Phonsavan and the surrounding province of Xieng Khuang has a history that is both mysterious and intensely tragic. As the flattest part of mountainous northern Laos in the very strategic position buffering north Vietnam, the rolling green hills of this area were often the scene of interminable conflict. From the start of the 19th century until 1975 armies and destruction swept back and forth across the Plain of Jars. Although an independent principality, the area was ravaged by the Vietnamese and the rampaging Chinese Haw. At the end of the century the Xieng Kuang region accepted Thai and then French protection. Any respite was doomed to be short-lived. When the Indochina wars of independence started to rage, the strategic position of the area covering the "back door" to northern Vietnam (including the scene of French humiliation at Dien Bien Phu) ensured that it would once again be relentlessly in the front line. With the advent of American involvement the province was an integral part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail by which North Vietnamese forces supplied their compadre Viet Cong in the south. By the end of the '60s the Plain of Jars was part of one huge battlefield with American-sponsored Hmong militia battling North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops. Whole villages (including most of the state capital) were simply erased from the map by repeated saturation bombing. You see the rusting metal legacies taking the form of door jams, table legs, and many other practical household functions. Now 35 years since the horrors of the bombing, village life is returning to some semblance of normality and the area represents a vibrant mix of ethnicities.

Phonsavan -- This town isn't winning any prizes for atmosphere or urban planning, but then one doesn't visit for the town itself. It is simply a base from which to explore the mysteries of the surrounding area.

Muang Khoun -- Muang Khoun was called Xieng Khuang and was once the provincial capital. Once capital of a royal kingdom, years of war and pillage compounded by obliteration from the sky meant that the town was all but destroyed. The temple, Wat Phia Wat, is worth a look. The enormous seated Buddha has a bullet hole through its forehead, and sits at the end of a row of towering brick pillars.