Plain of Jars – Now & Then

Fourteen year ago I crossed the border from Thailand into Lao for the first time and visited the Plain of Jars, then one of the remotest places on earth. Over the next few years I was to cross the Thai/Lao border a further six times, these visits finished 11 years ago. Many times I considered going back but was always put off by not wanting to spoil my memories of this idyllic little rural nation. A few months ago though I bit the bullet and returned to Lao for a month, one of the places high on my itinerary was a return to the Plain of Jars.

This article is a comparison of my journey there fourteen years ago and now. It is split into two parts, first an article I wrote for travel magazines on my trip, followed by a blog of my recent journey.

Xieng Khouang – The Plain of Jars (as printed 14 years ago)

Located near Phonsavan in the mountainous north east of Lao, Xieng Khouang Plain houses one of the world’s great enduring mysteries and hides one of it‘s darkest secrets. The World Heritage Site is officially rated one of the most dangerous places on earth to visit and due its isolation is one of the most inaccessible. To those who persevere though the reward of an ethereal experience awaits, wandering fenceless and alone amongst a site of the magnitude of Stonehenge or the Acropolis without tour bus, digital camcorder or even another sole in sight.

With only dirt roads and bandits residing between the capital Vientaine and the jars, travelling to Xieng Khouang by road is not easy. Getting there healthy and in one piece in the hot season after two days bouncing aback a bus-truck on dusty dirt roads is a feat in itself. In wet season the roads flood and the slowboat provides a more comfortably and lethargic two week journey. For the more brave souls in a hurry, a third option of a two-hour domestic plane ride is available. Landing on a misty mountain airstrip with no ground radar and rated the second most dangerous landing in the world. But don’t worry as the sign over the door of the boarding gate reassures you, each passenger is insured free of charge to the value of $250, and in somewhat smaller print the qualification, paid out in the local mushy currency, which is aplenty to cover the burial each and of every bit of you they find.

The Slow Boat and a Lao (wooden bench) Bus

The jars are spread over a wide of area of Xieng Khouang Plain. Sixty sites have been uncovered so far, the largest containing over two hundred and fifty jars. The only real springboard for a visit is the shrapnel strewn town of Phonsavan, a dirt road in the middle of hell, which has the serendipity to vegetate slap in middle of jar central.

Visiting the jars is difficult, only three of the sixty sites are clear enough of US ordinance to be considered safe to visit. Left over ordinance is a real problem in the area. During the Vietnam War the peasant farmers of the area lived years under a holocaust of US bombers. On this neutral country from 1964 to 1973, the US Airforce flew almost 600,000 bombing missions, one every 9 minutes for 10 years. More ordinance was dropped on this tiny country than dropped by all sides in the whole of World War II. In the genocide the United States dropped hundreds of thousands 340-kilogram bombs and 100 million cluster bombs killing nearly a quarter of the population of the whole country. Between ten and thirty percent of the bombs did not explode, leaving 8 million to 24 million unexploded bombs scattered across the country today killing and maiming up to a thousand locals, mostly children, each and every year since the war ended.

One of the great miracles of the war is that the jars, in the middle of the area of most intensive bombing, survived intact.

Bomb Craters Scattered across Xieng Khoung

There are no hard fast rules with the plain of Jars, they evocatively defy modern science and remain one of the few enduring mysteries of the world. With nothing being known about their use and construction, even the people who constructed them remain a tantalizing mystery.

Archaeological evidence is sketchy but suggests they were built between 500 and 800CE, though a recent Lao study pushes the date back another 500 years. The jars are made mostly of sandstone, however other rocks such as coral and granite are occasionally used. The jars sites seem to be in a long line, some archaeologists suggest they were along an ancient trade route to India.

The sixty sites can range from a few jars widely spread apart to large cluster of tens or over a hundred jars. The largest site lies just outside of Phonsavan containing more than two hundred and fifty jars and the largest jar, two metres high and another two metres wide. Researchers disagree on what the jars are for. The collection of rainwater for travellers and rice storage urns were some early favourite ideas. Evidence of bodies, ashes and residue of intense heat has been found inside a local cave that shows signs of being used as a crematorium, so it’s recently been suggested they were funeral urns.

