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XIENG KHOUANG PROVINCE

xieng_khouang
In the northeast of Laos, lying across a flat high plateau is the province of Xieng-Khouang, most commonly known for the intriguing ‘Plain of Jars’. From the early 19 th century until 1975, central Xieng-Khouang and the plain of jars was a recurring battle zone. It's estimated that more bombs where dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, than in the Second World War. As a result, visitors are advised to stick close to guided trails as unexploded ordinance still litter the plain.
 
The hundreds of giant stone jars, some as large as 3.25 metres high are strewn all over the plateau –carved out of solid hunks of rock from surrounding mountains, no one really knows why they are there. Theories range from the view that they were made to store wine for a huge party to celebrate the conquest of Pakhanh City (Xieng Khouang). Other archeologists believe they were made to store dead human bodies, as was the practice of ancient believers. No one really knows.
 
The hot springs at Meuang Kham district are worth visiting, and Tham Piu cave is a sobering historical site, used as a bomb shelter by the villages during the Vietnam War. The province has a total population of around 200,000. Because of the altitude (average 1200m) in Xieng Khouang, the climate is not too hot in the cool season and not too wet in the rainy season. Consisting of elevated green mountains and luxuriant valleys, the beautiful landscape is somewhat marred by the bomb craters. The war debris and unexploded bombs that are spread across the central and eastern areas of the province are the deadly legacy of the Vietnam War.
WEATHER
The best time to visit Laos and plan your Xieng Khouang travel is during the cool season, from November to February. Tourists visiting during these months should remember to carry some warm clothes. Xieng Khouang is a highland plain and while the weather is pleasantly cool most of the time, the nights tend to get quite chilly towards the end of the year.
 
In a way, Xieng Khouang is blessed with ideal climate; it is not too hot or humid in the hot season and not too wet during the rainy season. This might come as a surprise, but until 1994, travellers could only visit Xieng Khouang on a one-day package tour. However, the province is now open to individual travellers. Three of the region's highest mountains are located in Xieng Khouang. The rains start in June and end in October; July and August witness the maximum amount of rainfall.
 
Overall, Laos has a tropical monsoon climate; the pronounced rainy season is from May to October. The best time to visit Laos, then, would be between March and May when the hot season commences and temperatures tend to touch the 30s. However, visits during the cooler months of December and January, when temperatures fall as low as 15 degrees C allow guests to enjoy the lush greenery along the Mekong delta and all over Xieng Khouang. If you decide to visit during the more popular months, make sure to book your Xieng Khuang hotels in advance.
HOW TO GET THERE ?
By Air
Phonsavan Airport (also called Xieng Khouang Airport) is located just 4 kilometres west of Phonsavan. Laos Airlines operates flights to and from Vientiane five times a week and Luang Prabang twice a week. However, the schedules change depending on the season.
 
By Bus
Buses ply daily between Phonsavan and Vientiane via Vang Vieng (9 hours), and also to Luang Prabang (8 hours). Route 7 begins 150 kilometres (or 93 miles) north of Vientiane and the ridge-top scenery is marvellous. The main bus station of Phonsavan is on Route 7, which is 4 kilometres west of the town. Many buses, however, still pass by the old bus station located near the dry market in Phonsavan.
 
Getting to Vietnam
Buses also go all the way through to Vinh in Vietnam, an 11 hour journey, departing Phonsavan at 6.30am on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.
 
By Road
The best and most direct road from Luang Prabang to Xieng Khouang Province is Route 13 south to Muang Phou Khoun and then Route 7 east. A scenic, although long-winded and convoluted, route is via Nong Khiaw. From here, you can travel to Phonsavan via Vieng Thong on Route 1 or Nam Nouan.
 
Getting around Phonsavan
Tuk tuk's are the most popular way of getting around Phonsavan.
 
By Public Bus
Xieng Khouang travel is pretty easy, There are public buses and sǎwngthǎew to Muang Kham (two hours, four daily), Muang Sui (one hour, three daily) and Nong Haet (four hours, four daily). As your Phonsavan hotel or guesthouse for more information.
 
Getting to the Plain of Jars
Plain of Jars Site 1, Thong Hai Hin, is located around a 30 minute drive from Phonsavan. You can get there by Public Bus (head to Lat Khai, US$1, 30 minutes, one daily), or tuk tuk. Although probably the best way of exploring the area is on one of the locally led Plain of Jars tours.
WHAT TO SEE ?
Xieng Khouhang consists of six districts Muang Khoune, Muang Phonsavanh, Muang Nong Hai, Muang Kham, Muang Mork, and Muang Phou Koud. Situated in the southernmost remote provinces of Laos, the area was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where troops, supplies and artillery were smuggled out of northern Vietnam and through the mountains on the eastern edge of the country, and subsequently into southern Vietnam.While the vast majority of people reading this will be aware of the Vietnam War fought between 1963 to 1974, fewer know that a large part of the war was fought in Laos, giving the country the dubious title of being ‘the most bombed country in the world’.
 
During the space of eleven years, the equivalent of one bomb was dropped every eight minutes. In total, two million tonnes of ordinance was dropped on Laos, more than on Germany and Japan combined during the Second World War. As a result the vast majority of sights within the province are dedicated to paying respects to the great tragedy that was inflicted on the area and its people.
 
