Phonsavan is the 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 in the center of the Plain of Jars and has a pleasant climate all year around, although it can become chilly on winter nights due to its elevation of 1,100 m. The long winding main street of Phonsavan 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 wooden houses where ranching is the primary occupation. You will see more than one Hmong cowboy with brown and violet cowboy hats. During Hmong New Year there are bullfights in Phonsavan.
The best-known tourist attraction is the nearby UNESCO world heritage site Plain of Jars. The main economic activities in Phonsavan are governmental administration, mining (by Australian and Chinese companies), tourism, and the work of NGOs clearing unexploded ordnance (UXO).
Phonsavan is home to various ethnic groups, such as the Phuan, whose ancestors once founded the kingdom of the same name; the Hmong, whose New Year's celebrations in Xieng Khouang are famous throughout Laos; the Khmu, and the Tai Dam. There is also a minority of Laotian Chinese and Vietnamese, as well as some international workers and missionaries from Korea and Western countries. Typical local products are natural dyes and textiles, each with an individual pattern depending on the ethnic group, basketry, mulberry paper umbrellas, spoons made from war scrap or embroidery.
For general information visit the Provincial Tourism Department near the market, Thalat Nam Ngum, on the road to the airport.
- 1 Xiang Khouang Airport (XKH IATA). Has 4 flights per week from Vientiane. Lao Airlines offers six flights a week in peak season and four flights in low season. Coming from Vinh or Hanoi in Vietnam, visas are available on arrival at the Nam Ka border, which is open daily 06:00-18:00. The bus from Vinh leaves four days a week and takes 12 hours, from Hanoi there is one bus per week.
If you are traveling from Vientiane you can take VIP buses or local buses. The buses leave from the northern bus terminal and take 10-12 hours. The roads are paved but there are plenty of bends. The bus trip from Vang Vieng takes 7-8 hours. Buses run daily from Luang Prabang via Route 13 and Route 7 and take 8 hours 95,000 kip, Mar 2020). Shared minivan options to the most popular destinations, Luang Prabang (120,000 kip, Mar 2020), Vang Vieng and Vientiane, are offered by travel agencies.
There were two buses running daily from Vinh in Vietnam, going from the main bus station at 06:00 (no reservations necessary) (2011). Vinh can be reached easily by train from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
To get to other towns in the province you can take local buses or pick-up trucks. A normal tour inside the town costs about 10,000 kip. There are 9 travel agents in Phonsavan that arrange bike, motorbike and car rentals. A bike costs (depending on quality) from 20,000 kip per day. You can rent scooters for about 100,000 kip. Renting a minivan costs about USD50-80, but a four-wheel drive costs over USD100. This includes or excludes fuel, depending on the company. All prices vary depending on season and availability.
You can visit the site with a certified guide or on your own.
During the Second Indochina War, Xieng Khouang was the scene of extensive ground battles and intense aerial bombardment due to its perceived strategic importance. The provinces of Houaphan and Xieng Khouang had been the stronghold of Pathet Lao forces and their Vietnamese allies. The heavy aerial carpet bombardments to neutralize those forces or to drop off unused ordnance after returning from missions in Vietnam turned the Plain of Jars quite literally into the Plain of Scars and the most heavily bombarded area worldwide. 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 unexploded bomb casings, tanks, and defensive positions. The resourceful locals refashion war scrap into items for everyday use, e.g., spoons in Ban Napia village, planters, fences, tools, pumps and barbecues.
- Baan Khai (36 km NE of Phonsavan; from Phonsavan, drive NE to Nong Phet, then turn left and proceed ~7 km; the turn is in a market area; tf in doubt, show the locals the name of the village written in Lao script (ບ້ານ ຄາຍ), and they will direct you to the turn). The extent of the bombardment is in particular evident at Baan Khai. Here, 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 Phonsavan), you can discover lots of bomb casings reused as barn pillars, fences and for other uses.
- Baan Tajok (on Rte 7 NE of Phonsavan. Drive to Nong Phet, then 2 km further to Baan Tajok; once in the village, turn right on 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.
- Pho Kod War Memorial (20 km SW of Phonsavan on Rte 7).
- War Memorials. 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.
- UXO Visitor Centre (In the centre of Phonsavan (opposite Craters Restaurant)). Daily, 10:00–20:00. The Mines Advisory Group ([MAG) clears unexploded ordnance. MAG began its Lao programme in 1994 and started the first internationally supported UXO clearance operation in Xiangkhouang. 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.
