The Plain of Jars

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January 29th 2017
Published: January 29th 2017
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The Plain of Jars is quite a curiosity. Hundreds of neolithic jars are scattered around the landscape and archaeologists' opinions about them are at odds with local legends. Staying in Phonsavan gives you a great base from where to explore the area, but getting there is something of an adventure in itself!

We had booked our bus tickets with an agent in Luang Prabang. That meant we were collected from our hotel and taken to the bus station, quite some way out of town. Our driver seemed to be on some kind of errand run on the way as he stopped several times to pick up and deliver packages and, more surprisingly, sandwiches! Most travellers have experienced what came next. You get to the bus station and see a decrepit bus at the stand you expect your air conditioned bus to be leaving from. Your head drops as you realise that it is indeed your transport for the day and the expected 8-9 hour journey may well turn into a longer trip. The air conditioning you have paid for its, in fact, open windows and the motorbike strapped to the roof a mere indication of what else might also go up there.

We left on time and the bus was quite full. There had been some dispute about which seats were ours, an argument which we won. For 3 hours the bus wound its way up some of the tightest hairpin bends we have ever experienced. It seemed they were never to end, but when they did the bus pulled up at the side of the road and the driver and conductor both disappeared round the back of a house. We presumed it was a toilet stop but 20 minutes later they emerged with half a tree! This was somehow attached to the roof, along with another similar half a tree. We were later told that these trees are taken to Vietnam, where they are decorated for the Chinese New Year/Tet celebrations and brought back to Laos.

After a lunch stop at the more-or-less half-way point our journey continued on equally twisty roads before it finally flattened out with about 50km to go. On arrival at Phonsavan bus station, the waiting taxi and tuk tuk drivers asked us why we were so late! That's how we found out the story of the trees!

On arrival at our guest house we were greeted by a group of students from the local tourism college. They were looking after the place until the owner, Khong, returned. Armed with neither the linguistic capacity to answer our questions, nor the information we needed anyway, we headed to our room, located just a matter of feet from dogs and cockerels next door. Oh well, who needs more than a couple of hours sleep anyway?!

Phonsavan is a bit of a dusty one horse town at first glance. Despite being a long, long way from any frontier, it is as much a frontier town as any frontier town we have ever been to before. Any notion of customer service is a distant dream, although special mention has to be given to Cranky-T who are trying hard to change this. They do amazing coffee and breakfasts, and although the service was slow, it was good. We chatted to the owner who is from Laos but educated in the USA. It is her old family home which she has converted and she is finding Laotian attitudes to work a bit frustrating herself!

Booking a tour to visit the three main Plain of Jars sites was not easy. We stayed at Khong's guesthouse because we had read what a good guide he was. When we eventually met him, he said the tour was boring and he wasn't prepared to do it. It seems the customer is not always right! The next day a large group arrived and he was very interested in helping them out but not a party of two. There are several "tour operators" in town but they don't work together to get group numbers up. No, they all say that there is nobody else for a tour so you must have a private one instead.

As we wandered around, we met Frank, a German guy travelling by himself. He wanted to do the same tour as us and it seemed that three people have much more bargaining power than two. We got a price we were all happy with then went for breakfast before starting our day of sightseeing. Soon enough we were heading off into the countryside but first we had to go to the "Tourist Information Office" for our driver to get our permits. We didn't get to go inside but we were allowed round the back to see their collection of rusting armaments left over from the American bombing raids.

Site number one is fronted by a visitor centre which was part funded by foreign aid from New Zealand. It gave an interesting overview to the sites we were about to see and, of course plenty of anti-war and anti-American rhetoric. Then we had to ride in an electric car (really just a big golf buggy) to the main entrance. We were briefed not to step outside the stone markers which signified that the path had been cleated of mines them stone steps led up to a hill with an assorted collection of the jars at its summit. Were they primitive coffins? Storage facilities perhaps? One theory even suggests they were stills for making Lao Lao, the local moonshine whisky! Nobody knows for sure.

Our next stop was a dark cave blackened further by soot. The question was, why had fires been lit in this cave? It may have had funereal use like a crematorium. Some argue that it was a primitive kiln for baking the jars. The latter theory would, of course, debunk the idea that the jars had been hewn straight from the rock.

Nearby stood an impressive collection of the jars. One is unique in that a human figure had been carved on the outside. Proof perhaps that they were really coffins? Well, it's the only one with such an image so make of that what you will. Another is the only one with a stone lid firmly in place. Other circular stones lying around may have been similar lids, but who knows! Another uphill climb produced fantastic views over the surrounding countryside.

Following another ride on the electric car, our driver took us out to the second site of jars. But for the brief appearance of a Japanese tour group who didn't hang around long, we more or less had the place to ourselves. The curiosity here was the enormous tree which had grown through one of the jars breaking it into pieces which remain trapped in its root system. On the opposite hill yet more jars awaited our curiosity with magnificent views an added bonus.

Another half an hour or so in the car and we arrived at the third and final jar site. This time we had to cross a rickety wooden bridge and walk along narrow footpaths through paddy fields guarded by curious water buffaloes. We were led to an enclosed field then left to wander around its impressive collection of jars, but we were left still no closer to the truth about their original purpose.

The trip also had two additional stops. One was at the so-called whisky village where we were able to see how the illicit Lao Lao is made. The reality was that we pulled up alongside a wooden house and were taken into the shed where our driver pointed out the stills and the plastic containers. No samples were on offer, not that we would have tried it anyway after seeing the state of the equipment. We also stopped outside someone's yard where we were led down a hill to see the remains of a Russian tank. Well, they say it was Russian but there were no inscriptions or anything to substantiate that idea. It was an intriguing curiosity though, and we were glad that our driver had stopped there.

After being dropped off back in Phonsavan, we visited two very moving museums in town. One was the Mines Action Group where the horror of the remnants of the American War are brought home to the visitor. It's a pretty horrifying thought that our Western governments drop bombs all over the world without any thought about what happens when peace eventually returns to the region. A couple of doors down the consequences of this lack of thought/care are very obvious. Formerly the UXO (unexploded ordinance) Survivors' Association, the group is now part of the Quality of Life Association which tries to make the lives of victims somehow better. This is done through counselling, workshops and even assistance with prosthetic limbs. The saddest thing of all is that children are still being injured today, some 40 years after the war. A list on the wall adds new names of survivors on a monthly basis. They then get treated terribly at school because they are different. This is something the group are trying hard to change.

We then found a tuk tuk who was prepared to take us to the edge of town. We wanted to visit the Laos War Memorial and it's Vietnamese counterpart. The only problem is that nobody seemed to know anything about them. They don't even feature in the most common guide books. When we got there, both monuments were securely locked. It's a shame because they are definitely worth visiting and there's no doubt they tourists would pay a small charge to enter. We had a good look through the railings before getting our tuk tuk to drop us off next to the enormous Cultural Centre which is currently being built. Outside is a statue of Phoumi Vongvichit, who was deputy president during the early days of independence in the 1970s. Quite why they have decided honour him and not others, we never did discover!

After another dog and cockerel disturbed night, we took a mini van to Vang Vieng. Only 6 hours this time, but the first half was retracing our route back up the way we had come. This journey wasn't too bad though. It was only when we got there that we found that the second half of this trip went along a road that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office currently advise against travelling on because of bandit attacks! It seemed safe enough to us though, but perhaps not quite so at night and there is, after all, no alternative route!!

Additional photos below
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4th February 2017

Plain of Jars
We didn't go see this while in Laos. I guess we should have gone. Do you recommend that we go back for this?
5th February 2017

A long way
It's a long journey to get there for half a day of exploring.

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