Xieng Khouang’s Top Attractions

The Plain of Jars headlines Xieng Khouang’s attractions, but you’ll find other historical sites dating to the 13th century’s Muang Phuan Kingdom up to the Indochina War.

 

The Jars

Experience Xieng Khouang’s seemingly random jar sites presenting a jumble of puzzling prehistoric jars. Of the 90-plus identified sites, jar aficionados can investigate several, from large clusters near Phonsavanh to those less visited in Ban Songhak.

Start with Jar Site 1, just 8-km south of Phonsavanh at Ban Na-0, a Tai Phuan and Khmu village with a simple information centre and handicraft shop. A 500-metre trail ends at Jar Site 1 (Thong Hai Hin), a 25-hectare field with 300-plus massive stone jars scattered about and no raw material in sight.

Jar Sites 2 and 3 sit at the base of a forested mountain, and short, easy treks lead to both. Start at the Visitor Centre at the entrance to Jar Site 2 (Hai Sin Phu Salato). A 500-metre path climbs to a pair of shady knolls displaying 93 jars. A carved stone disk sits on the western hill.

Access Jar Site 3’s urns (Hai Hin Lat Kahi) at Ban Xieng Di, about 10 km south of Ban 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 plain below.

A 2-day trek reaches the Ban Phakeo Jar Site, with four groups of around 400 jars buried in the thick forest. Rare jar lids – stone discs with animal carvings – also dot the site.

Those on the Northern Heritage Trail can visit the Ban Nam Hom Jar Site near Baw Yai (Big Hot Springs).

About a 30-minute drive from Phonsavanh leads to the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site. Climb the stairs towards the Secret Tunnel for the best view of the scattering of unfinished, flawed, and broken jars once destined for Jar Site 1.

You can find a mix of jars and war relics 42 km northwest of Phonsavanh in Ban Songhak Village. Stop first at the recently opened Jar Site 25 information kiosk before strolling to the jars and the Pathet Lao trenches dug near the main group. A road from the other side of the village goes past more jars and war relics to a hill where you’ll find an ancient stupa of which little is known. 

Buddhism & The French

According to the “Muang Phuan Chronicles”, the Tai Phuan established a small kingdom, Muang Phuan, in the 13th century, with its capital at Khoun Town. It became a notable Buddhist art and culture centre in the Lane Xang era, before the French colonials arrived. Though the Indochina War took its toll, many structures still stand.

The drive from Phonsavanh to Khoun Town passes a rock-and-concrete French colonial wall with an open brick archway exposing tiered paddy fields.

Closer to town, walk an easy trail to Vat Phiawat’s distinguished sitting Buddha that survived the bombing relatively intact. Unfortunately, US bombings reduced the temple, dating to 1564, to a handful of brick columns and portions of a wall.

Khoun Town’s most prized possession, Vat Si Phom, was completely destroyed, though locals recently rebuilt it. Documents state the temple, originally constructed in 1390 by a Luang Prabang craftsman, was the most exquisite in the Lane Xang Kingdom.

Close by, the shell of a French colonial hospital presents a once-majestic staircase leading to the remnants of a portico and once-elaborate balustrades surrounding it. You can also explore a few first-storey rooms.      

Just north of town, That Foun Stupa stands atop a knoll scathed only by time. Built in 1576 around the same time as Vientiane’s That Luang, That Foun is said to cover Buddha’s ashes brought from India. A tunnel through the base presents visitors with a cool channel to examine the precise brick construction.

Nearby, the 500-plus-year-old That Chompeth continues holding its ground on a shrubby hill, though the diamond placed on its peak to inspire Buddhist values is long gone, possibly pilfered by Haw invaders during an 1874 raid.

Before the Indochina War, Muang Sui Town in the province’s west and now called Nong Tang, sat quietly near a lake. Beautiful Buddhist temples and shrines, some dating to the 15th century, stood alongside French buildings, but today, only the ruins of Vat Mixay, Vat Ban Ang, and Ban Mong Stupa remain.

