When the Chinese traveller Chau Ju Kua came to Palembang in the twelfth century, he described Sriwijaya in most unexpected terms. He wrote, “The people either lived scattered about, outside the city, or on the water on rafts of boards covered over with reeds, and these (floating houses) are exempt from taxation.” This description of a floating city comes from classical Sriwijaya’s period of decline. Within living memory it was still much more a ‘city afloat’ than it is today. Friedrich Schnitger, the first man to write a book about Sumatran archaeology, investigated Palembang during the 1930s. The German was interested mostly in ancient inscriptions and statues, but in one of his most lyrical and romantic passages, he describes a city that was still partly ‘floating:
On moonlit nights, young Malays of Palembang hire a boat and go rowing with their sweethearts. They glide past the Chinese houses…
The Plain of Jars is a megalithic complex in the Annamite Cordillera, the highland area in the north of Laos and Vietnam. It had been on my wish-list of sites in South-East Asia for many years, but I had never managed to get there, due mostly to its isolation. Getting there from the Laos capital will take at least ten hours each way. However, I finally returned to Laos for a month in January and February 2018, which gave me enough time to explore Xieng Khouang province in some depth, with the Plain of Jars being the highlight. They turned out to be one of the highlights not only of Laos but of all my travels in Indochina.
While the Plain of Jars is often presented as a single attraction, it is in fact a blanket term for an entire megalithic complex. At the time of writing, there are now 99 known jars sites, including a total of around 2000 stone jars. Just as we do not talk of all of Central Java’s 280 ancient temples as a single attraction, the Temples of Java, it is misleading to think of the Plain of Jars as one thing. They are spread over a large geographical area, for one thing, and they may have been carved several centuries apart. It makes more sense to speak of Jars Sites, as archaeologists have long done, with each one being numbered from 1 to 99.
For the vast majority of visitors, their exploration of the jars will begin and end with Site 1, but Sites 1-3 are all clearly signposted and quite safe to visit. They can all but comfortably visited in a single day trip from Phonsavan too, which is what I would recommend doing. However, at the risk of sounding contrary, I would advise doing them in reverse order from 3 to 1, saving the most famous and popular site for last. That is how we saw them, and it how I will cover them on this blog.
Site 3 is located down a side road about on the way out to Ban Naphia, known for making spoons from unexploded ordinance. When we arrived at the car park, we were surprised to find that there were no other vehicles there. Why did all this people come to Phonsavan if they didn’t even bother to see the Plain of Jars? Still perplexed by the lack of visitors, we walked over to the ticket office and bought two tickets, priced at 10,000 kip apiece. We also noticed that there was noodle place alongside, with the locals warming themselves around a log-fire. They asked if we wanted to eat and we said we would when we came back from the site.
At Site 3 you have to walk a few hundred metres from the car park to the jar-site, and the walk takes you through the rice paddies. Along the paths there are numerous markers from bomb removal teams: red paint sprayed on a rock meant that there had formerly been a cluster of small bombs (bombies, in the UXO parlance) at that point. Judging from the amount of paint on rocks, this entire area had once been littered with small bombs. Many of them would have been hidden in the soft mud of the rice paddies, risking the life and limb of the farmers who were tilling them. It is difficult not to visit this part of Laos and not been shocked by the extraordinary dangers which villagers confront in going about their daily lives. Yet at the same time, the rural scenery of bamboo houses, rice paddies and wooded hilltops is very beautiful.
The path brings you to a hilltop which is the location of Jar Site 3. In fact, many of the jar sites were located on hilltops, which may have had some ritual significance. Perhaps the ancients felt closer to the ancestor spirits there. When you reach the entrance to this jar site, you find that it is covered in various small trees, and the jars are quite closely bunched together in a small fenced area. This immediately gave me the sense of an English churchyard, like a group of tombs gathered in the shade of cypresses and yews. Contrary to what some sources claim, there is no great mystery as to the purpose of the jars: they were clearly used for funerary purposes. However, I will not expand on these funerary rites at this stage. I will cover them in much more detail in my post on Site 2.
