Tour Phonsavanh Town, spend a day on the Southern Jar Route, or explore an ancient kingdom in Historic Khoun. You can experience culture and wartime history on the Northern Heritage Trail, and uncover Western Secrets.
Around Phonsavanh Town
Phonsavanh, Xieng Khouang’s provincial seat, is planted at the crossroads of routes leading to all its attractions. A collection of accommodation dominates the main road near the Kasikam Market, but the spread-out town’s sites require a rented bicycle or motorized transportation.
Start at the Tourist Information Centre with piles of defused bombs and rusty machine guns at its entrance. Inside, informational displays explain the province’s natural products, points of interest, and war-torn past.
The Mines Action Group’s (MAG) Visitor Information Centre presents an in-depth history into the intense US bombing campaign. You’ll find statistics on the UXOs (Unexploded Ordinances) that continue to injure locals, and diagrams of how cluster bombs work. The display explains MAG’s role and techniques in clearing bombs. A documentary video depicts the world events that led to the province becoming a wartime Ground Zero.
The SOS Children’s Village provides education, room, board and basic services for some 145 orphaned children. You can visit SOS Xieng Khouang’s 12 “family homes”, each with a village mom. SOS educates children from its Children’s Village, and offers primary and secondary education at its well-equipped school.
Watch the entire silk cycle from worms to woven goods at Mulberries at its silk farm. They work with more than 200 village families who specialize in producing naturally-dyed, handmade silk. Staff walk you through the silk process from growing mulberry saplings, feeding worms, reeling silk, dyeing threads, and finally weaving the cloth. The farm also produces herbal green and red teas. Their gift shop sells finished products.
The Southern Jar Route
Jar junkies can find relief just south of Phonsavanh at Ban Na-0, a Tai Phuan and Khmu village, and the start of the 500-metre trail to Jar Site 1. Foxholes, bomb craters, MAG in action, and a Pathet Lao cave along the way testify to a time when the site served as a battlefield.
The path leads to 300-plus prehistoric jars scattered in a 25-hectare field. A person can easily fit into the giant stone vessels, and with no raw material in sight, you’ll wonder how they got there. The answer sits west of Phonsavanh at the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry.
Next comes Jar Sites 2 and 3 at the base of a forested mountain. Short, easy treks lead to both with a waterfall thrown into mix. A 500-metre path climbs past bomb craters to a pair of shady knolls displaying 93 jars at Jar Site 2. The western hill holds a carved stone disk.
Continue to Tad Lang Waterfall and the Ban Nakang Visitor Centre. A 700-metre trail along the Nam Xan River reaches piles of boulders and a misty descent to the falls.
Access to Jar Site 3 comes at Ban Xieng Di Nakho. A path passes the village’s small Buddhist temple to the entrance. A pleasant walk leads to the hilltop site’s 150-some jars and scenic views of the rice paddies and the plains below.
End the day’s tour at Ban Napia, where Tai Phuan villagers forge spoons from war scrap. Watch as they melt material in a ladle placed in a wood-fired rock oven, pour the molten metal into a wooden mould, and presto, a spoon.
Khoun Town holds a unique niche in Lao history. In the 13th century, the Tai Phuan created the small Muang Phuan kingdom, with its capital in Khoun. The city went from a trade hub to Buddhist arts centre and Lane Xang Kingdom principality. The Siamese pushed into Muang Phuan, making it a vassal state in the late 18th century. Then the French arrived and regained control for Laos.
This circuit starts with a 35-km drive from Phonsavanh to Khoun Town. On the outskirts, a segment of a rock-and-concrete French colonial wall begins trimming the road. Stop and examine its open brick archway that exposes tiered paddy fields.
Further along, an easy trail leads to Vat Phiawat’s sizeable sitting Buddha that survived the bombing relatively intact. However, the air raids reduced the 16th-century temple to a few brick columns and a portion of a wall.
In Khoun Town, bombings completely destroyed the sacred Vat Si Phom, though locals recently rebuilt it. Documents state that the temple, originally constructed in 1390 by a Luang Prabang craftsman, was the most exquisite in the Lane Xang Kingdom.
Close by, a once-majestic staircase leads to the shell of a French colonial hospital with the remnants of a portico and surrounding ornamental balustrades. You can also explore a few first-storey rooms.
Just north of town, That Foun Stupa – dating to 1576 – rises intact on a hilltop. The stupa is said to cover Buddha’s ashes brought from India. A tunnel through the base presents the inner construction of precisely placed bricks.
Nearby, the 500-plus-year-old That Chompeth continues holding its ground on a shrubby hill. However, the diamond that once sat at its peak is gone, possibly pilfered by Haw invaders during an 1874 raid.
