If an archeological site was said to be created because an ancient king wanted to store mass amounts of whiskey then I thought it would be a good place to visit. I was contemplating going straight to Luang Prabang after Vang Vieng, but I had heard of these sites near Phonsavan containing huge granite jars scattered around the place so I thought it would be something different to check out.
The plain of jars is a collection of sites that date back to the iron age over 2,000 years ago. Ranging between 4 and 7 feet, these jars are scattered over more than 400 sites across the region. However, only a handful of sites are open to the public as they have being properly cleared of unexploded ordnances (UXO).
Why they were created is surrounded in mystery. There are several theories ranging from being used as burial tombs due to evidence of human remains being found in some sites. My favourite is that they were created under the instructions of king Khun Cheung who defeated a group of giants in battle and the jars were created to store ‘lao lao’ also know as Laos whiskey. All three sites vary in size, landscape and methods of access and as you’ll later discover, the local hospitality.
You can see the sites through an organised tour but I decided to don the captain explorer cap on and see them by scooter with Peter, a fellow Aussie who I sat on the bus on the way from Vang Vieng. Peter’s a photographer for Getty images so we had a pretty good time chatting about photography, gear and travel adventures and I’d end up travelling this leg and to Luang Probang with him. As there is no concrete history on the who, what, how and why relating to the jars, we decided to rent scooters and explore the sites ourselves.
The first site is the most accessible of the three main sites. Only 7km from the city, it’s paved all the way, right up to the first Jar. It’s also the largest site with a couple of hundred visible jars, just the one overhanging tree and a cave nearby which is what seems like a familiar site in Laos now.
Site two and three seem to be the less visited sites due to the difficult road conditions as well as the additional 20km required to travel from the city. For me, it should be done because despite the rough roads, you go through multiple villages and seeing it on a scooter or motorcycle you feel a connection with the places and closer to the people you pass and wave hello to.
Most maps provided by the rental shops will either be hand written or a photocopy of a vague map so it’s likely you’ll get a little confused. However, there are shops and people around who are more than willing to help which we also required.
Along the way, take the time to slow down and pay attention to the construction of the local homes. Many of them incorporate the past into their homes. Stilts made from old bomb casings prop up homes as well as satellite dishes. Old scrap metal from bombs are used to melt down and shape into items such as spoons and other trinkets. However, as thrifty as it may seem, It’s dangerous business with many children who go out in search of these items being the main victims of UXO’s.
A trip to Phonsavan to see the Plain of Jars might not be for everybody. It’s a bit out of the way if you’re on your way to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang or vice versa. The road conditions are shocking with countless bumps and turns combined with over excited mini van drivers is a stomach churning combination for 6-7 hours.
You’ll only require a couple of days in Phonsavan but it’s an opportunity to see something different, a place less frequented by tourists and also take a peek into a small window of history as well.
Would you go to a place like The Plain Of Jars?