Winding road to Phonsavan – the land of UXO

Phonsovan (aka Xiang Khouang) is off the main tourist route and not many people are willing to spend hours on a bus or a minivan to get there. It is a large (for Laotian standards) city which apart from a huge, bustling market and a few displays of the rockets, bombs and landmines that scarred the region during the Vietnam War has little to offer. It would be a mistake to skip the Phonsavan, though, as the Plain of Jars spreading just outside the city is a unique and fascinating prehistoric site.

The landscape of forests and mountains covered almost entirely with mist

From Luang Prabang to Phonsavan

Minivan or bus?

In order to get to Phonsavan we took a minivan with a pick up service straight from our hotel in Luang Prabang. The price was almost identical to what we’d have to pay for a tuk tuk to the bus station and a public bus. Another plus point is that the minivan stops right at the touristic heart of the town, next to the Phonsovan market while the bus stops at the Xieng Khouang bus station located 4.5 km further.

The beauty and the beast

It was supposed to take just 6 hours to reach Phonsavan as opposed to 8 hours by bus. However, we were expecting it to be a longer journey due to the monsoon season .

A bigger clearing the remaining mud from the landslide on the road from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan in Laos

The views were wonderful but being locked in the A/C van I wasn’t able to take the photos. The minivan was brand new, clean and comfortable. The road less so. The first 50 km of the journey we had to stop many times due to landslides. Luckily, teams with heavy equipment were busy clearing the muddy soil out so we didn’t get delayed.

Fighting the sickness

The beauty of the route came with a heavy price. It was the most winding road I had ever experienced in my life. Soon, I stopped paying attention to the incredible vistas on both sides of the road as I started feeling increasingly sick. I wasn’t the only one. Out of 9 passengers in the van, 4 vomited at least once. That road could be taken only by people with iron stomachs and I clearly wasn’t the one. I felt terrible for long hours until finally it was too much and I filled out a large plastic bag with my breakfast. It made me feel a bit better but not for long.

I was just thinking I was going to puke again when the minivan stopped in the middle of nowhere. It was great to catch some fresh air. The driver urged us to throw all vomit bags out. This time I conceded to littering as smelling the vomit in the air-conditioned car wasn’t helping in controlling the bouts of nausea.

Phonsavan on a budget

We chose a large, no-frills guesthouse located near the Phonsavan market where we paid the standard Lao fare.

It pays off to wake up early to explore the fresh market. I found there without much trouble a vegetarian dish (greens and bamboo) which I had with sticky rice. I paid unbelieveable 4 000 kip for both. We also bought some deep fried sweets and fruit– all for very low prices. At the neighbouring night market one can buy meat skewers but not much more from the ready-made food. The market is probably the most interesting place in Phonsavan. I saw at one stall a nest of wasps full of larvae – Laotian delicacy.

A large nest of giant wasp: a circular shape made of hundreds of hectagonal cells, each one filled with a white, thick grub/.

There are plenty of eateries along the main road but it’s not that easy to find the one with the right balance between the price and quality. We found a Vietnamese place which was very busy and for a good reason. If you are fed up with the Laotian food, it is worth to pay a tiny bit more and dine at the only Indian restaurant, rising out of nowhere in that provincial Laotian city. The food was tasty and authentic.

The scars of the war

MAG Office – UXO Visitor Information Centre

UXO is an abbreviation from Unexploded Ordnance: explosives such as bombs, grenades and land mines that did not explode during the war and are still a threat.  Phonsavan province was the one most affected by American cluster bombs and thousands of bomblets are still scattered all over the region, killing 1-2 people per year and seriously injuring dozens.

A backyard filled with rusty shells of bombs and other weapon from the Vietnam War times

An NGO called Mines Advisory Group (MAG) works on clearing the area since 1994 but it’s a painstakingly slow process. If it’d be done in a current pace, it’d take thousand years.

Documentaries are screened daily at the centre at 16.30, free of charge. This is the best time to visit. The screening is free but the donations for the good cause are welcome.

A square concrete mark with a 'MAG' sign signifying that the area is clear of landmines

The UXO Survivor Information Centre 

The office of the local NGO: Quality of Life Association which provides prosthetic limbs and vocational training to those affected stands nearby the MAG centre. There is a small display with the stories of the survivors and a mini-shop with handicrafts made by the victims. This charity shop is a direct support for the affected.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Phonsavan?
By air
Phonsavan has an airport (Xiang Khouang) but the 2 hours flight from Luang Prabang or Vientiane is not a budget option.

By road
The road leading to Phonsavan from the west (so from Luang Prabang, Vientiane or Vang Vieng) is smooth but full of serpentines. Motion sickness pills highly recommended.

By minivan
Minivans, booked at the guesthouse or at the station and often including the free pickup (very useful considering the bus station in Phonsavan is far away from the touristic centre) connect Phonsavan with Luang Prabang (6h) and Vientiane (6-7h). The minivan station in Phonsavan is located just next to the market.

By bus
Local buses terminate at the bus station (4.5 km from the Phonsavan market). You can get a shared or private tuk-tuk to the bus station from the market area.
The main bus connections are: Luang Prabang (7-8h), Vientiane (8-9h), Vang Vieng (7-8h). VIP buses are more comfortable and more expensive alternative.
If you’re travelling to Sam Neua, prepare for an old and overcrowded minivan. The journey should take min. 10h.
The bus to Vinh in Vietnam (operated by a Vietnamese company) runs a few times a week from the northern terminal though sometimes it just picks people up on the way so it’s worth to arrive early in case it doesn’t turn up.

If you are travelling in the rainy season, add 1-3 hours to any of those journey time estimates.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of September 2018]
100 000 A/C minivan Phonsavan- Luang Prabang (with pick up)
80 000 minivan Phonsovan – Sam Neua
60 000 double en-suite room
60 000 private tuk-tuk to the bus station from the market area
15-20 000 meal at a budget eatery
15 000 shared tuk-tuk to the bus station from the market area
10 000 one pomelo
5 000 motion sickeness medicine

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