After the quaint, comfortable and easy Luang Prabang, our next destination was the town of Phonsavan-the capital of Xiangkhoang Province and the home of the historical Plain of Jars sites, which have been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status.
This was to be our first real exposure to the horrific recent history of Laos; the town of Phonsavan was only built in the late 1970s to replace the old Xiangkhouang which was destroyed during the Second Indochina War. As you enter the town, you start to notice old bombs, munitions cases and other military relics dotted around, now being used as café decorations & even as fence posts-a visible reminder recent atrocities the country had to endure. A far cry from the nice cafes and restaurants of Luang Prabang.
On our first exploration we discovered that the main town is pretty much one main street, and very little else in way of development-but absolutely stunning scenery surrounding the main drag.
The main reason for our visit here was to visit the afore mentioned Plain of Jars site-and so we hired some pushbikes to set about exploring one of the sites. If you haven’t heard of the Plain of Jars before, (as I hadn’t) they are a number of areas surrounding Phonsavan where thousands of megalithic stone jars are found. The sites range from single isolated jars on hillsides, to sites where up to 400 hundred jars can be found.
Local stories and legends believe that the jars were created to brew and store huge amounts of lau hai (rice beer or rice wine) by giants who populated the area in the Bronze age, although it is now widely accepted that the jars were built as burial chambers and are dated to 500 BC – 200 AD. They remain something of a mystery as no-one has a definitive answer as to who actually built them, and why they would create such burial chambers…
Currently there are only three sites that are deemed safe to visit because the area is still ‘polluted’ with unexploded ordinance (UXO), as the region was carpet-bombed throughout the Indochina wars-it’s amazing that so many jars survived at all.
Even at the most open of the plains (sites 1, 2 & 3) you are advised that you should stay within the designated safe areas as there is still a chance that you could have the misfortune to stumble on UXOs. As mentioned in one of my earlier blog posts, per capita Laos is the most bombed country in the world; between 1965 and 1973 the US dropped over 2m tonnes of bombs on Laos, that’s more than were dropped by all sides in the whole of WW2. Just to drive home the point once again, if you averaged out the total bombing on Laos by America it would equate to a bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years-262 million cluster bombs were dropped, 80 million have not exploded yet and remain a threat. It’s impossible to really imagine or appreciate the scale of the clean up operation that the country has been left with, just have a look at the map detailing the extent of the bombing:
According to the UXO clearance NGO, at the current rate of clean-up, it will take more than 2,000 years before the countryside of Laos is rid of UXO. Read that again…Two thousand years…
We arrived at the site and took some time to absorb some of this information presented in the visitor centre, and then made our way onto the plain-obviously while heeding the many warnings to stay within the marked zones. Evidence of the bombing still exists, with many of the jars displaced or damaged, and bomb craters punctuating the landscape, it was a sombre yet beautiful place to visit:
Back in the town we decided to pay a visit to the local market where we were once again reminded of the ‘comfort bubbles’ in which we live our lives! Quite unlike our normal shopping trips in the UK where everything is nicely packaged, and the ‘dirty work’ is done for us-the markets of South East Asia let you see your food in all its original glory. Not only that, but also the variety of animal that is considered fair game here-already on one of our bus journeys in Laos we happened across a jar of monkey hands in one shop, in Phonsavan market we were treated to a plethora of live seafood, pigs, various birds and squirrels-no nicely butchered cuts of meats entombed in plastic wrappings here-very much ‘DIY’! It makes you realise how molly coddled we are-we’re a long way from ‘village life’ that’s for sure.
And so our time in Phonsavan drew to a close with plenty of food for thought, once again the time came for us to prepare ourselves for the next bus..Next stop the somewhat infamous tubing town of Vang Vieng.