Plain of Jars and Phonsavanh

The undulating plateau of the Plain of Jars (also known as Plaine de Jarres or Thong Hai Hin) stretches for about 50 km east to west, at an altitude of 1000 m. In total there are 136 archaeological sites in this area, containing thousands of jars, discs and deliberately placed stones, but at the moment only three are open to tourists - several more are rumoured to be opening in the next couple of years. The plateau can be cold from December to March. Phonsavanh is the main town of the province today - old Xieng Khouang having been flattened - and its small airstrip is a crucial transport link in this mountainous region. It's the only base from which to explore the Plain of Jars, so it has a fair number of hotels and guesthouses. Note that travel agents and airlines tend to refer to Phonsavanh as Xieng Khouang, while the nearby town of 'old' Xieng Khouang is usually referred to as Muang Khoune.

Getting there

Phonsavanh Airport
(aka Xieng Khouang airport) is 4 km west of Phonsavanh - there are flights from both Vientiane and Luang Prabang. The bus station is 4 km west of Phonsavanh on Route 7, although many buses still pass by the old bus station near the dry market.

Getting around

Public transport is limited and sporadic. Provincial laws have occasionally banned tuk-tuks and motorbikes from ferrying customers around the area. These regulations have been relaxed recently but don't be surprised if they are brought into force again. It should be possible to drive from Phonsavanh to the Plain of Jars. Expect to pay in the region of US$30 for an English-speaking guide and vehicle for four people, or US$60 for seven people and a minivan. Alternatively, hotels, guesthouses and tour companies in Phonsavanh run set tours to the Plain of Jars, Muang Khoune (Xieng Khouang) and Hmong villages northeast of Phonsavanh. If you arrive by air, the chances are you'll be inundated with official and unofficial would-be guides as soon as you step off the plane. Note that it is not possible to walk from the airport to Site one, as there is a military base in between. It is recommended that you hire a guide, for at least a day, to get an insight into the history of the area. The cost of admission to each site is 7000 kip.

The very friendly and helpful
tourist office
 is sited on the right side of the road to the Plain of Jars as you head out of town. They have a huge number of bombs and other UXO in the forecourt while they can supply maps, bus times and accommodation lists.

Background

Most of the jars are between 1 m and 2.5 m high, around 1 m in diameter and weigh about the same as three small cars. The largest are about 3 m tall. The jars have long presented an archaeological conundrum, leaving generations of theorists nonplussed by how they got there and what they were used for. Local legend relates that King Khoon Chuong and his troops from Southern China threw a stupendous party after their victory over the wicked Chao Angka and had the jars made to brew outrageous quantities of
lao-lao
. However, attractive as this alcoholic thesis is, it is more likely that the jars are in fact 2000-year-old stone funeral urns. The larger jars are believed to have been for the local aristocracy and the smaller jars for their minions. Tools, bronze ornaments, ceramics and other objects have been found in the jars, indicating that a civilized society was responsible for making them but no one has a clue which one, as the artefacts seem to bear no relation to those left behind by other ancient Indochinese civilizations. Some of the jars were once covered with round lids and there is one jar, in the group facing the entrance to the cave, which is decorated with a rough carving of a dancing figure.

The sites

More than 300 jars survive, mainly scattered on one slope at so-called 'Site one' or
Thong Hai Hin
, 10 km southwest of Phonsavanh, entry 10,000 kip. This site hosts the largest jars. A path, cleared by MAG, winds through the site, with a warning not to walk away from delineated areas as UXO are still around. There are 250 jars at the site, each of which weighs about a tonne, although the biggest, called
Hai Cheaum
, is over 2 m tall and weighs over six tonnes.

True jar lovers should visit Site two, known as
Hai Hin Phu Salatao
(literally 'Salato Hill Stone Jar Site') and Site three called
Hai Hin Laat Khai
- entry to both is 7,000 kip each

Site two is 25 km south of Phonsavanh and features 90 jars spread across two hills. The jars are set in a rather beautiful location, affording scenic views. A further 10 km south of Site two, Site three is the most atmospheric, set in verdant green rolling hills, Swiss-cheesed with bomb craters. To get there you have to walk through some rice paddies and cross the small bamboo bridge. There are more than 130 jars at this site, which are generally smaller and more damaged than at the other sites.

Tham Piu

This cave is more of a memorial than a tourist site but will be of interest to those fascinated by the war. More evidence of the dirty war can be seen here. The intensity of the US bombing campaign under the command of the late General Curtis Le May was such that entire villages were forced to take refuge in caves. If discovered, fighter bombers were called in to destroy them. In Tam Phiu, a cave overlooking the fertile valley near Muang Kham, 365 villagers from nearby Ban Na Meun built a two-storey bomb shelter and concealed its entrance with a high stone wall. They lived there for a year, working in their rice fields at night and taking cover during the day from the relentless bombing raids that killed thousands in the area. On the morning of 8 March 1968 two T-28 fighter-bombers took off from Udon Thani air base in neighbouring Thailand and located the cave mouth that had been exposed on previous sorties. It is likely that the US forces suspected that the cave contained a Pathet Lao hospital complex. Indeed, experts are at odds whether this was a legitimate target or an example of collateral damage. There are a few people still alive whose families died in the cave, and they certainly see it as innocent civilians being targeted. The first rocket destroyed the wall, the second, fired as the planes swept across the valley, carried the full length of the chamber before exploding. There were no survivors and 11 families were completely wiped out; in total 374 people died, many reportedly women and children. Local rescuers claim they were unable to enter the cave for three days, but eventually the dead were buried in a bomb crater on the hillside next to the cave mouth. You will need a torch to explore the cave but there isn't much inside, just eerily black walls. The interior of the cave was completely dug up by the rescue parties and relatives and today there is nothing but rubble inside. It makes for a poignant lesson in military history and locally it is considered a war memorial. Further up the cliff is another cave,
Tham Phiu Song
, which fortunately didn't suffer the same fate. Before the stairway to the caves there is a little memorial centre that displays photographs from the war and is usually attended by a relative of the victims. A poignant sculpture of a soldier carrying a dead child marks the site, free of the victory and glory of most other war monuments. Many bomb craters around the site have been turned into fish ponds now bearing beautiful lotus.

Sao Hintang

At the billboard-sized sign at the turn-off in Ban Liang Sat, turn up the dirt road heading east. This road is quite rough in places so you'll need a 4WD car or an all-terrain motorbike in order to get there. About 3 km up the road is a sign for the Kechintang Trail, a 90-minute walking trail that takes you to some of the sites. The first is visible from the road after a further 3 km, with Site two located another 3 km after that.

There are hundreds of ancient upright stone pillars, menhirs and discs, gathered in Stonehenge-type patterns over a 10-km area, surrounded by jungle. This enigmatic site is as mysterious as the Plain of Jars: no one is quite sure who, or even which ethnic group, is responsible for erecting the stones and they have become steeped in legend. It is believed that the two sites are somehow linked, as they are fashioned from the same stone and share some archaeological similarities.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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