PHONSAVAN TRAVEL GUIDE
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.
Phonsavanh 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 located in the centre of the Plain of Jars and has a pleasant climate all year around, although it can become pretty cold during winter nights (it is on an altitude of 1100m). The long winding main street of Phonsavanh 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 wood houses and often raise cattle. You will see more than one Hmong cowboy with brown and violet cowboy hats. During Hmong New Year there are even bullfights in Phonsavanh.
Its most famous attraction is the nearby Plain of Jars, which is to be nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. The main economic activity in Phonsavanh is based on government administration, mining companies from China and Australia, tourism and the work of NGOs related to UXO clearance.
Phonsavanh is home to various ethnic groups, such as the Phuan, whose ancestors once founded the kingdom of the same name, the Hmong, which New Years celebrations in Xieng Khouang are famous throughout Laos, and the Khmu and Tai Dam. There is also a minority of Laotian Chinese and Vietnamese as well as some international workers and missionaries from Korea and the USA. Typical local products from Phonsavanh and the surrounding area are natural dyes and textiles each with individual pattern depending on the ethnic group, basketry, mulberry paper umbrellas, spoons made from war scrap or Hmong embroidery. A special drink is Matsutake Whiskey made from Hed Wai, a highly valued mushroom from the pine forests of Xieng Khouang.
During the Second Indochina War, Xieng Khouang was the scene of extensive ground battles and intense aerial bombardment due to its strategic importance. The provinces of Houaphan and Xieng Khouang had been the stronghold of Pathet Lao forces and their Vietnamese allies. Extremely heavy carpet bombing by the US turned the Plain of Jars into the Plain of Scars, and it is the most heavily bombarded area in the world. 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 bomb shells, tanks and military positions. The resourceful locals refashion war scrap into items for everyday use, e.g. spoons in Ban Napia village, vegetable planters, fences, tools, pumps and barbeque fireplaces.
The extent of the bombardment is in particular evident at Baan Khai, 36 km northeast of Phonsavanh. The landscape is pockmarked with craters. Driving north along Route 7 plenty of creatively modified war scrap used in local architecture catches your eye. In Tajok, a Hmong village along Route 7 (30 km northeast of Phonsavanh), you can discover lots of bomb casings reused as barn pillars, fences and for other uses.
Baan Tajok is located on the main road (Route 7) northeast of Phonsavan. Drive to Nong Phet, then 2 km further to Baan Tajok. Once in the village, turn right to a side road and explore the houses. Although not littered with structures built from UXO, with a bit of browsing you will find some scattered about (such as corn and grain storage with the occasional planter) the village. There is a good mechanic directly opposite the petrol station.
Baan Khai: From Phonsavan, drive northeast to Nong Phet, then turn left and proceed a further 7 km or so. The turn is located in a market area. If in doubt, show the locals the name of the village written in Lao script (ບ້ານ ຄາຍ), and they will direct you to the turn. Look for a large, reddish brown plain dotted with craters on a small hill to your left.
Pho Kod War Memorial 20 km SW of Phonsavan along route 7,
Caves - refuges for thousands of people
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:
Tham Piu Cave is located 6 km north of Muang Kham. In one of the many tragedies of the so-called Secret War on 24 November 1969, a single rocket fired from a US aircraft killed an estimated 374 people, rumoured to be an entire village, who had taken refuge in the cave. Their bones are still buried in the rubble. The cave is far away from Phonsavan but it's an amazing drive through pine forests, mountains, fields and past the many villages along the route. The journey to the cave also allows for stopovers at other points of interest, including Baan Ki, Baan Tachok, Baan Nathong & Tai Dam/Khom crafts provided you leave no later than 09:00. Directions: From Phonsavan head NW along route 7 for about 55km until you reach Bang Sa and turn left just after the Western Union next to the Post Office. Drive past the signposted road to the Plain of Jars (50 km) on your left hand side, over the bridge and past the small cemetery on the left for about 5 km until you reach the sign to the cave for then turn left. From here the road becomes extremely cracked and uneven. After short drive (about 3 km) through a small village you will arrive at the Tham Piu entrance. Route 5 will also lead you there (signposted on route 7 but after the post office/Western Union) however, the way is not direct and nor signposted after the initial left turn so you will have to ask for directions or make educated guesses. The entrance fee is 5,000 kip. The caretakers are friendly and if they're not busy then they are more than happy to show visitors around the grounds which contain statues, shrines and even a small museum. They will even open up the shrine if it is locked away and conduct prayers if you purchase incense and candles. To reach the caves walk past the shrine/museum and follow the winding concrete steps past the Buddha and aqueduct for about 5 minutes to the mouth of the cave. Small piles of rocks with incense and offerings are there to honour the dead and there is also a simple shrine at the entrance.
