So is flatware. They sit beside a postcard that reads “Make Spoons Not War.” Beside cartoon posters depicting the Dos and Don’ts of respectable Lao tourism, posted leaflets encourage you to purchase items made by villages out of metal scraped from the UXOs (unexploded ordinances) that continue to claim lives and limbs. From tragedy to hope, a brighter future for impoverished locals—your tourist dollars can make a difference.
Or something like that.
Phonsavan is an emerging tourist destination in Northern Laos. Its only draw is the scars of enigmatic history: a landscape scattered of mysterious, 2000-year-old stone jars (think Stonehenge in circular formation), and bomb craters and UXOs. The juxtaposition has, in the last few years, landed the grizzlied town on the independent traveler route, with broader tourism looming ahead like the black storm clouds of an early rainy season.
For now, the town remains rough-and-tumble and charm-challenged. A series of squalid guesthouses line its one sidewalked road. A handful of tour offices litter the same road. It’s the kind of place where you arrive, in a mid-afternoon downpour that muddies your shoes and seeps through your backpack, and think—Get In, Get Out, Get Gone.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town. I cruised the local market, bought some rice-paper rolls and steamed greens; the hunched old woman smiled at me and refused money for the greens.
I passed Craters Restaurant; decidedly Western, it had a makeshift fence of UXO shells. It felt cheeky, performative, self-conscious—something about it didn’t sit right. But I hadn’t had my requisite three fruit shakes that day, so I sat down and watched the traffic pass.
Across the street, the sign for MAG peeked through the bomb-shell fence. The most prominent UXO-clearing agency in Laos, MAG works both to defuse and remove UXOs, and educate local communities about their dangers. They screen a few documentaries on a small TV set every evening; I left Craters and went to watch that night’s showing of Bomb Harvest.
The documentary traces the work of MAG. It’s somewhat sensationalist and self-congratulatory (“In bomb disposal, you only make one mistake”), but overall the film achieves a really good end: educating people on the realities of UXOs in Laos today.
I’d known they existed; I had more than a passing familiarity with the devastation of US secret bombing in the country. And I knew that UXOs continued to kill and maim people throughout Laos. What I didn’t know was that scrap metal had become the new cash crop. And tourism, I’d discover the next day, was fueling it.
The basic story is this: in a country as poor as Laos, a lot of subsistence farmers struggle to feed themselves. The scrap metal peeled from UXOs fetches a fair dollar—some $100 for large casings. It may not sound like a lot to risk your life for, but when you don’t have enough to eat, your life is risked already. Despite public education campaigns, people continue to harvest and sell UXOs—many of them children.
In addition to selling scrap metal, locals began to use casings for planter boxes and building supports. As tourism trickled in to the Plain of Jars sites, Westerners were charmed with the aesthetic and ingenuity of this repurposing. Tourist-geared establishments are now getting on the bandwagon.
With this backdrop, I eyed the scrap metal bracelets carefully. I liked the idea of them, liked the feel of the dented metal and the notion that I could both accessorize and ease my American guilt. “It helps the local people make money,” our tour guide explained.
“Do they make the bracelets from harvested UXOs?” I asked.
“But isn’t that very dangerous? Don’t people die that way?”
He nodded again, this time more reluctantly.
I slid the bracelet off and placed it back down.
Our tour continued on bumpy muddy roads. We trailed one other 6-person group, but largely had the sites to ourselves. To get to one of the sites, we tromped through rain-soaked rice fields, down wooden slats and past families bathing in brown water.
Tourists, our guide told us, had only been coming to the sites in the last few years. There were plans to pave the roads, our guide told us; an international airport would soon open near the town. Only 15 sites of jar sites were currently open; several more were being de-mined. You got the feeling that mass tourism was just around the corner.
We stopped at a modest farm house. Standing behind the bamboo fence, our guide pointed our the bomb casings used as supports for the barn. We snapped photos. “Not many houses still like this,” our guide said. “Now, the casings are mostly sold to guesthouses and hotels, for decoration.”
I thought of Craters Restaurant and cringed.
Tourism can bring a lot of good to a community. Phonsavan is poised to become more wealthy because of it. But I thought of the children I’d seen in Bomb Harvest, carefully digging through the earth, crude metal detectors and frightened eyes, and wondered at what cost.
It’s hard to always be informed about where your tourist dollars go. Over lunch, I had a long discussion with a British couple about their experience volunteering at a “real” elephant sanctuary in Thailand. They told me about the farcical nature of most eco-parks, how the Thai government worked to block the release of information about the real conditions of the animals, information that would surely hinder the precious money brought in by Westerns who unwittingly wanted to ride elephants.
“And the sad thing,” I remarked, “is that all those people think they’re helping, that their money is going towards some kind of solution.”
They nodded. I leaned slightly and slurped another mouthful of rice noodles.
My spoon, I realized, thumbing its texture, was made of scrap metal.
Travel Tips: Phonsavan
Phonsavan is well-connected to provincial capitals and tourist destinations. I took a minivan from Luang Prabang, a bumpy and cramped 7-hour affairs; a bus would have been 9 hours. I took the overnight VIP bus back to Vientiane, getting about 2 hours total of sleep.
Guesthouses are in a sad state in Phonsavan, especially in the budget range. I ended up at the LP-recommended Kong Keo Guesthouse. It wasn’t great by any means and I’d read some sketchy things about the owner, but after checking out three other guesthouses, it was still the least squalid.
A tour of the Plain of Jars sites seems to be the best option, especially if you can buddy up with some people. The sites are pretty far apart, so you’ll need some transport anyway. We paid 150,000 kip (little under $20) each for a group of six, which included lunch. The guide was knowledgeable, and there’s plenty of outfitters to chose from.
Fellow travelers tend to be pretty friendly and less Spring-Break-ish than the backpackers I’d encountered in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, so teaming up should be easy. Definitely visit in the dry season, until the roads are paved and facilities modernized; it was super muddy, and Site 3 becomes impassable during the rainy season.
The only Wifi I found in the town was at the Western and fairly decent Vanaloun Cafe, along the main drag. Wifi is free, espresso drinks passable, and the breakfast was actually pretty good and not too expensive. They also have a small guesthouse. Might be worth checking out, though a girl I met in the cafe told me she couldn’t ever find the shower.