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Published: October 27th 2012
Plain of Jars
Thousand-year-old boulder-sized vats whose purpose remains shrouded in mystery, though believed to have been funerary urns.
And I thought I'd seen it all!
Just when I thought nothing could surprise me anymore on an inter-city bus ride, Laos pulls one out of the hat for me. So I'd read that Paksan to Phonsavan was a difficult trip through some rough terrain that was impassable during the wet season. Ok but this was the start of the dry season, so how bad could it be?
It started with the usual tarmac road gradually terminating into an undulating dirt track, but that's still quite normal in under-developed and hilly Laos. Then the dirt track terminated at a river, and I thought, ok, what's going on? Did the driver make a wrong turn? Apparently, he didn't, and in Laos, when you come to a river, you just DRIVE THROUGH IT! OMG our bus was temporarily converted into a hovercraft, and the the river was shallow enough, but the water still came up to the entire height of the tyres, and some water got into the bus too. Thankfully we made it across, and everyone took a well-deserved pee break in the fields right after! (I'm not kidding!)
And so eight hours meandering through the Northern Laos highlands
Paksan to Phonsavan
No this was not a hovercraft, this was the Paksan-Phonsavan local bus performing a river crossing! I kid you not!
later, I arrived at Phonsavan, a relatively busy city, which sees some tourists visiting the nearby Plain of Jars sites. I'd read about them during my previous trip to Laos five years ago, but wasn't able to visit then, so I thought about them for five years, and now here I was finally!
There are dozens of Plain of Jars sites in the vicinity of Phonsavan, and the hundreds of jars scattered in these areas are essentially boulder-sized vats that are speculated to date back literally thousands of years. No one knows for sure what they were for, but they are believed to have been used as funerary urns. It reminds me of Stonehenge, as the jars are also set against the spectacular Laotian highlands, making for some truly breathtaking views. Five years of waiting was worth it!
The Xieng Khouang province where Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars are located has another less inspiring, and more sobering twist though. This area was heavily bombed by the US in what is now known as The Secret War, around the time of the Vietnam War, in an attempt to ferret out the Pathet Lao communist guerillas. It was known
View from the Lao War Memorial
The highlands of Xieng Khouang province. Simply mesmerising...
as The Secret War because the American Congress and public were kept in the dark about it, as both the US and Vietnam had signed the 1962 Geneva Accords declaring Laos to be a neutral country, and hence attacking it was illegal.
Tragically however, the country instead ended up being the most-heavily bombed in history, with some 2000 tonnes of explosives being dropped for EACH of the two million population at the time. (The country was bombed on average every nine minutes for nine years.) Most of them were the controversial cluster bombs, many of whose "bombies" failed to detonate at the time, and remain ticking time bombs (known as UXO, Unexploded Ordnances) all across the Laotian country-side. Thousands of Laotians have since become UXO victims, and the contamination profoundly affects the life and economic development of the countryside in particular. The Plain of Jars site that I visited had to be cleared back in 2004, during which hundreds of UXO were found, before it was rendered safe for visitors. Several large craters from bombs still mark the site.
I'd read about UXOs in Laos, but am somewhat sheepish to admit that the sheer scale has only become
apparent to me as I enter the final legs of my journey here in Xieng Khouang, which experienced some of the worst bombing. It serves as another reminder about the tragedy of war which lingers for generations, and is particularly poignant in a country whose people and landscape otherwise evoke such peaceful tranquility.
Stayed at Sabaidee Guesthouse.
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