It took us all day to travel from Savannakhet to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It was a fairly uneventful journey, except when we were startled by loud crowing – we hadn’t realised there were chickens on board! Having set off at 7.30 am, we arrived in Vientiane at 5.50 pm, thinking we would soon be in our hotel. Wrong!
We quickly found seats in a large tuk-tuk, but the driver was keen to fill it before setting off. We ended up with eight passengers, and a load of luggage on the roof. The bus station is some way out of the city, and when we were about half way to the centre, there was a loud bang and the tuk-tuk lurched violently – we had a flat tyre. The driver did not have a spare, and we spent some minutes waiting at the side of the road before another suitable tuk-tuk came along. This one was smaller, so we had quite a struggle getting everybody and everything on board. Then we had a ‘magical mystery tour’, dropping off other passengers, so it was well past 7 when we finally reached our hotel.
Next morning we set off to see the main places of interest highlighted in our guidebook. First, the presidential palace (though he didn’t invite us in) and a couple of temples which now function as museums.
Then we walked up an avenue supposedly modelled on the Champs Elysees, to the Patouxia (modelled on the Arc de Triomphe, with Laotian additions).
Next (some way out of the town) was the That Louang stupa. This is the most important religious building in Laos, and looks impressive, especially from a distance (close up, you can see that it’s in need of some TLC).
By about 2.30, we’d finished our planned sightseeing tour. Later that afternoon, we strolled along the riverfront, and in the evening we ate at a restaurant by an attractive fountain. But there was nothing to keep us in Vientiane, so the next day we set off on yet another long bus journey.
Into the hills
So far in Laos we had been in the lowlands, near the Mekong River. Now our route northwards took us away from the river and into the mountainous north. As we climbed up, the scenery grew more impressive and the road more exciting. Eventually we turned off the main north road and drove across the Xiangkhoang Plateau to our destination, Phonsavan, the centre for exploring the Plain of Jars. As we climbed up to the plateau the temperature began to drop, and when we arrived we found it considerably cooler – we had to wear sweaters in the evening for the first time since Sa Pa!
Bombs, Spoons and Jars
The Plain of Jars has two main claims to fame. It was very heavily bombed by the USA during the Vietnam War, and it is home to enigmatic collections of giant stone jars, whose origins and purpose remain a mystery to this day. We did a one-day tour to see some of these.
We visited the ‘Spoon Village’ where the local people melt down the aluminium from US bombs and make them into spoons and other objects. This helps the local economy, and according to our guide, the bombing now helps the national economy as well, since the Lao sell vast amounts of scrap metal to the Vietnamese!
We also visited the previous capital of the region, badly damaged by war in the 70s. We saw a battered Buddha, serenely sitting in the ruins of his temple, as well as an ancient stupa, battered more by age than warfare.
But the main focus of our tour was the weird and cryptic stone jars. We saw them at three different sites, scattered across the landscape, some intact and some broken. The most recent theory is that they were funerary urns, carved on a distant mountain and brought there by elephant – but in fact no-one really knows much about them at all.
The jar sites also display bomb craters from the war, and were only fairly recently cleared of unexploded ordinance by international teams. So we were able to appreciate them without running the risk of being blown to bits!