Hundreds of huge stone urns cover The Plain Of Jars in communist Laos. They remain the most mysterious of Asia’s ancient sights.
The Plain Of Jars is probably South East Asia’s most enigmatic tourist attraction. Situated in the remote north east of Laos, the mountainous communist country which has only been open to tourists for just over a decade, are hundreds of huge stone jars scattered across several square miles. While most ancient Asian sites, such as the Angkor temples in Cambodia, have revealed many of their secrets, historians are still completely baffled as to where the jars came from, how old they are and what they signify. They are, in short, jars of a deeply spooky nature.
Whatever its ancient history, the Plain Of Jars has had a turbulent recent past. Thanks to its proximity to the North Vietnamese border, this area of Laos became of key significance during the Vietnam War and so was carpet bombed by the Americans. Laos holds the dubious record of being the most bombed country in the world, despite never officially being involved in the Vietnam war at all. The legacy of the war is still being felt, with farmers and their families regularly being killed or injured by the unexploded ordnance which still litters the Plain. The Jars have been fully cleared of all UXB, but not straying from the designated paths remains imperative.
Flying into Phonsovan, the town nearest the Plain Of Jars, it’s easy to still see the devastation caused by the bombing. Indeed, Phonsovan is Xiang Khouang province’s new capital, the old one having been abandoned because it was so badly damaged. Despite being the base from which virtually all visitors go to see the Jars, Phonsovan still feels like tourism has barely touched it. The town centre itself is one muddy, dusty street, on which there are only a couple of places visitors can eat, although there are a fair few choices for accommodation. (Update March 2011: You can even book one of the hotels online now, the Vansana Plain Of Jars hotel). If you go for breakfast around 7 in the morning, you’ll see the saffron-clothed local monks in procession down the street, collecting their daily alms. Set against the early morning sun coming up over the mountains surrounding Phonsovan, it’s worth the extra effort to get out of bed.
I was the only farang on the half-hour flight from Vientiane to Phonsovan, and the very friendly touts for the local guesthouse who all spoke impeccable English told me it had been very quiet for the last few weeks. Mr Kong at the Kong Keo guesthouse confirmed this was the case – he didn’t have a single other traveller staying and there was barely another tourist in town. I wasn’t particularly phased by this – even though I would have to pay more for my guide and driver to go to see the Plain, getting to see it on my own and at my own pace made it seem like a bargain. I was more phased by the fact that Mr Kong, who you’ll forgive me for imagining to be some huge old man with a distinct simian similarity, turned out to be a lovely, helpful, distinctly un-gorilla-like man about half my age. Wearing a natty hat.
Half an hour later, Kong’s uncle Sang and I were off on our tour in Kong’s minivan. We stopped off to get “a picnic lunch”, as Sang described it. Hence I found myself in the middle of the morning market’s chaos, clutching a bamboo tube of sticky rice and surrounded on all sides by dead things. The tiny carcasses of plucked sparrows to the left; a pile of what looked like the Lao equivalent of a ferret to the right. The latter looked cute and fluffy, but they were definitely dead.
Still alive, but probably not for long, was a porcupine in a cage, which I couldn’t stop gawping at. I’m an enthusiastic omnivore and not especially squeamish, but being this close to the source of what winds up on my plate was a little too much for 8 in the morning.
Besides acting as a guide for Kong, Sang also teaches English to the local children, and he evidently enjoyed talking to a native speaker to practise his already excellent English. As we headed out into the countryside, we talked about the usual – girls, football and ladyboys. My anecdote about a taxi driver in Vietnam telling me he didn’t like David Beckham any more because he looked like a ladyboy almost had us off the road.
Eventually, we did go off-road as the tarmac gave out and the dirt track became increasingly churned up. There are three key sites to see the Jars, three places where they are clustered together en masse, but there are apparently over 400 locations where they are to be found scattered across the plain. We were going to do them in reverse order, heading to Site 3 first. By this point we were clearly out in the middle of the farming country, flat fields of wheat stretching out between hills rising from the plain. A short walk over several small rivers and stiles and up a gently rising hill brought me finally face to face with the mysterious Jars I had planned to see for many months.
My Rough Guide warned that most visitors had a sense of anti-climax when they finally saw the Jars; “don’t expect Stonehenge” are its exact words. But this seems a little unfair. The Plain of Jars, like Stonehenge and any other ancient historical site, benefits from reading up a little about it first – the blurb in the guidebook is good enough – so as to get a sense of what you’re about to see. There isn’t much to see per se at the Plain of Jars, unless you’re prepared to let it trigger your imagination as to what these strange relics might mean.