Local legend also offers an explanation; a legendary King named Khun Jeuam led his army from China to fight the local race of giants. Victorious he had the jars constructed to ferment rice wine to celebrate his victory in battle. Failure to work out how an ancient people managed to carve the jars out of such hard material leads some people to support the local legend the jars are man made from soft clay then heated in a local cave used as a kiln.

As Lao becomes more assessable, so will the Plain of Jars, already many backpackers make the trip each year. Many jars are now being damaged as locals chip pieces off to sell to the tourists. Xieng Khouang is destined to become another Taj Mahal or Coliseum as thousands of tourists head there in an attempt to get away from thousands of tourists, but for now and the near future it will remain an isolated Xanadu.

The Plain of Jars – Today

It’s been over a decade years since I visited one of the last ‘remote’ places on Earth. As the years have passed I have followed the opening up of Lao, modern roads have been built and borders opened. Trade with Thailand, Japan, China and Asean flowing freely, electricity has become widespread and the roads are no-longer dirt.

When I visited 14 years ago a monthly maximum tourist visa quota was enforced at the Lao embassy in Bangkok, on a good month they would issue 50 or 100 on bad one 20 or even none. With visas lasting two weeks you could be sure you were one of only a dozen tourists at any one time in a country with a population of 4 million. Last year 1.7 million tourists visited the 6 million Lao. It took tourism 30 years to ruin Thailand and Vietnam, but they have huge populations, Lao with just 6 million the process could be very quick indeed.

To my pleasant surprise it isn’t as bad as the worst case scenario I had envisaged, the Lao Don so sparsely populated has evolved its own evil twin of the Khao San road and a few small more expensive resorts have popped up, but the land is largely unspoilt apart from the Lao government’s fencing off of just about anything they can put an exorbitant by any standards tourist entrance fee on, half of which are so poor they really should pay you to go and visit them. Some attempts at screwing tourist geld are pretty laughable as they bend over backwards to try and deny tourists the sight of one of the largest waterfalls in Asia from any potential location near or far without handing over cash. The tourist centres have also caught on to the vulnerability of tourists in currency exchange as they try and charge 180 baht for 20 baht imported Thai ice lollies to foreigners and 30 baht to locals.

The towns of the south also all have their tourist areas but are nowhere near approaching abominations such as Pai. Lamprabang and the tiny little village of Vang Vieng were really the only two places I visited which had become monstrosities. Lamprabang with its Chang Mai style market was booming attracting Thai shoppers and upmarket backpackers. Its pretty French buildings are about the only free view in the city which recently forcibly expelled poor people for selling street food so wealthy restaurateurs can continue charging four to five times the price for food as in the rest of Lao, glad to see communism works. Vang Vieng used to be a tiny village with two guest houses and one of the most stunning views in Lao. The view no-longer exists except to people on the balconies of the row of expensive hotels that make the view inaccessible. The village has doubled in size and resembles Ko Pang Ngan, most tourists seeming to go there solely to watch Seinfeld blasting out on the TV in bars at 10am in the morning. Vientiane now much more pricey than Bangkok has so far proved large enough to absorb the tourists in a small corner.

It wasn’t until I arrived in Phonsavan I truly felt I was back in Lao. The east of Lao so far has largely avoided the tourist boom and is much prettier than the north to boot.

Phonsavan once so dangerous to get to is now reachable bandit-free by road from Vientiane or the gaudy Vang Vieng by bus along a new tar road. If you take the day option it is 8 – 10 hours of the most stunning unspoilt country you’ll ever see, one can understand why the bandits wanted to keep the road to themselves for so long.

The bus starts out from Vientiane if you board at Vang Vieng the already packed bus, you may have to stand all the way. I borded in Vang Vieng but can read enough Thai to read the sign in Lao on the front saying Phonsavan. I ran towards it before anyone else realised it was the correct bus and got the last seat. The slowest onboard had to stand the whole way, still they’re young and will learn.

