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by Irene Butler
For Travel Writers' Tales

Have you ever seen something so bizarre as to defy logic? As my eyes sweep over the vast array of pre-historic stone jars of mammoth proportions - there it is! A mind boggling enigma! What ancient peoples fashioned these vessels, and for what purpose? I am rendered speechless as I run my hand over the rough charcoal-coloured mottled surface of the largest, standing 3 meters in height with a diameter of 2 meters, and estimated to weigh a tonne.

Our guide Yang, my husband Rick and I are at Site One of what is known as The Plain of Jars near the town of Phonsavan in central Laos. This site is strewn with 250 jars. In total there are sixty sites containing a total of 2,000 jars. Of these, five have been open to the public for a little over a decade. We are to visit the three sites that are in close enough proximity to be seen in one day.

As we come upon the cluster of 90 jars at Site Two, Yang points out how these are taller and their shape more conical. Circular stone discs lie near some of the jars. "These are grave markers," says Yang, "and not lids as sometimes suggested. Since lids for the jars are not found, it is believed they were made of perishable materials."

Archaeological evidence suggests that the jars are funerary urns carved by Iron Age peoples over 2,000 years ago. The first systematic studies were undertaken by Madeline Colani in the 1930's. Excavations by Lao and Japanese archaeologists in the early 1990's reinforce this theory, with the discovery of human remains, tools and ceramics that with carbon dating tests were found to span generations from 800 BCE to 200 BCE. The origin of the builders remains unknown.

Local legends claim a different purpose for the jars. According to the most popular, the ancient King Khun Cheung fought a long battle against a formidable enemy and created the vessels to brew and store huge amounts of lao lao (rice wine) to celebrate his victory.

A two kilometre walk through rice fields followed by an upward climb brought us to Site Three, the most picturesque. On the crest of a hill, trees and shrubs mingle with 150 of the massive vessels and a patchwork quilt of green fields stretch out below until met by the azure sky.

The serene beauty of the Plain of Jars simultaneously envelops the tragic history of Laos. The British based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has signs posted at the sites warning visitors to stay within the stone markers along the paths so as to not accidentally set off a UXO (Unexploded Ordnance).

At the MAG office in Phonsavan we learned that during the height of the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1973, America bombarded Laos with 2 million tons of bombs (more than were pummelled on Germany and Japan combined during WWII). Thirty percent of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving the country littered with UXO. Since 1973 thousands have been killed or injured, and the incidence of accidentally setting off a UXO continues at a rate of almost one a day, particularly the cluster bomb explosive fragments which the locals call "bombies". MAG reports 175 UXO have been cleared from the Jar Sites that are open to the public, as well as 1,444 from surrounding villages. In total they have destroyed a total 98,061 UXO since they began clearing in 1994.

About half the victims are children who find the small ball-shaped cluster munitions while playing near their homes in rural communities. Also at high risk are farmers as the rainy season often washes bombies down from the hills.

In Phonsavon bomb casings decorate the restaurants and hotels as planters or entry partitions. The walls inside the Maly Guesthouse, where we stayed, were studded with cluster bomb shells and other war material. On our visit to a village the ubiquitous bomb casings (some 3m in length) have been put to use in the building of water buffalo feeding troughs, fences and pigsties.

We came away, our minds shrouded in the mystery of the strange monolithic relics and saddened by this beautiful country's legacy of war. The increasing number of travellers to the Plain of Jars, now a UNESCO site, will hopefully bring about the funding needed to shorten the 100 years that MAG estimates it will take to make Loa safe. Perhaps this is a new purpose for the dynamic footprints of an ancient people.

Phonsavan (pop 57,000) is the capitol of Xieng Khouang province.
Tourism Laos -

Getting to and from Phonsavan:
By air - Lao Air offers flights from Vientiane
By bus - warning - the road is serpentine (take gravol)
From Vientiane -VIP or local bus (10-12 hours)
From Vang Vieng (7-8 hours)
From Luang Prabang - VIP or local bus (8 hours)
Also check out mini-buses.

Maly Hotel & Sousath Travel,
Phonsavan Office: (856) 061 312031
Vientiane office for reservations: (856) 021 453265

MAG (Mines Advisory Group) is a Humitarian Organization
training locals in the skill of detonating bombs.

Photo Credits: Rick Butler
1) Jar and grave marker disc on left
2) Number of jars site 3
3) Café with bomb casings Phonsavan
4) Maly Hotel bomb material
5) Yang inspects bomb casing in village

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