Plain of Jars, Laos

While the exploits of Indiana Jones and the cursed tombs of Egyptian pharaohs are the stuff of fantasy, archaeology can at times be a dangerous profession. Look, for example, to the ancient site known as the Plain of Jars, located in the Xieng Khuang region in the highlands of northern Laos. During the so-called ‘Secret War’, when the Cold War superpowers already tussling in Vietnam covertly supported opposing sides in the Laotian Civil War, vast quantities of ordinance were dropped by US forces, making Laos the most-bombed country in history. Xieng Khuang bore the brunt of it. Archaeologists working here since it came to international attention in the early 20th century must tread carefully, as many of the bombs that still litter the ground remain unexploded and potentially life-threatening.

The Plain of Jars is actually a misnomer – the terrain here is hilly, and neither is the story behind the site plain in the slightest. But the fact that it’s shrouded in mystery and perhaps always will be is what makes this one of the most intriguing cultural attractions in Laos.
The landscape is studded with hundreds of large stone jars estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old, some of them up to four metres in height and weighing several tons
In its entirety, the Plain of Jars spans some 90 or so sites over hundreds of square kilometres, but at the moment there are cleared pathways around only three sites. Visitors trek around them, following trails delineated by marker stones: white = safe, red = still dangerous.

The stories behind the Plain of Jars

Nobody knows for sure why the Plain of Jars exists. Some contain fragments of human skeletons, and so one theory is that they were part of a burial rite – a Laotian religious belief has it the dead travelled to the afterlife in stages, and their bodies would accordingly be transferred between different urns at each stage. Perhaps the Plain of Jars was part of a large-scale burial process.

It’s also possible that the jars were made to ferment and transport ‘Lao-Lao’, the ferociously potent rice wine that has given so many unwary travellers a head full of wasps the next day. Local legend has it that the Plain of Jars resulted from the celebrations of a mythical giant king after victory in battle.

Another line has it that, because similar clusters of jars have been found leading towards northern India, that they were used to harvest rainwater along a caravan route. We may never know for certain why the jars are here, but that’s one of the most interesting things about them – peering inside, you can form your own theories.

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Don’t buy scrap metal souvenirs

The nine-year ‘Secret War’ saw the United States conduct over half a million bombing raids across Laos. Miraculously, most of the jars escaped unscathed, but as a tragic reminder of the war’s scale there are thought to be literally millions of bombs still covering this area, and many of them are still live. On some Laos holidays that visit the Plain of Jars you can actually meet the team responsible for clearing the cratered landscape, a slow process fraught with danger, and learn about their work. You can also help by avoiding souvenirs made from scrap metal – salvage of bomb fragments is a big industry for local people, but scavenging for parts results in many unnecessary deaths. Do also be careful while wandering the site not to damage the jars by climbing on them – some are bearing signs of wear and tear.

How to get to the Plain of Jars

The gateway to the Plain of Jars is the state capital of Xieng Khuang, Phonsavan. You can fly there from Luang Prabang, but we recommend you travel by road instead – it’s around 250km, so a long day’s drive, along a winding road that can be uncomfortable for anyone who suffers from car sickness. Many itineraries follow the Plain of Jars with the short flight to Vientiane.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: joaquin uy] [Intro: Jakub Halun] [The stories behind the Plain of Jars: John Pavelka] [Don’t buy scrap metal souvenirs: joaquin uy]