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Mysterious Plain of Jars

In the end there were six of us in our little group for our trip to the Plain of Jars. We were kept company by a French couple, who kept themselves pretty much to themselves, Bill (an American doctor) and Apostoles, a Greek chap who we had seen yesterday coming into the hotel to check availability. He had gone to one of the places listed on the main street and not surprisingly did not like the fact the rooms had no windows. He told us that most of the other places in town were not much better either so the Maly definitely sounds like the best option to stay (unless you are on a really tight budget).

Our guide, Soon, is from a Hmong village further north towards the Chinese border. He did not really tell us much about himself, other than that he is thirty, but he seemed very proud of his sister who now lives in America. He spoke very good English and was able to explain the history and background to the local area. It was a short drive in our minibus before we reached the Site One on the Plain of Jars.

The Plain of Jars is so named because at about thirty different sites local people and archaeologists have found huge stone jars. There is debate about what they were originally used for with tow main theories prevailing. The more believable story is that they were used as funeral urns, either for burying bodies or for holding the ashes of cremated people. A more colourful story links them to successful campaigns of a conquering king. It claims that the soldiers would ferment rice in the vats producing huge quantities of rice wine which was then used to celebrate their victories. From the size of the jars if the latter story is true then they would all have been blind drunk all the time and there is no way they could have won at battle!

At the entrance to the first site is a sign from MAG (Mines Advisory Group) confirming that the whole area is still full of unexploded ordnance from the CIA’s secret war in Laos. This war was waged to try and stop the Viet Cong from successfully sending supplies through Laos on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Both Vietnam and the US ignored international agreements about Laos’ neutrality and the upshot was that this whole area of Laos was intensively bombed so much so that by the end of the war half a metric tonne of bombs had been dropped for every person living in Laos, more than was dropped on Germany in World War Two. Although the wars have been over for thirty years, people are still killed and injured by UXO (unexploded ordnance). Children are now taught in school about the different types of ordnance so that they know what to do if they find some and there is still lots lying around.

Markers on the ground show you where a path has been cleared and where it is safe to walk. It is an eerie feeling knowing that wandering out of this path could result in you stepping on a land mine or cluster bomb with nasty results. Unfortunately for the Plain of Jars, the war took place right across this area. Soldiers would hide in the jars and many have been peppered by gunfire, with bullets still lodged in some of them. Inevitably it means that many of the jars are damaged and broken but you still get a sense of awe at the site.

The war is ever present here though. The town’s airport was built by the Russians and the complex they used to house their spies is clearly visible on the landscape. Ironically, changes at home meant that they abandoned Laos before they completed the passenger terminal which is why it is still just a small shed like building. All around Phonsavon there are bomb craters clearly visible, some now overgrown or silted up with rainwater but others looking fresh and as if they were created just a few days ago. Within site 1 itself there is also a cave that the Viet Cong used as a command base during the war. Soen showed us where the senior officers used to sit and work out their strategy while others cooked food using petrol for fuel as it gives off no smoke.

Site one is split into two main sections. The path from the entrance leads slightly uphill and this is where some of the largest jars are found. Archaeologists believe that they were carved out of rock in a quarry about twenty kilometres away and were transported across the valley by elephant but there is no certain way of knowing if this is true. Some of the jars are almost two metres high and one metre wide so they would have made a pretty heavy load. Down at the base of the hill, near the Viet Cong command cave, there are a lot more jars all smaller in size. On one the silhouette of a dancing person can still just be made out, giving weight to the theory that the jars were used for celebrations rather than funerals.

The path winds back up another small hill from where you can get good views across Site One and the valley stretching out below. The area is still very remote and rural in modern terms. The town of Phonsovan only got mains electricity four years ago and most of the surrounding villages have no electricity or running water. If you are a local here and want some land you can simply go and stake out a plot that no one else is using and have it registered as your own.

