Xieng Khuang province lies at the crossroads of important trade routes leading north to China, south to Thailand and east to Vietnam, and has been coveted throughout the centuries by rival Southeast Asian empires. Xieng Khuang, hemmed in by a ring of dramatic mountains, including the country’s tallest peak, Phu Bia, is best known for the treeless flatlands and crater-ridden landscape of the Plain of Jars. A plateau of grassy meadows and low rolling hills situated at the centre of the province, the Plain takes its name from the clusters of chest-high funerary urns found there. For people with a very deep interest in archeology and Southeast Asian history the jars are worth the journey to Xieng Khuang, but for some tourists they are something of an anticlimax. However, their other-worldliness, against the flat barren landscape of the area, retains a certain mystique, and by choosing your guide wisely it’s possible to get a lot more out of a visit here.
As the flattest area in northern Laos, the Plain of Jars is also a natural gathering point for armies – a fact not lost on military commanders of the early kingdoms of Lane Xang, Vietnam and Siam and later the Soviet Union, France and America, the Viet Minh, the Pathet Lao and the Lao Royalists. Fought over dearly in the Second Indochina War, the region was bombed extensively between 1964 and 1973, transforming the Plain into a wasteland, which leaves a lasting impression on those who fly over it into Phonsavan.
With much of the literature of the province’s historical Phuan kingdom destroyed and many of the customs lost, Hmong culture and festivals have come to play an important role in Xieng Khuang life. Boun Phao Hmong, or the Festival of the Hmong, celebrated throughout the province in November, draws overseas Hmong back each year for an event featuring water buffalo and bull-fights. In December, Hmong New Year, a time for young Hmong to find a husband or wife, is celebrated, as is the lowland Lao festival of Boun Haw Khao, a two-day holiday in which food is offered to the dead. It has a distinctly Xieng Khuang flavour, however, with the addition of horse races, horses being especially prized by villagers who work Xieng Khuang’s far-flung fields.
Even the legends surrounding the jars reveal how thoroughly life in Xieng Khuang has been overshadowed by war, with local lore telling of how the jars were created to hold rice wine by an army of giants to celebrate a military victory. Although the identity of the civilization that built the jars remains a mystery, local folk tales telling of the arrival of the Phuan people, the lowland Lao group that still dominates the ethnic make-up of the area today, date back as far as the seventh century, when the divine Tai–Lao first ancestor Khoun Borom sent his seventh and youngest son, Chet Chuong, to rule over the Tai peoples of Xieng Khuang. Although the time frame for this version of events may be a bit premature, Xieng Khuang was nonetheless one of the earlier areas settled by Tai peoples in Laos, and by the fourteenth century, an independent Phuan principality, known as Xieng Khuang and centred on modern-day Muang Khoun, had already begun to flourish here.
While the Kingdom of Xieng Khuang had the wealth to build exquisite pagodas, it never amassed the might necessary to become a regional power. Sandwiched between the great empires lying to its east and west, Phuan kings maintained a semblance of independence over the years by offering tribute to Vietnam and Lane Xang and eventually Siam. Whatever price the royal house paid, however, it was not enough to keep Xieng Khuang from being repeatedly annexed, overrun and forcibly depopulated, beginning with the invading armies of the Vietnamese on their way back from sacking Luang Prabang in the late 1470s through to the Second Indochina War, when nearly every village in the province was obliterated.
In 1869, warrior horsemen from southern China raced across the plain, slaughtering villagers or carrying them off into captivity. These Black Flag bandits pillaged the riches of the kingdom and plundered the contents of the jars. Those that fled didn’t get far: Lao and Thai soldiers on their way to Xieng Khuang to quell the invasion rounded up the refugees and frogmarched them through the jungle to the Chao Phraya River Valley in Siam, where they became slaves to Thai lords. The tortuous march lasted over a month, with many dying along the way, lost to sickness and starvation. In two generations, Siamese armies and Chinese bandits reduced the population by three-quarters through death and forced migration. The Phuan state never recovered.
