The capital of Xieng Khuang province, PHONSAVAN has gradually emerged as the most important town on the Plain of Jars since the total devastation of the region in the Second Indochina War. The bomb-casing collections in many guesthouse lobbies are grim galleries reflecting the area’s tragic past when possession of the strategic plain was seen as the key to control of Laos. It was the new communist government that designated Phonsavan the new provincial capital, and parked Laos’s fledgling collection of Soviet MiGs nearby, a smug reminder of who won the battle for this bitterly contested area.
Hastily rebuilt in the aftermath of decades of fighting, Phonsavan has only now, over 35 years after the end of conflict, begun to recover economically, thanks in a large part to international interest in the world-famous Jar sites scattered around the perimeter of the plain. Tourism has given the town new life: bombs at the Jar sites have been cleared away and Khoun Cheuam’s jar – the largest of the scores of jars in the area – stares down from tourism posters across the country. Although most visitors come only to see the Jar sites, the Xieng Khuang Plateau is a place of great natural beauty and its backroads and villages are well worth exploring.
The original settlement of Phonsavan was, like every other town on the plain, obliterated during the war. The town you see today is a modern reconstruction that lacks any real character. There is really nothing of note to see, although the town grid is nicely laid out on a rather grand scale, extending quite a way south of Route 7. Indeed, if the length and width of Phonsavan’s empty boulevards are anything to go by, local officials have very big plans for this little place, though they’re yet to materialize.
The town’s highlight is the great little fresh food market behind the post office, which is well worth a wander, the amount and variety of the fresh produce on sale giving a good indication of just how much people’s lives here have improved since the government quietly swept communist economics under the rug. As with most markets in Laos, it’s a great choice for a quick, cheap lunch, or to stock up on fruit and snacks before a long bus journey.
After a visit to the Plain of Jars, be sure to stop in at the Mines Advisory Group (MAG; wmaginternational.org;donations welcome) which is carrying out vital work, not only in deactivating UXO, but in educating and informing local people, especially farmers and those involved in the scrap metal trade. An informative display provides an introduction to the work they are doing, with photographs making vividly clear the horrifying risks that UXO pose to local lives. Free films are shown every night; this is a great opportunity to find out more about the UXO situation and the work that MAG do.