Caves of refuge
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 (6 km N of Muang Kham; take Rte 5 towards Nam Nguen and turn left 3 km from Muang Kham; the paved road ends at the cave). One of the tragedies of the Secret War, on 24 Nov 1969 a single rocket fired from an aircraft caused the death of an estimated 374 people who had taken refuge in the cave. Their bones are still buried in the rubble.
- Tham Xang Caves (36 km NW of Phonsavan; take Rte 7, pass Nong Pet; in Nam Ka village turn left onto a dirt road; follow the signs to Tham Xang until you reach Ban Ta). 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 medical 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 of the caves and offers a local tour service.
Xieng Khouang is widely known for the Plain of Jars, but beyond its jars is the natural beauty of the province. 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, punctuated with yellow sunflowers and poinsettia in full bloom. Nam Ngum, the largest river in the province, originates in the highlands of 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. The area is particularly beautiful during peach and orchid tree blossoming in Feb.
- Hot Springs (67 km from Phonsavan, in the vicinity of Muang Kham off Rte 7). The big hot spring, Baw Nyai, 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 a 2-km walk away. This jar site offers an insight into how the jars were made as part of the site is a quarry. Taking a guide to visit the site is recommended.
- Nong Tang Lake (48 km from Phonsavan on Rte 7 going to Phou Khoun). Nong Tang is a large picturesque natural lake flanked by high limestone cliffs. Locals use it for fishing and it is a popular picnic site. Enjoy the peaceful setting in the local restaurant. Overnight stay is available in a guesthouse along the shore.
- Old Cemetery and Lake Jao Supanouvong (on a hill, 3 km N of Phonsavan). It's unique in that Tai Dam animist tombs are mixed with Catholic tombstones, Chinese graves, and Lao Buddhist reliquary. The hilltop offers sweeping views and is an ideal spot for watching the sunset over the green hills. The lake, 3 km north of town, is named for Prince Supanouvong, the first president of the Lao PDR. Once the site of the provincial jail, it is now a place of repose.
- Tad Ka Waterfall (Nong Het) (Follow Rte 7 to Nong Het. At Khang Phaniane turn left into a gravelled road (100 km from Phonsavan) and drive for about 3 km; take the trail to the left and walk about 30 min to get to the waterfall). This impressive waterfall is surrounded by spectacular limestone karst. The water runs down in cascading steps alternating with steep areas for more than 100 m. It flows all year round. To get to the falls a guide is recommended.
- Tad Ka Waterfall (Tajok) (near Tajok village, 32 km N of Phonsavan; 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-hand trail down). The water flows down several tiers. A spectacular jungle trail winds its way up the waterfall crossing it several times. A popular picnic spot for locals, especially during the Lao New Year holidays. Local tour companies offer day tours including a picnic lunch and a hike up the waterfall.
- Tad Lang Waterfall (near Jar Site 3, 700 m off the road to Ban Nakang). Tad Lang cascades down about 800 m. To enjoy its 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 (130 km S of Phonsavan). Travelling to Thathom 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 tourist services are scarce. Songthaews leave Phonsavan 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.
- Badminton. For those in need of exercise or simply interested in taking part in one of Lao people's favourite modern sports, the Xiangkhouang Mai Hotel has badminton courts open to the public. Rackets are available for rent on the premises. Players are required to bring their own sporting attire.
- Help Teach English. 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 rewarding experience, and you don't have to be a teacher.
- SOS Orphanage (Xieng Khouang). M-F, 08:00-16:00. Founded in 1998 to take care of the many children who lost their parents in UXO accidents. 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. Check in at the administration building first.
- UXO Survivor Information Centre. Run by the Xiengkhouang Quality of Life Association (QLA), a Lao NGO that is supported by international foundations and donations from visitors. There is an exhibit about how people deal with a life with "bombs". The QLA helps people to recreate their livelihoods after they have been injured by a bomb accident. The centre's staff are UXO survivors themselves and can be approached to explain about the life of UXO victims. Donations and shopping in the gift shop are highly welcome. The centre is associated with the ministry of health and rehabilitation.
- UXO Visitor Information Centre (MAG) (in the centre of Phonsavan, next to MAG, opposite Craters Restaurant). M-F 08:00-20:00; Sa-Su, 16:00-20:00. The Mines Advisory Group deals with UXO (unexploded ordnance). MAG began its Lao programme 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. The UXO survivors Information Centre was opened by the World Education organisation. The centre has a gift shop with products made by UXO survivors. Free, although donations are welcomed. For a USD10 donation you'll receive a t-shirt.