The Tham Xang Caves are located in a scenic karst area, the caves were used by the revolutionary fighters. Inside the cave complex they set up a hospital, an arsenal and a medicine depot. Evidence can still be seen. Besides its war history the illuminated residential cave is worth visiting to see its natural beauty. The Hmong community of Ban Ta takes care off the caves and offers a local tour guide service. Directions: The caves are 36km northwest of Phonsavanh. Take Route 7, pass Nong Pet, then in Nam Ka village turn left into a dirt road; follow the signs to Tham Xang until you reach Ban Ta. The drive to Tham Xan is very scenic and possibly one of the best in the area. You’ll drive pass thatched huts, large open fields and into the mountains. The booth to the cave is sporadically manned, as is the toll booth. As of November 2012 the medical depot was left open but the munitions cave was locked.
Scenery & nature
Xieng Khouang is widely known for the Plain of Jars, but beyond its jars the natural beauty of the province is waiting to be discovered. 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 giving it a touch of the “Wild West” with yellow sunflowers and pointsetta in full bloom. Nam Ngum, the largest river in the province originates from the mountains in 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. Visiting the area is very beautiful during peach and orchid tree blossom in February.
Nong Tang Lake. Nong Tang is a large picturesque natural lake flanked by high limestone cliffs. Locals use it for fishing and it is a favourite picnic site. Enjoy the peaceful setting in the local restaurant. Overnight stay is available in a guesthouse along the shore. Nongtang is located 48 km from Phonsavanh on Route 7 going to Phou Khoun.
Hot Springs can be visited in the vicinity of Muang Kham off Route 7. The big hot spring Baw Nyai is 67 km from Phonsavanh, has been developed as a resort with bungalows and indoor bathing facilities. You can walk through the forest to the spring source, but swimming in the pool is not possible. The Jar Site of Ban Nam Hom is just a 2 km walk away. This jar site offers an insight in how the jars were made as part of the jar site is a jar quarry area. Taking a guide to visit the site is recommended.
Tad Ka Waterfall in Nong Het. This impressive waterfall is surrounded by spectacular limestone karst. The water runs down in cascading steps alternating with steep areas for more than 100 metres and flows all year round. To get to the falls follow Route 7 to Nong Het, at Khang Phaniane Village turn left into a graveled road (100 km from Phonsavanh) and drive for about 3 km; take the trail to the left and walk about 30 minutes to get to the waterfall. Taking a guide is recommended.
Tad Ka Waterfall in Tajok. The waterfall is located near Tajok village, 32 km north of Phonsavanh. The water flows over several tiers. A spectacular jungle trail winds its way up the waterfall crossing it several times. Tad Kha is a popular picnic spot for locals, especially during the Lao New Year holidays. To get there turn right at the end of Tajok village; follow the road until you see a building to the right. Walk along the ridge and take the right trail down. Local tour companies offer day tours including a picnic lunch and a hike up the waterfall.
Tad Lang Waterfall. Tad Lang is located near Jar site 3 just 700 metres off the road to Ban Nakang cascading down ca. 800 metres. To enjoy its whole beauty follow the trail down to the bottom of the valley. It is a good picnic spot, but because you must cross a river to reach it, access is difficult in the rainy season.
Thathom. Travelling to Thathom, located 130 km south of Phonsavanh, is still an adventure. Driving mainly on dirt roads you pass thick deciduous forests, stands of bamboo, remote villages and cross rivers several times. Thathom offers a gorgeous karst landscape with plenty of rivers, caves and historical sites, but so far, tourist services are scarce. Song thaews (pick-up trucks) leave Phonsavanh daily, but there are no regular trips in the rainy season. Boat services are available once you reach the Nam Xan River going to Paksan in Bolikhamxay province.