Phonsavan as ugly as ever, Lao bus complete with motor cycle and standing Germans

Phonsavan has lost none of its lack of charm and but now boasts a tarmac road, it also has Chrissy’s restaurant the best food in Lao serving quadruple size portions. Despite the new pristine roads in town, a few flashy new buildings and a non-working internet shop, the town is as reassuring ugly as ever perhaps even more ugly as it no-longer has the 9pm curfew it had 14 years ago so you get to see it even more often. Around the town are little more than dirt roads and wooden shacks unfeasibly clinging to the side of mountains and lots of UXBs.

Up until 2008 there were still only three jar sites cleared of ordinance, as of 2009 three more sites have opened dubbed sites 4, 5 and 6, one of these new sites being larger than main site 1 beside Phonsavan and with huger jars. However the new sites are far away and not near one another, so it’s a day trip from Phonsovan to any new one or the option of the traditional 1, 2 and 3 sites in one day.

Travelling to the Plain of Jars has changed little in the intervening years, other than the newly constructed entrances to them, two with car parks, one with a Turkey noodle shop, which means for plains 2 and 3 hidden far from the road you can find them without a local guide if you fancy driving there yourself, something it is now legal to do, though the guides in Phonsavan will tell you otherwise.

The ride to site 2 and 3 is still a slow crawl over bumpy dirt tracks and site three includes a walk through rice farms weaving in and out of water buffalo and chickens as you go. The plains themselves have lost a few jars to collectors of whole jars and many have been chipped or smashed for souvenir pieces, though the guides no longer carry hammers around to chip pieces of for their parties.

Rimology the new science

The Plain of Jars is very much now on the beaten track. The days of jar hugging for hours on end without another soul in sight is long resigned to the past, even the remote 2 and 3 sites have many dozen of visitors each day. Site 1 still carries a little grounding in reality though as it is surrounded by red ground markers showing where the UXBs start.

Still no thorough explanation of the jars exist, but thanks to recent archaeological work more is known of the plains. It’s almost certain they were funeral earns, ashes found in the jars. Intriguingly, rimology is the new science, the jars have three distinct categories of rims and trying to predict what lids the jars had the new lottery. Do the rims indicate different builders or eras, different lids indicate more ornate lids for richer diseased.

Grave marker on ground and placed upon jar, they are not lids.

The jar lids were they made of wood, hide or cloth, however several jars appear to have stone lids on top of them. There are more of these heavy stones on the ground. The guides will tell you these are lids that have fallen off jars. This is quite untrue, the stones were placed on top of the jars recently and are in fact burial marker stones. These stone are found in other parts of Lao too and are correctly found laying flat on the ground.

Only one of the jars has any kind of marking on it, a carving. Whether it is contemporary is unknown. The site was also the scene of many battles between government forces and the Pathet Lao, many jars sporting bullet holes. Many Jars also show more recent damage, this is guides in the past have chipped off lumps of jar for visitors.

Recent damage, Site 1 beyond here be UXBs, Jar with carving, Jar with bullet holes.

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3 responses to “Plain of Jars – Now & Then

  1. Lovely pictures. Interestingly, you’re worried about exposing the site to tourism and yet you’re also blogging about it to the world. This is what’s called the ‘Attenborough Dilemma’.

    I’ll drop in there and collect a few samples if I’m in the area 😉

  2. Stephen Cleary

    That’s one whopper blog. Excellent read. Makes me remember a few months back when chatting to Paul about Vang Viang in Laos. We had first been there, in was it? 1996? In those days this ‘village’ had something like 3/4 totally basic guesthouses. With only one shack in the early evening where you could get a jug of Beer Lao.

    Nowadays though, Vang Viang is the Khao Sarn Road of Laos!

  3. I still have some pics of Vang Viang from back then, though if a person who had lived in Vang Viang for the last six months saw them they wouldn’t be able to recognise the place from them. It has to be the most changed place I’ve ever encountered.

    It’s still amazing to think the whole river bank was grass you could walk along with nothing but a few wooden shacks.