Situated in the high plateaus of northeast Laos, the mountainous scenery of Xieng Khouang Province beckons travellers to discover one of Southeast Asia’s most mysterious ancient cultural sites: the Plain of Jars.
The rolling landscape around Phonsavan, the lively provincial capital, is literally littered with clusters of prehistoric stone ‘jars’ – ancient, colossal funerary urns ranging in height from one to three metres. These Iron-Age relics have survived millennia of neglect – including a constant barrage of bombs during the Indochina Wars of the 1960s and 1970s – and remain today a stunning and inspiring sight.
Exploring the mist-shrouded hills by foot or motorbike, visitors have an opportunity to uncover the enigmatic history of vanished civilisations and hear tales of secret wars waged; guided tours and excursions are often led by resourceful locals, resilient after having lived firsthand through the atrocities and devastating losses of war.
A Lost Civilisation
Little is known about the people who created the Plain of Jars, which were first brought to the attention of Western scholars at the beginning of the 20th century. During the 1930s, pioneering research led by French archaeologist Madeleine Colani led to the discovery of human remains in several jars, which fired speculation that they were ancient burial urns. Since then, some burial sites have been dated to as old as 3,500-4,000 BC and others to around 1,000 AD. Today, more than 2,000 stone jars have been unearthed, scattered across the Xieng Khouang plains.
Leaving ‘expert’ opinion to the side, Lao legend tells an entirely different tale. According to locals, sixth-century chieftain King Khun Jeuam ordered construction of the jars after winning a battle against the tyrant Chao Angka. At the victory celebration, great quantities of lao-lao (rice whiskey) were sure to be consumed and the giant vessels were needed to ferment the liquor. Just 15 kilometres from Phonsavan, Jar Site 1 or Thong Hai Hin, contains the largest single vessel, believed to be the victory cup the king himself drank from at the prehistoric bender.
Jar Site 2, known locally as Hai Hin Phu Salato (or Table Hill), offers stunning views and was the favoured picnic ground of the colonial French. Jar Site 3 or Hai Hin Lat Khai, sits amidst farmlands and is considered the most attractive site with a nearby Buddhist temple that is open to visitors.
Deadly Remains of a Secret War
Despite its awe-inspiring beauty and archaeological significance, the Plain of Jars is, per capita, the most heavily bombed area in the world. During the so-called ‘secret war’ of the 1960s and 1970s, Laos was a stage for clandestine operations by the CIA, Air America and Hmong army general Vang Pao. Between 75,000 and 150,000 tons of bombs were dropped, with the provinces of Champasak and Xieng Khouang enduring the brunt of the explosive payloads. The nongovernmental organisation called Cope Laos estimates that more than 260 million pieces of ammunition from cluster bombs were dropped between 1964 and 1973; a full 30% failed to explode.
It therefore goes without saying that sticking to well-marked paths is essential when visiting the Plain of Jars. Even though the MAG Centre in Phonsavan works to inform the public about the dangers of UXOs (unexploded ordnance) and the deadly challenges of clearing it, at least one person per day is killed by UXOs in Laos. Next door to the MAG Centre, World Education Laos runs the UXO Survivors Information Center, an exhibition that explores the treatment and socio-economic status of UXO survivors.
Evidence of the intense bombing is seen throughout the region, but at least some locals have attempted to turn tragedy into triumph. Since the 1980s in the cultural village of Ban Napia, resourceful villagers have been using UXO scrap aluminium to produce handicrafts like spoons and bracelets.
Phonsavan town is perhaps the best base from which to explore the remote and misty region of Xieng Khouang, best visited during the dry season from November through March. Getting to Phonsavan takes roughly six hours by bus from Luang Prabang and eight or more from Vientiane, but those who make the journey are rewarded by spectacular views as the fog floats in over the region’s green hills.
Standard tours of the main jar sites can be booked from any of nine local travel operators in Phonsavan: Southsath Travel, in the Maly Hotel, has some particularly good war-related excursions; Mr. Khong, who runs the Khon Keo Guesthouse, specialises in adventure and motorbike tours; other longer excursions, established with the help of international agencies such as UNESCO, HELVETAS and the German Development Service (DED), are helping travellers to discover the heritage of northern Laos. All of them ensure that locals in Xieng Khouang are direct beneficiaries of the benefits of tourism.
Adventure travellers should consider booking a two-day trek to Ban Phakeo, which can be purchased from the tourist information desk in Phonsavan. The moderate hike includes an overnight stay at a Hmong mountain village and a visit to a remote jar site with nearly 400 jars, as well as a stop at some pretty jungle waterfalls.
Community-based treks and overnight stays in local guesthouses are another great way travellers can contribute locally to the economy of Xieng Khouang. The whl.travel local connection in Phonsavan, Teamworkz, has more than 10 years of experience assisting travellers in Laos and a proven track record of partnering with businesses making positive contributions to their local communities.