PLAIN OF JARS
PLAIN OF JARS (near Phonsavan in Xieng Khoung Province in northeast, central Laos) is one the most unique places in Southeast Asia. Surrounded by dense tropical forests and limestone peaks, this windy, grassy plateau is home to hundreds of one-meter to three-meter urns. The vast majority are carved from sandstone and limestone. A few have been chiseled from red granite. The oldest ones are believed to be 1,500 to 2,000 years old. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]
Thus far 300 jar fields have been discovered, with a total of 3,000 jars. Some of the ones below ground were discovered using sateliite imagery. More site are being found all the time. There may be more than 10,000 of them out there, many hidden in the jungle.
The sites, archeologists say, were cemeteries and the jars were funerary urn to store corpses until they decomposed and the bones were ready for burial or cremation (a practice common the Bronze Age and still done on parts of Laos today) . No skeletons have been found inside the urns but human remains have been found in a few and skeletons have been unearthed nearby. Most of the sites are on grassy knolls, many with impressive views of the surrounding countryside. Sometimes cows graze among the urns.
Nobody is quite sure of what the jars were used for. According to one legend they were built by giants to store grain and make alcohol. Many Laotians believe they were built by a 6th century chief, Khun Jeuam, to make wine for a huge celebration to mark the the victory over an evil king. They say the jars were originally made of sand, sugar came and buffalo skin.
On average, the jars are ten feet high, nine feet wide and weigh between 1,300 and 2,000 pounds. The largest one, known as Jeuam;s “Victory Cup,” weighs seven tons, has a 26-foot circumference and is eight feet tall. The smallest ones are about three feet tall. Many are covered in lichens. At one time it is believed they all had lids but most have been pilfered. Some of the remaining lids are adorned with concentric rings.Due to its strategic location, the Plain of Jars played a pivotal role in the Vietnam War and was the site of many ground battles and intense aerial bombardment.
Plain of Jars: UNESCO World Heritage Site
Megalithic Jar Sites in Xiengkhuang –Plain of Jars was designated a a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019. According to UNESCO: The Plain of Jars, located on a plateau in central Laos, gets its name from more than 2,100 tubular-shaped megalithic stone jars used for funerary practices in the Iron Age. This serial property of 15 components contains large carved stone jars, stone discs, secondary burials, tombstones, quarries and funerary objects dating from 500 BCE to 500 CE. The jars and associated elements are the most prominent evidence of the Iron Age civilization that made and used them until it disappeared, around 500 CE. [Source: UNESCO]
”More than 2100 tubular-shaped megalithic stone jars used for funerary practices in the Iron Age give the Plain of Jars its name. This serial property of 15 components contains 1325 of these large carved stone jars, stone discs (possibly lids for the jars), secondary burials, grave markers, quarries, manufacturing sites, grave goods and other features. Located on hill slopes and spurs surrounding the central plateau, the jars are large, well-crafted, and required technological skill to produce and move from the quarry locations to the funerary sites. The jars and associated elements are the most prominent evidence of the Iron Age civilisation that made and used them, about which little is known. The sites are dated from between 500 BCE and 500 CE (and possibly up to as late as 800 CE). The jars and associated archaeological features provide evidence of these ancient cultural practices, including associated social hierarchies. The Plain of Jars is located at an historical crossroads between two major cultural systems of Iron Age southeast Asia – the Mun-Mekong system and the Red River/Gulf of Tonkin system. Because the area is one that facilitated movement through the region, enabling trade and cultural exchange, the distribution of the jars sites is thought to be associated with overland routes.
”The Plain of Jars exhibits an exceptional testimony to the civilisation that made and used the jars for their funerary practices over a period from approximately 500 BCE to sometime after 500 CE. The size of the megalithic jars, and their large number and wide distribution within the Province of Xiengkhuang is remarkable, and the serial property of 15 components contains a range of sites that can attest to the quarrying, manufacturing, transportation and use of the funerary jars over this lengthy period of southeast Asian cultural histories.”