The SOS orphanage in Xieng Khouang was founded 1998 to take care of the many children who lost their parents in accidents related to UXO. Today 145 children live in 12 family houses. The associated kindergarten and primary school are open to local children. You are welcome to visit the centre during office hours Mon - Fri from 8:00-16:00, Check in at the administration building first.
The local fresh food market is an excellent place to sample the variety of unique foods that Xieng Khouang has to offer. The cool climate and high altitude of the province produces many food items and forest products that are not available in other parts of Laos, e.g. mushrooms, peaches, plums and passion fruit. Some people also sell exotic meats, such as living bamboo rats or pheasants. Please remember to support wildlife conservation and do not eat endangered species.
The Navang Craft Centre is famous for woodcarving. This family business produces wood crafts made from scented Long Leng Wood (Fujian Cypress), a rare wood. You can watch the carvers work and buy souvenirs daily from 7:30-20:00.
There is a Hmong Crafts Centre in the city centre offering products made by Hmong. In the same shop is also a Thai massage parlor run by a group of 4 experienced Thais. The boss is training locals in masssage.
There are several War Memorials in Phonsavanh that were constructed to commemorate the thousands of Pathet Lao soldiers who lost their lives during the Indochina Wars and to honour the Vietnamese soldiers who fought alongside them. Climb up the small hills and you will be rewarded with great views of the town and surrounding areas.
The Mulberry Silk Farm of Lao Sericulture Co,  a fair trade company, is dedicated to enabling Lao village silk producers in the Northern provinces to revive the art of high quality local silk production. Villagers are trained in sericulture, the process of raising silkworms, processing and improved weaving techniques and natural dying. Leaves, bark, vines, berries and seeds create colour choices to match virtually any taste. To learn about the whole process you are welcome to visit the farm. A free guided tour which takes about 30 minutes leads you through the production process. Any purchase of souvenirs will help the local communities and enabling them to rise out of poverty. It is located in Ban Li (just west of Phonsavan on Route 7) and is open Mon - Sat 08:00 - 16:00.
At the MAG Office-UXO Visitor Information Centre  in the centre of Phonsavanh (opposite Craters restaurant) the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) informs about the UXO (unexploded ordnance) problematic in the province. MAG began its Lao program in 1994 and started the first internationally supported UXO clearance operation in Xieng Khouang. MAG works to help people to rebuild their lives and alleviates suffering by responding to the needs of conflict affected communities. Local staff has been training to clear away the brush, to use a metal detector and recognize ordnance. Their village assisted clearance approach allows communities to participate in the process. Open Mon - Fri 08:00-20:00 and Sat/Sun 16:00-20:00. Documentaries are screened daily (16:30/17:50-18:30-'Bombies') free of charge. Visiting local UXO clearance sites can also be arranged but only if you have obtained permission from the Veng Vieng office. Visiting the centre is free but donations are appreciated. T-shirts are available for $10.
The UXO Survivor Information Centre is in the main street of Phonsavan, two doors along from MAG. The Centre is operated by the Quality of Life Association (QLA) which is a provincial not for profit organisation that provides support for UXO survivors. They cover the cost of initial and ongoing medical treatment of UXO survivors and manage a range of livelihood training initiatives to help them to have a sustainable livelihood after their accident. A common cause of UXO accidents is digging on the farm, so for many UXO victims, farming is no longer an option. The organisation is also about Lao people helping Lao people; the QLA team and also their Board of Directors are Lao nationals, some of whom are UXO survivors themselves. The Centre has an exhibition with information about the various programs and short stories about some of the people they have helped. The Centre also includes a small shop comprising handicrafts that have been made by UXO survivors and UXO affected communities. The proceeds go to UXO survivors and towards buying more materials for making more products. Well worth a visit. Open all week, Mon & Tues until 4pm, Wed to Sun until 8pm.
Old Cemetery and Lake Jao Supanouvong. This large cemetery is located on a hill 1 km north of Phonsavanh. What makes it unique is that Tai Dam animist tombs are mixed together with Catholic tombstones, Chinese graves and Lao Buddhist reliquary. The hill top offers sweeping views and is an ideal spot for watching the sun set of the green hills. The lake 3km north of town is named in honour of Prince Supanouvong the first president of the Lao PDR. Once the site of the provincial jail, it is now a place for relaxation.
