How about them jars eh?

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Xiangkhoang,
Thursday, September 15, 2005

I've been in Phonsavan for over a day now, and I'm at the point where surfing the internet is almost the most exciting thing to do. What I'd give even for a balcony where I can sit and read my book, but no, not to be! Perhaps I could read my book at one of the plastic chair restaurants around town, but that's a little boring. So here I am writing again.

The long road from Vang Vieng to Phonsavan was an absolutely breathtaking one. The scenery was incredible. For nearly five hours, huge limestone mountains rose on both sides of the roads. Soon after leaving the main highway, on a smaller road bound for Phonsavan, the environment changed to treeless rolling hills, very similar to those I saw in Mondulkiri. It was a really amazing ride, which is saying something considering I had a throbbing head and my cold has now moved into my chest as well.

I met a Slovakian girl named Jana in Vang Vieng, and she joined me for the side trip on the way to Luang Prabang. After finding a guesthouse and talking to a tour guide about what we could see the following day, we went for a walk to a small hill just out of town with a large war memorial on it. It was nice walking along the dirt roads, saying hi to the kids and watching them go about their lives. The view from the hill was quite pretty, with the town of Phonsavan in the foreground, and the rolling hills behind them. As we sat here, I still couldn't quite figure out what was different about this town. It isn't done up for tourists at all, completely the opposite of Vang Vieng, and there are no attractions in the town whatsoever. Then I realised what it was - there were no pagodas! The first town I'd been to in SE Asia where there wasn't a pagoda! Surely not. We both scanned the town for a few minutes, and thought we could make out the roof of one, however whether or not it was a pagoda was irrelevent. Most towns had quite a few, and this one was virtually devoid of them. We left the hilltop just before dark and had dinner at a little Indian restaurant in town. The guy there showed us a documentary about the war in Laos and the lasting legacy which was quite interesting, albeit disturbing.

This morning we harrassed a few other tourists to join us on our tour of the Plain of Jars so we could save some money. Our tour guide was virtually a different person this morning, upping the price from $35 to $80 for the day, but we talked him back down to $35. By half past nine we were on the road, which was a relatively late start.

The mysterious plain of jars were the sole reason I wanted to come to Phonsavan. I'd read a little about them, and spoken to a few people about them, and decided it was something I couldn't miss whilst in Laos. There are a number of sites around town containing hundreds of massive stone jars. They are between 2500 and 3000 years old, and no-one knows why they were built. The first place we went was "Site 3", about an hour out of town. Along the way we saw numerous bomb craters on the hills, a legacy from America's secret war in Laos. When we arrived at the site it was a short 15 minute walk through rice paddies and up a hill to the jars. And that was it! 150 large stone jars, sitting on top of the hill! Local legend says they were created to hold whisky, however archaeologists think they were used for cremation purposes, as human remains were found near some of the jars. Neither explains why some jars are bigger than others, why some have round openings and others square, why some are made of different material, why they're arranged in no order whatsoever or how they even got there! I like to think the ancient Lao people were giants, they had a massive party on the hill and didn't clean up their mess! Who knows. The air of mystery certainly made the site really impressive.

After spending about half an hour at the site, we travelled onto the larger "Site 1". This site contains 334 jars, the largest having a diameter of 2.17m and a height of 2.5m. This large jar was surrounded by a few others upon a small hill, and below the hill was "the plain" containing hundreds more. This site wasn't that spectacular (neither was the first), but just trying to figure out why they were there made it worthwhile. Nearby was a cave where the Pathet Lao hid during the war, and there were a number of bomb craters on the hills. Red and white markers on the ground reminded us not to stray from the path because of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the area.

We had some lunch back in Phonsavan before heading east to visit a Hmong village. I'd seen numerous villages similar to this before, in northern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia, however there was one thing that set this village apart from all the others. More than half of the houses were built using cluster bomb casings as the foundations! Laos was not just heavily bombed by the Americans during the war in the 60's and 70's, it rates as the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare. To this day, UXO litters the countryside, and hundreds of people (mostly children) die each year setting of cluster bombs, or "bombies" as they are known as here. With so many bombs lying around, the Hmong have made the most of it, using the casings as fence posts, foundations for houses, plant holders, as well as melting down the metal to make all kinds of things. I found it really sad to think that the American's bombed this part of the world so heavily and killed so many people. Two tonnes of explosives were dropped in Laos for every man woman and child living there! Now people are dying, and countries like Germany and New Zealand are clearing the mess. Meanwhile, these Hmong villagers live exactly the way they lived 50 or 100 years ago except now they build houses out of scrap metal that was used to kill their fellow countrymen.

So I've just kept myself occupied for about 45 minutes, and now I'm going to join some others for some dinner and conversation, because there is nothing else to do. Well, there was talk of visiting the "Phonsavan Nightclub" later on for a laugh, but I really can't imagine it keeping us amused for more than about 5 minutes!
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