Plain of Jars Tourism
Only three sites are open to tourists: Thong Hai Hin (15 kilometers southwest of Phonsavan), with 250 jars; Hai Hin Phu Salato (25 kilometers southwest of Phonsavan), wth 90 jars spread out over two adjacent hill sides; and Hai Hin Lat Khai (10 kilometers southwest of Hai Hin Phu Salato), with 150 jars near some scenic villlages. Other sites are off limits because of the danger of unexploded bombs. Most have 40 jars are less. Only a few thousand travelers visit the site evey year. Sometimes they are abusive, climbing on the jars and even picking away at the stone.
It is a short trip from Phonsavanh to Jar Site 1. A new visitor center greets you with local handicrafts refreshments, and information panels. A marked trail, well away from the UXOs still littering the 25-hectare grounds, leads to the 334 jars spread across a field. A 2.5 meters x 2.5 meters jar tops the others, most of which are half the size, with just one decorated in carved bas relief.
Getting There: The Plain of Jars is located on the XiengKhouang Plateau in north-central Laos. The Plain of Jars via Phonsavan is accessible by air from Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Overland travel is possible from northern and central Laos and north-central Vietnam. The Plain of Jars is also assessible by bus from Hua Phanh, where there are some hotels. Hua Phanh and Phonwsvan can be reached by road. The journey is rough and marked by delays. There isn’t much public transportation. Daily buses run between Phonsavan and Vang Vieng (eight hours), Luang Prabang (eight hours), and Vientiane (eleven hours).
Phonsavan (about 100 kilometers miles west of Vietnamese border) is provincial capital of Xiangkhouang Province. It is located in Paek district and caters to increasing numbers of tourists eager to experience Xieng Khouang’s natural, historical and archaeological attractions. The new airport in Phonsavan is served by regular flights from Vientiane and Luang Prabang by Lao Airlines.
Phonsavan is dusty little town, where most visitors stay when visiting the Plain of Jars. On market day, members of ethic minorities come to the Phonsawan from the surrounding hills. Hmong women sell opium. Other tribe members sell gongs made from bomb casings.
Many visitors arrive by air in Chinese prop planes at an airport with a terminal that looks like a horse shed. The town has grown quite a bit in recent years. In 1990 the only hotel in town was a mosquito-infested plywood structure known as December 2nd Revolution Hotel. Now there are more than a dozen hotels and guesthouses. The situation is improving. Other sights in the Phonsavan area include mineral springs and caves where guerillas and villages escaped American bombing.
Tourist Information: The Xiangkhouang Provincial Tourist Information center is located 2.5 kilometers from Phonsavan town centre, next to Talat Nam Ngum (Nam Ngum Market). The office is open daily from 08.00 to 16.00 and the English-speaking staff can be contacted on +856 (0)61 312 217 or +856 (0)20 2234 0201. Email: email@example.com (http://xiengkhuang.wordpress.com; www.tourismlaos.org).
Early History in the Plain of Jars Area of Laos
Xieng Khouang Province in Laos and the enigmatic Plain of Jars make up one of the most important sites for studying the late prehistory of mainland Southeast Asia. While the ancient civilization that constructed the jars was flourishing, advances in agricultural production, the manufacturing of metals, and the organization of long-distance overland trade between India and China were also rapidly transforming local society and setting the stage for urbanization across the region. Mortuary practices associated with the jars consisting of both cremation and secondary burial suggest a highly-evolved local tradition of ritual, symbolism and metaphysics which persisted through to the kingdoms of the Angkor Period, long after the arrival of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies into Southeast Asia.
Prehistoric material found at the Plain of Jars is still under study, and apparently spans a considerable period of time, with some dating from as early as 2000 BC. The bulk of the archaeological material, however, as well as the jars themselves appeared much later, dating to the early Iron Age between 500 BC and 500-800 AD. The closet archaeological parallels to the finds at the Plain of Jars appear to be Bronze and Iron Age materials from Dong Son in Viet Nam, Samrong Sen in Cambodia, and the Khorat Plateau in northeast Thailand. There are also similarities with the present-day city of Danang, as well as with sites in the North Cachar Hills of northeastern India where megalithic jar North exist. All of these similar sites date to approximately the same period-roughly 500 BC - 500 AD. Together they form a mosaic picture of a large area of upland Southeast Asia criss-crossed by traders, with the Xieng Khouang Plateau at its centre.