Site 3 has around 150 jars, all gathered together in a compact area. It also has around 30 ‘discs’. We spent about forty minutes looking around the site, which has many shrubs and trees providing shade. Compared to Sites 1 and 2 the jars here seem to be in the best condition, with many of them intact or showing only minor damage. They are beautifully shaped and surprisingly photogenic; everywhere I turned, the scene before me looked like a photo opportunity. The openings of the jars vary considerably, with some of the openings much wider or narrower than others. They also vary in terms of height, width and breadth, with the variety of shapes making them more interesting to look at than I had expected. Finally, many species of lichen have now grown on their exteriors, giving some of them a pleasantly mottled look.
We were especially interested by the discs. They once thought to be lids for the jars, but this idea has now been discredited. In truth, the jars were for interring human remains; they were not actually a ‘grave’ as such. It was the discs which were the markers or grave markers and the jars which were for human remains. Though we could see nothing like the thirty specimens said to exist at the site, we found a few representative examples to satisfy our curiosity. As with the jars, the discs at the site were in remarkably good repair. The discs, like the jars, are made of stone and are another fascinating aspect of the funerary culture of ancient Laos.
One of the more worthwhile sights in the Northern Group of temples at Sambor Prei Kuk (also known as the Sambor Group) is a brick sanctuary known by the distinctly unromantic name of N16. It is situated outside the central group of temples in the Sambor Group, right alongside a dirt road. This square-based brick tower is of interest primarily for the relatively crisp carvings on its outer walls. These brick relief carvings feature the most famous motif found at Sambor Prei Kuk- the so-called flying palace.
The flying palace motif found here is similar to those found on the numerous octagonal shrines of the Southern Group. In the centre of a brick panel is a stylized depiction of a tiered, wooden palace, which literally seems to be hovering in mid-air. These celestial palaces have their roots in Hindu mythology and can be thought to represent the abode of the…
It is often said that little remains of Thailand’s Dvaravati period, especially in the form of monuments of archaeological sites. Guidebooks to Thailand give very little to no attention to the historical remains of the Dvaravati civilization, giving the false impression that there is nothing to see. However, the more I have researched Dvaravati, the more inaccurate this impression has come to seem. There are quite a number of interesting sites in Central Thailand where you can see traces of Dvaravati. One of these are Mueang Khok Mai Den (also known as Meuang Bon) in the modern province of Nakhon Sawan.
In the early period of Thailand’s history, its highways were its rivers, and the rivers of Thailand clearly played a crucial role in the spread of civilization in this part of the world. Tellingly, almost all early settlements were located on or near major rivers. The city of Nakhon…
Our final stop in Muang Khoun was the little-known temple of Wat Si Phum, which had been the renowned as the most beautiful in Xieng Khouang province before the Vietnam War. Strangely, none of the blogs about Muang Khoun offer coverage of this temple, perhaps wrongly presuming that nothing had survived the war years. However, before we visited Wat Si Phum, we stopped off at one of the simple eateries on the main street of town for a bowl of noodle soup. The house alongside it had a very good example of UXO (unexploded ordinances) being used for ornamental purposes, a practice which is quite common in the region.
From there we went to Wat Si Phum, which is actually located just behind the main street of Muang Khoun. The approach to the wat was via a back lane and there was a heavy metal gate drawn most of the way across. We walked parked the motorbike in the lane and walked onto the grounds of the temple. It turned out that most of the buildings were new, including the main prayer hall, which was locked anyway. The modern replacements to the historic structures were wooden buildings which looked like the sorts of temples you would find in small villages by the side of the highway. Still, it was a shame that these buildings were locked, as we would have liked to look inside and see if they housed any historic statues. However, there was not so much as a single monk around at the time of our visit. Fortunately, the grounds of the wat contained one historic relic for us to look at: That Si Phum, a Lao-style brick chedi which was beautiful even in its ruinous state.
The brick chedi consisted of a broader base with a thinner, gradually tapering body. There are niches in the body in which standing Buddha figures may once have stood, faced with stucco, but now only the niches remain. There are portions of stucco which remain on the uppermost portions, but most of it has peeled off, leaving only the brick skeleton. Here and there small plants have sprouted between the bricks, undoubtedly destabilizing the whole structure. In one corner there is an ornament on the base which is reminiscent of the ornaments on That Luang in Vientiane, but obviously on much smaller scale. The top of the chedi had broken off, though judging but what remained, it would probably have been some kind of finial, perhaps with a golden parasol on top.
