While the Plain of Jars is the main attraction, there is plenty of other things to do and see in Phonsavan. On our next day there, we started out early for the drive to the Muang Kham Hot Springs. This trip was not a part of our original plan but after we had begun our planning, the airport in Pakse was closed for remodeling and it would have taken a full day to get there overland so we decided to drop Pakse from our plan. One of the changes in our reworked schedule gave us an another day to Phonsavan. When we were considering what to do with that extra day, we had read several descriptions of the Hot Springs and it sounded interesting to us. Plus it would take us close to some other places (most notably a weaving village) that we wanted to visit. So we drove the 25 miles to the Hot Springs and had a look around. To put it as nicely as I can, it was a bit disappointing. The springs are fenced off and the vegetation has overgrown the area within the fence so it’s really kind of hard to even see the springs, much less venture into them. The whole scene is just not conducive to get the most out of this natural feature.
But not to worry, we were close to the aforementioned weaving village, populated by the Tai Dam people originally from Vietnam. We parked the van next to the village co-operative and walked inside the open air room to see 8-10 large looms. Two ladies were weaving and we stopped to admire their work.
As we walked outside, fires were burning under some large tubs of colored waters and there were piles of wood chips, tree barks and dried flowers all around. Two ladies were preparing large rolls of silk thread to go into the water and they explained the wood, bark and flowers were natural dyes that they use. We watched as they dunked and then hung the silk. We were watching some other ladies in the yard stringing up and stretching silk thread when a young calf that had escaped its pen came running through the yard.
Although they didn’t speak English all of the ladies were very friendly and eager to show us what they were doing. One taller lady offered (via interpretation by our guide) to help my wife tie her hair up in a traditional Tai Dam turban. Once done my wife asked if she would stand with her for a picture. My wife wrapped her arm around the lady’s waist and the picture was taken but when she walked back over to me she whispered “When I grabbed her, I realized that was not a lady”. Nobody really seemed to care.
From there we drove through some gorgeous countryside on the way to a memorial at the Tham Piu Cave, a spot that local villagers would seek refuge during the bombing runs of the U.S. military. Tragically a large bomb made a direct hit on the cave and a large number of people died there, some still buried under rock. I’ve seen references of anywhere from 374 to 473 fatalities suffered in the hit. Visitors are encouraged to go inside the cave, where the photo below was taken. There is also a small museum at the site.
There are still literally many tons of unexploded ordinance that was dropped in Lao in general and in this area in particular that makes farming and wandering off the beaten track dangerous. You can learn more about “the secret war” and the continuing efforts to remove these bombs with a visit to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) during your stay in Phonsavan.
Another casualty of the American/Vietnam War was Muang Khoun City the old capital of the Muang Khoun Province. Large parts of the city were destroyed including most of the 16th century built Wat Pia Wat. (I have also seen this temple referred to as Wat Si Phum and can’t figure out the difference.) The only things left of the old temple are a few damaged brick columns and a large seated Buddha. Because the Buddha survived the bombings, it holds special protective meaning to the local worshipers. Also nearby the temple are two large stupas that have been covered with growing vegetation.
Click here for a video that includes our drive to Phonsavan, a visit to the Plain of Jars, the silk weaving co-operative out in the countryside and other highlights of our visit to Phonsavan.