After an amazing few days in sleepy Luang Prabang in Laos, we decided to head to Phonsavan on our way towards our boarder crossing in central Vietnam. Phonsavan is famous for the mysterious Plane of Jars, a series of huge limestone jars whose origins, age and makers are still unknown.
Internal flights in Laos are prohibitively expensive, which meant that had to book tickets for an 8 hours bus ride between the two towns. We waited in the lobby of our hotel at 9am, until an 8 seater SUV arrived to pick us up. We then drove around picking up passengers to other hotels until we had twelve passengers and their backpacks crammed into this space. The boot was so full that as we rounded the corner into the bus station, it burst open, spilling backpacks out onto the dirty road behind it.
As it happened, the actual bus we would be taking adopted a one person, one seat rule, which is kind of rare for Asia. I remember the busses we took across Sumatra, in Indonesia, where they crammed so many people in to the bus that you could hardly move. It reminds me of the joke I heard from someone along my travels – Q: How many people can you fit on an Asian Bus? A: One more.”
Whilst Email and I waited for our bus to depart, we got chatting to the other passengers who were all fellow backpackers. This group was made up of a slightly older German couple, a younger Dutch guy travelling on his own and an english couple around the same age as us. The journey was an epic 8 hours of constant twists, sharp corners and great conversation. It turned out that most of our group was booked into the same guest house, Keo Kong’s guesthouse. Typically for us, we had no accommodation booked and were just planning to wing it when it arrived. As our new tribe seemed to be gelling so well, we decided to book a room in this place too. This turned out to be a great decision.
The guesthouse is run by the eccentric Mr Kong. With half an unexploded bomb as a bonfire in the middle of his guesthouse, this place was special. As it gets very cold in Phonsavan at night, his guests gather around this fire, drink cheap local beer and listen to Mr Kong’s stories. He is incredibly knowledgable about the plane of jars, Laos’ history and his own interpretation of Buddhist stories. I won’t ruin these for you, but it is safe to say that you will not find his stories in any guidebook. His bar is self service, and you keep track of your own tab. This truly is a guesthouse like no other.
Near the guesthouse there is an amazing Indian restaurant near to the hostel. I highly recommend this place if you are in the area. Head down to the main street and head left. Its about 50m down the road. We ate here on both night we were in Phonsavan. The owner is lovely and his 2 year old son is adorable.
The next day, we all rented mopeds and went to explore the mysterious plane of jars. These jars stretch across three sites and take about 45 mins to drive to, through stunning scenery and along a pretty decent road, which is also rare for Laos. The plane of jars were amazing. The first site also contains a museum was interesting, and detailed the little that is known about the history of the plane of jars and highlighting those items that had been recovered during the exploration of the site by various research teams. In this day and age it is so rare to come across a question to which we do not have an answer. The who, how and why of these jars remains largely a mystery.
Whilst out and about, we also saw several bomb disposal units, searching for an marking Unexploded ordnance or UXOs. Laos has an estimated 8,000,000 unexploded bombs, bomblets or other explosives, relics of the Indochina war, or the Vietnam War was as it is known to us. The sheer scale of the American bombing of Laos is mind boggling. Following a tip from Mr Kong, we returned to this site at 3pm and were able to watch. from a safe distance, as the UXOs team blew up the bombs they had found that day. From our position on a nearby hill, we heard a number of huge explosions and saw plumes of smoke rising into the sky.
The UXO’s that they had found in this location were located no more than 20m from the road. We also heard several other explosions from other UXO teams in the surrounding area. It is estimated that as many as 25% of villages in Laos remain contaminated by UXO’s. Through education programmes and raised awareness, casualty rates from UXO’s have dropped in recent years, but many people, mostly children continue to be killed by them each year. You can read more about this on the website of COPE, a NGO which works with UXO survivors to provide prosthetic limbs. You can read about them here. They do truly amazing work.
But Phonsavan was not finished yet. As part of my trip, I have set up the blog, Gyms of the World, detailing the weird and wonderful gyms that I have found across south east Asia. Following the advice of Mr Kong, I head out to find the local bowling alley which I was promised contained the only gym in the area, As it turns out, this was right and turned out to be one of the strangest gym experiences that I have had on my travels. It looked like this.
You can read the full article about this crazy gym on my blog Gyms of the World.