The bus from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan takes eight hours, and once you're there there's not a whole lot to look at; a scattering of guesthouses and a few restaurants. The reason to go there is that it’s close to the home of the plain of jars.
As far as names go, you have to hand it to Phonsavan for not messing around. The plain of jars is exactly that: a wide area scattered with large earth jars, some of them thousands of years old. The sites – there are sixty of them – are incredible monuments. Some of the jars are five feet high; easily enough to accommodate a full-grown man and, for thousands of years, they sat undisturbed, an archaeological marvel.
Phonsavan is also remarkable for the fact that during the Vietnam war, it was bombed with such enthusiasm that Laos became the most heavily-bombed country in the history of war.
The statistics and comparisons for the scale of the bombing are out of this world. Did you know, for instance, that the bombs dropped on Laos were the equivalent of one ton per person? Or that the severity of the bombing was equal to one planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years?
The destruction was – and is – stunning. Bombs fell everywhere, obliterating villages, rice-fields and, in the case of the plain of jars, thousands’ of years worth of historical monument. The fields are still pocked with huge craters.
Thirty per cent of the bombs dropped failed to explode. Thirty per cent of the equivalent of one ton per person for every person in the country. That’s a lot of unexploded ordinance, or in local parlance, UXO. Then, the bombs just sit there until someone sets them off, either in a controlled explosion, or by simply heaving them out of the way. Scrap metal is valuable in Laos, and the result is hospitals full of amputations and deaths every year as a result of people finding promising-looking chunks of iron which explode when moved.
Of sixty jar sites in Laos, three are officially safe to visit. The rest still have bombs sitting on them, or buried just under the surface. Organisations (such as MAG) spend their time searching the countryside for bombs and detonating them – while we were on the plain of jars we heard several being exploded, booms rolling across the hills.