Phonsovan is not renowned for being an award winner when it comes to tourism. It’s visited because of it’s quirky ‘plain of jars’ but I found it far more interesting as a place that allowed me to begin to understand just how remarkable the Laos people are. I suppose you could say it was an ‘explosive’ few days.
First things first. Phonsovan was freezing cold. One thousand three hundred meters or so above sea level meant that at night, temperatures dipped into minus numbers. The down jacket was back out, something I did not expect to happen again on this trip. Fortunately the place I stayed at had a bonfire going throughout the day and night. This not only provided warmth but also a great atmosphere, aided by the entertainer himself Mr Kong. By far the most interesting bonfire moment was when he found a very serious side and talked at great length about the ‘Secret War’ that took place in Laos. It was one of many moments of my stay in Phonsovan that made it so fascinating on a historical and political level.
On the journey from Luang Prabang I met Ben and Mel, both teachers in Thailand. The following day we set off with another Ben and Carly on a tour around the local area. The reason to come to Phonsovan was for the ‘plain of jars’ however quickly on the tour I realised that this would not be my main memory of the area.
Time for a few (meaning a lot) contextual facts. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the entire history of warfare. America dropped more bombs on it then it did on Germany and Japan combined during WW2. Every eight minutes, twenty four hours a day for over seven years, the Americans dropped a bomb on Laos. According to the Geneva Peace treaty, Laos was a neutral country. Despite Phonsovan and the surrounding area being so heavily bombed it is nowhere near the Ho Chi Minh trail. America at the time, officially denied that they had ever dropped a bomb on her. Among the twentieth poorest countries in the world, Laos is still desperately suffering. Since the bombings stopped, 13,000 people have died, half of which are children due to the unexploded ordinance (UXO) that litter the landscape. It’s a heart wrenching story and shows no sign of improving with many families relying upon the trade in scrap metal to make a living. Their choices are based around risking their life to make enough money to get by.
After a brief stop at the local market where we selected food amongst, dead wild cats, bats, ferrets and a number of animals that none of us could name, we made our way towards the first site, a bomb crater village. Mr Kong’s uncle and tour driver for the day, drove the truck across the field with no hesitation before stopping and giving us time to look around the craters that are a permanent scar on the landscape. As I got out I asked him if it was safe to walk around as you are advised in Laos to always stick to the path. “No bombies here” he proclaimed. After wondering around the large number of craters we were then grabbed by our tour guide who exclaimed “bombie, come look!” Sure enough marked by a rock, awaiting detonation there sat a cluster bomb. So well camouflaged to the ground and so similar to a ball it is so easy to see how people in-inadvertently end up exploding them.
From there we visited a lovely village whose people couldn’t have been friendlier. It was a fascinating place where they have made practical use of the bombs that have fallen on their country. Whether it be as foundations for houses, bins, plant pots or work tools, their village is a permanent reminder of just how many bombs fell on Laos. After looking around the village we went to a local waterfall. Nice enough, it was the walk back, clambering up other waterfalls and across rivers that made it a great laugh.
Our last stop was the ‘plain of jars’ site one. I think the best explanation was offered by Ben who described it as Laos answer to Stonehenge in the sense that the mystery surrounding it is far more interesting than the actual viewing itself. Despite being the primary tourist site around Phonsovan the area is still riddled with bombs. There is a narrow path that has been formed. The white side means its safe whilst the red side means that there are probably bombs under the surface that have yet to be found. If the tourist attractions have not been fully cleared then it puts it into perspective the risk that the everyday people in Laos are taking when farming or say visiting their local school.
Outside of the tour we watched a number of films which outlined the bombardment of Laos and the wonderful work of the MAG charity. It was very thought provoking stuff.
The final day in Phonsovan was a mixed affair. When we arrived Mr Kong had told us about a local festival happening in a village outside of Phonsovan. He invited us to watch the home made rocket launching part of the festivities. Unfortunately he had got the date wrong and it wasn’t happening until the following day. Instead he invited Ben, Mel and me around to his Uncles house to show us how to build a rocket! So in the morning Ben went to the local market and bought the key ingredient…bat excretion. It resembled foxes mints. We wondered over to the house and were greeted by the extended family. As it turns out the couple of hours we spent there was not as we had hoped in that whilst we were shown how to make gunpowder, mixing sulphur and bat excretion we didn’t build a rocket. Instead we ate food, decorated their stupidly big home made rocket and drank beer with them all following their customs of the pourer has to down it and then everyone else does the same. At ten or so in the morning thats hard going. It was really nice though to see the women as much a part of the drinking comradeship as the men! Cold and with Ben’s sickness not being helped by the partaking in the family customs, we made our excuses and headed back to the guest house. For the rest of the day we sat by the fire attempting to recover from the feezing cold temperatures.
Phonsovan was one of the most thought provoking places I have gone to on this trip. I left it the polar opposite. Vang Vien.