The following day when we visited the Plain of Jars Museum, we were to see a display about That Si Phum. It was an architectural sketch of the thaat from before the war, and it was obviously an exquisitely designed and decorated structure. The sketch confirmed that it was originally an exceptionally beautiful example of a Lao chedi. Hopefully, it will one day receive a sensitive restoration which will return to its original beauty.
After a visit to Wat Phia Wat, we went off in search of the town’s other sights: a pair of ancient thaat (the Lao name for chedi) which were said to perch on a hill above town. I had expected to be able to see them from the main street of town, but we had to ask directions. It turned out they were very easy to find; it was just that they were hidden by the buildings on the main street. However, on the way there we noticed what looked like a ruin on a small hill behind the main road, so we went there first to see what it was.
It turned out that it was the town’s the last French colonial building in town, though in truth it too was a ruin. The bombs of the US-led Secret War in Laos had destroyed the city’s colonial heritage along with its pre-colonial temples. The roof of the building was missing, as were the upper portions of the walls, and the plaster was peeling off most of the brickwork which remained. Yet even its ruinous state, it was an elegant example of French architecture, with a porch and staircase extending from the main structure. There was a sign on the site which informed us that this was the former town hospital; apparently not even hospitals had been spared the devastation which rained down from the sky during the Vietnam War.
From there we road up to the hill overlooking town and soon got our first glimpse of That Foun, which is the largest and most imposing of the town’s surviving chedis. It was once abandoned in a field of long grass, but in recent years, some attempt has been made to repair the structure. There is now a ticket office at the city, where the obligatory 10,000 kip entrance fee is requested. There is also a shop here selling traditional textiles made on a loom- more on this in a moment. We parked the motorbike, bought our tickets and walked around the soaring thaat, said to date back to 1576.
The top part of the thaat is in better shape than the base, retaining some of its stucco. This portion makes it clear that the thaat would once have been very beautiful; even in its damaged present state, the elegant proportions of the structure are clear. However, the lower portion of the structure shows considerably more damage. Very little of the stucco remains, some portions of the brickwork have crumbled away and there is even a large hole which was burrowed through the base by Chinese bandits during the late nineteenth century. However, at the time of our visit, repairs were underway. Bamboo scaffolding had been erected around the lower part of the thaat and the hole in the base was finally being filled in after 130 years. The restoration seems to be aimed more at stabilizing the thaat than restoring it to its former glory, but at least this is a start. To get an idea of what it make once have looked like, its shape is similar to the That Dam Stupa in Vientiane.
From That Foun, we continued further up the hill to the site of That Chom Phet. This structure has a better location than That Foun, commanding a spectacular view of the town and its surroundings, right across to the hills in the distance. However, time has been especially cruel to this structure. Like its nearby neighbor, a hole has been tunneled through the base of the thaat, but that is far from the biggest problem. That Chom Phet is now just a block of brickwork, with the top broken off and no decoration remaining. It is very hard to an even get a sense of what it once looked like. Overall, it is another casualty of Xieng Khoung’s violent history and one that may be beyond the furthest skill of restorers. Still, it is worth coming over here for the panoramic views.
From there we went back to the ticket office to look at the textiles. Most of them were hand-woven Lao textiles, some of them using vegetable dyes. Being fans of traditional South-East Asian textiles, we bought one off the woman who was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about Lao textiles. She was also well-informed about the renovations at That Foun, telling us that a Swiss benefactor had paid for them. She also had a collection of photocopies of Muang Khoun before the war. She showed us how Wat Phiawat had looked before the war- much like the sort of historic wats you can still see in Luang Prabang- and also the original vihaan of That Foun which had once stood in front of the thaat. She said that that town wanted to rebuild the vihaan but there were no funds available. Finally, she showed us pictures of the Wat Si Phum, which had once been the most beautiful of the town’s temples. She suggested that there was still some relics there. We decided to check it out as our next and final stop before leaving town.
In recent years the Lao province of Xieng Khouang has found itself the overland route for backpackers in South-East Asia. Travellers moving between the Lao and Vietnamese capitals might stopover in Xieng Khouang’s biggest city, Phonsavan, before getting a bus on to Vinh in the north of Vietnam. As novel as this route may seem, it is probably just the re-opening of an ancient trade route which linked the coast of Vietnam with the highlands of the Annamite Cordillera. One legacy of this ancient trade route may have been Xieng Phounag’s famous Plain of Jars. Another was the ancient royal capital of Muang Khoun.