Shells (centre) used as stilts in villages

Site Two was a short drive away off on a bumpy untarmaced road. A path leads up from the road for a short walk up a hill to a small collection of jars under some trees. Our guide Soon told us that local people had been coming here for years and standing in the middle of the jars totally unaware that they were standing on top of a large bomb that MAG, metal detectors in hand, discovered when they surveyed the site. The jars used to all have lids on them, huge stone slabs with a spiral decoration on the top. Before the importance of the sites was known, local people came and took the lids, carving them up into smaller pieces to use as bases for the wooden stilts of their houses. The stone stops termites being able to eat away the wood.

Across the road on another small hill are more stones, a second part of Site Two. From here we walked up to another hill and down to the village of Ban Xieng Di. It was a short walk, about an hour, but baking hot in the heat of the midday sun. Along the way we passed one of the traps the local people use to catch swallows. They conceal nets under a layer of dust and watch from a distance until a swallow comes to take a dust bath. They then haul in the nets to catch the bird which is killed, plucked and then fermented. Apparently it’s a rather pungent local speciality to eat, one that the people who run our hotel enjoy but our guide does not.

As we walked to the top of the hill Soen called out to some young girls who were pursuing their normal Sunday afternoon hobby – scouring the hillsides to find bombs and other bits of metal to sell for scrap. A metal recycling factory set up in town a few years ago and since then the nearby hills have been pretty much cleared out of any left over bits of planes, tanks, bullets, bombs and other military paraphernalia. They turned out their bags to show a collection of bullets, many still live. It was not far from here that Soen showed us an unexploded cluster bomb. We all gave it a wide berth but behind us were two young chaps, one Dutch, one Swiss, who came closing to nudging it with their feet.

The area around the top of the hill is also full of foxholes used by the Viet Cong army to hide and watch the enemy go by. From one of these story has it that a local man shot down an American plane with his rifle. We were showed the site of another plane crash. All that remains is a scar on the landscape, the metal has long since been recycled. Walking down the other side of the hill there is a small cemetery with a handful of white and gold stupas set among the fields.

In the village a small cabin has been pulled together to provide lunch for people “doing” the jars. There are only western people eating in there, the drivers and guides are on a little patio out the back by the kitchen, and the menu is noodle soup – meat or no meat. It provides a welcome break away from the heat of the sun but before long we are off again to see Site Three. Two rickety bamboo bridges cross a small stream one of which gets flooded in the rainy season and cannot be used. We were then off through the rice fields, dry and bare at this time of year. As with the walk from Site Two to the village this whole area is potentially full of UXO so the guidance is to only walk on well trodden paths, the logic being that any bombs there would have blown long ago.

As we neared Site Three I slipped and fell and watched as our zoom camera lens went flying out of my bag and landed nice and squarely in the middle of a muddy stream. Needless to say it is knackered as even if the water and condensation inside it eventually do dry out it makes a horrible grating sound as the dust that has got inside gets squashed up a bit. Site Three seemed more peaceful and serene than the other two. It had a bamboo fence surrounding it and like Site Two benefited from shade from trees. Here the jars were quite small compared to those we had seen earlier in the day.

Back down in the village we were walked along and through some of the local houses. They are all wooden stilt houses but in quite a few the stilts themselves were made from old bomb casings rather than wood. I think each house we saw had bombs and/or bits of planes in active service in one way or another. Under the house turkeys, chickens, cats and other animals lived, the turkeys being in fine form fluffing up their feathers and strutting around making strange noises. The houses themselves were large and each had several different buildings that were used for storing food and wood.

From the village we worked our way back to Phonsavan, stopping en route to see the wreck of a Russian tank. Only the main body is left now, the rest (tracks, guns, and interior) all having been stripped away a long time ago. Soen said that the locals wanted to keep the tank because it brought tourists here so they stopped people taking it away for scrap. Newspaper clippings back at the hotel tell a different story – Mr Sousath himself pays the locals an annual retainer to prevent them from scrapping the tank

The people from the village where the tank rests had built a cave into the hillside that they could use to hide in when bombers were overhead. On a day when they were all out in the fields, the tank came by and drove across the top of the cave which collapsed under its weight. The tank could not get out of the hole and it was simply abandoned by its crew. As we drove back into town piles of concrete pylons were stacked at intervals along the road. Mains electricity is on its way. It has the potential to radically change the lives of the people here but I wonder how much of a difference it will make to their way of life.