Although little is known about the people that constructed the megalithic stone jars, an account of the area's history as it relates to the Tai Puan and the lands they settled in Xieng Khouang is recorded in the Pongsawadan Meuang Puan or the Muang Puan Chronicles. The Tai Puan are a Buddhist Tai-Lao ethnic group that migrated from what is today southern China and by the 13th century had formed an independent principality at the Plain of Jars that prospered from the overland trade in metals and forest products.
Archeology and the Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars was first brought to the attention of the West in 1909 by a French customs official. They were first described in detail by French archeologist Henri Parmentier in 1923 and first excavated by French archeologist Madelaine Colani in 1935. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]
Colani wrote a 600-page monograph entitled “The Megaliths of Upper Laos” and concluded the jars were funerary urns carved by a Bronze Age people for cremated remains. She theorized the remains were cremated because some urns were located near a cave with chimney, where she dug up remains she thought were funerary vases in which corpses were burned. She also found some iron tools, carnelian beads and a bronze figure but these have since been lost.
A lot of research still needs to be done. It is still not clear how old the jars are and how they were transported many kilometers from the quarries where they were carved. Archeologist have no idea of the ethnicity or linguistic base of the people who created the urns. A half dozen quarries with broken jars have been discovered in the mountains. Many believe the urns were dragged to the jar sites by elephants. Some think they lie on a an ancient road that connect the Red River valley in Vietnam with India.
According to UNESCO: “The authenticity of the serial property is based on the form, design, materials and locations of the megalithic jars and other attributes such as lids, secondary burials and archaeological deposits. For the most part, the materials are original, located in their original locations, with relatively little disturbance to the archaeological deposits. While past factors have damaged the jars and their settings, their abundance, antiquity and condition support the authenticity of the serial property.”
Ban Ang Plain of Jars Site
Ban Ang Plain of Jars Site (1.5 kilometers northeast of Phomsavan) is the principal jar site. Here there are more than 250 urns scattered over an area of 60 acres. Fifty or so jars, including the largest ones, are on a ridge on the northeast side of the site. Some archaeologists have speculated that these urns once contained the remains of chiefs. Bomb craters lie on the edge of the site but no urns have been damaged. [Source: Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, Natural History, August 1995]
Describing the jars at the Ban Ang site, Colani wrote: "They are disposed without regularity, some of them pressing one against another, others quite isolated. Each one is fashioned from a separate block of stone, and a small number of them are built are very well, executed, as though turned on a lathe, bespeaking the hand of a true artist."
Parmenteir described three types of urns: squat-shaped ones, slender ones and others that were "almost sections of squared or rectangular prisms, with well rounded corners." He was able to figure out that most of jars probably contained one or two black pots, one or two hand axes, "a bizarre object which we called a lamp," and often spindle weights of iron, glass beads, drilled carnelian beads, earrings of stone or glass, bronze bells and frequently the remains of human bones.
Excavations done by Japanese archeologist in 1994, revealed an urn with a carving of a human figure and burial pits with human bones and two-foot jars with pieces of bone and teeth inside. None of the human remains were burned, which refutes Colani's theory.
Thong Hai Hin (Jar Site 1)
Thong Hai Hin (15 kilometers southwest of Phonsavan) features dozens of stone urns on a grassy knoll and 200 more are scattered in a field below. Some are cracked and shattered but most are in good condition. One has a stone lid. Pieces of lids lie next to others. Some jars have water in them. Others have shrubs and plant growing in them. Tourists are free to climb around on them.
The Plain of Jars Site 1, also known as Thong Hai Hin covers an area of 25 hectares and is covered with tall brown grass with a few trees dotting the undulating landscape. According to the notice board, there are 334 jars found here, with the biggest having a diameter of 2.5 meters and a height of 2.57 meters. A huge signboard by Mines Advisory Group (MAG) states that they have performed Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) clearance of this site between 26 Jul and 29 Oct 2004, 127 pieces of UXO was removed as well as 31,814 pieces of scrap. [Source: Lao Heritage Tour]
Site 1 has two sections, with the closest to the gate located on a small hillock. There are man made stone steps leading up the hill where a big collection of stone jars. The size of jars here are among of the biggest. From the top of the hill, there is a zigzags path down to the next section, about 500 meters away, where there is another group of stone jars. Most of the jars here are smaller than the ones on the hill. An unusual jar with a stone lid can be seen here.
