An eerie Phonsavan

Trip Start Dec 26, 2010
Trip End Feb 03, 2011

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Where I stayed
Kou Kham Guesthouse

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Xiangkhoang,
Sunday, January 2, 2011

The 3 russians I had met earlier at Huay Xai stayed next door to me. They finally broke a smile - all 3 of them. They were heading for Vang Vieng - probably why. Or maybe Oudomphone and Mama's warmth completely thawed their hearts. Goodbyes with Mama and her 3 daughters were almost relunctant. From the two mosiac walls of travellers' passport photos and postcards, I know many guests including myself will always return to Oudomphone and Luang Prabang for the memories and friendship. 
Pickup at 830am in a eleven-seater minivan with only five passengers looked too good to be true. By the way, Hyundai sucked at passenger comfort - at least for this minivan. Parked at southern bus terminal, we did not depart until this minivan was full - Laotian standard- two hours later. The route to Phonsavan (aka Xieng Khoung) was tremendously scenic. All the sharp swervings from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang few days ago now made sense - the routes were craving the sides of mountainous terrains and deep valleys. There were just deep undulating hills as far as the eyes can see. The roads fortunately were sealed, so no bumpy rides but Laotians simply enjoy driving in the middle of the road, often in near collisions from oncoming traffic at blind corners. We had two brushes with near collisions - one with a mega construction truck and the other a local bus. Just a tiny breath's hair from scrapping the sides into recycled metal. Even our experienced bus driver was stunned in the second scare, yelling "oh! oh! oh! oh!" expecting a collision. No more travelling in minivans in Laos. Will be taking the bus next time. 
The plus side was a good observation of traditional huts that lined these mountainous routes. Ethnic minority families were out in force drying attap or bamboo leaves for their roofs in preparation for the coming wet season. The better off familes had corrugated metal roof sheets that were well rusted. I for one was impressed by the use of attap roofs and interwoven dry cane walls, demonstrating indigenous use of local materials, dating centuries and inheriting knowledge from their forebears.
Phonsavan can well be passed off as a western cowboy town - dusty, arid and sleepy. Tuktuk drivers wasted no time hassling disembarking passengers to go view their recommended rooms. I decided to just walk to the main street and shop around for good offers. Finally ended up at Kou Kham Guesthouse for US$6 a night cellroom with cable tv and hot shower. The town was pretty much dead with no activities at all until I learnt about Phonsavan's tragic history at the local MAG (Mines Advisory Group) exhibition. That was as far as one can get for a museum here.
Xieng Khoung Province being only approximately 130 km from the Vietnamese border, was so heavily bombed during the 9 year (1964-1973 Johnson & Nixon administration) US war against the Vietnamese communists, that rendered this region largely infertile for farming, thus restricting any economical progress. At least half of Laos population was killed in this time - nearly 1.5 million people. The US never declared war in Laos and this war was a covert CIA operation that employed GIs in civilian clothes. However millions of unexploded ordnances still remain, posing severe danger for local children who hunt for shells to sell as scrap metal. Behind this tragedy lies Laos' mysterious Plains of Jars. Mega-monolithic stone jars that are believed to be between 2000-300 years old. They are not recorded in Laotian history books, having only discovered in the last century. Some of them are unfortunately heavily damaged by bombs.    

The night was a chilly 10 C and the streets were empty. The food here was unfortunately terrible and the locals often had a disenchanted look on their faces. Besides visiting the MAG exhibition, the best way to spend the rest of the night is to park yourself in the one and only wifi cafe - Jars Cafe, or watch tv til you drop in your room. Perfect for a diary entry.
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