Lost in Laos: Phonsavan and Xieng Kuang

Having a few Jars

Having a few Jars

I’ve had a number of travel adventures that have walked the line between life and death. I’ve usually ended up in those situations totally unwittingly; clinging on to the side of Helvellyn by my fingertips due to low visibility and a lost path; walking a two-foot wide path between thousand-foot drops by accident because I didn’t have a working torch, that kind of thing. This week, I walked across not one, but three different sites surrounded by unexploded ordnance (UXO), totally knowingly and of my own volition.

This of course sounds more dramatic than it really is. I walked to the three main sites of the mysterious, ‘Plain of Jars,’ the huge stone containers found scattered across northern Laos, parts of Indonesia and even India. These three sites have been ‘cleared’ of UXO, with an astonishing number of bombs, bomblets (cluster bomb innards, or ‘bombies’) and other ordnance removed or safely detonated: 36 on the access paths themselves, over 1100 in the surrounding areas and nearby villages.

MAG UXO marked trail

MAG UXO marked trail

The paths to reach them are marked out by red and white stones inscribed with the acronym MAG by the Mines Advisory Group, one of the organisations working within Laos to tackle this huge issue. Within the white sides you are safe to walk. Unnervingly, some paths lead around the red side, but I made it back and still have all my faculties.

The trip to reach the sites is a joy. We opted to hire a scooter and hit the trail ourselves rather than book a tour. This was a brilliant way to take a relaxing ride through the stunning countryside. Phonsavan sits on a plateau at 1100 metres. The roads out to jars sites II and III wind almost 40km through rice fields, past villages, all in the sight of the not-so-distant peaks that mark the borders of the high plain.

Rice fields on the plain

Rice fields on the plain

Being contrary, and having missed the turning for jar site I, we decided to take the route in reverse. Jar site III, the furthest, is also the smallest, and sits on a small wooded hillock, through some rice paddies and past picturesquely grazing cattle. Nestled close to the nearby hills, this magical site was my favourite. The solemn, lichen-covered jars cluster in groups, some leaning like diplomats in quiet conversation, some fallen sideways, or with cracks through which small saplings or plants have grown. There’s a stillness and peace in the air.

Jars at Site III

Jars at Site III

Jar site II is only a few kilometres down the road, but very different. The walk to this site is a long, wide trail along the iron-rich red dust that covers the country. The jars here are huge, some easily six foot tall with gaping mouths. Several have extraordinarily defined bevelled rims and there are also some ‘lids’ at this site.

The jars themselves are remnants of a culture that today people can only guess at, but the main guess is that they had something to do with burial rites. Some bone fragments, funerary items, beads and other usual afterlife paraphernalia have been found in some jars and in pits around the sites. At least one of the lids, and some of the jars, have carved pictograms or animal representations which also supports this theory.

Tree in a jar - Site II

Tree in a jar – Site II

Site I, within a few kilometres of Phonsavan town, is the most extensive site and also boasts a small information centre, which is worth a quick walk around, at the entrance. This site also bears the heaviest witness to the ravages of the USA’s, ‘secret war’ against Laos in the early seventies. The visitor centre includes numerous war artefacts (all safely ‘X-ed’) and information on the impact of the war on the jars, on the region, and on post-war development. 

The Plain: Jars Site I

The Plain: Jars Site I

 

The Cave at Site I

The Cave at Site I

This site really is a plain, rather than a hillock or a grove of jars. The paths between the different collections of jars are all clearly marked with MAG safety markers, and numerous round bomb craters and trench lines scar the landscape. There is also a cave in the limestone crag beside the main stretch of jars. The large crater immediately in front of it suggests it was a known shelter, and therefore target. These days it holds a large altar, numerous Buddha figures, incense and small stone cairns.

I thought of this cave later the same evening, back in the town where I visited MAG’s UXO information centre to see their two short documentary films, Surviving the Peace, and Bombies. Other than knowing where Laos was on a map, I didn’t really know anything about the country or its history until I booked my flights and started doing my homework. I certainly didn’t know that this tiny country, just smaller than the UK, but with a population of only 6.6 million, was more heavily bombed than Vietnam during a war in which it was supposed to be neutral. “A bombing run every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years,” state statistics at the Plain of Jars visitor information centre and the figures in MAG’s films. With up to 30% of that ordnance unexploded, this is an ongoing peacetime catastrophe for the already poor rural communities in northern Laos, who still experience casualties at a rate of almost one person a day killed or injured in what they stoically refer to as, ‘accidents.’

The films include interviews with families who have been affected by these accidents, war vets trying to make amends for their actions, activists who campaigned to bring the ‘secret war’ to light, and the many people involved in the effort to clear the landscape of UXO. In one, an elderly man recounted living in a cave with his family and almost five hundred other people from his village during that time. He was an anti-aircraft gunner, for the main reason that the aircraft were destroying everything he knew and it was the only way to stop them. One day he returned from the cave to find it had been targeted by a rocket and the people inside reduced to smoldering ashes. I wondered who had hidden in the cave I had seen.

***

I had had low expectations of Phonsavan before visiting, with many online reviewers citing it as a charmless town to stop in only if interested in the Plain of Jars. In fact, while certainly lacking the (relative) grandeur of Vientiane, and definitely without the olde worlde charm of Luang Prabang, I found Phonsavan to be a fine, functional town which is well set-up for the tourism it receives and a fantastic window into the heart of this conflicted country and its cultural heritage; ancient and modern.

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