Jar Site 1 was of strategic military importance during the Vietnam War Indochina War, as seen by the trenches and foxholes, anti-aircraft positions and a tank ruins on top of the site’s cave. Several bomb craters are juxtaposed over the historic jars. The entrance fee to the Jar Site 1 goes to the management of the jar site. For more information: Visit the Tourism Information Office in Phonsavan Town, Xiengkhouang.
Other Plain of Jar Sites: In a site called La Sen (6 miles south of Ban Ang or an hour by car on a terrible road) urns are arrayed on the tops of two steep hills, which are separated by a gully. A third more distant site, called Ban Sousa, is in the middle of rice fields at the foot of a wooded ridge. A few of the 155 jars found here have been damaged by bombs. The Ban Phakeo jar site (50 kilometers from Phonsavan) features nearly 400 jars and many rare stone discs with animal sculptures, and is the only jar site with lids. There is also evidence of people using the jars as grinding-whetstones for sharpening knives. Beautiful orchids often bloom in the jars.
Ban Phakeo Plain of Jars Trek
Ban Phakeo Plain of Jars Trek is a two-day trek to a remote Hmong village and one of the country’s most serene Plain of Jars jar sites. Day 1) Travel 45 kilometers from Phonsavan to the Hmong village of Ban Thalin (less than one hour) for a visit to the market to buy lunch. A Ban Thalin village guide leads trekkers on an easy-to-moderate five-hour trek along an ancient route, up hills and across streams to the Ban Phakeo jar sites.
Trekker stay in Ban Phakeo village. Ban Phakeo villagers cook dinner such as duck soup with rice or chicken. In the evening, village women meet at new freshwater taps to do laundry and discuss village news. Trekkers sleep at the basic village lodge (mats on a wood emporium, pillows, blankets and mosquito nets are provided). Be sure to take some warm clothes for the night as the mountains can get cool.
Day 2) After an early breakfast with villagers, trekkers hike four hours to Thad Kha Waterfall for lunch prepared by Ban Phakeo villagers. Relax at a jungle waterfall, sit on a giant tree over the cascade, and swim in one of the ponds. In the afternoon trekkers continue to Ban Tajok, a Hmong village famous for its War Architecture. Return to Phonsavan at around 16.30 on public or pre-arranged transport. Part of your tour fee contributes to maintaining Ban Phakeo’s water system and solar lamps. For more information: Visit the Tourism Information Office in Phonsavan town.
Other Plain of Jar Sites: In a site called La Sen (6 miles south of Ban Ang or an hour by car on a terrible road) urns are arrayed on the tops of two steep hills, which are separated by a gully. A third more distant site, called Ban Sousa, is in the middle of rice fields at the foot of a wooded ridge. A few of the 155 jars found here have been damaged by bombs.
Plain of Jars Conservation and Unexploded Bombs
During the Vietnam War, the Plain of Jars and the area around it was heavily bombed by U.S. planes and even today it is pockmarked with hundreds of bomb craters, many of which are now fish ponds. Fortunately, few of the urns were damaged by the bombing. But excavations and surveys in the area are done very carefully so as not to disturb unexplosed bombs, mortars and grenades.
According to UNESCO: “The integrity of the serial property is based on the material evidence contained in the 15 components, the intactness of the individual components and the series as a whole, and the relatively stable state of conservation of the attributes. There are impacts on the visual integrity of some components, such as the construction of new houses and Buddhist temple outside the buffer zone for Site 1; poorly sited roads/tracks within several components; and conservation problems and intrusive constructions within Site 3. Some attributes have been damaged in the past by bombing and other effects of war, and by cattle grazing.
