By Bernie Rosenbloom
I stood in a junkyard of rusty, defused bombs dropped from the sky decades before. It occupied a corner of the Xieng Khouang Visitor Information Center parking lot.
I had researched the province and its fields still littered with volatile bombies leftover from the Indochina War. Tino, my guide, knew I wasn’t another Plain of Jars customer. He was grateful. His 15-minute rap for the wannabe UNESCO site had grown weary. And really, how long can you ponder a field of ancient jars?
My calendar boxed out three days to uncover what Xieng Khouang offered beyond the Plain of Jars. The visitor center’s posters pointed to the remains of a 16th-century civilization, handicraft villages, Indochina war memories, hot springs, waterfalls, and caves. Sounded like standard Lao fare, but you never know.
Tino bubbled at the chance to show off his backyard. He viewed Xieng Khouang like a bicycle wheel. The hub, Phonsavanh, sends out half-to-one-day tour spokes with treks and homestays.
The first spoke ran 8 km from Phonsavanh to Jar Site 1. A designated Cultural Village and welcome center with a noodle shop and souvenir stand greeted us. We headed out on the 800-meter path to the 330-plus jars spread over 25 hectares. I struggled to keep my cynicism at bay. These giant ancient jugs were a big deal. But I wasn’t here to drool on them.
Bricks lined the trail, demarcating the safe walkway cleared by the Mines Action Group (MAG). I feigned dashing off the path, claiming that nature called. Tino was not amused. Neither was I when a distant, muffled boom ended the joke, while confirming a vigilant MAG.
Then the stone jars appeared, scattered in a grassy field. Some stood upright and reached two meters in height. Others had fallen on their sides, with one providing a shady cocoon for a napping local. A few served as trash bins. But I admit, a random field filled with Stone Age urns is pretty cool.
Tino dutifully recited the ancient burial site explanation for the jars. It seemed archeologists tended to tie Stone Age mysteries to cemeteries. I preferred my cousin Maxine’s theory of a prehistoric race of giants. These casks were drinking vessels for the greatest keg party of all time. Tino assured me this hypothesis would not hold up under peer review, but he liked it too.
We returned to our truck and continued 25 km south to mountainside Ban Naxi, a Tai Dam village. The government also coined it a Cultural Village, a label that seemed somewhat superfluous in Laos. Women were weaving silk. An elderly lady with betel-stained teeth was crocheting an aquarium-size fishing net. A couple of kids were picking vegetables and fruit.
Tino was aware I’d visited scores of ethnic Lao villages, but he had a job to do. We left Naxi and ventured on a dirt road missing from the map. The compass pointed to Khoun Town, the ancient Phuan Kingdom’s center for Buddhist art some 700 years before.
The short cut to Khoun skirted a 50-meter-long French colonial stone barricade. Its central brick archway opened to tiered rice fields. A trail, where the road peaks, led to the brick-and-mortar rubble of bombed out Vat Phiavat. Surprisingly, its distinguished and sizeable Buddha survived the pummel.
That Foun, built of brick in 1372 on a hilltop, also escaped the bombing and is scathed only by the years. Unfortunately, Vat Si Phom, the town’s prized 14th-century possession, was leveled, but locals rebuilt it. The French colonial hospital also took a major hit, but its grand staircase still leads to a few remaining rooms.
Tino knew his turf well, and called for a shortcut to Spoon Village. The rough back road meandered to Ban Nakho and Jar Site 2. From a distance, we glanced at the tightly clustered stone vessels shaded by trees, but then pressed on.
We breezed past an abandoned Soviet-era tank, discarded like trash on the curb. I tried calculating its souvenir value, but we had reached Ban Napia and Spoon Village. The smell of a fire drew us to an older woman squatting next to a bed of hot coals and a bucket filled with small pieces of metal scrap.
We huddled around her personal fabrication plant, gawking as if looking under the hood of a new car. She was tapping a stone on a wooden mold held together by orange rope. Then she began gently prying at the untied form, and slowly separated its halves as if performing a magic trick. The mold opened like a book, and she displayed a perfect spoon resting in a bed of white powder. Presto.
Where did the idea come from to do this? I asked.
This war junk is everywhere, she said, pointing to a shack with shrapnel gathered from the fields. We wanted to do something with it.
But why spoons? Why not forks or knives?
The market didn’t have any spoons. Now lots of noodle shops use them. Dinner that night proved her right. The homemade spoons filled utensil baskets. Even ashtrays crafted from defused bombies decorated the tables. The proprietor said they weren’t for sale.
The next morning, we left Phonsavanh for the 10-km drive to Kham District. The smooth, paved road wound up and down hills, until we reached Ban Xieng Kio. This Tai Dam village boasted a new cultural hall, which was locked. Tino searched for the key holder, who confessed annual visitor numbers teetered around 100.
We entered the two-story mini-museum and gift shop. A mockup Tai Dam bedroom presented this ethnic group’s distinct sleeping arrangements a row of mattresses. An exhibit of old farming tools and weaving gizmos stood astride basketry and woven goods for sale. I politely rated the center, kinda cool.
However, the next stop erased all signs of sarcasm. Piu Cave had sheltered hundreds of locals seeking refuge from frequent bombing raids during the American War. It served them well until 24 November 1968, when a missile found their hillside home.
The cave area cast a holocaust shadow, dimmed deeper by Remembrance Monument, the statue of a man carrying a child’s lifeless body. At its base, a sign read, It’s time to move on, but don’t forget the past.
Grave markings and bomb craters accented the atrocity. This gloomy mood was eerily lifted by an intricate network of concrete irrigation channels, dams, and an overhead aqueduct winding around a golden Buddha.
On the trip back to Kham, we stopped at the Baw Noi Hot Springs. Despite the You can boil an egg in it, cliché, I shrugged off the warning and dipped in a finger. Bad move, which explains why locals bathe and wash clothes where the dammed-up hot spring spills into the much cooler Nam Mut River.
We really needed another day to explore Kham District. The larger Baw Nyai Hot Springs and resort area, Crater Village, and the two-day Phakeo Trek beckoned, but so did the ticking clock.
We did pause at Ban Tajok, a Hmong village and trekking springboard to the Thad Kha Waterfall trek and overnight stay in Ban Phakeo’s lodge. Then we rumbled over a dirt road to Tham Xang, where we met a locked gate after a 400-meter walk to the war hospital cave.
The final day took us to the newly opened Secret Tunnel at the summit of the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site. While huffing and puffing up the 1,000-plus stairs, I met a fellow baby boomer on his descent. Is it worth the heart attack? I asked.
You’ve made it this far, he said. The peak featured a narrow tunnel chiseled through its rock roof. Tino pointed out that the strategic hilltop passage provided a veiled view of two separate valleys. Great for watching the enemy, who were clueless they were on center stage.
In Xieng Khouang, the jars still attract the spotlight. But it’s nice to know loads of sideshows dot the landscape once the shine of the main attraction becomes dull.