Typical local products from Phonsavan and the surrounding area include natural dyes and textiles decorated with patterns unique to each ethnic group, mulberry paper parasols, spoons made from war scrap and Hmong embroidery. In the villages the basket making is still of great importance. Basket work is traditionally performed by men. The typical Hmong shoulder baskets, which are used to carry food and goods are made from bamboo, another material used is rattan. A special drink is Mastake whisky made from hed wai, a highly valued mushroom from the pine forests of Xiangkhouang.
- Fresh Food Market. An excellent place to sample the variety of unique foods that Xiengkhouang has to offer. The cool climate and high altitude of the province produces many food items and forest products that are unavailable in other parts of Laos, e.g., mushrooms, peaches, plums and passion fruit. Some people also sell exotic meats, such as live bamboo rats or pheasants. A special drink is matsutake whisky made from Hed Wai, a highly valued mushroom from the pine forests of Xieng Khouang.
- Hmong Crafts Centre. In the city centre offering products made by Hmong. In the same shop is also a Thai massage parlour run by a group of four experienced Thais. The boss trains locals in the art of massage.
- The Mulberry Silk Farm (In Ban Li, W of Phonsavan on Rte 7). M-Sa, 08:00-16:00. 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 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 colours to appeal to virtually any taste. A free guided tour leads you through the production process. The purchase of souvenirs helps the local communities and enabling them to rise out of poverty.
- . Daily, 07:30-20:00. Famous for woodcarving. This family business produces crafts made from scented long leng wood (Fujian cypress), a rare wood. You can watch the carvers work and buy souvenirs.
With a cool climate and relatively high elevation, Xiengkhouang produces many food items and forest products that are either not available or in scarce supply in other parts of the country. Specialty fruits of the province (seasonally available dependent on species) are Chinese pears (mak jong), passion fruit (mak nawt), peaches (mak kai), and plums (mak mun). Many different varieties of mushrooms are found here, such as hed deep, a yellow, flower-like mushroom common to the area. hed wai specific to the region, is exported at high prices (US$30–40/kg) to connoisseurs throughout the world. Another notable medicinal forest product unique to the province is ya hua, a root used to give strength and good appetite and for treating ailments experienced by women after giving birth. Xiangkhouang's local chili pastes are the jaeow bong, a sour version of the famous chili paste from Luang Prabang, and jaeow pa khem, a paste made from salted fish. One of the unusual foods that Xiengkhouang is famous for, available only here, is "sour swallow" (nok ann toong). Every year, beginning in August–September, migratory swallows, traveling from Russia and other northern areas, visit Xiengkhouang to bathe on dust platforms located on hill tops. The swallows are caught and placed in a container to ferment. Later they are prepared by either frying or cooking in a stew. The birds are best eaten whole—without the feathers of course.
Phonsavan has a surprisingly broad offering of food for a provincial town its size. There are about 32 proper restaurants and many pho (noodle) soup shops. You can easily find Chinese, Vietnamese and Lao restaurants, but here are some special places:
- Craters. Caters to Western tastes with a menu of pizza, burgers (only so-so) and other favourites. It does have a nice interior design compared to the other places in town.
- Nirvana (On a side street off the main road, at the edge of the old airstrip in the centre of town). Bamboo-style bar and restaurant that offers both Lao and Western food.
- Nisha. Restaurant serving Indian and Lao food, for vegetarians and meat eaters. The interior is very unassuming but the food is recommended. Service can be very slow when busy (1-2 hours from ordering to table).
- Plain of Jars Coffee (next to the ATM). Reportedly the first, and only, coffee shop in the town
- Sangha Restaurant. A long-time favorite with Lao and NGO workers. This restaurant serves simple, but good food at very reasonable prices. Food is mainly Lao but serves steaks or chicken and chips. Service can be indifferent.
- Simmaly (Corner opposite MAG visitor centre). A Vietnamese restaurant that is a favourite with visitors. Portions are huge with friendly service.
- Sindard Phompid (Wave Bar) (Opposite Maly Hotel). If you are with a group, have some Lao-style hotpot, called sindard. Good place to eat.
- Vasana Hotel. A good restaurant with a pleasant view.
- Chittavanh Hotel Discothèque. Popular with the locals, catering to local tastes.
- Highway Karaoke (at the crossing from the main street to the airport street).
- The One (opposite Maly Hotel). On a small lake. They serve Tiger beer and have a good menu with fresh fish.
