The Plain of Jars (Site 2): Distilling Bodies

As stated in a previous post, our plan with the Plain of Jars was to see the main three sites in reverse numerical order. Our thinking in doing so was to see Site 1, the largest and most celebrated site, last. We figured that to go straight there would be to risk an anticlimactic experience. As a result, when he arrived at Site 2, we still hadn’t seen the main site. Our first impression was that Site 2 was more frequented than Site 3, yet still very quiet by most standards. We didn’t yet realize that the majority of tourists to the region are content to look at Site 1 and venture no further.

Of particular interest to me was a signboard at the ticket office for Site 2 which explained some of the history of the sites. In all honesty, this single sign was more informative than dozens of websites on the Plain of Jars put together. Too often people just regurgitate the line that the Plain of Jars are an ‘enigmatic presence’, ‘a mystery in stone’ or more such mystical nonsense. To judge from much of what is written about the site online, you’d think that archaeologists couldn’t make heads or tails of them. In truth, it had been known since the 1930s that they represented one of the most remarkable mortuary complexes in South-East Asia. While many details remain open to speculation, it seems undisputed that the jars are associated with funerary practices among the ancient peoples of the region.

The French archaeologist Madeleine Colani pioneered research in Xieng Khouang province in the 1930s. She found cremated human remains inside and around the jars and also a cave near Site 1, with burned bones and ash. Colani speculated the cave was a crematorium, the jars themselves were mortuary vessels, and the jar-clusters, of which there were numerous examples in the region, were ancient burial grounds. While a hundred different jar sites have now been catalogued, and much more detailed knowledge about burial practices has been gained, Colani’s basic thesis has been borne out by all the subsequent research. Over the years, there have been various findings in the vessels, including cremated fragments of bones and teeth, and glass beads.

In 2016 the Plain of Jars made headlines again when archaeological research at the site indicated that they were used for ‘distilling bodies’. This was a new twist on Colani’s thesis, but it did not deviate from her basic position, which was that the jars represented a mortuary complex. The head archaeologist of the investigation, Dr. Dougald O’Reilly, reached the conclusion that the jars were used for ‘distilling bodies’.  He wrote in one interview, “One theory [ his own ]is that they were used to decompose the bodies. Later, after the flesh was removed, the remains may have been buried around the jars.” Based on what you can see at Site 2 (and other sites in the region), this theory makes a lot of sense.

At Site 2 the jars are situated on two adjacent hilltops, which a dirt road passes between them. In other words, there are two main clusters here, but there is only a short distance between them; the one on the right is set atop a comparatively open and unvegetated hill with great views, and the one on the right is set inside a grove of trees, making it more reminiscent of Site 3. Heading to the one on the right first, we found ourselves drawn by the moody views across the hills and valleys of the Laotian Cordillera. This part of the country really does have a unique atmosphere, especially when experienced on an icy winter’s day. However, we eventually managed to draw ourselves away from the landscape to inspect the jars.

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Site 2 has some large jars inside a forest grove

We soon noticed which the sizes of the openings of the jars varied considerably. Armed with the information from the signboard about ‘distilling bodies’, this fact took on an unsuspected significance. It seemed probable that the sizes of the openings had been specifically carved to suit the size of the deceased’s body. Obviously, you would not normally need as big a cavity for a child as an adult, or indeed a woman as a man. Walking around on the hilltop, we noted that the openings did vary to a considerable extent, which supported the ‘distilling bodies’ thesis. Once the flesh had rotted away, also picked at by birds or eaten by rodents, the skeleton could be taken out, put in the earth and, in some instances, marked with a stone disc.

From there we crossed the road and looked at the jars inside the grove. These jars were under the heavy umbrage of some particularly large and densely-foliaged trees. This atmosphere on forest gloom made for a change from the open, airy atmosphere across the road. In terms of photography, it had the advantage of contrast. The shots we took here had an interesting backdrop of gnarled buttress roots and a thick leaf-canopy. As with their neighbours across the road, there are many fine examples here. Overall, there are more cracked specimens than at Site 3 but less than at Site 1, where the jars show the most damage. Having explored the grove, we headed off for the leading site.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Reclining Buddhas of Ayutthaya

For most travellers to Thailand, their exposure to the Reclining Buddha image (more properly known as mahaparinirvana) is likely to begin and end with Wat Pho, an historic Bangkok wat which is on every tour group itinerary. While this may indeed be the country’s most magnificent Reclining Buddha image, it is far from its oldest. The historically-minded tourist can find far more ancient examples of Reclining Buddha images by heading north to the former capital of Ayutthaya. This post will cover what are arguably the most impressive Reclining Buddha images at Ayutthaya.

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The Reclining Buddha at Wat Lokkayasutharam, Ayutthaya

The best-known of these is at the ruins of the former Wat Lokkayasutharam. Though most of the original temple buildings have been destroyed, the Reclining Buddha itself has survived in excellent condition. Set on a long brick platform, it is made from brick covered in stucco- a type of construction which had probably already existed for a thousand years in Thailand by the middle of the Ayutthaya period. With a length of thirty-seven metres, it is almost as long as the famous Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho but, at a height of eight metres, it is only half as high. The figure has a soft, dreamy expression which is very beautiful. A unique feature is the fact that his head is pillowed on a giant lotus blossom. The treatment of the robes is also very elegant. Though there is little else on offer at the complex, it is worth coming for the Reclining Buddha alone.

A second Reclining Buddha can be seen in the ruins of Ayutthaya at the complex of Wat Yai Chai Mongkol. There are many historical vestiges at this wat complex, including one truly magnificent chedi surrounded by rows of seated Buddhas. However, for the purposes of this post, the sole object of interest is a Reclining Buddha image. Made from brick and stucco, it can be found in the ruins of a former temple building. The brick platform remains, as does a pair of brick and stucco columns. However, the focal point is the image itself. The Buddha is propped up on an elegantly proportioned arm, portions of which are covered with gold-leaf. It appears that the image may have been restored in the recent past, as it appears remarkably intact. During the time of our visit, it was wrapped in saffron-coloured robe as a sign of respect. It is yet more proof of the enduring power of the Reclining Buddha in Thai religious life.

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The Reclining Buddha at Wat Yai Chai Mongkol

A final, noteworthy example of the Reclining Buddha image at Ayutthaya can be found at Wat Thammikarat. This is an important wat complex which was once on the main royal road through the ancient capital; vestiges of the former royal road can be seen nearby. Though it was devastated by the war of 1767, there are still substantial remains to check out, including a massive bell-shaped chedi guarded by fifty-two lion figures and the ruins of an ordination hall. Less well-known, but more important for present purposes, is a wooden vihaan which houses a twelve-metre long Reclining Buddha image. Though it is in good condition, it was an authentic patina of age, with the paint wearing through in parts. The feet of this statue are covered with gold leaf and beautifuk mirror mosaics. Fronted by numerous smaller images and votives, it remains a part of the city’s religious life.

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The Reclining Buddha of Wat Thammikrat, covered in gold leaf votives

Srivijaya: A Floating City

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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…

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The Plain of Jars (Site 3)

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.

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A small, lichen-covered jar at Site 3

 

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.

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A lichen-covered jar with its matching disc

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.

Sambor Group N16: The Palanquin of the Heavens

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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…

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Khok Mai Den: A Dvaravati Settlement

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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…

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The War-Ravaged Town of Muang Khoun: Wat Si Phum

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.

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UXO used as ornaments in Muang Khoun

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.

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Wat Si Phum’s badly damaged exterior

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.

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This portion shows portions of stucco and a decorative niche

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.