The Plain of Jars can be found close to Laos’s Phonsavan. An unusual and mysterious attraction, marvel at the ancient stone jars that are scattered across the hilly landscapes, wonder about their origins, and learn more about the area’s tragic past.
History, culture and nature combine to make this a really special place to experience when travelling around the central parts of Laos.
Large stone jars for as far as the eye can see
Although the Plain of Jars isn’t actually a plain – it’s really quite hilly – you are sure to be impressed, and possibly rather bemused, by the many stone jars that cover the grassy fields.
Thousands of ancient stone jars of different sizes are divided between around 90 sites. Because of the risk of landmines and other unexploded ordinance, only a few sites are open to the public. Visitors should take care to stick to the marked paths; surrounding areas may not have been cleared of explosives. The few sites that are open to visitors are impressive.
Some of the jars originally had lids, although only a few lids remain intact today. The jars are in various states of preservation and many are covered in moss and lichen. Some have weathered the ages well whereas others have been damaged over the course of time. Some remain upright, some are leaning at a jaunty angle, and some have toppled over. There are also those that have been split apart by nature, with tree trunks and sturdy root systems competing for space.
The sites are numbered, rather than named. Sites 1, 2, 3, 16, 23, and 52 are safe for visitors to explore. At Site 1, you can see the only decorated jar, complete with its carved human-like image.
What, why, who, how, when?!
The odd stone jars are thought to date back to the Iron Age (between 500 BC and 500 AD), although nobody knows for sure what their original purpose was. A common theory is that they were used in ancient burial rituals. Other ideas put forward include that they were elaborate decorative objects, that they were used to store various items, and even that they were used by giants for brewing rice wine! Very little is known about the people who created the jars and the site is one of Asia’s great mysteries.
Beautiful fertile green landscapes and caves with interesting stories
The jars sit in some spectacular scenery amidst farmland, countryside, hills, and valleys. You may see farmers hard at work in the fields and tending their crops. Cowboys from the ethnic Hmong group are a fairly common sight, noticeable for their purple and brown hats. You might also notice small tents that belong to the Mines Advisory Group. Their skilled workers help to clear the land of unexploded ordinance, making it safe for locals and visitors alike.
There is a small limestone cave close to Site 1, its opening beckoning from its lush surroundings. Two man-made holes in the top have led archaeologists to believe that it was previously used as a crematorium.
Many locals fled to the area’s cave for shelter during bombing campaigns on the area. Although people often survived the initial bombings, the caves were subjected to more intense attacks if it was believed people were sheltering inside. Tham Piu is one such cave, today little more than a pile of rubble and a Buddhist shrine. A place for remembrance and reflection, a moving statue stands in front of the cave. The emotive statue shows an angry man carrying the remains of a dead child.
Scarred landscapes that show the ravages of war
Taking into account the population size, Laos has the sad honour of being the most heavily bombed country in the world. Statistically, a bomb fell on the country every eight minutes around the clock for an agonizing nine years (1964 to 1973). The area around Phonsavan was one of the country’s most bombed areas. Bombing occurred during the Secret War in Laos, a US-led military campaign to prevent the growth of communism and to wipe out Viet Cong members (from neighbouring Vietnam) who were thought to be sheltering in Laos. This brutal campaign was despite the fact that Laos remained neutral during the terrible War in Vietnam. Laos still bears the scars today.
Large bomb craters dot the fields around the plain of jars, innovative farmers filling some with water to use as fish pools and to grow water crops. Some are marked with signs whilst others just silently remind people of the terrors that took place in the not-so-distant past.
Practical information for visiting the Plain of Jars
Many places in the main town of Phonsavan can arrange tours of the Plain of Jars. Prices vary according to the number of people and the season, and many agencies will not run a tour if they do not meet a minimum number of customers. If you cannot find a confirmed tour, or a group to buddy up with, you may have to pay a fairly high price to persuade an operator to take just you to the jars. The entrance fees for the sites are typically included in any tour price. As a rough guide, you should expect to pay around 150,000 LAK (approximately 18.50 USD) as part of a tour group, and up to 500,000 LAK (approximately 61 USD) for a private tour.
Another way of accessing the jar sites is to rent a scooter in the town and go independently. Scooter hire is around 80,000 LAK (approximately 10 USD) for a day. Bicycles are also available to hire, but realistically you wouldn’t be able to explore far beyond Site 1 due to the fairly large distances between the sites. Admission to each site is 10,000 LAK (approximately 1.20 USD).
Although there are a few taxis in Phonsavan, taxi drivers are not permitted to take tourists to the Plain of Jars. So, unless you book a tour, making your own way to the sites is the only way to get to this mystifying place.
Prepare to have many questions left unanswered with a visit to one of Laos’s most intriguing destinations, the bizarre and scenic Plain of Jars.
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