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Published: August 21st 2017
Before coming to Laos over one month ago, I was naively unaware of the many historical treasures that this country holds. In Vientiane, the current capital of Laos, one will find the Patuxai, an "Arc de Triomphe"-like structure built between 1957 and 1968 to commemorate the independence of Laos from France in 1949. Similarly, in Luang Prabang, one will find numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries in a city that was once the royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos until the Pathet Lao (a communist political movement and organization) took it over in 1975.
But this past weekend, I traveled to Xieng Khouang, a province of Laos that is far less frequented than either Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Yet, despite its relative lack of attention from tourists, Xieng Khouang is home to a dizzying array of historical landmarks that range from rare archeological relics that shed light on mysterious ancient cultures to modern remnants of the American aerial bombardment of Laos during the Second Indochina (or "Vietnam") War. But what is perhaps most fascinating about this region is the co-existence of these ancient and modern historical relics--often, literally, on the very same spot.
Xieng Khouang is most well-known for
...at Mulberries Organic Silk Farm.
the Plain of Jars, a collection of more than 90 sites across Xiang Khouang, each of which is filled with anywhere from 1 to 400 large jars made of limestone (which is not indigenous to the region) as well as sandstone, granite, conglomerate, or breccia. How the limestone made its way to Laos is anyone's guess. The precise purpose of these jars remains a mystery to this day. Local folklore claims that they were used in the 6th century CE to hold rice wine during a massive feast following the military defeat of an evil local chieftain. More recently, the French geologist and archeologist Madeleine Colani claimed in the 1930s that burnt teeth and bone fragments found around many of the sites suggest that they were used as crematoriums for the nearby villages. It is possible that one, both, or none of these theories is correct. Regardless, they represent one of the few physical remnants of an ancient civilization, or civilizations, that inhabited the Xieng Khouang plateau during the Bronze and Iron ages from 500 BCE to 500 CE.
But the mysterious Plain of Jars is just the beginning of this region's remarkable, idiosyncratic story. More recently, during the
Wat Pia Vat
The only Buddhist temple to survive the bombings of the Vietnam War in the old capital of Muang Khun.
Second Indochina War (or Vietnan War), the same plains that housed these jars also served as the trenches for the communist Pathet Lao and as a refuge for some of the North Vietnamese traveling along the Ho Chi Minh trail. As a result, the area served as the target for literally thousands of American air raids against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese, which littered the plateau with millions of cluster bombs, approximately 30% of which remain undetonated to this day. Due to these raids, the Plain of Jars is now covered with innumerable mini-craters that are the topographical remnants of those bombs that did explode. In many cases, the craters lie just inches away from some of the largest and most intact of the jars.
It is estimated that over 80 million unexploded ordinances/bombs (or "UXO") currently exist in Laos, with most being located either in Xieng Khouang province in the north or Savannakhet province in the south. It is perhaps for this reason that Xieng Khouang is less popular among tourists than areas like Vientiane and Luang Prabang. But if you're thinking about visiting Xieng Khouang, you should not be discouraged by this fact. Since 1994, the
UK-based non-governmental organization Mines Advisory Group (or "MAG" for short) has been working tirelessly to survey, demarcate, and (when appropriate) detonate the remaining UXOs in the most heavily bombarded regions of the country, including Xieng Khouang. The organization has also helped to train and create a national Lao UXO organization, which continues the work of detonating UXOs around the country. In 2007, for example, MAG and Lao UXO located and destroyed 6,460 items of UXO in an area of Xieng Khouang that was then able to be utilized for agriculture, drainage canals, water wells, schools, hospitals, and the building of roads. More recently, the teams have also been working with UNESCO to make sure that all of the most important jar sites have been cleared of UXO to promote tourism in preparation for the UNESCO's possible recognition of the Plain of Jars as a World Heritage Site.
The layered past of Xieng Khouang province gives the region an ancient and modern historical significance that seems to me to be unparalleled anywhere else in the country--arguably, the world. But if history is not your thing, rest assured that there are lots of other appealing aspects of this area, from learning
Crater in front of jars
from Plain of Jars Site 1
how to weave silk in the Mulberries Organic Silk Farm of Phonsavan to relaxing in the hot springs of Muang Kham right off of Route 7. The area appears to be growing and developing quite rapidly, and I have little doubt that it will continue to thrive in the coming years, particularly with the help of a new, burgeoning tourism sector.
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