Phonsavan is the pretty capital city of the Xieng Khouang Province in the center of Laos and is often looked on as a way to get to the Plain of Jars which is a natural stone structure that is said to look like jars.
The Plain of Jars is indeed one of the top sights in Laos, but if you are travelling to Phonsavan, which translates to ‘Hills of Paradise’ in Lao, then make sure to spend a few days here taking in the sights as well. There is some amazing scenery to be had here, and you can go trekking on the outskirts of the city as well as visit waterfalls, caves and natural pools.
With that in mind, know that many of the top sights are located outside the city, so you may need to factor in travel time to see everything. Within the town itself, you can see how the locals live and work, and even find some Laotian cowboys who look after cattle in the fields around the city.
Here are the 15 best things to do in Phonsavan…
1. Visit Mulberries Farm
Mulberries farm is, rather confusingly, actually a silk farm where you can learn all about how silk is made.
The farm will take you all the way through the process, from when the silk worms are still in cocoons, to the finished product in the form of gorgeous silk scarves.
If you want to get hands on then you can even attend classes that will fill you in on how to weave and dye beautiful pieces of silk.
2. Travel to the Tham Xang Caves
The Tham Xang Caves are around 36 kilometers outside of Phonsavan but it is well worth making the effort to come and visit them.
The caves are located in a limestone cliff side and they would have once been the refugee of fighters in the days of old, during the time of the Secret War.
To that end, there would have been a complete cave complex here including a hospital and a medicine depot.
Nowadays you can take a guided tour of the caves and learn all about how people would have camped out here in the past.
3. Fish in Nong Tang Lake
Nong Tang Lake is around 48 kilometers from Phonsavan proper and this is the place to come if you like fishing.
There is a large lake here which is encircled by stunning limestone cliffs and karst formations, and this is a popular spot at the weekends for local families who fancy a picnic.
There is also a small restaurant here where you can dine overlooking the lake or you can even stay overnight at the lakeside guesthouse.
4. Check out the Navang Craft Center
The Navang Craft Center is known in Phonsavan for its amazing wood carvings.
This is a family owned establishment and they make all their pieces from Fujian Cypress wood which is extremely rare.
This is also known to have a fragrant scent, and the pieces here are exquisite as they are all carved by hand.
The workers make all their carvings onsite so you can watch them as they work and they also have beautiful souvenirs on display.
5. Visit the UXO Survivors Information Center
The UXO Survivors Information Center is a reference to ‘unexploded ordnance’ which includes bombs and mines that are still found all over Laos.
This shop sells an array of products such as handicrafts which were made by survivors of UXO and you can also see galleries which tell the stories of some of the victims of these bombs and mines.
One of the most moving parts of the information center is actually the reading room where you will find books and other reading materials that tell the story of the Secret War and how it still affect locals to this day.
If you buy any of the handicrafts or make a donation then 90% of the money goes to the survivors of UXO and their ongoing treatment.
6. Shop at the Fresh Food Market
If you are looking for some local food in Phonsavan then look no further than the Fresh Food Market.
Here you will find an array of local fruits and vegetables including many species unique to Phonsavan such as Chinese pears, so this is well worth a visit if you are in the area.
You can also get other oddities here such as swallows as well as wild mushrooms which may not be to everyone’s taste but are certainly a distinctive sight in Laos.
7. Visit the Old Cemetery
The Old Cemetery is famous in Phonsavan as it is made up of a range of different religious relics.
These include Tai Dam animist tombs as well as traditional Catholic tombstones, which make for an interesting walk round in the afternoon.
You will also find some Chinese graves here as well as Lao Buddhist religious buildings and the entire area is built on a hillside which looks over the town.
8. Shop at the Hmong Crafts Center
Laos is known for its ethnic communities and one of these is the Hmong people.
If you want to learn more about this group then you can head to the Hmong Crafts Center where you can find traditional handicrafts made by the Hmong which make excellent souvenirs or gifts.
There is also a massage parlor here if you want to relax after your shopping trip.
9. Hike to the Tad Ka Waterfall
The Tad Ka Waterfall is located in Tajok which is around 32 kilometers away from the center of Phonsavan.
The reason to come here is that this is a stepped waterfall and the water gushes over several levels before crashing into the pools below.
To get to the waterfall you need to walk through the dense jungle and many companies in Phonsavan offers tours here which usually include a delicious picnic lunch next to the dramatic cataracts.
10. Eat some Indian food
Visitors to Laos are often surprised to find that almost all towns and cities have at least one Indian restaurant in them.
This is because there is a sizeable Indian population in Laos and you can enjoy foods such as curries and flatbreads all over the country.
One of the best places to get your curry fix in Phonsavan is at Nisha which serves delicious bites such as tikka masala and a huge selection of vegetarian curries.
11. Walk around the War Memorials
Phonsavan is known for its war memorials and these were erected to honor the struggle of the thousand of Pathet Lao soldiers during the Indochina Wars.
As you walk all over town you will find these memorials dotted around, and this is a moving tribute not only to the Lao troops but also the Vietnamese who died during this period as well.
Many of the memorials were deliberately built on hillsides so that you can also take in the views over the town as well.
12. Soak in the Hot Springs
The Hot Springs are located at Baw Nyai which is some 67 kilometers outside of Phonsavan and this is a great place to come if you want to relax and soak in a hot tub while looking at the jungle.
There is a scenic trek that takes you out to the source of the springs, and you can also stay overnight here in a bungalow and have direct access to the bathing pools for which this part of Laos is famous.
13. Visit the UXO Information Center (MAG)
There are two UXO Information Centers in Phonsavan which are located almost next to each other.
This one is run by the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and tells the story of how unexploded bombs and mines remain littered around parts of Laos.
As you walk around you can see galleries that will show you how the bomb drops affected the area and you can also see some safely defused UXO pieces.
The center works on donations and they are still actively clearing unexploded ordinance in the region so this is well worth a visit if you want to do something that also benefits the local community.
14. Visit a local bar
The local bars on Phonsavan are usually not upscale in style but they more than make up for this by offering you up a slice of authentic life in Laos.
One of the most famous bars in town is called Barview and here you will find a small cafe which looks out over the gorgeous jade green rice fields below.
They also serve traditional bar snacks in the form of barbecued meats, and of course there is plenty of local ice cold beer.
15. Travel on to the Plain of Jars
The main reason to come to Phonsavan is to visit the Plain of Jars, and you can do this as part of a day trip at a push.
Many tour companies in Phonsavan can organize a trip out to the jars, and it can be difficult to stay in the area overnight so it is best to plan all aspects of the trip in advance.
The Plain of Jars is actually the name for a megalithic landscape in this part of Central Laos and you will find thousands of stone jars which are located all over the valleys and hills here.
Amazingly, no one is quite sure how they go here, and the area was also heavily bombed over the years, but this remains one of the most picturesque spots in Laos as well as a great archeological mystery.