Muang Khoun was once one of Laos’s richest settlements in terms of cultural heritage, with its wats such as Wat Phiawat and Wat Si Phum being renowned for the beauty of their old-world architecture. However, the province of Xieng Khouang was subject to saturation bombing from the United States in Laos, causing not only massive loss of human life but also the destruction of much of the country’s built cultural heritage. This loss was especially pronounced in the former royal city of Muang Khoun. In fact, not a single building was left untouched by the bombing and for many years, Muang Khoun was a ghost town. However, it is now coming back to life, with a few guesthouses and restaurants on the main street and many residents in the area. These signs of life notwithstanding, its wats are now either erased or in ruins.
Like most travellers, we decided to visit Muang Khoun from Phonsavan, which is the new capital of Xieng Khouang province. You can rent a Chinese motorbike from one of the businesses on the main street of town for 100,000 kip a day. The distance from Phonsavan to Muang Khoun is only thirty kilometres along a paved route, so it is an easy day-trip on a motorbike. However, we visited the area in early February and the weather was cold and cloudy. With the wind-chill factor added, we soon felt that it was too cold to continue without gloves and hats. So we started looking for these in the general stores which appeared intermittently along the roadside between the two towns, and found some gloves and beanies at the third shop we stopped at. While it was still cold even with gloves and beanies, we made it on to Muang Khoun with only one more stop along the way.
Muang Khoun is set in a valley in the highlands, with a river running along one side of the town and hills surrounding the town on all sides. The main street has a few local guesthouses, restaurants and shops; it is far from the desolate ruin which is sometimes described in the guidebooks. Within a few more years, it may even have backpacker-oriented guesthouses and cafes and be established as a destination in its own right. In the meantime, it is increasing in popularity with tourists on day trips from Phonsavan and we were to encounter a few on our tour of the town’s pre-war ruins. In fact, the first encounter happened a few minutes later at Wat Phiawat, the town’s best-known sight. There was an older English woman being shown around the wat by a local tour guide.
Like many tourist attractions in Laos, there is a 10,000 kip entrance to the wat, which was located by a group of ladies at the entrance gate. We quickly learned that the wat had been renovated, with some new wooden buildings having been built on the grounds and some monks in residence. However, none of these buildings are of any real distinction. The reason to come here is still because of the ruins of the former vihaan. It consists of the original brick foundation of the structure, which has emerged relatively unscathed from the war. On top of the base are the broken remains of a few brick columns, with many missing entirely. The timber roof which it once supported is now gone without a trace. Then at the end of the platform is a large seated Buddha which somehow survived the bomb largely intact.
This monumental, 14th century Buddha is seated on a lotus pedestal, which is made of bricks covered with a few extant patches of the original plaster. It is flanked on either side by the final two of the brick columns. The Buddha is seated in the bumisparshamudra, or the touching the earth posture, with his long, elegant fingers reaching down to the ground. Its legs are folded in the lotus position and its body has a solid, substantial look. There is considerable damage to the left knee area, which has been partly blasted away. The head is noteworthy for its elongated ear-lobes, with their suggestion of royal lineage, its clearly drawn features and its hair, which is rendered in a series of cylindrical spikes. Its hair is mostly intact though there is a large ‘bald’ patch at the back, where the spikes have been destroyed. Its right eye is also badly damaged, forming a sharp contrast with the relatively intact left eye. Finally, some weeds are growing from a missing portion of the Buddha’s forehead.
Overall, the Buddha makes a melancholy impression, as you admire its evident beauty but also reflect on the damage which has befallen it, and indeed the people of the province. It is actually very reminiscent of the ruins of Ayutthaya, a former Thai capital which was destroyed by Burmese cannons in 1767. There too you find temple bases, broken columns and time-worn Buddha statues exposed to the elements. It is also worth mentioning that at the time of our visit, the whole base was being covered in modern, terracotta tiles which are very unsympathetic to the historic nature of the ruin. Hopefully, funds will eventually be found for a more sensitive conservation of the town’s surviving monuments.