Riding around the enigmatic Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars is one of the most bizarre places to visit in Asia, and that’s saying a lot. It’s basically a plateau covered with thousands of megalithic jars, grouped in several “sites”, numbered 1-90. The function of this stones is unclear, with theories ranging from them being burial elements (containers to decompose corpses before burying them), to rainwater collectors for caravan travelers, to leftovers from a royal party. To make its history even more interesting, the area was heavily bombed during the 20-year long “secret civil war”, in which the Laotian communists and the royal government were used as proxies by Vietnam war contenders. The Plain of Jars is full of not only bomb craters, but also unexploded ordnance (UXO), thus only sites 1, 2 and 3 are typically visited by travelers.

1a 1b

We woke up in Phonsavan, where we had arrived late the previous night from Luang Prabang, and tried to arrange a tour. But it was low season and none of the operators was running one. So our only option was to rent a motorbike (kip 100,000 or ~$12) and do it on our own. Despite several challenging situations throughout the day, I’m really happy we went that way, it was an awesome adventure! We jumped on our bike and Elena drove us about half an hour to site 1. We paid the entrance ticket (kip 10,000 per site), checked out the small museum, and took a mandatory golf cart from the gate to the actual site entrance on the hilltop. The first impression was unforgettable: a bunch of massive granite jars laid scattered around, almost merged with the ground, and nearly intact. One of the jars on this hilltop was supposed to be the only one with decoration, a human bas-relief, but we weren’t able to find it. Below the hill, we could see tens of jars, and as we walked down through them, we noticed that some had “lids”. These stone disks are not supposed to be closures for the jars (those were probably made of hay and have since disappeared), but rather grave markers. In this lower area we also saw several bomb craters and a cave with two man-made holes at the top, believed to have been a crematorium.

1c 1-101-IMG_3295

We woke up in Phonsavan, where we had arrived late the previous night from Luang Prabang, and tried to arrange a tour. But it was low season and none of the operators was running one. So our only option was to rent a motorbike (kip 100,000 or ~$12) and do it on our own. Despite several challenging situations throughout the day, I’m really happy we went that way, it was an awesome adventure! We jumped on our bike and Elena drove us about half an hour to site 1. We paid the entrance ticket (kip 10,000 per site), checked out the small museum, and took a mandatory golf cart from the gate to the actual site entrance on the hilltop. The first impression was unforgettable: a bunch of massive granite jars laid scattered around, almost merged with the ground, and nearly intact. One of the jars on this hilltop was supposed to be the only one with decoration, a human bas-relief, but we weren’t able to find it. Below the hill, we could see tens of jars, and as we walked down through them, we noticed that some had “lids”. These stone disks are not supposed to be closures for the jars (those were probably made of hay and have since disappeared), but rather grave markers. In this lower area we also saw several bomb craters and a cave with two man-made holes at the top, believed to have been a crematorium.

2a 2b

Back on our bike, we drove another half hour or so to site 2, leaving the main road for some muddy trails. This site had less jars, but they were bigger and it was more atmospheric, due to the thick vegetation and trees gowning through some of the stones. We ate our lunch we had brought with us in this strange and quiet setting. We had planned to hike from there to site 3, but were discouraged by the unstable weather and the numerous markers signaling the limited areas that were cleared of surface and/or deep ordnance.

2c 3a

So we jumped back on our bike and continued riding through rice paddies and farmers’ villages. Eventually, the storm that had been building up the whole day unchained… we pulled over at the nearest house and ask the family via signs whether they could give us refuge. Before that, we hadn’t had the best experiences with Lao people, they had been rude and greedy. But this woman and her children were so nice and willing to help, that they redeemed the whole population in our eyes J. When the storm passed, we thanked the family repeatedly, gave the kids some candy, and got back on our soaked bike. The trail was slippery and full of puddles, but Elena drove us safely, as if she knew what she was doing… We reached site 3, walked a few minutes up a small, farmed hill, and enjoyed the jars for ourselves once again. Back on the main road, we had to pull over a couple of times, when violent storms would dump for 5-10 minutes. We made it to Phonsavan with just enough time to check out some of the bomb collections in local businesses, eat dinner and get on the night bus to Vientiane.

3b 3c

4 thoughts on “Riding around the enigmatic Plain of Jars

  1. Pingback: Nothing much to see in Vientiane, Laos’ capital | Bona Travels

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  4. Pingback: Exploring the wonders of Tonga on our own – Bona Travels

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