The Plain of Jars

I just realized that we’d spent Veterans Day weekend in Central Laos where we took in the Plain of Jars. 

This is an area of archeological sites made of of 3-12 foot stone jars placed out in the wilderness. They date back to the Iron Age and no one is entirely sure why they’re there.  They were probably used for burials of some sort, but the locals say that men were bigger way back when and used the jars as whisky glasses. Seems to be a common ancient theme. Men being bigger and all. 

It is pretty fascinating.  

Modern history is also fascinating. Laos being rather weak at the time, allowed the North Vietnamese to access it’s territory to move men and supplies from north to south along a series of roads that were collectively called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 

This in itself was a pretty intense logistical exercise accomplished largely by people on foot and bicycle and hand carts. 

And as even an armchair general might realize, if that road is how you’re getting supplies, I should probably take out the road. So, try as we might, the US used what it has used best, air power.  

For a solid 9 years, from 1964-1973, bombers would take off from northern Thailand and loop up and over Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam and try and take out the trail and other sites. The rate of bombing missions averaged every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years. 

And because the trail was largely operated by people on foot, most of the bombs used were small anti-personnel bombs, or cluster bombs. Laos is about the size of Utah, and it’s said that there were more bombs dropped there that in all of WWII. Some in an effort to shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but others were dropped to avoid the paperwork and tasks back home.  

Sometimes bombing missions got scrubbed or bombers were driven off by weather or defenses. But to land a plane while fully loaded was risky and required special procedures, so to avoid that planes would often let loose over central Laos. . 

MAG marker

About one-third of bombs didn’t explode and now, 50 years later, they still kill people at a rate of about 5 people a year. This isn’t too many, until it’s your leg that blows by while your plowing a rice paddy. 

MAG marker. Red area is dangerous. White area is safe

So, there is a meticulous effort going on to clear out unexploded ordnance meter by square meter. One day, it’s hoped that the whole country will be safe once more.  

There are some 50 sites that have jars on them, but only a handful have been cleared enough for tourists to come. They’ve designated the area a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Maybe because of the safety, maybe because of the lack of roads, it is still rather hard to get to. Accessible only by a long and windy road trip or a short flight into a tiny airport. With flights once or twice a day.

Allow at least a day if you go, two days may be more relaxed and allow you to see some smaller sites further afield, plus waterfalls and rice paddies.

We’d recommend the Favanhmai Hotel. It’s newer and comfy. 30 USD gets you a clean king sized bed, a hot shower with little soaps and a cooked to order breakfast, plus cable TV and wifi. It is not a bad deal at all. The duelling wedding parties were an added bonus, but they finish by midnite, so you can still get a good night’s rest.

You can rent a motorbike and see the sites yourself, but it’s better by guide. We used Tey Lassada. One of only 6 english speaking guides in town.  He’s very friendly and very informative. A full day trip including transport, entrance fees, lunch, and water was about 90 bucks for the two of us. I’m sure you can probably find cheaper, but he was very good and helpful with tips about town, too.

This trip would be a great add- on to a trip to Luang Prabang or Vientiane or even Hanoi if you don’t mind a bus trip.  And unlike lots of Heritage sites, it’s still pretty laid back and unassuming.  

Jar site #3

Categories: Travel

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