The Plain of Jars: An Unsolved Mystery Damaged by The Bombs
We are on the plateau surrounding the town of Phonsavan, Laos. That’s 170 km north east of the capital city – Vientiane. In this rather remote region, an ancient civilization flourished and left us a very strange yet fascinating testimony: stone jars. Thousands of them.
It was about 2000 to 2500 years ago, during the Iron Age. That’s about all we know about these stone jars, carved in boulders found locally.
Archaeologists can only guess what they they were made for, and no hypothesis is today absolutely confirmed. However, the most widely accepted theory is that the jars were related to funeral rituals, because a few remains of human bones were found in some of the jars during archaeological investigations. But there is no way to be really sure.
What we call the Plain of Jars actually is an really big archaeological region. No less than 90 jar sites have been recorded, but only the sites 1, 2 and 3 are open to visitors. Why? They are the only sites that were properly cleaned up from mines.
GPS (parking area): Site 1: 19°25’48.99″N, 103° 9’19.44″E | Site 2: 19°19’14.03″N, 103° 9’10.72″E
Best way to go: Tour with your guesthouse in Phonsavan. Scooter rental also possible.
Entrance fee: Site 1: 15,000 kip | Site 2: 10,000 kip
Duration of visit: Around 45 mins for each site (Site 1 is bigger)
Best season: October to March. Altitude 1100-1200 m, climate is cooler than other parts of Laos.
Indeed, the Plain of Jars has suffered from events that took place in much more recent History. During the United States’ Secret War from 1964 to 1973, the region was very heavily bombed and the aerchaeological wonders were not spared. As you walk among the jars, you can still see the remains of bomb craters, and notice how some jars are split in two or totally destroyed around that crater – See the first panorama of the Site 1 virtual tour.
The same happened to the temples of My Son in Vietnam, due to the related war on the other side of the border. Fortunately, in spite of this turbulent recent History, this region is still full of ancient wonders that will wake up the explorer in you.
Visiting The Plain of Jars
It is from my Guesthouse in Phonsavan that I booked a tour in the region including the Plain of Jars. There were just a few other people from the guesthouse and no other group around, so it did not feel touristy at all. We were all walking and exploring the sites at our on pace, and our guide gave us some information but left us alone most of the time. It was nice to get in connection with the place.
As you can guess from the titles of the virtual tours, I have visited Site 1 and Site 2. I found these visits satisfying, in the sense that Site 1 is the largest and Site 2 offers pretty views to the surrounding countryside, and the jars found among the roots of large trees were a really cool sight.
I felt that visiting Site 2 was an opportunity to go beyond the most important site, and I always like to dig a little deeper than the obvious. 🙂
If you decide to follow this suggestion, make sure you go to Site 2 first, as an introduction to the larger Site 1. This way, you prevent disappointment by keeping the best for the end!
Last Thoughts About The Plain of Jars
Phonsavan might not be welcoming the volume of tourists of Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang, but it definitely has very interesting attractions, and the Plain of Jars is one of them. For sure, it is worth including it in your itinerary in Northern Laos.
But if I am very honest, even if these stone jars are incredibly mysterious, I felt that it was all a little eclipsed by the problematic left by the recent war.
I arrived in Phonsavan thinking I will just see a cool site called the Plain of Jars, what I discovered there was way beyond a picturesque and fascinating archaeological site. The wounds left by the Laos war, still present everywhere, made my discovery of Phonsavan much deeper and really interesting and eye-opening.