The Plain of Jars and unexploded bombs
Trip Start Mar 18, 2009
134Trip End Jan 12, 2010
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
When we got to Phonsavan were picked up and transfered to the Maly Hotel for free - we'd booked ahead. We got talking to two nice Englsh girls on the bus and they didn't know where to stay - it still surprises us that most people we meet find accomodation when they arrive, maybe they think they'll get a good deal, but we have been able to negotiate with hotels before we arrive, get a discount and usually a free pick up and check out reviews on the interweb to make sure the place is ok. Maybe that's the project manager in me, stupidly well-organised, but after 6 hours on a hot bus with no air-con who wants to turn up and find everywhere full, or that the bargain room you find is full of cockroaches.
The Maly Hotel is owned by Sousath, who knows all about the area, helped open the Plain of Jars up to tourists. He also lived in a cave nearby during the Vietnam war and used to dismantle unexploded bombs to use the explosive to catch fish (more info here).
We had come to see the Plain of Jars, but the real story here is UXO, unexploded ordanance dropped over the whole of Laos by the Americans during the Vietnam war - it's called the Indochina war here and those bombs kill and main hundreds of Lao people each year. To be fair some of the bombs are left over from French, Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese invasions over the past 100 years. One of the reasons this province is so poor is because people cannot farm land that has not been cleared of mines, and the clearing work takes a long time and requires experts. Mostly it's kids who are injured as the cluster bombs that were dropped have left tennis ball shaped bombies that they find and play with. On our first night we went to the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) office to get more info and buy some t-shirts. MAG is co-laureate of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.
On our second day we arranged a tour of the Plain of Jars and after a funny start, where a rude Austrian woman stamped her feet and said our group of 12 was too big, we were split off with 4 other young Brits and we had a really fun day. We explored 3 sites of jars, huge 2 metre high jars, some with lids that were either used to ferment lao lao rice whisky (we prefer this explanation) or they were used to bury cremated bodies (probably more likely - otherwise there would have been loads of Lao Lao around!). It reminded us of stone henge - although here they had elephants to help move the heavy jars - some weigh up to 6 tonnes. Archeologists are still trying to solve this 2000 year old puzzle and would have a much easier time if the ground wasn''t littered with UXO. All over the site MAG had set out markers showing where we could walk.
We also visited an old Russian tank, used by the Lao army and a charming old lady who was making Lao Lao rice whisky. She ferments rice, along with some flavouring that looked like wood chips, for 2 weeks and then she boils the rice and distills the alcohol - she was in the middle of this bit when we arrived and she gave us some of the hot fresh Lao Lao to try - wowzer, it's strong stuff !! One kilo of rice costs 4000 Kip (25p) and it will make 1 litre of Lao Lao which she can sell for 8000 (50p).
At one point we heard a noise and I asked the guide if it was thunder, and he said that the MAG team were out clearing someone's land. It really brought home how real the problem is.
Phonsavan itself is a new town, everyone left apart from the soldiers during the war and the surrounding countryside was covered with agent orange (a defoliating chemical used to strip the leaves and make people on the ground easier to see from planes). Now the countryside looks very English and there are lots of pine trees.
Another flying visit, after 2 nights we got up and onto the 8.30am bus to Luang Prabang, the bus journey lasted 8 hours and was no less terrifying than the journey there. Thankfully my ipod lasted the whole journey and whilst Paul slept I watched out of the window as we stopped for people to buy various goods from the roadside: firewood, melons, pineapples and we even did an emergency stop for a dead leopard hanging outside someone's hut - the driver can presumably sell it for a profit in Luang Prabang. We don't support killing endangered animals for food and fur, but when people live in huts made of wood and palm leaves it's hard to argue.
Where I stayed