Hintang – A Near Death Experience

Part two of my road trip from Thailand to Lao.

You could be forgiven for thinking you’re standing at Stonehenge or any one of Britain’s finest megalithic sights, but no you’re in Lao, atop a mountain, kilometres from the nearest village in one of the remotest corners of the world. Hintang is South East Asia’s only major collection of Menhirs (Standing Stones) and it’s a good one even by UK standards.

Over a hundred slate stones half fallen clustered together in an area little larger than a tennis court. The stones range in height from 1 metre to three and are clustered together in little groups. It is older than the Plain of Jars, estimates are between 1000 BCE to 500 CE. Any knowledge of the culture that built them has long been lost but along the ground huge circular stones cover barrow burials, the round tomb lids are very similar to the ones found at the Plain of Jars but are not carved. The site predates metal tools and it may the people moved on from erecting menhirs to carving Jars after iron tools came along.

Like with the plain of Jars this is only one of hundreds of sites spread over the surrounding area. The site probably won’t last long as the just completed American dirt road is too close and has already caused some of the stones near it to fall over. When it turns to mush in the wet season some serious damage will occur and in subsequent years?

The site was excavated once in the 1930 by a French team though the Lao government has censored the word ‘French’ on the site’s only sign, to rub the hated French out of their history and did it so people like me couldn’t mention them in blogs like this. I guess the next sign won’t mention them at all.

Amazing stuff Huh!

However I hasten to add it’s 3pm in the afternoon, I’m alone, 90 minutes walk from the road, 3 hours drive from the nearest town, wearing a t-shirt, the temperature will be below freezing soon and I’ve no idea even if any busses will come along the remote road when I get there. How did I end up in this predicament?

………. It all started at the National Museum in Vientiane, not a bad little museum up until after WWII where history disappears and anti French propaganda takes over. Wandering through the quite good prehistory department I stumbled on a small collection of menhirs, the first I’ve heard of in SE Asia. I mentally noted the obscure site name Hintang and resolved to try and find whereabouts in Lao it was.

A couple of weeks later my resolution long forgotten serendipity intervened. I was travelling on a bus down a windy little eastern Lao back road near the Vietnam border; between the pretty little village of Nam Noem, well worth a short stay in the village’s only guest house for the stunning river views alone and the ugly town of Xam Neua, a great place to give a miss, especially considering the stunning Vietnam border town Viang Xai is just two hours further up the road. The journey between the two on a windy mountain round is 6-7 hours and just about the most beautiful in SE Asia. Dozens of roadside hill tribe villages go about life ignoring the busses whizzing through their centre, valleys filled with rainforests and morning mist inspire awe at every bend and the green peaks rise up between the clouds.

It was looking out the window almost exactly halfway through the 6 hour journey that I caught a fleeting glimpse of a dirt road disappearing up a mountain and a sign outside saying Hintang. From that moment reason went on hold and I decided to return to explore the site.

Two days later at 9am I was boarding a bus at Xam Neua bus station Nam Noen bound. I told the driver where I was going and 2:45 mins later he stopped the bus I landed beside the dirt road leaving the bemused Lao passengers wandering why I was getting off in the middle of nowhere. There was hill tribe village on the road beside the entrance, I had a quick wander over but there were just houses, nowhere to buy provisions.

Next I began to walk up the dirt road, it was quite steep but after a while I got to the top, then descended a valley, it was midday and beginning to get hot. It then struck me for the first time I had no idea how far along the dirt road the site actually was, it could be 30km for all I know, 0/10 for planning

A bit further down the valley ended and it was back to a steep hill again. I passed an old Hmong couple in traditional dress speaking some strange tongue walking up the hill but with the heat and distance I began to need periods of rest on the endless steep climb and was soon overtaken by them again as I sat roadside knackered.

Checking the time it was approaching one o’clock, I’d been walking an hour and fifteen minutes still with no idea how far I had to go. I guessed walking downhill back I could do it in 45 mins. Getting home was always going to be a risk, my plan if you can call it that was to sit on the road and hope a bus came along. I had no idea what time busses passed the entrance or even if any did that afternoon or evening. Busses weren’t too common on that road and worse than that from about 4pm the weather cooled, by five it was cold and about 6 or 7 in the evening temperatures dropped down to sub zero. I planned to get to the road by 3pm to wait for a bus to be on the safe side. Plan B was to hope someone would put me up in the hilltribe village.

I ploughed on and finally reached the peak of the mountain and another downhill stretch of road came along and also a site for sore eyes, a crossroads with a road sign. One way went to the Hmong village the other to Hintang just two more kilometres.

I caught first glimpse of the site at about 1:45; having been inside Stonehenge with a small group of archaeologists a few months earlier it takes something to impress me and Hintang did just that. Instantly the hell getting there and worry of how to get back dissolved away into insignificance compared to not seeing this site. It was completely deserted and spent about half an hour just wondering around taking photos and feeling the wonder of the place.

Later a couple of Lao girls came along about 13-14 years old. They asked me if I spoke Lao, I asked them if they spoke Thai, one did, well, and we chatted for a good twenty minutes. They lived in one of a few surrounding farms and were out collecting firewood.

It was getting on to three o’clock I had been there for over an hour and a half and reluctantly I started to head home. I got about half an hour down the dirt track when I heard a vehicle coming up, it contained a Dutch guy and his Thai girlfriend, seeing me they stopped looking surprised, they were driving back to Xam Neua after visiting the site and offered me a ride. So I got to go back to the site and spend another hour there, a meal and lift back home safely. Fortune favours the brave (or stupid).

The Dutch guy worked for UNESCO and was the former manager of the Plain of Jars who that week had taken over as manager of Hintang to develop it for tourism and was visiting his charge for the first time completely surprised to find a tourist there. On the drive back I learnt an awful lot about how UNESCO runs tourism in Lao, about the Hintang site and the Plain of Jars. Definitely one of the stranger days of my life.

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