With so many destinations in the WHL Group’s ever-expanding network, we have an incredible wealth of local travel information at our fingertips. Through the Inside Word, our local partners – all travel experts – share their top tips on what to do, what to eat, where to party and where to shop in their neck of the woods. This month, we’re in the loop with Andreas Hofmann in Xieng Khouang, Laos.
The Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, Laos, is probably the most important Iron Age site in Southeast Asia and has been nominated for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When first chiselled into shape, the Jars, believed to be the world’s biggest mortuary vessels, would have been white- or cream-coloured and sparkled in the sun. They must have been stunning.
Today, over 2,000 years later, some upright and some tipped over, they come in various shades of grey and speckle the green hills in the summer wet season, parched brown in the winter dry season, all on the Xieng Khouang plateau. Now, seven groups of Jars are open to visitors.
Of course, the Jars are still stunning and also awe-inspiring, especially after having survived centuries of war and neglect, most recently during the Indochina Wars (“Secret War”) in the 1960s and 1970s. (The violence of those times transformed the landscape of Xieng Khouang with countless craters and even inspired the Xieng Khouang–style War Architecture that uses bombs as building material for houses.) Not much is known about the hidden stories of the Plain of Jars and a trip to this remote region in Northern Laos will certainly inspire your thinking about history, war and the limits of human knowledge.
The most obvious day trip advice is to get out of Phonsavan Town and explore the Plain of Jars. Book a Phonsavan tour with a local travel agent or just rent a motorbike or pushbike to admire the Plain of Jars Site 1 (big), Site 2 (beautiful) and Site 3 (surrounded by rice fields). Afterward, visit the War Spoon Village of Napia and the villager-owned souvenir shop to learn about how they are converting bombs into spoons and bracelets.
To get further afield, hire a local guide (it’s best to pre-arrange this) for the three-hour easy hike from the Phuan village of Napia to the Hmong village of Namkha, where a rural electrification programme has made the light bulb a new development. After that, continue to the old Phuan Capital of Muang Khoun, which once rivalled Luang Prabang in splendour until countless foreign invasions and then heavy bombings damaged much of the town’s tangible heritage. Do the two-hour history trek to get a better idea about the role of the small but pivotal Phuan kingdom. Alternately, a small hike to the Tai Dam weaving village of Naxay takes you across picturesque rice fields.
If you have more time on your hands, go for the two-day trek (book online, individual tours are not possible) to the original Hmong mountain village of Ban Phakeo. On the way back, visit the Hmong village of Ban Tajok, famous for its Xieng Khouang War Architecture that uses parts of bombs as construction material for houses.
When shopping in Xieng Khouang, keep in mind that the best souvenirs are hand-made, like the silk Phuan textiles that are famous in Southeast Asia for their intricate weaving technique and fascinating stories. Visit the award-winning Mulberry Farm to learn about silk production and weaving, and buy some of their high-quality products that are sold as far away as Paris and Tokyo.
The Secret War left a legacy of UXOs (unexploded ordnance) that still threaten the local population. Check out the UXO Survivor Information Centre run by World Education Laos for souvenirs produced by UXO Survivors. Do a day trip to Ban Napia and check out the village souvenir shop to buy bracelets and spoons made by villagers from (controlled) aluminium war scrap.
For a rural area like Xieng Khoang, restaurants and local cuisine exceed expectations. For good local food in Phonsavan Town, try Sangha or the Simmaly Restaurant, the later having the largest portions in town.
You can also find international fare at Nisha’s Indian restaurant. Also worth a try is the Lima Site restaurant at the old airport (Golden Mountain Resort).
There are many Lao-style ‘hot-pot places around – just look for the word Sindaard. The best one is maybe Sao Phuuan near Phonsavan Market, but you will need a tuk-tuk to get there.
For the best finds, don’t stay on the dusty main road! Get some fruit and beer, and then check out the magical sunrises and sunsets from the hills around Phonsavan. Or take a stroll at the local market and examine the various kinds of mushrooms: mastake mushrooms are a variety that is valued by many Japanese visitors as much as truffles. More adventurous treats are fermented swallows or porcupine, which locals praise for the sour meat.
For something with colonial-alpine chateau flair and open fireplaces hidden in a private tropical pine forest, try the French restaurant and bar L’Auberge de la Plaine du Jarre, also known as Phu Bhadeng, which is run by Lao-French manager Sanya. After two or three cocktails, he can tell more than one obscure story about the Plain of Jars.
Watch the movies about the Secret War at Sousath Travel, and the documentary at the MAG exhibition. The UXO Survivor Information Centre has a reading and video room as well.
The Plain of Jars Site 2 café at the old airport has typical local music, mainly Thai folk songs. Anyone feeling really adventurous can join the town youth and sing karaoke Thai music at the local disco called Chittavanh.