Plain of Jars -- Scattered over a large area in the middle of Xieng Khuang province, there are 160 individual jar sites on the Plain of Jars as a whole. The jars themselves are curious, huge limestone containers. In total there are about 4,000 of these mysterious objects. It is still unclear what their purpose was, but the most likely accepted explanation is that they are funerary urns. This theory is supported by the more recent discovery of underground burial chambers. Some traces of human bodies have been found in the jars, while it is likely that the vessels themselves contained treasure. This has long ago been looted by the various rampaging invaders who have swept back and forth across these rolling hills. The jars appear in a number of different shapes, sizes, and positions; many lying prone on their side were most likely tipped over by avaricious looters.
Three of the biggest clusters of jars have been designated as officially recognized tourist sites, and an effort has been made to clear them of explosives. The whole area is still littered with the brutal confetti of war. Red markers around the sites tell you which areas have not been cleared. You should keep an eye on these and stay within the safely delineated areas.
Site One contains the most jars. This includes Hai Cheaum, or Cheaum Jar, the biggest jar of all. The scenery here is fairly uninspiring as opposed to the attractive locations in which you find other sites. It is the most popular site, and there are places set up selling snacks and drinks. Site Two is majestically situated on top of a small hill. There are some large and intriguing jars, with beautiful surrounding views. There are also quite a number of areas of remaining uncleared land mines, so keep a look out for those signs. Site Three is the most impressive and atmospheric of all the sites, marked out by a backdrop of rolling hills dotted with bomb craters and wooded with pine trees. To reach it you walk across rice paddies and cross a small bamboo bridge. There are 130 jars here, some of which are in very bad condition.
To see the sites, there are a few options. Sensible restrictions (given all the things that can go boom!) mean that you cannot go alone without a proper guide. This means that quite a number of agencies catering to tourists have appeared in Phonsavan. They all offer day tours with a licensed guide. These cost around $10 per person, or you can rent a whole car or minivan for $50 to $100. Some guesthouses also run tours that are slightly cheaper. A van with a driver will cost you between $20 and $50 for the day, depending on where it is you want to go.
The Tourism Office offers five trips with a sliding scale of costs, depending on how many people are in the party. The Keo Kong Guesthouse, a popular option among the budget-minded, runs a tour daily for between $4 and $7.50, but will not go without a minimum of five people.
Avoid tuk-tuk drivers if they approach you offering trips to see the jars at a much better rate than that offered by official outlets. This is because they can't get permits to take passengers to all the sites, so it is a false economy since you will see very little.
The Xieng Khuang Tourism Office publishes a very useful pamphlet called "Do-it yourself activities around Phonsavan." It lists a number of interesting places to take in, as a complement to the more heavily visited sites. MAG (Mine Advisory Group) operates an office in Phonsavan and it is well worth a visit. Excellent information on the UXO (unexploded ordnance) problem in the area is on display and the office shows two award-winning documentaries on UXO clearance in Laos nightly. Donations go directly to UXO clearance.
Hot Springs -- The natural hot springs at Muang Kham are government run. The actual pool where the hot water bubbles up from the rock up is fenced off, but you can get a view by taking a short path starting opposite the Hot Springs Resort. If you want to bathe then you have to go to the resort itself. It has a series of individual bathrooms in which you can soak in the warm spring water. It costs 5,000 kip.
Tham Piew -- Tham Piew is a cave near Muang Kham, with a tragic and violent history. Some say it was used by locals as a shelter from aerial attack during the dark years of war. Others say it was a North Vietnamese Army field hospital. Whichever is true all those inside it were incinerated by an American rocket in the late '60s. The blackened walls bear testament to this tragic event. The journey there involves passing through both ethnic Hmong and Black Tai villages.
The Beauty of Vieng Xai -- Vieng Xai, an incredibly beautiful area near the border with Vietnam, was the base of the Pathet Lao during the '60s and '70s. The rugged limestone karst formations that characterize the region are riddled with caves and it was from these that the Soviet-backed insurgents fashioned a series of subterranean complexes that enabled them to survive some of the most ferocious aerial attacks seen in the history of warfare. A series of more than 100 caves amounted to an impregnable fortress. After the Communist victory this remote area became home to thousands of those perceived to be loyal to the former regime and sentenced to "reeducation." This actually meant disease, hardship, starvation, and often death. It was these people who built the beautiful man-made lake in Vieng Xai. It is a beauty tinged with real hardship and tragedy. For years the closed attitude of the regime in Laos meant that this whole region, and its history both heroic and vicious, remained off-limits to visitors. The caves have been restored and are now opened to the public, though you must be accompanied by a government-accredited guide.
The caves sit in a natural and steeply walled limestone valley that affords them almost total protection from assault. The complex contained meeting rooms, hospitals, barracks, markets, and temples. A few of these caves are named for their celebrated former residents. Tours usually begin with Tham Than Kaysone. This was the headquarters of Kaysone Phomvihane, the effective leader of the Pathet Lao. From here he closely coordinated eventual victory with his north Vietnamese comrades shuttling every now and then over the border and on to Hanoi to receive direction. Inside the cave are a few relics of the Kaysone's time there including some appropriate Marxist reading. There is a reception room, kitchen,bedroom, library, and emergency headquarters containing an oxygen generator in case of a gas attack. Kaysone's house sits at the front of the cave. Tham Than Nouhak is nearby and was the home of Kaysone's main sidekick and fellow Savannakhet native. Tham Than Souphanouvong is a cave fit for a prince, and indeed this figurehead of the Pathet Lao was half brother to his opposition leaders, Prince Phetsarath and Prince Souvannaphoumma. This war was a family affair at the highest echelons. The Red Prince lived here with his wife and 10 children from 1963 to 1973. The prince had a garage for his car and a patio on which to enjoy his breakfast. The cave is approached through a line of pomelo trees. Tham Than Phoumi was the home of the Phoumi Vongvichit, who became minister of information after Pathet Lao victory. It was enlarged using explosives. Tham Than Khamtay is named after Khamtay Siphandone, president of Laos from 1992 to 2006 and one of the Pathet Lao's most important military strategists. This is an artificial cave. Below it is a natural cave that was a barracks for hundreds of soldiers, but was also used for theatrical and sporting events as well as the occasional wedding.
Most people choose to stay in Sam Neua about an hour's drive away. This is best reached by bus via Nong Kiaow to Luang Prabang on Rte. 6 and then Rte. 1. This a 16-hour journey all the way (a stopover in Nong Kiaow is advisable). You can also reach it from Ponsavanh via Rte. 7 and then turn off left onto Rte. 6. Lao Air also flies to Sam Neua three times a week, although flights are often canceled due to fog or low passenger counts. Although there are plenty of accommodations in Sam Neua, the Bounhome Guest House (tel. 064/312-223; 50,000 kip double) is regarded as the best, with a good second choice being the Kheamxam Guest House (tel. 064/312-111; 50,000 kip double).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.