Participate in English classes at Phonsavan school (English Centre, Phonsavan school). English speaking tourists are welcome to participate in English evening classes in the local primary - junior high school. It is a beautiful experience, and you don't have to be a teacher! My friend had seen a sign in the Craters Cafe. The lovely staff transfered us to and from the school, which is not far from the bus terminal.
Nathong Cultural Village from Phonsavan head NW along route 7 (towards the Tham Piu caves) for about 45 km and turn right at blue the sign in Laos/English for about 1 km until the the gravel road forks out. The village itself is nothing special and pretty much the same as any of the others you'll pass, however, the locals are extremely friendly and will burst into laughter when you ask to take their picture!
Muang Nam from Phonsavan head NW along route 7 for about 40 km on the way towards the Tham Piu Cave. There is little of interest here aside from the view from the Kham bridge, the house just past the bridge surrounded with UXO and the friendly locals.
Typical local products from Phonsavanh and the surrounding area are natural dyes and textiles each with individual pattern depending on the ethnic group, basketry, mulberry paper umbrellas from Ban Mixay, spoons made from war scrap from Ban Napia or Hmong embroidery. A special drink is Matsutake Whiskey made from Hed Wai (known in Japan as matsutake), a highly valued mushroom from the pine forests of Xieng Khouang. Finely woven silk scarves and textiles can be purchased from the UXO Survivors Centre, Mulberry Farm and Khom Districts Craft Centre.
Recycled UXO bracelets, bottle openers and the collectible spoons can be purchased for 20,000 kip each from the Khom Districts Crafts Centre far from town. The spoons can easily be bulk purchased cheaply from the local market on the road parallel to route 7 behind Nice guest house. However, should you wish to purchase the spoons, bracelets or bottle openers from the source and therefore directly benefit the villagers who make them you will have to hire a bike and go Ban Napia yourself or hire a private guide.
Phonsavanh has a surprisingly broad offer of food for a provincial town its size. There over 30 restaurants and many Pho soup shops. You can easily find Chinese, Vietnamese and Lao restaurants but also some specials:
Nisha is an Indian restaurant that serves Indian and Lao food for both vegetarians and meat eaters. The interior is unassuming but the food is recommended. Service can be very slow when busy (1-2 hr from ordering to table).
Bamboozle is a popular foreign owned and run restaurant located next to Nisha with an extensive bamboo-designed interior. It caters for Western and Asian tastes - specialities including goat cheese, mulberry-everything sourced from the local silk farm and "the best burger in town." There is live music on some nights. The owner, Mike, is friendly and a good source of local information.
Craters caters to Western tastes with a menu of pizza, burgers. It has a nice interior compared to the other places in town.
Lao Falang is an authentic Italian restaurant located just off the main road in the centre of town. Pizzas, burgers and pasta dishes dominate the menu.
Maly Hotel Lao food in an unusual interior design made using with bombs.
A favourite with visitors is the Vietnamese Simmaly at the corner opposite the MAG visitor centre. Portions are large, and the service is friendly.
A long time favourite with Lao and NGO workers is the Sangha Restaurant. This restaurant serves simple but good food at very reasonable prices. Food is mainly Lao but there are nice steak or chicken and chips. Service can be indifferent.
Vasana Hotel has a good and nice restaurant with a pleasant view.
Auberge de la Plain des Jarres - Phoupadeng Hotel has an excellent French restaurant with cuisine influenced from the Alsace. Recommended but not cheap.
If you are a group of people have some Lao-style hotpot, called Sindard. Best place is Sindard Phompid (also known as Wave Bar in some travel guides) opposite Maly Hotel.
The restaurants are the natural place for a drink. On the main street, Bamboozle! is an ambient spot with a range of beers, wine, cocktails, etc. and live music on some nights. However there are many Lao beer places in town. The One ,opposite Maly Hotel, is located on a small lake. They serve Tiger Beer and have a good menu with fresh fish. There is a similar place on the other side of the lake, directly opposite the hotel. There is a discotheque at Chittavanh Hotel popular with the locals and well, catering to local tastes. The only alternative is a very similar place aptly namedHighway Karaoke, which is at the crossing from the mainstreet to the airport street. Opposite Highway Karaoke is a new place popular with the village youth (and owned by the same family that runs Simmaly restaurant and internet cafe).