Phonsavan and The Plain of Jars - Laos

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March 21st 2015
Published: March 21st 2015
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My pickup finally arrived at Laos Haven Hotel, half an hour late, in a beat-up old bus. He dropped me off at the bus station where I was told as I was the only person travelling from Vang Vieng to Phonsavan that day, I had to wait for the local bus travelling through from Vientiane to arrive. I couldn't pin him down to an arrival time - 'sometimes early, sometimes late' is as good as it got.

So, the ticket I bought for a seat on an air conditioned mini bus has now become a much cheaper seat on an un-airconditioned local bus, but nothing I can do about that. When it finally arrived, I was relieved to see one vacant seat along the back row, which I claimed, and I was the only Westerner on board. Over the course of the journey we picked up other locals who had to sit on plastic stools in the aisle. Not a good way to sit on a bus which spent the majority of the trip crawling around mountain roads, tossing passengers from side to side. My heart went out to the girl in a seat in front of me, she must have suffered from motion sickness as she was throwing up out the window and obviously wasn't well.

It took seven hours to drive 235klm, which gives you an idea of just how winding the road was as it climbed through the mountains. No speed records set, that's for sure. I was so relieved to get out of that bus when we arrived. I didn't have any accomodation booked but had written down a couple of possibilities, so had a songthaew driver drop me at Nice Guesthouse where, thankfully they had a room. Nice is probably pushing it....basic boarding on shabby would be a better description, no air conditioning and no breakfast included. But for $AUD13 a night, I'm not going to push too hard.

Phonsavan is the capital of Xieng Khuang province and is famous for two reasons - firstly, it is one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos, and that's saying something in the most heavily bombed country in the world. Today the region remains littered with unexploded ordinance (UXO) and the evidence is everywhere. The resourceful locals use bombs casings, mainly from cluster bombs, and other war remnants for every purpose possible - fences,
Hmong Village outside PhonsavanHmong Village outside PhonsavanHmong Village outside Phonsavan

Cluster bomb casings used as stilts
home stilts, vegetable planters, decoration and barbecues. The sheer number of UXO in this region also promotes a cycle of poverty. Farmers won't till virgin land to extend their crops, as they run the risk of being maimed or killed if they hit UXO with their tools.

The second claim to fame for Phonsavan is the reason for my visit - The Plain of Jars.

Giant limestone jars of unknown ancient origin are scattered over hundreds of square kilometres around Phonsovan, and have given the area the name -The Plain of Jars. But what is most fascinating about these jars is the mystery of which civilisation created them. Nobody knows exactly when they were created or what they were used for. Speculation abounds but UNESCO supports the theory that they were burial urns, even though human remains were only actually discovered in one of them. Archaeologists estimate they date from the SE Asian iron age, between 500BC and 200AD.

Smaller jars have long since disappeared but thousands of larger jars, jar fragments and the circular grave markers remain. As the region was carpet-bombed throughout the Indochina wars, it's miraculous that so many jars survived. Only a handful
Hmong Village outside PhonsavanHmong Village outside PhonsavanHmong Village outside Phonsavan

A big pile of cluster bomb casings
of the 90 recorded jar sites have so far been cleared of UXO, and then only within relatively limited areas. These sites, and their access paths, are marked out with red-and-white marker stones. It's advised to stay between the markers to avoid any nasty accidents. Sites 1, 2 and 3 are the closest to Phonsavan and are the three I was hoping to visit.

I've decided to stay only one full day here and need to get a tour to The Plain of Jars sorted super early on Thursday morning, or I was going to miss out. I also needed to buy a bus ticket to Vientiane, Laos's capital city and my next port of call.

I enquired at the reception desk, no tours today. I asked a couple of songthaew drivers if they would take me out, they shook their heads. The best option for me was to try and join a group tour organised by a travel agency. I asked around but wasn't having much luck, 'not many tourists' was a phrase I heard more than once. Eventually I walked into the agency at the front of the White Orchid Hotel and they had a trip I could
Hmong Village KidsHmong Village KidsHmong Village Kids

The girl has her younger sibling strapping to her back.
join. It was this or nothing it seemed, so I grabbed it. It wasn't cheap at $AUD78, and we weren't visiting Site 3 which I was disappointed about, but a couple of other stops were on the agenda to fill out the day.

