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Published: November 6th 2015
We had arranged to be picked up at 9.00 am for our trip to the Plain of Jars. As the brothel party, rowdy roosters and The Cockroach Commotion had done little to induce sleep the night before it was not too difficult to make an early start and we had had breakfast, got yet more kip from the ATM and booked our transport for the next day all before 8.50. There are three main accessible sites for the Jars but as we were having an exclusive guide and the third site was a distance away we decided to focus on just two of them and hopefully be back in time for a restful afternoon.
Our minibus and guide were punctual (a first in Laos!) and after we had collected the guide's sister (we were never clear why - I thought Steve might be in for some sort of proposition later on, but no) we called at the relevant tourism office for the appropriate 'permissions'. Laos likes to keep an eye on what its visitors get up to and, after much form filling-in and a relaxed stroll around their museum displaying the types of UXO dropped on Laos and still being
unearthed now, we were on our way. We were warned to keep within the markers indicating that the route had been cleared of UXOs as there was still a lot of work to do in the area to make it safe.
The first Jars site was the closest and it has the most, and biggest jars. There were remarkably few tourists there, as it is somewhat off the beaten track, with no obvious signage or helpful directions to get you there. We did come across a French couple who shared our coffee table at breakfast that morning, and they had managed to find their way there on motorbikes.
There are several stories about how the jars came into being, some of them mythical and others evidential. It is generally agreed that they date back to the Iron Age. Some argue that they were purely functional liquid storage vessels, dragged there by 'elepants' for some giant's celebration party. If so, it must have been quite some shindig as a lot of the jars are enormous (3 metres high in some cases) and would have held huge quantities of the local brew. Others maintain that they were used as funerary
vessels, following the discovery of human bones and teeth in the area. Maybe there's an element of truth in both versions and a drunken ogre fell into a jar and pickled there. Whatever, the sight of these enormous jars seemingly randomly scattered across a huge green field was quite remarkable. They are hewn from stone and in amazingly good condition considering that the area was blanket bombed during the 'secret war' and craters made by some of those bombs still pockmark the landscape.
Our guide told us, with some indignation, that the Americans had thought the Vietnamese were operating out of this area of Laos during the war and therefore felt justified in dropping vast quantities of ordnance. When asked if it was true that the Vietnamese had based themselves there our guide replied 'Oh, yes'! Another argument goes along the lines of the area being used as a dumping ground for American planes heading back from unsuccessful flight missions and, not wanting to return to base with bombs still on board, they emptied them out over Laos instead. All very sad and, whatever the truth of the matter, the Lao population is still dealing with the consequences with
much land still unusable and at least another 100 years of work anticipated before clearance will be complete. Until then, deaths and debilitating injury from UXO are a regular occurrence.
We braved the several bees' nests which rippled at us in angry waves at the entrance to a cave rumoured to be the actual crematorium associated with the funeral rites theory. Our guide told us to take care not to get stung as this would provoke a swarm and would surely result in Death by Bees. I wasn't sure what positive action I needed to take to avoid that first bee sting so I just hoped they would realise I wasn't worth dying for.
The journey to the second Jars site took us through sparsely populated farmland. Our guide told us that the cows and buffalo are kept for meat, not milk, and the very few horses we saw were used for transport in Laos but some were sold to Vietnam for meat. There were lots of goats and some pigs but no sheep that I saw, and I forgot to ask why that was. Chickens and turkeys are kept to eat. Wild birds are trapped as a
food source to supplement the rice (these are very poor people operating just on the edge and who am I to be judgmental?) but some are kept in cages to attract good fortune. These were a common sight outside houses and businesses throughout Laos and in Phonsavan there appeared to be a day care facility for the caged birds until they were collected by the owners of bars and restaurants in the evening. We were told that wood (timber) export was the biggest trade for Laos. I think I'm right in saying that it is one of the least populous Asian countries and this was clearly apparent in the rural areas.
Our guide sought out a shady tree and left us to explore site 2 on our own. The Lao people laugh at those of us who seek out the sun in search of a tan; they use umbrellas to shade themselves and to encourage a paler skin. (There is a widely sold cosmetic called 'Snailwhite' which is incredibly popular, though with a name like that you have to wonder what the base ingredients are.) Anyhoo, off we went to climb a hill in 90+ degree heat and what
a view we got at the top! There are far fewer Jars here. They are scattered between trees on top of the hill which provides a wonderful 360 degree panorama of the lowlands beneath. There was no-one else there, just the two of us, and it was one of those Magic Moments that I will always remember. We explored the Jars and rested in the shade, soaking up the atmosphere and silence before returning down the hill to our guide and transport. Just amazing.
We returned to Phonsavan via a different route and saw some evidence of economic growth with a gated community of very expensive-looking houses and the building of a huge new library and water park. We had a relaxing afternoon and another meal in Bamboozled that evening where we met the three Germans from our minibus. They, too, were travelling the world but had been on the road for a couple of years rather than just a couple of weeks. They worked when they needed more money and were really interesting to chat to. We developed something of a mutual admiration society - us at them for being brave enough to do it and sod the consequences of no career or regular income and them at us for doing it at our age(!!).
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