As such, I was suitably impressed by seeing the Jars. Gathered together at the top of this hill, there were around 130 of them scattered about beneath the trees, mercifully undeveloped by any tourist organisation. Undisturbed amongst the vast wheat yellow and sky blue horizon of the countryside, the jars did indeed seem mysterious, but there was also a sense of serenity too. That probably came from the fact Sang and I were the only people there. I wandered about for a while, taking photos and comparing the different jars, marvelling at their size – they were all at least a couple of metres long, and must have weighed several tonnes each, some upright, some leaning after being embedded in the ground, some completely toppled over. All of them are virtually black, and their tall, narrow, hefty bodies make them look like crude cannons, pointing in every direction as if fearing attack from all sides. The darkness of the jars’ stone also makes them seem distinctly funereal and a little sinister.
It reminded me of a place I’ve never been: Easter Island. True, the jars certainly aren’t as physically huge or visually impressive as the impassive Maui, but they possess the same air of enigma. Who made them? How did they get here? And what are they for?
No one is even sure where the jars date from. The current accepted theory is that they were created by an iron age megalithic civilisation, about which little is known. This makes the jars one of the most important prehistoric archaeological sites in the world. Even the smallest jars weigh several tonnes and none are made from local stone. So quite how they arrived at the top of this sizable hill is only one of the mysteries historians have grappled with. The biggest mystery of all is quite how the Jars fulfilled for the people who evidently went to a vast amount of effort in creating and placing them. The French archaeologist Madelaine Colani excavated the jars in the 1930s. She discovered some contained bronze and iron tools and bracelets, along with glass beads, while the rest appeared to have been looted. These items led Colani to theorise that the jars were funerary urns, holding cremated remains. This theory has been strengthened by the more recent discovery of underground burial chambers, none of which appear to be open to the public.
When we got to the second site, a few miles further on down a track even more damaging to the minivan’s suspension than the first, it was another, steeper climb to see the jars perched at the top of two hills, each of which, as Sang pointed out, lined up with the site we had just left, and also lined up with Site One, tracing a straight line between the three sites over several kilometres, even though the first site isn’t visible from the others. The second site is perhaps even more picturesque than the first, with a huge tree dominating the hill and casting its shadow over the jars surrounding it. Here there is a lid for one of the jars, a huge heavy great stone disc, which has what looks like a human figure carved in relief on it. Having been so used to seeing the jars open, it was quite odd to think that they might have looked completely different with their lids and maybe painted decoration too when they were in use.
The first site is the biggest collection of jars in one place, but also somehow the least atmospheric. This could be because it’s the nearest site to Phonsovan and so gets the most visitors who don’t want to explore further afield – and it could be because the government has made efforts to develop this site as a tourist attraction. So far they’ve only sprung to a stall selling warm Coke and some fairly lacklustre history placards, but it still manages to impinge on the (obviously illusory) sense of discovering the Jars for yourself.
However, the first site is also a must-see, in that it contains the biggest jar of all, over 2 metres high and almost as wide. This sits at the top of another small hill, dwarfing its surrounding jars, and looking over a small field below which contains scores more jars. Farmland surrounds the rest of the site, with the wheat virtually growing around the nearest jars to the farm’s border. Sang took me through the jars to find the only one which has a human figure crudely carved in relief upon it. Nearby sits another jar with its lid in place, giving it a strangely comical air, like it’s wearing a hat. Although not a very natty one.
As I strolled back alone through the field, some Lao tourists with their children neared me. We passed each other besides a large bomb crater, now overgrown with grass. At that moment, the father brandished his son’s toy gun at me and then the crater and shouted “Boom!”. He wasn’t smiling though. Then he started shouting “American, American”. And he still wasn’t smiling. Sang was about 100 yards ahead of me, so I couldn’t rely on him to explain I was aware of the injustices of the war as perpetrated against the Lao people. I weakly muttered “English” and then “Angleterre” and that seemed to placate his wife, if not her husband. I didn’t know if he really was angry, or just trying to explain. I moved on, faintly disturbed.
I caught up with Sang at the mouth of a large cave which was down a slope from the plain where we had seen the Jars. He explained that this cave had been used by local people to shelter from the bombing, and many people came to pay their respects to the Buddhist shrine now placed within it to placate the spirits. While we were looking around the cave, the odour of smoke started to drift across from the plain. The farmers had started a stubble burn in the field next to the jars and, even from the bottom of the slope at the cave’s entrance, we could see sheets of fire flickering some 6 feet into the air. Momentarily a monk in his bright saffron robes appeared at the top of the slope, framed all around by the flames before he began his walk down to the cave. As we walked back up to leave, officials were running across from the warm Coke stall to try and find the farmer, as the flames from his field were getting near to the jars themselves. And I wondered if this was a tiny fragment of what it must have looked like when the bombs fell to make the craters all around, if flames raged all around the jars back then but they remained impervious, just as they had done for thousands of years before.