Monday, May 5, 2014

Phonsavanh: A Study in Dust

We came to the town of Phonsavan as a staging point for our visit to the nearby Plain of Jars. Going there, you wouldn't expect such archaeological wonder to be tucked around the corner. The city itself isn't really a city, either; hardly any buildings are within twenty feet of one another and all the streets are twice as wide as normal to allow for massive freight trucks to drive through from China and Vietnam. The hotels are all Soviet block style with Chinese names and abundant neon, nearly identical down to the cavernous reception areas, awkwardly arranged with masses of heavy, carved, varnished wood furniture; like they expected a whole crowd of businessmen to storm in and have a meeting within sight of the door. At our hotel, we had an entire floor, and a very long hallway, all to ourselves, in an inexplicable corner room with no windows. Just past the lobby, an alarmingly large pile of UXO was inside a closet-sized chain-link cage that didn’t even have a solid roof.


Bomb as planter.

Even communists have gods.
There aren't enough people to fit the outsized streets and buildings of the city, that's what makes it feels so desolate. Not even the restaurants felt inhabited. We were looking for nok aen dawng, fermented swallows, and sought out one hotel restaurant where we'd read that it could be found. The dining room turned out to be tightly packed with the same heavy, shiny teak furniture as every other hotel in Phonsavanh, but it was devoid of people, besides the receptionist. The walls were the kind you find in corporate offices: tinted glass and cheap metal rims. We had missed breakfast; the cook had gone home. Nevertheless, we had a cup of (bitter) coffee and spent some time writing. Hardly any daylight made it from the lobby through to the dining room. The d├ęcor was like a strange approximation of an Americana lodge (or diner?), with license plates, animal heads, and the ubiquitous forty-year-old literal bombshells all hung neatly on the walls. We were the only customers for the hour and half we were there.


We were there in the high season, ostensibly when the most people are visiting Laos, but it felt like there was hardly anyone there (Lao, farang, or otherwise). Incongruous fields of rice and cattle divided the northern and southern halves of the town. Next to where we rented our motorbike was a run-down snooker hall with the same tinted glass office walls, packed with boisterous young Lao men drinking beer. When you add the red dust blown up from the unsealed roads, it felt, on the whole, like a Chinese-Western frontier town, the massive faux-marble floors of the all but vacant hotels towering fifteen floors above anything else. It was surreal.


Neon, weird building spacing, and massive Chinese hotel: classic Phonsavanh.

A little Soviet kitsch never hurt anyone, except for the economy.

The eerie hotel hallway.

Fermented swallows at the market.

Unfortunate slogan campaign by Pepsi in a country ravaged by UXO.

Very large house.

Recycling in action.

Donuts at the market, the only place that was ever busy.

How come communist propaganda always looks the same?

We didn't stay here, alas.

Bomb as nursery maid.

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