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.