There was only 3 of us on this trip, myself and two guys who didn't speak English, and we left Phonsavan in an air conditioned van, bound for an Hmong village about 25klm out of town. I had visited an Hmong village on a day trip from Luang Prabang, but this village was a little different. Here the remnants of war were clearly evident....cluster bomb casings were being used for home stilts, planters and even a barbeque. Our guide said many of the casings have been replaced with timber and sold by the villagers for scrap metal. It's only worth around 20 cents a kilo, but is another form of income for them.

Whilst in the village we also saw a woman making paper from bamboo pulp and ash. The huge sheets (see photo) are worth around $1 each, not much back for the work involved, but another form of income.

A pig had also been killed that morning and the men were getting it ready to be smoked. A dog sniffed around a rice bag on the ground, which was covered in bristly black pig hairs, obviously scrapped from the now denuded and very white dead pig. Sometimes you never know what you're going to see when you walk into villages...

Next stop was Muang Khoun, a small town which once was the provincial capital of Xieng Khuang, about 30klm outside Phonsavan. The attraction here was the buddha at Wat Piawat, which is nothing more than a ruin these days, as the building was destroyed by enemy fire during the Indochina Wars. The buddha also bears the scars of war.

Next stop was That Foun Stupa, a 30 metre tall brick stupa in the centre of town. It was built in the late 1500's and also bears the scars of war, albeit a much early one. A cave like hole had been burrowed right through the base of the stupa by rampaging Chinese bandits, hoping to find gold inside.

Site 2 is the first Plain of Jars site we're visiting, as it's further from town than Site 1. Once we'd left the main road and turned onto the rough, washed away or corrugated, stony road to Site Two, I understood why no songshaew driver would bring me out. This road was no place for a three wheeled vehicle, in fact some sections would be downright impassable. My guide said no tours come out in the wet, the road is out of action.

This site hasn't been turned into a tourist attraction as such. Site Two is serviced by that dreadful dusty road, a very modest ticket office, a local eatery and two squat toilets. The jar site was a little further away, so after lunch we drove there, parked under a tree and walked the roughly constructed brick steps to the top of a hill. There are about 90 jars at this site which is in two sections, within easy walking distance. The jars are weathered, some standing upright, some leaning, some fallen over, some broken. Look inside and you can see chisel marks made by some ancient tool.

Site One, the closest to Phonsavan, is better serviced with a modern Information Centre and an electric people mover to get us to the jars. Point of entry is at the top of a hill with great views of the countryside and other jars further away. There is a cave at Site 1, a natural limestone cave with an opening visible from the jars, with two man-made holes at the top. These holes are interpreted as chimneys of a crematorium. French archaeologist Madeleine Colani excavated inside the cave in the early 1930s and found material to support this theory.

More than 90 jar sites are known within the province of Xieng Khuang. Each site ranges from 1 to 400 jars. Most of them remain out of bounds as they haven't been cleared of UXO. The jars vary in height and diameter between 1 and 3 metres and are all hewn out of rock. The shape is cylindrical with the bottom always wider than the top. The stone jars are undecorated with the exception of a single jar at Site 1.

Most of the jars have rims, so it's presumed that they once had lids, although few stone lids have ever been recorded. This may suggest that the bulk were fashioned from perishable materials. Stone discs, big enough to be mistaken for lids, lie on the ground around the jars and they are believed to be grave markers.

I am so pleased I come here. There were no other visitors at the sites whilst our group was there so I was able to ramble around, touch the jars, peer inside them and wish I knew why they were created, without the distracting presence, and noise, of other people.
All to soon, the visit is over and we return to town. I have purchased my bus ticket to the Lao capital of Vientiane and will be leaving tomorrow morning.

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


The Plain of Jars - Site 1The Plain of Jars - Site 1
The Plain of Jars - Site 1

Stone grave marker, easily mistaken for a jar lid.

21st March 2015

Good Memories!
Thanks for bringing back some good memories for us from a couple of years back. I remember well the winding roads and people being sick out the window. We only went to Site 1, but had a nice visit with people in the town, especially at night after the towns power went out. I remember we ate at a nice little Indian restaurant on the main street. Good reading and thanks for reminding us of good times had.

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