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Published: November 16th 2009
Jars at Site 2.
Most tourists make the trek to Phonsavan to explore the mysterious Plain of Jars, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Phonsovan region has another claim to fame: it's one of the most bombed areas in the world and is still packed with UXO (unexploded ordinance - bombs). We'll explain in a minute.
Our driver picked us up at 9am and we met Tay at the one and only tourist center in town (the tourist infrastructure is still in an embryonic stage). While the driver handled our registration (permission from the government is required to visit the jar sites), Tay walked us around the small exhibits telling us about the "Secret American War".
Located about 50 miles from the Vietnam border, Xieng Khouang (the former capital of this province and close to Phonsavan), was extremely close to the Ho Chi Minh trail, a route that the Viet Cong used to transport supplies to their forces in northern and southern Vietnam and in neighboring Cambodia and Laos. Most of the Ho Chi Minh trail (not one road but more of a netowork of roads/tunnels/etc) is located in Laos and Cambodia, running parallel to the western border of Vietnam.
the U.S. military's top priorities was to sever the Ho Chi Minh trail supply line and as a result Laos was pulled into the Vietnam War. Between 1964 and 1973, U.S. Air Force pilots, called the Ravens, flew secret bombing missions (they didn't carry any identification in case they were shot down) in Laos. During this time the U.S. dropped 2,093,100 tons
of bombs on Laos, which nets out to an average of 630 tons of bombs dropped every day - for nine years. Entire towns in the Eastern part of Laos were oblitered, including Xieng Khouang which was known for its beautiful temples. Thousands of Lao living in villages near the Plain of Jars died and many were forced to live in caves, farming at night after the bombing stopped.
We saw bomb craters everywhere today. Recently, around the mid-90s, a large-scale UXO-extraction effort began and people began to return to this area. Phonsavan became the new capital of the province. The town is growing rapidly, mostly driven by Vietnamese and Chinese investment. Many Lao have returned to farm.
End of history lesson. It's a sad period in our country's history and we're certainly not proud of
So, what's up with these jars? Here's the mystery: no one knows who made them, when they were made or why they were made.
They are big stone jars, some with lids, at 50+ sites scattered across the valley. The jars are mostly made from local sandstone and half-formed jars can be found in a nearby "quarry". A few are made from a mix of sandstone and concrete. Not surprisingly, some of the smaller ones have been stolen and many are cracked or broken.
There are two stories about the origins of the jars:
1. The local people believe that a powerful king came down from China many years ago. He loved to fight (and win) battles. He celebrated his victories by consuming large quantities of Lao Lao whiskey. The jars were used to ferment his favorite moonshine.
2. Archaeologists believe that the jars are between 2000 and 3000 years old, but don't have enough physical evidence to pinpoint the date of their construction. The purpose of the jars, according to the archaeologists, is related to funerary rituals. Bodies of the deceased would be cremated and the ashes of individuals or families or maybe even
a whole village would be stored in these jars. The sites do feel a little like a graveyard.
The first Western archaeologist to study the jars was a French woman, Dr. Madeleine Colani. Her work was conducted in the 1930s. She reported finding some ashes and fragments of bone in some of the jars which supports theory number 2 above.
Only three of the 50+ jar sites are reasonably free of UXO. Tay took us to those sites which are numbered 1, 2, and 3. We started with Site 2, since most tour groups begin at Site 1, the site closest to town. There are about 90 jars at Site 2, about 150 at Site 3 and ~250 at Site 1. Many of the jars weigh several tons and are partially buried. When walking around the jar sites, you have to stay inside a perimeter defined by white stone markers. The area inside the white stone markers has been cleared, outside the markers it is possible to encounter UXO.
Around lunch time, we drove on some bumpy back roads over to the site of the former capital, Xieng Khuang (now called Muang Khoun). It was bombed to
Rice paddies at Site 3
smithereens in the 60s, erased completely from the map. Now people are returning and, while not exactly thriving, it's starting to look more like a town. We had an excellent lunch of pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and saw what was left of the main Buddhist temple. Not much to see unfortunately - just four brick pillars and a very large, damaged, statue of Buddha. During the full moon, people come from miles around to pray at the base of this buddha and to attend a candlelight procession around the buddha.
Next to the remains of the temple is a small building where a few monks live. We were so thrilled to meet the head monk, an 80-something year old man who chatted with us for a while (through Tay) and then gave us a blessing (Angelique too!) and tied orange strings around our wrist for luck. When he found out we were American, he asked how old we were and how much we knew about the war. Like most Lao that we met, he felt no ill-will towards American people. We've been amazed at how warm and welcoming the Lao have been given what our government did to their
The bomb scarred buddha
country 30-40 years ago.
The monk also told us that he had blessed an American man who had come with a large group to identify and remove the remains of a pilot who had been shot down during the war. The entire group of 12 people were in a helicopter accident the next day and only the blessed guy was uninjured. Coincidence?
There are many Hmong villages in northern Laos (and Vietnam) and we were able to stop at a Hmong village before heading to our next jar site. Most Hmong still live at higher elevations; they raise livestock, grow a few crops (opium, until recently) and greatly value (and preserve) their traditions and culture. The people in the Hmong (prounced "mong", rhymes with song) village that we visited had decided to move down from the hills to the plains because of better healthcare, farming and educational opportunities.
Most of the adults in the village were out in the fields harvesting rice when we arrived but we were able to visit the local primary school where we met a few teachers and some kids. It's a large village with more than 150 families and more than 250
Wandering around the Hmong Village
kids. We must have been pretty terrifying to the kids (there aren't a lot of white tourists here yet) but some were curious and gave us shy smiles. The teachers were very nice and we talked with the head master for a little while before wandering around the village, which was packed with chickens, pigs, dogs, cats. Unlike the lowland Lao, the Hmong's houses sit flush on the ground (not on stilts) and have only one door and no windows (the Hmong believe that bad spirits can come in through doors and windows and so they limit the number of entrances to their homes).
The sunsets here are very beautiful and we wrapped up the day with a visit to the Lao War Memorial, a large stupa-like monument on a hill overlooking the city. It's a bit of a lover's lane and there were some young couples holding hands watching the sunset.
Back to the hotel. We talked with the Aussies again and met a lovely older Italian couple, who have lived all over the world and are now living in Fort Lauderdale. He works in finance but is writing a book about the Hmong as a hobby;
this trip is partially for research.
What a great day! And tomorrow we leave for the capital, Vientiane.
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