These are well worth a visit before embarking on short journey to the Tham Pha (Buddha Cave) underground maze. A large sitting Buddha, alleged to be 1,200 years old, greets visitors inside the entrance, before the amply-lit cave expands into a limestone labyrinth. Follow the web of rocky walkways that lead to chambers holding stashes of Buddha figurines still hiding from 19th-century Haw bandits.  

After your Tham Pha Cave experience, move next door to Tham That Cave and the ruins of an ancient Buddhist stupa.

Indochina War

Laos was the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. As a strategic stronghold, Xieng Khouang took more than its fair share of the 2 million tonnes of ordinances dropped during the 1964-1973 US air assault. Today, you can see several reminders of this violent past.

In Khoun Town, the Tourist Information Centre presents a junkyard of rusty, variously shaped defused bombs piled next to the parking lot.

The Mines Action Group’s (MAG) Visitor Information Centre near the tourist enclave provides an in-depth history into the intense US bombing campaign. You’ll find facts on injuries and deaths the UXOs (Unexploded Ordinances) continue to cause, diagrams of how cluster bombs work, and a few diffused shells. A video documentary presents a historical account of the war’s impact on the country.

Along the path to Jar Site 1, you can see the MAG at work, as well as trenches and foxholes, bomb craters, and a Pathet Lao cave testifying to a time when the site served as a battlefield.

The Tham Piu Cave area on the Northern Heritage Trail memorializes a 24 November 1968, US bombing that killed 374 innocent villagers using the cavern as cover. The Visitor Centre displays photographs and stories from the wartime years. Stairs climb 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.

A short drive leads to Xang Tham Cave, a cone-shaped peak. 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.

Scale more than 1,000 steps up the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site to the Secret Tunnel drilled through its rocky summit. The narrow 70-meter channel, chiselled through rock, winds past a few reinforced concrete ammo depots and sleeping quarters before exiting to a panorama of the mountains around Phou Koud District.

Culture & Nature

Culture and nature often blend together as can be seen throughout Xieng Khouang. Watch the entire silk cycle at Mulberries and the Lao Sericulture Company’s silk farm on the edge of Phonsavanh Town. The organization has a fair trade partnership with more than 200 Lao village families who specialize in producing naturally-dyed, handmade silk.

Mulberries staff guide you through the silk process from growing saplings, feeding worms, reeling silk, dyeing threads, and finally weaving the cloth. The farm also produces herbal green and red teas made from mulberry tree leaves, root, and bark.

Near Jar Site 2 at Ban Nakang, a 700-metre trail begins winding along the Nam Xan River, until the waterway reaches a bevy of boulders and the Tad Lang Waterfall.

Also close to Jar Site 2 is 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.

In Khoun District, visit the Tai Dam village of 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. Watch and learn the entire process, from spinning threads and dyeing to churning out 90 cm of fine fabric a day.

On the northern Heritage Trail near Kham Town, stop at Ban Xang, a mixed Khmu and Tai Phuan village with peculiar bridges crossing flower-and-plant-lined brooks, ducks waddling down the dirt roads, and smiling women weaving and embroidering intricate patterns into silk sins (traditional skirts).

From here, venture 3 km over a bamboo bridge spanning the Nam Mak to the Khmu-end of town and Baw Noi’s (Small Hot Springs) Welcome Centre. Then take a path along the Nam Mak for 100 metres to Baw Noi, where concrete, finger-burning hot spring pools step down to the Nam Mak. Here, the waters are pleasantly warm for washing clothes and bathing.

A further 13 km east on Route 7, 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 displays and explain their way of life. A replication of a traditional Tai Dam bedroom leads off the tour.

The Hall then exhibits wooden farming implements, gadgetry for transforming raw silk and cotton into dyed threads, and 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.

Those on the Hmong-led Ban Phakeo Trek will stop at Thad Kha Waterfall, which cascades over rock clusters in a misty downpour. You can take a jungle trail that traverses the falls to the top, swim in one of Thad Kah’s pools.

 

Xieng Khouang: Beyond the Plain of Jars

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