The Plain Of Jars
The most distinctive and enigmatic of all of Laos attractions are the Plain Jars. Steeped in mystery, the large area extending around Phonosavan from the southwest to the northeast is littered with stone jars some as tall as 3. 25 m, how and why they got there is the subject of speculation by both locals and archeologists, although nothing has been set in stone - the general consensus is one of bewilderment. The jars are thought to be over 2,000 years old, but again this is just speculation and with no organic materials around them it is difficult to tell. Some of the locals believe the jars were built to store rice wine, when in the 6th century the Lao-Thai hero - Khun Jeaum defeated Chao Angka. Regardless of the story, this archeological area is an imperative piece of land in the studying of prehistoric Southeast Asia. With over 50 sites ranging from a single jar to groups of 400. A tour guide will advise on the most attractive sights and the safest routes to access them. The biggest and easiest to access of all the six sites is southwest of Phonsavan and features 250 jars that weigh between 600 kg to one tonne each. A former visit from the Thai Crown Prince resulted in two Pavilions and restrooms being built, the site also houses a little Laos-style restaurant.
 
War Memorials
South of Phonosavan are two major war memorials set 1 km apart on separate hill tops. Both are set in the style of traditional Laos stupas (each containing the bones of the dead) although one is representative of the Vietnamese and the other the Laos lives lost. Inscribed on the Lao monument is the slogan ‘The nation remembers your sacrifice’, erected in 1998 a nearby slab of granite has the names of all the soldiers lost inscribed on its surface. The Vietnamese war memorial has the inscription ‘Lao-Vietnamese solidarity and generosity forever’. Both memorials enjoy sprawling views of the countryside and are especially attractive at sunset.
 
Muang Khoun
Located 30 km southeast of Phonsavan. This town was once the Royal Capital and the centre of the Phuan Kingdom. Some might describe it as a shadow of its former self and they would be quite accurate in doing so. A few French colonial buildings still remain in the town centre alongside Watt Is Phum- home to a sitting Buddha. On the outskirts the ancient stupas tower over the city and the vistas surrounding the structures are well worth the hike. A few kilometers beyond the old capital, near the village of Ban Phai, lies a jar site; the jars are located just off an old dirt road and, unlike the jars at the three main sites, strangely enough they're built from granite.
 
Muang Khan Cemetery 
Unique and worth a visit just for the unusual site of mixing together Thai Dam animist tombs, Catholic headstones and Laos (Buddhist) tombs, situated east of Phonosavan.
 
That Foun (Old Xieng Khuang- Muang Khoun)
This Buddhist stupa is also known as That Chomsi. It measures about 30 metres and was built in 1576. The Lanna inspired structure stands tall over the town and can be entered by a cavity left by the Chinese Ho marauders, over a century ago after they looted the stupa in order to seize valuable Buddha images enshrined within. The stupa was erected to cover ashes of Lord Buddha that were brought from India, during a time when Buddhism was proliferating in Laos. There are few if any sleeping options within this area so it is advised to take a day trip from the more populated Phonosavan.
 
Muang Sui
Used by the Americans as a landing site for planes during the Second Indochina War, much like neighboring Muang Khoun the town has endured a gradual rebuilding process since its obliteration during the war, and is now part of the Muang Phu Kut district. Once a quaint town housing antique Buddhist temples and provincial architecture, visitors can still bear witness to some of the temple remains, in particular War Ban Phong where monks still reside.
 
Tham Pa 
These two limestone caves hid hundreds of small Buddha figures from the Haw invasion a few centuries ago. Dimly lit with the help of the rigged electrical lights (switched on by the locals for a small donation) making the passageways that link one cave to another accessible. The caves persist deep into the hill side and are pretty amazing.
 
Baw Noi (little spring)
Feeds into a stream just a few hundred meters off Route 7, a couple of kilometers before Baw Nyai on the way from Meuang Kham. At the entrance to the stream where locals peddle their weaving and other locally made handicrafts, a few heavily eroded stone jars can be visited.
 
Tham Piu Cave
Tham Piu is another Indochina Wawr related site, where in 1969 a single rocket fired from a Royalist aircraft caused the death of hundreds of people who had taken refuge in the cave. Apart from its historical significance it is still worth making the trip to Tham Piu to see the beautiful scenery and traditional villages in the vicinity. Not so far from the main cave lies another jar site. This jar site can be reached from the village of Ban Ngam Hom after a 45 minute hike into the beautiful forest; local guides can bring you to the site for a fee.
 
That Chomphet
Built in the same period as That Foun and located nearby, That Chomphet was created to evoke Buddhist values, inspiring truth and clarity. At the core of Buddhism is the belief that only merit-making (i.e. doing good deeds, maintaining morality and respect) will bring happiness, progress and prosperity. That Chomphet was almost completely destroyed in 1966 during the war.
SHOPPING
Next to the bus station in the centre of town is the Dry Goods Market selling various selections of silver, silk and handicrafts, much of which has been turned out by the Hmong tribe. Other interesting items include grass raincoats and bamboo-and-oil papered umbrellas. Noi Xok Khai sells the usual locally produced goods such as jewellery, textiles, woodcarvings and ornaments, to be found for a more than reasonable price at this charming little handicrafts shop, situated by the Maly Hotel. To get your hands on some exotic fruit and vegetables, behind the Post Office is the Fresh Market where Chinese pear and wild matsutake mushrooms are readily available.
 

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