”The serial property is protected under the Law on National Heritage 2013, supported by the Decree of the President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on the Preservation of Cultural, Historical and Natural Heritage 1997... Provincial governor’s Decree No. 995 provides a mechanism for funding site conservation through revenue sharing from tourism. Implementation of the mechanisms of protection occurs at the national, provincial, district and village levels. Coordination is provided by the National Committee for World Heritage and the Xiengkhuang Heritage Steering Committee. A 5-year action plan of specific projects has been developed, including an archaeological research plan, as well as resources for fencing, basic visitor facilities, road improvements, implementation of the national heritage law, and production of interpretive materials. The day-to-day management of most components is provided by nearby villages based on contracts established with the Provincial Government; and a formula for sharing the income from ticket sales with local communities is in place.
”The main factors affecting this property are processes of natural deterioration and future development pressures. The State Party has recently achieved the clearance of UXO from the components, commendably removing a challenging barrier to access, research and safety.”
Scale more than 1.000 steps to reach a secret passageway slicing through the summit of the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site that played a strategic role for Pathet Lao forces during the Indochina War (1964-1973). The hardly climb passes an odd mix of bomb craters and unfinished or broken jars destined for Jar Site 1. The steps get steeper, but the reward is a magnificent view of the valley around Phonsavanh and the hidden entrance to a narrow 70 meter long, 1.6 meter-high tunnel chiseled through rock that winds past reinforced concrete bunkers and sleeping quarters before exiting to a panorama of the Phoukoud Valley.
Explore ruins dating to the 14th century that crown the hills around the ancient Phuan Kingdom capital, Muang Khoun, which was leveled during the Indochina War. A 30 kilometers drive southeast of Phonsavanh passes a stone wall with brick archways, leftovers of France’s colonial presence. The giant Buddha at Vat Piawat, first built in 1564, still sits erect overlooking Muang Khoun, though only the temple’s pillars and short wall section remain. Once buried in the forest, the 450 year old That Foun Stupa stands tall next to a road outside town, and though bombing raids mostly destroyed Vat Si Phom, enough remains to envision its glory when constructed in 1390.
Ban Napia (35 kilometers south of Phonsavanh) is an ethnic Phuan village where mounds spoons and other tableware is made from war scrap. One day in the 1980s, eight families brainstormed over what to do with all the aluminum bits from downed aircraft. One person noted a lack spoons in the market and noodle shops, so they made wooden mounds, coated them in ash, and poured in the melted junk. And according to the ladle lady, they have an unending supply of debris. You can bookend your spoon tour with stops at nearby Lang Waterfall and Jar Site 3.
In Ban Namkha you can see a Swiss NGO Helvetas-supported renewable energy system project. An easy-to-moderate 1.5-hour trek leads to Ban Napia, Visitors can stroll down the village path to watch the “War Spoon” demonstration. Since the late 1980s, the villagers have produced spoons from aluminium UXO (unexploded bombs) scrap from the Second Indochina War, and will show you the process and sell you the finished products along with bracelets, hand-woven textiles and tastes of homemade Lao Lao whiskey.
MAGnificent Mine Busters: The UK-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has embarked on the almost impossible mission of clearing hundreds of thousands of unexploded ordinances (UXOs) from Xieng Khouang. The MAG Visitor Information center in Phonsavanh provides in-depth history into the intense bombing campaign, the legacy it left behind as the most densely bombed area per capita on earth, facts on the injuries and deaths UXOs continue to cause, diagrams of how cluster bombs work, and even a few diffused shells, the highlight, a one-hour unbiased documentary detailing the bombing’s background, appeals to an audience ranging from people born before the war, those who grew up during the era, and veterans who fought.
Muang Khoun (near the Plain of Jars) used to be provincial capital of Xieng Khouang Province. Formally known as Xieng Khouang town, it was used by the French until after World War II. The town was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War period. All that remains are the foundations of Buddhist temples and destroyed French colonial mansions. Among the few ruinous colonial public buildings that remain are the governor’s residence, church and French school.
Tham Piu Cave (near the Plain of Jars) is where 300 villagers were killed when a cliffside shelter took a direct rocket hit from a Lao air force or U.S. plane. You can see the small bones of a children on the floor. There also some Hmong villages in the mountains.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2020