Xieng Khuang enjoyed better protection from its neighbours with the arrival of the French, who considered the province’s temperate climate – which can be downright cold by any measure for several months of the year – suitable for European settlement and plantation agriculture. The primary cash crop, however, was opium, a trade the French quickly moved to control. Muang Khoun was chosen as the French provincial capital and the devastated former royal seat of the defunct kingdom was transformed into an architectural gem of French Indochinese villas and shophouses, which might have rivalled the charm of Luang Prabang and Savannakhet had Xieng Khuang not returned to its familiar role as battleground a few decades later.
One hundred years after the carnage of the Chinese bandits, American planes wreaked destruction that was equally indiscriminate, levelling towns and forcing villagers to take to the forest, as the two sides in the Second Indochina War waged a bitter battle for control of the Plain of Jars, which represented a back door to northern Vietnam. Throughout much of the 1960s, Xieng Khuang was the site of a seesaw war, with the Royalist side led by Hmong General Vang Pao gaining the upper hand in the rainy season and the communist side launching offensives in the dry months.
Today, villages have been rebuilt and fields replanted. Many of the valley-dwelling, wet-rice farmers, as well as a majority of the townsfolk in Phonsavan, are descendants of the Phuan kingdom. In addition to the Lao, the Phuan are joined by a third lowland group, the Black Tai, and also the Khmu – a Lao Theung group who ruled the lowlands until they were forced into the hills with the arrival of the Tai groups over a thousand years ago – and a significant population of Hmong, who arrived in Laos from China in the nineteenth century and now make up roughly a third of the provincial population.Read More
The capital of Xieng Khuang province, PHONSAVAN has gradually emerged as the most important town on the Plain of Jars since the total devastation of the region in the Second Indochina War. The bomb-casing collections in many guesthouse lobbies are grim galleries reflecting the area’s tragic past when possession of the strategic plain was seen as the key to control of Laos. It was the new communist government that designated Phonsavan the new provincial capital, and parked Laos’s fledgling collection of Soviet MiGs nearby, a smug reminder of who won the battle for this bitterly contested area.
Hastily rebuilt in the aftermath of decades of fighting, Phonsavan has only now, over 35 years after the end of conflict, begun to recover economically, thanks in a large part to international interest in the world-famous Jar sites scattered around the perimeter of the plain. Tourism has given the town new life: bombs at the Jar sites have been cleared away and Khoun Cheuam’s jar – the largest of the scores of jars in the area – stares down from tourism posters across the country. Although most visitors come only to see the Jar sites, the Xieng Khuang Plateau is a place of great natural beauty and its backroads and villages are well worth exploring.
The original settlement of Phonsavan was, like every other town on the plain, obliterated during the war. The town you see today is a modern reconstruction that lacks any real character. There is really nothing of note to see, although the town grid is nicely laid out on a rather grand scale, extending quite a way south of Route 7. Indeed, if the length and width of Phonsavan’s empty boulevards are anything to go by, local officials have very big plans for this little place, though they’re yet to materialize.
The town’s highlight is the great little fresh food market behind the post office, which is well worth a wander, the amount and variety of the fresh produce on sale giving a good indication of just how much people’s lives here have improved since the government quietly swept communist economics under the rug. As with most markets in Laos, it’s a great choice for a quick, cheap lunch, or to stock up on fruit and snacks before a long bus journey.
After a visit to the Plain of Jars, be sure to stop in at the Mines Advisory Group (MAG; wmaginternational.org; donations welcome) which is carrying out vital work, not only in deactivating UXO, but in educating and informing local people, especially farmers and those involved in the scrap metal trade. An informative display provides an introduction to the work they are doing, with photographs making vividly clear the horrifying risks that UXO pose to local lives. Free films are shown every night; this is a great opportunity to find out more about the UXO situation and the work that MAG do.
The Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars
Many visitors mistake the Jar sites for the PLAIN OF JARS and vice versa. The latter is a broad rolling plain covering an area roughly 15km across at the centre of the Xieng Khuang Plateau, which sits high above the Mekong and the Vientiane Plain. The ancient Jar sites scattered around the perimeter of the plain led the French to name the region the Plain de Jars – the PDJ to the American pilots who flew over it. Topographically, the plain is something like the hole in a doughnut with concentric rings of increasingly high mountain peaks around it. Although the jars are the main tourist attraction of Xieng Khuang Province, there’s much more to see here. The Plain itself offers beautiful scenery, which most visitors, obsessed with seeing the jars, completely overlook. Away from the main highway there are countless backroads to explore as well as friendly Phuan and Hmong villages, where it may feel like you’re the first foreigner the children have seen.
