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Jeremy Koh | Oct 31, 2012, 12.00AM IST
Let’s face it. The eight-hour journey across eastern Laos to Luang Prabang, the city lovingly dubbed as the jewel of French Indochina was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. One of my friends was stopping the car every few kilometres or so to throw up, while in the back seat, another friend’s face was turning paler with every passing minute. Their discomfort was due to the car tossing and turning as it navigated the twisty mountain roads. I stared at my watch pointedly.
Phonsavan and the plain of jars
Perhaps we were too ambitious. The day before, we had just arrived in Phonsavan, the city best known for the enigmatic Plain of Jars, after an exhausting 15-hour journey from Vietnam. The bus was packed to the rafters, and after numerous stops to pick up passengers and goods, and a one hour breakdown in the middle of nowhere and in complete darkness in Laos, you can imagine the relief we felt when the bus finally rolled in to Phonsavan.
But while Phonsavan is somewhat a pain to get to (unless you fly in), it does attract a small though increasing number of tourists. Most of them, like us, are just there for one reason — the bizarre archaeological collection of giant stone urns known as the Plain of Jars.
The stone urns or jars, measuring in height of between one and three metres, are scattered throughout Xieng Khouang, the province where Phonsavan is situated. While they’re dated to the Iron Age, no one knows what these jars were used for, and why they were constructed. Some experts have suggested that they were used for prehistoric burial practices, while others say the jars were used to collect rainwater. Not knowing for sure what the jars were used for, however, didn’t take away from our experience. If anything, it made it more interesting.
The most heavily bombed province
The sight of hundreds of huge stone jars littered across the plains of Xieng Khouang makes for an intriguing sight. And in any case, there’s an element of edge to our sojourn there too. Xieng Khouang has the dubious distinction of being one of the most heavily bombed province in the most heavily bombed country on earth, and thousands of unexploded ordnance (UXO) remain in the ground throughout the province.
These bombs were dumped by the US military during the Secret War of the 1960s and 70s, and continue to disrupt the lives and livelihood of residents in Xieng Khouang Province. At the main jars sites, safe routes, cleared of UXOs, have been marked out for tourists. But away from these sites, the deadly wartime legacies continue to lie in wait for their next victim.
There is a UXO-Visitor Information Centre in the center of Phonsavan and the statistics were sobering. Approximately 80 million unexploded UXOs remained in Laos after the war, and more than 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents in the post-war period.
But while Laos is still haunted by its past, there are more dimensions to it than just mystery and tragedy. And for that, we had to head to Luang Prabang.
Some writers may wax lyrical about how Luang Prabang is the land that time forgot. Well, that’s stretching it a little too far. New boutique and luxury hotels are sprouting up everywhere, and Luang Prabang being Laos’s premier tourist attraction, is definitely not untouched by tourism.
But is it still charming? Utterly. Every morning, just before dawn, drum beats echo through the city and rows of saffron-cloaked monks appear out of the darkness like apparitions, continuing their age-old practice of making alms rounds across the city. And along the banks of the Mekong River, while the early morning mist still hovers in the air, the scene is magnetic.
The colonial legacy
The buildings too, hark back to a bygone era. With Laos being a former French colony, Luang Prabang has its fair share of colonial architecture. While some of these buildings have been spruced up, others remain in varying stages of decay, lending a rather morbid charm to the city.
Costs: If you stay in the cheapest guesthouses and eat local food, you can squeeze by on US$10 a day. If you want decent food, and comfortable, but basic, accommodation, a budget of about US$20 a day will be sufficient. US dollars are widely used. » BEST TIME TO VISIT: Between Nov and Feb, when it rains the least and is not too hot. It’s also Laos’s main season for both national and regional bun (festivals). The skyline is also punctuated by the numerous golden-roofed wats (temples) — so many in fact that the term ‘what wat’ is often heard around town.
Luang Prabang, however, isn’t a large city. If we had chosen to, we could have seen all its major sights in one day, albeit a long one. But that would have been regrettable. We spent days just wandering around the city, walking down the same streets and yet, we were never bored.
That’s really a testament to how skilled at the art of seduction Luang Prabang really is. Other cities may paint themselves in garish colours or adorn themselves with bright lights to attract travellers. But Luang Prabang doesn’t need to. It slips under your skin with its easy charm without you knowing it, and before long, you’ll be swaying along to its rhythm — one that’s dictated by the rising and setting of the sun. If you’re not careful, a planned stay of a few days can quickly become weeks and then months and even years.
We got out while we could.