The Plain of Jars has been called the most mysterious place in Laos. Visitors go there primarily to see huge jar-shaped stone vessels. What they are and how they got there is still in dispute. While there they also see the legacy of a war that most of the world knew little or nothing about. It’s called the “Secret War”.
The Jars are near the provincial capital Phonsavan and close to the Vietnam border. During the Vietnam War (called the American War over here) this area was part of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail and became a huge battlefield when the Americans dropped millions of bombs.
The jars themselves average about 1.5 m (4.8 ft) in height and diameter although some are much larger. Most were carved out of local sandstone. Archaeologists say this was a cemetery of the “Iron Age” and the jars were burial urns used to hold burnt remains and offerings. Beads found on the site came from India and China, for it was on the regional trade route. They also found smaller, clay urns so the larger jars were probably used for the aristocracy while the clay ones for more common folks. Several pots have human-like representations on them.
My guide, who is Hmong, disputes this interpretation. His people believe giants once lived here and this is where they had big parties. The jars were their glasses, used to hold whisky. The biggest jar belonged to the king. He showed me one with an image of a person on it and said it belonged to a very important giant. He further told me that his people do not believe the jars were made of stone but of animal skin that turned as hard as rock over time.
A Hmong guide shares his story
He said there were both women and men giants. The women giants were sent to make the southern part of the country and the men to make the north. Women, so the legend goes, work much harder than men so they made their land flat whereas the men weren’t interested in doing much work so the north is bumpy and mountainous.
He then proceeded to take me to one of those ‘bumps’, which is actually a cave. The entrance to the cave resembles one of the jars so maybe it was just the biggest jar, he said. His people believe the giants used the cave to burn their dead. The guide pointed out three holes at the top of the cave where the smoke could escape; two, he said, are natural but the third is not. Only a giant would be able to reach up and make it.
There are different cave stories and some are very sad. During the war, I was told, soldiers and civilians hid in the cave to get away from the endless bombing. They needed to leave the cave to find food and water but were unable to do that in the day and when they left at night they had to use lights to find their way. The Americans saw the lights and one day at midnight they sent a missile and killed the 350 people who were in the cave.
There are many signs of warfare: trenches running alongside the jars, big indentations in the ground where bombs landed and exploded, smaller holes where bombs fell but did not explode and were subsequently retrieved by one of the international teams working to clean up the mess left behind by a war that has long been over.
Of the hundreds of millions of bombs dropped on Laos from 1964 to 1973, an estimated 30% did not detonate. Just the other day the Vientiane Times reported that four children were killed and two children and one woman injured after a cluster bomb exploded in their backyard while they huddled around a fire to keep warm. The heat activated the bomb.
You can take a bus to Phonsavan from Luang Prabang through the mountains that the giants made and didn’t bother to flatten. You drive along an unforgiving road for several hours, past village after village. If your stomach and nerves can handle it, then it’s an incredible journey. Otherwise, take a plane.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012