Phonsavan, Laos

We woke nervously to our alarms. Our first bus trip in Laos was awaiting us. We were heading to Phonsavan and had a 8:30am pick up. Our bus was called an express bus whatever that meant. We were nice and early for the bus and arrived with time to grab our seats and some food for the trip, a baguette stuffed full of cheese and salad, yum!

9:30 came and went with many locals ready to organise us. At 9:40 we eventually headed off reversing 500 meters to the petrol pump, oh god this might be a long trip!

Finally we were on our way with the air flowing freely from the air con and the open door. We sat back ready to enjoy the ride.

As we had boarded the bus we had both noticed a group of three French people – 2 guys and a girl – aged around the mid 30s. After one km the girl demanded the door be shut as she was cold. With a roll of the eyes the copilot closed the door only to open it again a minute later to let more passengers onboard. As we drove off the door remained open. Within 10 seconds “princess” and her guards were demanding the door be closed again. When the copilot said “no” they started demanding the drivers name “it is illegal, we will report you to the police” bla bla bla. We sat back chuckling to ourselves. Were these people for real? After another five minutes princess decided she was still cold and spent 10 minutes trying to turn the air con off, with no luck she shoved the curtain into the gap to stop blowing on her!

We both found extreme enjoyment in their discomfort. Their ignorance and the rude way they spoke to the driver and co- driver shocked us. What on earth were they doing in this part of the world if they can’t cope with things that are different to home?

The bus quietly ambled through the hillsides covered in lush forest. We passed many small towns each with their own identity. The bus breaking suddenly on more than one occasion for animals on the road.

After many, many hours driving along the twisty turning roads, with many toilet breaks including a squat in the grass we arrived at the Phonsavan bus station.

Our bus tickets cost us 280,000 kip and the tuktuk was going to be 200,000 kip for the four km into town – Hell no! We walked the short distance into town prompting many strange looks from locals.

After we stretched our legs we arrived at our guesthouse. The power had just been cut as we stood talking to the owner who didn’t have our booking – oh no! but as we had paid for it online and all economy rooms were full we were upgraded to a superior room 🙂 oh yeah!!!

The town of Phonsavan is not much to look at, more of a ghost town. As one review stated all it is missing was some tumbleweed. We set our packs down and headed off to find some dinner.

We spent our first day in Phonsavan exploring – well, once we had walked the length of the Main Street and ducked into the local market we had pretty much done the town. We were then free to enjoy the superior room.

The reason we were in Phonsavan was to visit the Plain Of Jars. To get there we had no choice but to join a tour. We joined our group at 9am just us and a lovely English couple. We hit it off right from the start.

We visited three sites on the Plain Of Jars aptly named site 1, site 2 and site 3, the remains of a Russian tank and a local whiskey maker.

As we approached site 3 our first site our guide directed us to a board. The sign basically said stay between the MAG markers as these areas were cleared of land-mines. Lao was heavily bombed by the US in the Vietnam War and as a result there are still millions of unexploded land-mines littering the country. Even today more than 1 person is killed a day on average from the mines.

After a quiet county walk we came across the site a small area littered with many giant jars carved from sandstone. The jars vary in size but were probably big enough to fit inside…for Sam anyway.

Now here is the interesting part. No one knows who made the jars or for what purpose they were made. What is known is that they are old (over 2,000 years) and were brought to their current location not made there.

There are two stories of what the jars were. The first story the locals believe is that they are whiskey jars. The second is what archeologists believe where the jars were used as urns to put ashes and remains along with some trinkets. Fascinating! The great thing is no one knows.

From site three we were driven along the dusty and bumpy road to the Russian tank, or what remains of it. There is so much war rubbish and the Lao people are so poor that the people use what they can. Most spoons in restaurants are made from war scrap, although unfortunately the people are so poor that if they see an unexploded bomb they have to take the risk of salvaging the metal to make money. Especially seeing as most of the land is unfarmable after the war because of the bombs, and so they have no other means to make money.

We continued on to site two. On arrival our fellow traveller had one of those moments, the “where the hell is my passport” moment. With sympathy we all searched and suggested where it could be. With the help of the guide his passport was located! And we happily headed off to see the site.

Site two was actually two sites about one hundred meters apart. One had amazing vistas of the surrounding country side and the other sat in a grove of trees and had a bomb creator right beside it. I wonder how many sites like this have been destroyed by bombs?

After site two we headed for lunch. A delicious bowl of chicken or pork noodle soup.

The road to site three was riddled with potholes and our driver would have been better with a 4 by 4 than a van. The burnt orange dust kicked up by the vehicles covers everything creating very interesting images.

We stopped briefly at a small village where we were educated in the art of whiskey making by an older lady. They make whiskey from rice, and at 50% proof it gives a real kick. A small five hundred ml bottle will set you back 5,000 or about 75 cents NZ.

Site three gave a chance to stretch our legs. The site was a bit larger and more spread-out and contained a huge jar, taller than Will. One bonus at this site was a large cave in the side of the hill. The cave was used as a shelter in the war, food for thought.

Phonsavan is an interesting place for a day and to see the Plain Of Jars but not really much else. Still, it was great to finally see the “real” Laos after the Dinsneyland-themed-esqu Luang Prabang.

Next up Vientiane.

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