Is a visit to the Plain of Jars worth the epic bus ride?
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--the Plain of Jars, in Laos.
Would it be worth the legendary 12-hour bus journey from Vientiane 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 a 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.
The jars are situated in Northeastern Laos, in the sleepy town of Phonsavan. Depending on whom I spoke with the ‘jar experience’ varied. To some—they were just…just, jars scattered over the countryside. But for others, it was an experience worthy of a crazy bus ride. For this history enthusiast, the verdict was TBD.
A Walk to Remember
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 found myself standing in front of a red MAG (Mines Advisory Group) sign. I was mesmerized by the warning.
Now, I am a rules girl and certainly when travelling I tend to respect the signage. BUT, the message was usually ‘don’t touch the exhibits’ and the consequences for touching would be a reprimand. Or, at worst, a person could be requested to leave the premises. Not in Laos—where disobeying the signage can result in the loss of limbs or death.
Laos was Neutral During the Vietnam War
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? I certainly hadn't. But in this small town, on the other side of the world—it’s normal. And, so is walking among the many bomb craters that litter the countryside.
Did you know...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.
The Jars Up Close & Personal
I was cognizant of every step. Despite the heat, I chose to forgo a cold beverage and risk dehydration to get to jars as fast as I could. 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 the mysterious jars and about to get an introduction.
At site 2, 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. Some of jars stand proud. Some sit among 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 revealed 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 couldn’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.
What were the jars used for?
Archaeologists will likely unravel the mystery of the jars although, the popular theory is that they were a part of ancient burial rituals 2500 years ago. But I prefer to believe the local legend and that being the jars were giant's drinking cups. Time will tell what their purpose was but in the interim, I like to envision an expansive plain that once hosted a giant party.
It was a place where male and female giants animatedly discussed the latest gossip, while others reclined—their massive bodies stretched out in the sun. Off in the distance, but within their parent’s vision, the children played. Jars filled with giant's homemade brew were scattered over the landscape's table. The antics of the children's games caused the earth to shake, some of the jars tipped over, spilling the giant's drinks all over the ground.
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 Vientiane 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 jars, in my book Beauty Beneath the Banyan (BBTB). I also recommend that travellers who have a passion for anything ancient go to this UNESCO world heritage site. 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 fellow travellers and I’m sure the giants will enjoy it too!