March 1st, 2005

Plain of Jars

On the 26 Feb, I found myself with 7 other travellers on a mini van leaving Luang Prabang in the morning towards Phonsavan. That is the town that you need to be if you want to visit the Plain of Jars. On leaving LP, the van slowly climbed the way upwards. We passed by Hmong villages clinging to the ridges of the mountains. The sides of the mountains near those villages had the trees cut off and burned with a smoky haze to the air. We were told visibilty will be much better in June to September during the raining season. I guess it will be more difficult to do much burning when it is wet. We were told the mountains would be much greener too with the rains. The slopes that they cleared the forests and used for agriculture were even more steep than the bank of Mekong river where my camera nearly rolled into the river, together with me as well. Even so, at the worse, I merely get wet. If I was a Hmong farmer, if I slipped, it may be all the way down to the bottom of the mountain.

The Plain of Jars is not actually a plain. It is a plateau of about 1200 meters high. As we reached the plateau, the countryside started to change. The steep ridges turned to flowing hills. The earlier houses that we passed had been very rough and basic with walls of split bamboo or woven rattan mats. On the plateau, those steep fields became rolling meadows and the houses were more solidly built.

We came into Phonsavan and our little hotel. It was amazing to see so many buildings and houses have bomb casings stacked outside and inside as decorative pieces. The guide will tell us 'Oh, that is a 250 pound bomb and that is a 1000 pound bomb and that is a cluster bomb and that is the bent barrel of a Chinese 0.50 heavy machin gun.'

Apparently this part of Laos was heavily fought over in the undeclared war. American bombers had hit this place very hard. The worse have been the mines and the hundreds of little bombs from spewed from a cluster bomb. Those little bombs, or bombies as they are called are still alive. Removing them is a very slow delicate process. The organisation is called Mine Advisory Group or MAG for short. There was no escaping from the MAG. Their signs were everywhere on the fields and country side.

It was told to us that there were 93 sites where the huge prehistoric jars were located in the plain. However only 3 sites were opened to public, site 1, 2 and 3. While demining was still going on at site 2 and 3, the MAG needed to do a lot more before other sites could be made safe for visiting. It is kind of interesting to walk in site 3 among the jars and the guide pointed to a marker in the middle of the site and saying casually that a bombie was removed and blown up 3 days ago. Because we were there on 27 Feb which was a Sunday, we did not see the MAG people working. I am glad they had their day of rest and I wish them well on the difficult job that lies before them.

The paths from the road to the site were marked very clearly with concrete stones painted bright red and white together with MAG markings. I wonder how good that will be considering new bombies may be found even within cleared areas. So if you need to pee, it is best to do so on the path instead of walking off to a nearby bush.

The numbers of the jars were staggering even though many of the smaller jars might have been removed. I wondered for what purposes that people in the past could spend so much efforts in the construction and the moving of those jars. We have difficulties on some sites in just walking up the hills. Having to move heavy jars would be so impossible that it defied even the imagination. While the plateau lands appeared to be fertile and rich as could be seen in the better houses here, in the past, the plain must be still covered with forests. It may be a long time before a reasonable and acceptable explanation will be found for the jars.

Not withstanding the difficulty to reach there and the dangers from the bombies, the visit there was incredible experience. The jars ranged from big to really huge jars somehow fashioned from enormous boulders. Those sites were almost all on small hills. The boulders came from some distance away