Phonsavan

Phonsavan (ໂພນສະຫວັນ) (Phonsavanh) is the capital of Xieng Khouang Province in Central Laos. It is known primarily as the gateway to the Plain of Jars.

Understand

Phonsavan 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 in the centre of the Plain of Jars and has a pleasant climate all year around, although it can become chilly on winter nights due to its elevation of 1,100 m. The long winding main street of Phonsavan 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 wooden houses. Ranching is the primary occupation. You will see more than one Hmong cowboy with brown and violet cowboy hats. During Hmong New Year there are even bullfights in Phonsavan.

The best-known tourist attraction is the nearby Plain of Jars, which is to be nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. The main economic activities in Phonsavan are governmental administration, mining companies from China and Australia, tourism and the work of NGOs clearing unexploded ordnance (UXO).

Phonsavan is home to various ethnic groups, such as the Phuan, whose ancestors once founded the kingdom of the same name; the Hmong, whose New Year's celebrations in Xieng Khouang are famous throughout Laos; the Khmu, and the Tai Dam. There is also a minority of Laotian Chinese and Vietnamese, as well as some international workers and missionaries from Korea and Western countries. Typical local products are natural dyes and textiles, each with an individual pattern depending on the ethnic group, basketry, mulberry paper umbrellas, spoons made from war scrap or embroidery.

For general information visit the Provincial Tourism Department near the market, Thalat Nam Ngum, on the road to the airport. xkgtourism@yahoo.com.

Get in

Phonsavan's Xiang Khouang Airport (IATA: XKH) has 4 flights per week to Vientiane.

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 6AM-6PM. 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 10-12 hours. 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 Route 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.

There were two buses running daily from Vinh in Vietnam, going from the main bus station at 6AM (no reservations necessary) (2011). Vinh can be reached easily by train from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

Get around

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 early in the morning or late at night. A normal tour inside the town costs 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 scooters for about 100,000 kip. Renting a minivan costs about USD50-80, but a four-wheel drive costs over USD100. This includes or excludes fuel, depending on the company. All prices vary depending on season and availability.

Tuk-tuks are not allowed to take tourists to the jar sites. You can visit the site with a certified guide or on your own.

A shared tuk tuk from the bus station to the town centre costs around 10,000 kip per person.

See

Battlefields

During the Second Indochina War, Xieng Khouang was the scene of extensive ground battles and intense aerial bombardment due to its perceived strategic importance. The provinces of Houaphan and Xieng Khouang had been the stronghold of Pathet Lao forces and their Vietnamese allies. The heavy aerial carpet bombardments to neutralize those forces or to drop off unused ordnance after returning from missions in Vietnam turned the Plain of Jars quite literally into the Plain of Scars and the most heavily bombarded area worldwide. 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 unexploded bomb casings, tanks, and defensive positions. The resourceful locals refashion war scrap into items for everyday use, e.g., spoons in Ban Napia village, planters, fences, tools, pumps and barbecues.

Caves of refuge

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:

Nature

Xieng Khouang is widely known for the Plain of Jars, but beyond its jars is the natural beauty of the province. 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, punctuated with yellow sunflowers and poinsettia in full bloom. Nam Ngum, the largest river in the province, originates in the highlands of 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. The area is particularly beautiful during peach and orchid tree blossoming in Feb.

Do

Buy

Typical local products from Phonsavan and the surrounding area are naturally dyed textiles, each with a pattern exclusive to the maker's ethnic group, basketry, mulberry paper umbrellas from Ban Mixay, spoons made from war scrap from Ban Napia or Hmong embroidery.

Eat

Phonsavan has a surprisingly broad offering of food for a provincial town its size. There are about 32 proper restaurants and many pho (noodle) soup shops. You can easily find Chinese, Vietnamese and Lao restaurants, but here are some special places:

Drink

Sleep

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Stay safe

Motorcycle accidents are not uncommon due to poor brakes and equipment. When renting a motorcycle in town ensure the fundamentals, such as brakes, are in good working order.

Happy Motorcycles are reported to offer some level of insurance.

Warning - Phonsavan is one of the most heavily bombed places in history. There is unexploded ordnance (UXO) everywhere. On average, 60 persons die each year due to UXOs. Use caution when wandering, and always stay on paths.

Connect

There are plenty of Internet cafes on the main street which are fast enough for Skype. There is a DHL drop-off point at the main market and a Lao post office. Nisha Restaurant, and sometimes the post office, sells postcards, which are difficult to get in Phonsavan.

Go next

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, February 28, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.