Cloudless cobalt sky. Heat so intense the perspiration slowly dribbled down the contours of my body. Anticipation rose in my throat because I was about to set my eyes on one of the world’s ancient mysteries.
Will it be worth the legendary 12-hour bus journey on roads with twists and turns that forced me to travel the entire distance with a clenched backside to avoid landing in the isle or in some stranger’s lap? A road that had the Laotians vomiting out the windows at regular intervals and me quadrupling up on anti-nauseous pills all the while thinking …this better be good.
Insane? Perhaps. But not to a history enthusiast such as myself who has the time to travel to the Plain of Jars. The jars are situated in Northeastern Laos, in the sleepy town of Phonsavan. Depending on whom you speak with the ‘jar experience’ varies. To some—they’re just…just, jars scattered over the countryside. But to others, and that would be me! the jars are magical—a site worthy of two long, crazy, highly medicated bus rides. (that’s right two, I had to take the 12-hour ride back to where I started).
Before proceeding, it is necessary to mention—the experience was not all magic. Because before one can venture into the jar sights, the reality of what it’s like to be a resident of Phonsavan strikes. At the entrance to one of the three jar sights, I find myself standing in front of a red MAG (Mines Advisory Group) sign. I’m mesmerized at the warning which clearly states this is an area with unexploded landmines (UXB) do not venture beyond the clearly marked paths.
Now, I am a rules girl and normally when travelling I tend to respect the signage. BUT, the message usually commands that you ‘don’t touch the exhibits’ and the consequences for touching would be a reprimand. Or, at worst, a person would be requested to leave the premises. Not in Laos; where disobeying the signage can result in the loss of limbs or death.
For a country that was ‘not’ involved in the Vietnam War, the impact that is still felt in this region today is shocking. In the small town of Phonsavan every week a landmine kills a person. Have you ever heard about this? If someone were killed one of our cities we’d hear about it. But, in this small town, on the other side of the world—it’s normal. And, so is walking amongst the many bomb craters that litter the countryside. (During the Secret War, the US dropped more bombs on this small neutral country than all of the bombs that were dropped during World War 2—making Laos the most heavily bombed county in the world).
I remember the walk to the jars—cognizant of every step and, despite the heat I chose to forgo a cold beverage and risk dehydration to get to these jars faster. I didn’t know what to expect. I’d seen pictures of the jars and had heard the critiques of fellow travellers but I was anxious to form my own opinion. Each step brought me closer until I found myself face-to-face with Laos’s great mystery.
At site 3, cluster of 100 cannon shaped stone jars are scattered across two adjacent hills. One of the hills is barren except for the lone deposit of jars and the other hill has leafy green trees who offer the jars some relief from the piercing rays of the morning sun. The jars stand at varying heights—the tallest is 2 meters. Some of jars stand proud. Some sit amongst trees with twisted trunks, while others lean at varying degrees pulled towards the earth’s parched surface. Others lie flat gracing the earth in their eternal slumber.
A closer look reveals the jars are in various states of decay and perfection. Their openings are circular; the insides bare. The jars and their secrets belong to Laos—they’re majestic, magical and I can’t get enough of them. I must have taken a thousand pictures of jars. I took pictures from every angle– kneeling on the ground, lying on the ground, draped over and head inside. I ran my fingers over rough surfaces; touched crevasses and bullet holes in hopes that they would whisper their secrets to my fingers.
Archeologists will likely unravel the mystery of the jars although, the popular theory is that they were a part of ancient burial rituals 1500-2000 years ago. But I prefer to believe the local’s theory and that being the jars were giants drinking cups. Time will tell what their purpose was but in the interim, I like to envision an expansive plain hosting a giant party. Male and female giants animatedly discuss the latest the gossip, speculating over who will win the football match while others reclined—their massive bodies stretched out enjoying the heat of the day. Off in the distance, but within their parent’s vision the children played. The antics of their games caused the earth which acted as the great BIG table cluttered with jars filled with the giant’s homemade brew.
So, you may be wondering…was it worth it? Absolutely! I left, as I arrived—by bus. While the journey to Phonsavan was one filled with anticipation, my departure to Louang Prabang had me once again hopped-up on motion sickness pills, backside determinedly clenched and my head filled with the images of jars and giants.
To this day, (over 10 years later) I remain under the spell of the Plain of Jars. So much so, I included the site in my book BBTB and will recommend to any traveller who has a passion for all things ancient to go to the Plain of Jars. Hopefully, the road is fixed now but even if it isn’t…I say…GO FOR IT! A sunset viewing of the Jars is bound to delight my fellow travelers and I’m sure the giants will enjoy it too!
Activist, World traveller. Fan of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.