After a 7 hour minivan trip from Luang Prabang that winded and twisted and turned for 250kms high into the mountains, to say we were extremely relieved to finally reach Phonsavan was an understatement.
The first two hundred kilometres of this journey twists and turns as you climb into the mountain ranges with barely any straight roads longer than 50m at a time. The scenery is breathtaking on the journey however the constant uneasiness in your stomach is anything but. Without a doubt we would recommend that if you have the funds available to fly, then definitely do so! This destination was mainly added to our list to visit the Plain of Jars, however as we learnt during our time here, there is certainly a lot more to see in this region. Unfortunately with only 3 nights and 2 full days in Phonsavan we were going to have to leave a bit unseen.
Our per-arranged transfer through our guesthouse, Pukyo was with a local guide, Mr Vang, who offers a range of tours around the region. With four other guests having arrived at the guesthouse the same day we all decided on one of his tours, meaning together we could share the cost for the day which came to $20 USD ($30.18 NZD) per adult (the children were free). The tour would take us to the three main Plain of Jars sites along with the old city (Muang Khoun) which was heavily bombed during the secret war by American forces.
Plain of Jars
Mr Vang had recommended we visit the sites in the reverse order hoping to avoid the crowds, especially at Site 1. This recommendation proved spot on during the day and as we arrived at our first site of the day, Site 3, not a soul was to be seen. Mr Vang first gave us a quick safety brief advising us that there are still UXO’s (unexploded ordnances) in the area so we needed to stick to the paths and between the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) markers. We also noticed the New Zealand Aid logo on a lot of the signs and found out that New Zealand have donated funds, and continue to do so, towards mine clearance throughout Laos. This made us extremely proud to be Kiwis, with even Mr Vang thanking us for what we have done as a nation to help his province.
We then enjoyed a short walk through some very scenic rice fields and up onto the hillside, at the site Mr Vang spoke about the history of the Plain of Jars and Laos. It was incredibly heartbreaking to hear of the damage and loss done to this country and in particular Phonsovan, who suffered some of the heaviest bombing in Laos. We heard how our guide had many friends who were seriously injured or died as a result of UXO’s when he was a child and you could see this was still a very emotional subject for him in the way he spoke.
The jars date back to between 2000 and 3000 years ago, with each separate jar being brought over 10kms from a quarry at the base of a nearby mountain range. The jars are of varying sizes, with the largest that we saw close to three meters in height and weighing several tonnes. The feat of moving them to their current locations is amazing enough, however the exact reasoning for them still remains somewhat of a mystery, even today.
The most likely, and scientific explanation, is that they were used as a burial urn, with archeologists having discovered bones at the base of some jars with personal effects such as smaller urns. Given the size of the jars it is possible that each jar was for a family group with each deceased member being able to lay eternally with their previously fallen family members. With all the jar sites being located on hillsides, or at elevation, they would have afforded the deceased a spectacular and everlasting view over the region they once lived in. The second explanation, and my personal favourite, is that local stories tell of an age of giants and the king of the giant’s used the jars to ferment and store Lao Lao whiskey (made from rice). This whiskey was later drunk after victory in a great battle with the jars discarded where they currently lie.
Whatever the explanation for the jars they are truly a site to behold and we all enjoyed exploring the three sites during the day and imagining the ceremonies of the people past as these jars were placed and used. As we approached the second site we found MAG members scanning for UXO’s, actually within the jar site, not in neighbouring fields! We were told that there was nothing to be concerned about as they were just double checking as more and more tourists are now coming to the sites so they want to make sure nothing was missed. Not really much of a confidence builder for us so we definitely made sure the two boys did not wander off.Before visiting the first plain of jars we diverted to the old city which was essentially laid to ruins during the American bombings, not many buildings were left standing after this period. We visited Wat Phia, an important temple in which the Buddha statue along with some pillars were the only things left standing. We then made a quick visit to the old French Hospital which was also left in ruins.After this we made our way to our last stop of the day and the largest jar site, Site 1. This location is the most spectacular of them all with unobstructed 360 degree views and over 100 jars to explore. The site also includes the only jar that remains with a lid still upon it. It was evident that this site was the most heavily bombed, with with crater after crater still clearly visible and we later found out that this site once housed an army base. This site also included a small cave in which locals hid during air raids, inside the cave is a large number of balanced rocks on one another. Each pile being symbolic of a person who died within the caves during the bombings.
UXO – Survivors Information Centre
On our second and final day in Phonsavan we decided to visit the UXO Survivors Centre. This facility provides the much needed aftercare and support for people affected by UXO’s such as the funding of prosthetic legs/arms, medical bills and training/education so they can be a contributing member of their family and community. The walls of the centre are covered with facts and information about how UXO’s even today, after 45 years continue to maim and kill Lao people. Particulary children who continue to play with the shiny metal balls they dig up from the ground or the people who search them out to then sell the precious American metal as scrap. The centre also has a reading room containing books and newspaper articles on UXO’s and a small lounge where they screen UXO related documentaries in the afternoon. They also sell handmade items produced by survivors and their families with a percentage of each sale going directly back to the person who made it. The centre is definitely not fancy or flash and is very simple in nature, however this is in a way is very reassuring that the money they receive is going directly to those who need it and not to appease tourists looking for a 21st century production.
I wanted to finish this blog with a fact that really illustrates the size of the problem that Laos faces with unexploded ordinances….. over the past 4 decades since the bombing stopped, less than 1% of affected areas have been cleared of unexploded bombs. Now just think about that for a minute, this means that in 3,000 years time they will still be clearing these bomb sites.
Average Daily Spend – $102.40 NZD ($70.10 NZD under budget per day)