- Kong Keo Guesthouse, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. No Internet/Wi-Fi, Plains of Jar tours between 130,000-150,000 kip. Restaurant closed in rainy season. 50,000 kip.
- Nice Guesthouse (on the main strip), ☏ . The name says it all. Popular with backpackers. English-speaking staff. Rooms have fan-only option, no air-con. Wi-Fi. 70,000-100,000 kip.
- Sabaidee Guesthouse (Off the main road, near the fresh market), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Double or twin rooms with bath. Breakfast and tourist services available. From 50,000 kip.
- Samphan Douang Paekob Guesthouse, ☏ .
- Say Pha Souk Guesthouse, ☏ .
- Sengdavan Guesthouse, ☏ .
- Vanraloun Guesthouse (Doubles as Jars Cafe) (on the main road, across the street and a few doors down from the MAG office). Basic rooms with decent bed, 50,000-60,000 kip for a single, bath en suite. No Wi-Fi. Eager-to-please staff, though his English is not the best. Free bottle of water given daily. No windows in the room, the sound of motorbikes will serenade you until after 24:00. The fan (loud) helps. 50,000 kip.
- Banna Plain of Jars House (next to BCEL Bank), ☏ . Typical Xieng Khouang war decor. USD15 maximum.
- Maly Hotel (South part of town), ☏ . Very good restaurant. The better rooms are much nicer than the basement rooms. Idiosyncratic UXO and local ethnic-themed decor. The owners are very knowledgeable about recent history. 150,000-400,000 kip.
- White Orchid Guesthouse (on the main road), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Popular place. Organises tours. Decent rooms. 60,000+ kip, no breakfast.
- Xieng Khuang May Hotel (a bit off the main street behind Xieng Khouang Hotel), ☏ . Used to be the best in town, but is still popular for weddings. Decent rooms. US$10.
- Anoulak Khen Lao Hotel, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Bright, clean and ample-sized rooms. Breakfast included. Only hotel in the province with a lift. 200,000 kip.
- Chittavanh Hotel, ☏ , . Bright, medium and large sized rooms. Fast Wi-Fi in room. The nightclub in the backyard is popular with students and young people in town. USD15+ (120,000+ kip).
- Duangkeomany Hotel, ☏ . Modern hotel with clean rooms and Internet. USD30.
- The Hillside Residence (on the road to Vansana Hotel), ☏ , , ✉ email@example.com. Nice colonial-style wooden villa offers charming rooms with a relaxed atmosphere. Enjoy the balconies if you rent a room upstairs and the upper sitting terrace. From USD25.
- Phouphadeng Hotel with Auberge de la Plaine de Jarres Restaurant / (on a hill on the outskirts of town), ☏ . Wonderful view. Professionally managed. Excellent French restaurant with Alsatian-influenced cuisine which is in its own league. Highly recommended, but not cheap. USD60.
- Phouxang Hotel, ☏ . Hilltop hotel.
- Vansana Plain of Jars, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Professionally-managed hotel with sister hotels in Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Modern, clean and spacious rooms. From USD50.
- Xieng Khuang Hotel (on the main road), ☏ . Free Wi-Fi. Big rooms. Functionalist, and somewhat austere, Vietnamese architecture. USD24-30, single 150,000 kip including breakfast..
Motorcycle accidents are not uncommon due to poor brakes and equipment. When renting a motorcycle in town ensure the fundamentals, such as brakes, are in good working order.
Happy Motorcycles are reported to offer some level of insurance.
Warning - Phonsavan is one of the most heavily bombed places in history. There is unexploded ordnance (UXO) everywhere. On average, 60 persons die each year due to UXOs. Use caution when wandering, and always stay on paths.
There are plenty of Internet cafes on the main street which are fast enough for Skype. There is a DHL drop-off point at the main market and a Lao post office. Nisha Restaurant, and sometimes the post office, sells postcards, which are difficult to get in Phonsavan.
- Luang Prabang. Bus at 07:30, 90,000 kip, air-con
- Plain of Jars
- Vang Vieng. Bus at 07:30, 95,000 kip, air-con
- Vieng Xai
- Vientiane. Bus 95,000-130,000 kip at 07:00, 08:00, 10:30, 16:30, 18:40, 20:00. hours can be changed, most notably the 07:00 and 08:00 can be merged into one 09:00 bus. 20:00 is the VIP bus. All have air-con. Two different bus stations, the trip from the southern bus station passing Pakxan takes 8 hours, from the northern bus station passing Vang Vieng takes 10 hours.
- Vinh. 06:30, 150,000 kip, air-con