Where to begin with Phonsavan - what a fascinating and life changing place. Phonsavan is in Xiangkhouang province in Laos, and it is not somewhere that is on the standard Laos backpacker circuit. My sister Nikki encouraged us to go as she had a friend from Phonsavan and she thought it would be an interesting place to visit. She was definitely right!
Prior to my visit to Xiangkhouang Province - I literally had zero idea about the Vietnam war history in Laos. I knew nothing of the "Secret War" or the aggressive American bombing campaigns in Laos. I had no idea that Laos was bombed every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years. I had no clue that there were more bombs dropped in Laos during the Vietnam war than were dropped on Europe during the entirety of World War 2 (making it the most heavily bombed country in world history). And I CERTAINLY didn't know that up to 80 million of the 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos during the Vietnam were un-detonated - leaving the people of Laos vulnerable to dangerous UXOs (Unexploded Ordances) that have claimed the lives of over 20,000 since the war ended.
Bomb-shell casings and war paraphernalia decorate some of the local Phonsavan businesses like this local restaurant.
The scenery around me was sad, humbling, shocking and also very fascinating. I didn't know that I was walking into an area where you didn't want to stumble upon scrap metal (the fact remains that UXOs are extremely dangerous and could be anywhere in this area). I didn't know that I would see bomb craters littering everything from the historical Plain of Jars, to the hillside, to the local graveyard. It was shocking - and quite frankly, a little overwhelming at times.
A collection of war debris collected behind the local visitor information centre.
After arriving in Phonsavan, we checked into our Guest House and did some research on what there was to check out in the area. The famous Plain of Jars was on the top of our list.
The Plain of Jars is one of the great un-solved ancient mysteries. Thousands of large, stone, ancient urns dot the landscape over multiple "sites"... and no one knows specifically what they are or exactly where they came from. The theories range from pre-historic burial sites (the archeologists conclusion due to the bones found nearby) to giants using the urns to brew their rice wine (locals). Either way - it is certainly fascinating and beautiful to see.
It's too bad that this site was also littered with huge bomb craters and some of these gorgeous and marvelous stone jars were not spared from American bombs. My sisters WONDERFUL friend who was a local to Phonsavan advised us on where we should check out next. Somewhere that will stay with me forever - and somewhere where we were certainly the only foreigners in sight. Tham Pio Cave was next on our list.
On November 24th, 1969 - the Americans initiated a targeted attack on Tham Pio Cave - where 337 civilians (farmers, children, local villagers) were seeking refuge from the constant bombs being littered on their villages. Hearing about the secret war, and seeing the craters and bomb casings was difficult - but hiking through a 9km deep cave where 337 people were senselessly massacred was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. In the dark, our head lamps flickered across dirt, dust, and caught the wings of bats overhead. It was hard to fathom how the locals managed to live in those conditions - that cold, and the bone-chilling darkness. It makes it real how desperate for survival they must have been. We came across broken bowls, and the remnants of baskets that were likely used to carry supplies. It really hits you that the people whose hands ate from that bowl was a real person. A real person who was murdered. This cave is not widely known by foreigners - and not widely visited. It's almost forgotten to the outside world - much like the murders that continuesly happen in our modern war torn countries.
Phonsavan was definitely fascinating and impactful - but it was also outside of my comfort zone as a traveller. I am more used to travelling to well-touristed locations, and being a minority shouldn't have been unsettling - but it was. I would HIGHLY recommend travelling to Phonsavan if you have the opportunity - and I more-so recommend educating yourself on the secret war of Laos as well as the UXO issue happening across the country. Resources below!
I hope this post conveyed just how much this area affected me - and if you visit Laos I seriously suggest making the trek to the remote province of Xiangkhouang - you will not leave the same.
I love you all so much <3