Cap your tour in Khoun with a Tai Dam village visit at Ban Naxi. A cluster of traditional houses, most on stilts, greets visitors. Inspect the village’s architectural highlight, a sizeable two-story structure on stilts with thatched roofing draped over its walls.
Though many villagers spend the day farming rice and vegetables, women are weaving silk on looms. Learn the entire process, from spinning threads and dyeing to churning out 90 cm of fine fabric a day.
Northern Heritage Circuit
Xieng Khouang’s Northern Heritage Circuit strings together tourism pearls around Kham District. Historic wartime caves and craters, hot springs, a jar site, Tai Dam weaving communities, a waterfall, and war scrap architecture are all inside a 25-km radius of Kham Town and within 70 km of Phonsavanh.
The sombre first stop, the Tham Piu Cave area, memorializes a 24 November 1968, US bombing raid that killed 374 innocent villagers. The Visitor Centre displays photographs and stories from the wartime years.
A concrete aqueduct on posts criss-crosses the stairs climbing past a golden Buddha, grave markers, and bomb craters to the cave. Outside the entrance stands a statue of a man carrying the body of a lifeless child. The walkway then cuts over a series of narrow concrete channels that feed mountain water to diversion dams that irrigate village fields.
Just down the road, Ban Xang brings on a fairy-tale feel with its peculiar bridges crossing flower-lined brooks, ducks waddling around, and smiling women weaving and embroidering intricate patterns into silk sins (traditional skirts).
A 3-km trail in the Tai Phuan section of the village crosses the Nam Mak River on a bamboo bridge to the Khmu end of town and leads to the Baw Noi (Small Hot Springs) welcome centre. The springs are finger-burning hot, though the reservoirs pour into the river, perfect for washing clothes and taking a warm bath.
A further 13 km east, Baw Yai (Big Hot Springs) is being developed into a bungalow resort, with indoor bathing and a golf course. You can reach the springs after a short walk in the woods, and the Ban Nam Hom Jar Site is a further 2 km down the trail.
Taste the Tai Dam lifestyle at Ban Xieng Kio. Stop first at the Tai Dam Cultural Hall. A village guide will lead you through the small museum’s displays and explain their way of life. A replication of a traditional Tai Dam bedroom leads off the tour.
The Hall exhibits wooden farming implements, gadgetry for transforming raw silk and cotton into dyed threads, a collection of basketry, fish traps and stools. You can tour the village and meet the women as they work their looms, and venture to their vegetable gardens.
A short drive leads to Xang Tham Cave, a cone-shaped peak with a great view of the karst landscape, terraced rice fields, and valleys. During the Indochina War, Pathet Lao soldiers changed the cave complex into a hospital, pharmaceutical warehouse, and arms depot. Peek inside with a Hmong guide.
For those with time and energy, embark on the two-day Ban Phakeo Trek that reaches a concealed jar site, waterfall, and architecture employing war scrap. The village’s guide takes you to the Ban Phakeo Jar Site’s four groups of some 400 jars and rare jar lids – stone discs with animal carvings. You reach Ban Phakeo for a night in the Hmong village lodge.
The second day begins with a four-hour trek to Thad Kah Waterfall and a jungle trail to the top. You can also swim in one of Thad Kah’s pools. The trail returns to Ban Ta Jok, where you can inspect how the Hmong villagers use bomb shells as vegetable planters, house and barn pillars, and fence posts.
On Route 7 between Phonsavanh and Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang’s western leg of Laos’ “Northern Heritage Route” opens the door to a secret wartime tunnel, jars, and ancient Buddhist sites in Nong Tang Town on a quiet lake near caves.
Rather than take a full day to drive between the two provincial centres, plan on spending the night in Nong Tang Lake. From here, you can inspect a 14th-century Buddhist temple in ancient Muang Sui Town, explore an underground labyrinth with Buddha images and a cave with a stupa, or simply relax with a beer at a lakeside noodle shop.
The stopover will also earn you extra time to turn north from Phou Koud Town and drive to Ban Songhak to investigate a rarely visited jar site. Closer to Phonsavanh, the Secret Tunnel, used by Pathet Lao troops, cuts through the summit of the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site.
Day-trippers from Phonsavanh can squeeze the full itinerary in a sunup-sundown tour. However, locals recommend taking your time to inspect the attractions, stop along the way to meet the people, and enjoy the local food and hospitality. Then check into the Nong Tang Lake guesthouse in the late afternoon and chill out before hitting the caves the next morning and an unrushed ride back to Phonsavanh.