About Xieng Khouang
The Xieng Khouang Province is located in the north of Laos. It may not be the most obvious province to include in a Laos itinerary, when other destinations like Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng catch all the attention. And it’s too bad because this province is home to fascinating archaeology, but also terrible scars from the war.
As far as I am concerned, I found the Xieng Khouang Province to be largely underrated, and my time spent in this province was much more touching and profound than I had expected. For once, it’s not a region you visit for its mind-blowing landscapes, amazing waterfalls, stunning caves or anything like this. You go there for a trip in History.
Visiting the Xieng Khouang Province might not be as straightforward as in other regions of Laos. As you will see further down this page, the province has suffered from intense bombings 50 years ago and large areas are still littered with land mines.
It is probably possible to visit on your own provided you strictly stay on main roads, but I would advise using tours provided by hotels and guesthouses in Phonsavan. That’s what I did and it was totally fine. It was a very small group and we were given plenty of time to explore.
At an altitude of 1,100 to 1,200 m / 3,600-3,900 ft, the Xieng Khouang Province has a coller climate than other regions of Laos. The best season to visit it is from October to March.
How To Get To Phonsavan & The Xieng Khouang Province
It is quite easy to reach Phonsavan by bus, that you can get directly at the bus terminal or you can ask your hotel/guesthouse to help you. From Vientiane, the bus ride takes around 10 hours, and about 8 hours from Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng. The road crosses mountains and is very snaky, but the landscape is great. You can see a very detailed recap of all buses on Lonely Planet.
It is also possible to fly to Xieng Khouang from Vientiane – that’s a 30-minute flight. You can search flights on Lao Airlines.
Things To See Around Phonsavan
Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is a really mysterious and surprising archaeological site. Well, when I say “a site”, it’s actually close to 90 jar sites that have been recorded across Xieng Khouang! However, the province being littered with unexploded ordnance, only Sites 1, 2 and 3 are currently open to visitors and have been cleared properly in 2004-2005.
The Plain of Jars dates back from the Iron Age, roughly from 500 BCE to 500 CE, and it is believed that these jars were funerary monuments.
GPS (parking area): Site 1: 19°25’48.99″N, 103° 9’19.44″E | Site 2: 19°19’14.03″N, 103° 9’10.72″E
Entrance fee: Site 1: 15,000 kip | Site 2: 10,000 kip
Duration of visit: Around 45 mins for each site (Site 1 is bigger)
During my stay in Phonsavan, I have visited the Site 1 and the Site 2. The Site 1 is much bigger, and features a large, really beautiful stone jar that is probably one of the most beautiful jars in all sites. In this first site, you get to wander in a grassy field surrounded by dozens of stone jars. There is also a hill you can climb for a nice view over the region.
The Site 2 is much smaller but no less interesting. When you arrive from the parking area, you will find yourself contemplating the surrounding countryside from an elevated viewpoint. Some jars are already present, but the nicest part is when you walk into the forest. There, you discover beautiful stone jars under some majestic trees, sometimes half caught in their roots.
The Plain of Jars has also greatly suffered from the war, many jars were damaged, split in half , or totally destroyed by the bombs. Luckily, there are still plenty of intact stone jars left for you to discover. I haven’t been to the Site 3 but it seems just as appreciated by visitors as Sites 1 and 2.
Now keep reading to learn more about the terrible war.
VIRTUAL TOURS – Plain of Jars
Visit the most beautiful sites of the Plain of Jars: Site 1 (6 panoramas) and Site 2 (3 panoramas).
The virtual tours open in a lightbox. Use your mouse to move around the 360° panoramas.
TRAVEL MAP – Plain of Jars
Visualize on the map the precise locations of panoramas in the virtual tours and places of interest to help you prepare your trip to the Plain of Jars.
The map opens in a lightbox. Zoom in to explore!
Bomb Craters: The Scars From a Rain of Bombs
Laos was the most heavily bombed country on the planet. During the Secret War in the 60’s and 70’s, the United States and its allies were fighting the spread of communism. An estimated total of 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on the country.
The Xieng Khouang Province was one of the most bombed regions in Laos, and decades later, the landscape still shows open scars of this terrible History. In the north of the the town of Phonsavan, huge craters dot the countryside. You can move around the map below, you will see a real constellation of bomb craters all over the countryside.
