer your stock-standard Laos dishes such as stir-fries, salads and rice dishes. Prices are comparable to other Laotian cities.
There are also some upmarket restaurants like Lao-Falang (Italian), Nisha Indian Restaurant and Bamboozle (Western style). Make sure you check their opening times as some are only open for dinner.
Where To Next From Phonsavan
From Phonsavan, you can head to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientien or south to the 4000 Islands. It’s all up to you. As always, we recommend buying bus tickets once you’re in the town itself as this is usually cheaper and more practical.
Phonsavan offers many cafes and travel agencies, as well as hotels, where bus tickets can be bought. We caught the bus to Vang Vieng for about 100,000. The trip was much smoother than from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan. There were stunning views of Laos gargantuan, rocky mountains and Laos countryside. We left at about 8.00am and arrived at about 4.00pm.
What To Do In Phonsavan
Plain of Jars is the main attraction in Phonsavan which we cover in detail in our NEXT POST. However, there are other ways to spend your time in Phonsavan if you really want to delve into the history and culture of the area.
Day Trips In Phonsavan
There is plenty to see around Phonsavan and even more if you’re willing to travel for up to an hour into the Laotian countryside. You can hire bikes to travel more independently or hire a private driver to take you around in style and comfort.
Phonsavan Day Trip 1
If you’re interested in the history of Phonsavan and the Hmong people, then check out Muang Khoun. Muang Khoun (the Old Capital) is the place where the opulence of the Phuan Kingdom of the 14th century became an object of French colonialism, which was then ransacked in the 19th century and finally obliterated by bombing during the secret war. Now, all that remains are a couple of stupas and some old, crumbling buildings.
Nevertheless, these ancient structures are quite beautiful, set against the gorgeous, rural landscape and are definitely worth a visit. Wat Phiavat, That Dam and an old French colonial building are the main attractions. You can include both of these visits in your day trip to Site 1, 2 and 3 of the Plain of Jars.
Phonsavan Day Trip 2
Nong Tang Lake is a gorgeous body of water that is about 50km outside of Phonsavan. It’s surrounded by other attractions like Tham Pha cave and many 15th-century Wats (Wat Mixay, Wat Ban Ang and the Ban Mong Stupa). Tham Pha is a complex of caves with hundreds of Buddha images inside. The large buddha that sits outside the cave to greet visitors is said to be 1,200 years old!
You can visit the lake, the caves and the wat remains in one day and be back in time for an afternoon beer in Phonsavan! For more specific directions, check out HERE.
Phonsavan Water Attractions / Kha Waterfall + Ban Xang Hot Springs
If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can make your way to the 100m high Kha Waterfall, located in the Nong Het district and climb to the top of Kha Waterfall in about 30 minutes and admire the view from above. Or check out the Ban Xang Hot Springs in the Kha district. You can choose the luxurious option and check out the ecolodge there, or, if you want a challenge, you might also like to check out the hike to the Plain of Jars Site 42 that apparently exists. It’s a challenging route that will take about 3 or 4 hours. But you’ll have the perfect swimming spot to come back to after!
Phonsavan Minority Groups / Tai Dam Cultural Hall
Another attraction that is about 50km from Phonsavan is the Tai Dam Cultural Hall. There are buildings exhibiting Tai Dam (literally: black Thai) culture and lifestyle including traditional living arrangements, agricultural tools and souvenirs. If you are interested in this minority group and have some time to kill around Phonsavan, you might consider going here. Although an authentic cultural experience would be easier to get by heading out into the not-so-touristy Laos villages yourself.
The Secret Water / Piu Cave Piu Cave is another important place to visit if you have the emotional strength. Into this very cave the USA fired a missile in order to kill the 374 villagers taking shelter here during the secret war (November 1968). Now there is a monument there dedicated to the innocent lives lost and you can purchase incense to light in the memory of the victims.
There is a visitor information center where you can find out more information. Entry costs 10,000 kip and the cave is open from 8.00 until 17.00.
Phonsavan Phou Khout
Phou Khout, about 45km from Phonsavan, is a fantastic place to visit if you really want to get off the beaten track. Only recently opened, it is a viewpoint that offers nice vistas, its own site of jars and an abandoned army tank. For more information, check out HERE.
Xieng Khouang Quality of Life Association and Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Both the Xieng Khouang Quality of Life Association and Mines Advisory Group (MAG) work with Laos citizens affected by the Secret War and have visitor centers on the main street of Phonsavan. Visiting them is an absolute must if you want to understand the history of this beautiful country. You will find informative displays, posters, merchandise that is sold to fund their work and they also screen films about life in Laos during and after the war.
We stumbled across them when walking home from dinner and spent a few hours inside. Entry is free, as are the video screenings, and it was a very eye-opening experience.
The biggest market in Phonsavan is located in the centre of town near the bus station. If you find the Italian restaurant, Lao-Falang, turn right and walk through the giant set of gates and into the car park. On both sides of this car park you’ll find the market. We weren’t overly impressed with what was on offer here – just fruit, vege and toiletries that you’d find in any market in Asia. This is a good place to buy snacks for your trip to the Plain of jars.
While Phonsavan might seem, at first glance, to be nothing more than a dusty old town with only the Plain of Jars to offer, there is definitely more than meets the eye. You could easily spend an entire week exploring the caves, waterfalls and villages that surround Phonsavan. So pick and choose what interests you and let us know how you enjoyed Phonsavan in the comments below! And don’t forget to check out our art prints and get a discount HERE!