GPS: 19°34’42.17″N, 103°19’12.56″E
Duration of visit: 15-20 mins
It is difficult to imagine that this peaceful field was hit by such extreme violence only a few decades ago. And when you see the size and the number of craters, how close they are from each other, you realize that it’s a true rain of bombs that has fallen here. Terrifying thought.
Here are some scary numbers:
- 580,000 bombing missions
- A B-52 bomber’s load of bombs dropped on Laos every 8 minutes, 24/7, for 9 years
- This equals to 270 million cluster bombs, or 2 million tons of bombs
- Up to 80 million of these bombs did not detonate, and are still mutilating and killing people, today.
Most of us have heared of wars from TV or books, it feels tragic but a little abstract. When you are standing there in this countryside, with all these huge holes all around you, knowing that each of them is the result of a powerful explosion, suddenly it all feels very real and tangible.
It seems that these bomb craters will mark this landscape forever.
Nowadays, the province is still struggling with all the unexploded ordnance contaminating the land, complicating (and risking) the lives of the farmers, and greatly penalizing economic development, because contaminated land is simply unusable.
VIRTUAL TOUR – Bomb Craters
Walk in the countryside amoung impressive bomb craters from the Secret War (4 panoramas).
The virtual tour opens in a lightbox. Use your mouse to move around the 360° panoramas.
The “Bomb Village”: From Killing Devices to Construction Material
In the countryside of Phonsavan, the inhabitants of a Hmong village nicknamed the “Bomb Village” have decided that they should get something positive from their terrible History. The heavy bombings that occured in the 1960’s and 1970’s still has an very big impact on the lives of those who live there today.
Address: Route 7, 30 km / 19 miles north east of Phonsavan
GPS: 19°33’31.49″N, 103°25’0.31″E
Duration of visit: 20-30 mins
The bombs used were cluster bombs. Cluster bombs are made of a shell that opens in mid air, releasing hundreds of “bomblets” that get scattered around the countryside. The mined land becomes unusable.
Farmers risk their life at every step and kids play with the bomblets they find and get killed, because they often look like toys or even oranges.
Nowadays, great efforts have been made to remove most of the unexploded ordnance (UXO), but many areas remain dangerous. In the village we are visiting today, the inhabitants still come across some UXO from time to time, as well as the “shells” of the bombs.
The pragmatic people of this village found in these bomb remains the perfect way to make their buildings stronger! Wooden stilts end up rotting rapidly, whereas metal bombs remain strong. Most of the houses and buildings of this village are built on bomb stilts. I even saw half a bomb used as a pot to grow onions (third panorama in the virtual tour below)!
The “Bomb Village” is commonly visited from Phonsavan and should be part of your plans as you tour the Xieng Khouang region, as you learn more about this dark page of History.
VIRTUAL TOUR – “Bomb Village”
Walk around the “Bomb Village” and see how the bomb shells were used for construction and daily life (7 panoramas).
The virtual tour opens in a lightbox. Use your mouse to move around the 360° panoramas.
Tham Piu Cave: The Memorial For A Tragedy
The Tham Piu Cave is lost in the Laotian countryside, a little less than 5 km / 3 mi from the village of Muang Kham. During the Secret War, it was common for locals to find shelter in various caves in the region. The Tham Piu Cave was even home to a small school and a small hospital.
On 24 November 1969, 374 farmers from surrounding villages were seeking shelter in this cave to escape bombings in the region. An American plane fired one missile into the cave, taking all 374 innocent lives. The place is now a memorial, and the villagers were also burried in the cave.
Access is made through a long set of stairs, well worth the effort.
Address: Route 6, 45 km / 28 miles north east of Phonsavan
GPS: 19°40’28.91″N, 103°34’6.96″E
Where To Stay in Phonsavan
I have stayed at the Nice Guesthouse in the eastern part of the city, just across the road from the bus terminal. It’s cheap and good for a few days. But you can take a look at the map below to see all options:
There you have it – The best things to do in Xieng Khouang, around the city of Phonsavan. This is not meant to be an ultimate guide listing each and every possible place to see. I wanted here to focus on a few sites that I find particularly meaningful to visit if you travel in the region.
I hope this article was valuable to you, that you learned a thing or two about this part of Laos, and that it inspired you to go and visit it!