The presence of the jars attests to the fact that Xieng Khuang, with its access to key regional trade routes, its wide, flat spaces and temperate climate, has been considered prime real estate in mainland Southeast Asia for centuries, but the story of the plain as a transit route for ancient man has yet to be told. As a natural corridor between the coasts of southern China and the vast plains of Korat beyond the Mekong, the Plain of Jars has certainly seen the passage of many tribes and races, perhaps even groups of Homo erectus, who ranged from northern China to Java between one million and 250,000 years ago.
The Jar sites
The Jar sites are among the most important prehistoric archeological sites in Southeast Asia. Clusters of stone jars thought to be 2000 years old, along with seemingly older stone pillars, are scattered across the Plain and also in other parts of Xieng Khuang and Hua Phan province. The largest urns measure 2m in height and weigh as much as ten tonnes. Little is known about the Iron Age megalithic civilization that created these artefacts; war and revolution kept archeologists from working on the sites for decades. By the time French archeologist Madeleine Colani began excavating at the Jar sites in the 1930s, most of the urns had been looted, although she did find bronze and iron tools as well as coloured glass beads, bronze bracelets and cowrie shells. Colani theorized that the jars were funerary urns, originally holding cremated remains. More recent discoveries have revealed underground burial chambers, further supporting Colani’s theory.
Of the dozens of Jar sites, twelve are currently open to tourists, though the three main sites are those most commonly visited on tours. The closest one, known as Site 1, just 2km southwest of town, has over two hundred jars. Sites 2 and 3 are much more scenic and are located about 10km southwest of the market village of Lat Houang, which is 10km south of Phonsavan, on the road to Muang Khoun.
Muang Khoun (Old Xieng Khuang)
Muang Khoun (Old Xieng Khuang)
A ghost of its former self, MUANG KHOUN, old Xieng Khuang, 35km southeast of Phonsavan, was once the royal seat of the minor kingdom Xieng Khuang, renowned in the sixteenth century for its 62 opulent stupas, whose sides were said to be covered in treasure. Years of bloody invasions by Thai and Vietnamese soldiers, pillaging by Chinese bandits in the nineteenth century and a monsoon of bombs that lasted nearly a decade during the Second Indochina War taxed this town so heavily that, by the time the air raids stopped, next to nothing was left of the kingdom’s exquisite temples. The town was all but abandoned, and centuries of history were drawn to a close. All that remains of the kingdom’s former glory is an elegant Buddha image towering over ruined columns of brick at Wat Phia Wat, and That Dam, both of which bear the scars of the events that ended Xieng Khuang’s centuries of rich history. Although the town has been rebuilt and renamed, it has taken a back seat to Phonsavan, and, with little in the way of amenities for travellers – there are a few fõe shops around the market, but no hotel – it’s most convenient to visit Muang Khoun as a day-trip.
A long row of low-slung wooden shophouses springs up along the road from Phonsavan in the shadow of towering That Dam, signalling your arrival in Muang Khoun. A path alongside the market leads up to the blackened hilltop stupa, the base of which has been tunnelled straight through to the other side by treasure seekers hoping to find more than a simple bone of the Enlightened One inside. A British surveyor who travelled through the area in the service of the Siamese king in 1884 – shortly after the invasions by Chinese Haw – surmised that the bandits pillaged the stupa, making off with 7000 rupees’ weight of gold. Continuing on the main road beyond the market, you’ll pass the ruins of a villa, the only reminder that this town was once a temperate French outpost of ochre colonial villas and shophouses, and arrive at the ruins of sixteenth-century Wat Phia. Brick columns reach skywards around a seated Buddha of impressive size, a mere hint at the temple architecture for which the city was renowned. The more recent temple of Wat Siphoum, the uninspiring structure nearest the market, bears little trace of the old designs for which the city’s monasteries were known and serves notice of how much of Xieng Khuang’s culture has been lost.
Safety in Xieng Khuang
Safety in Xieng Khuang
Occasional attacks by mountain bandits or insurgents have given Xieng Khuang province an uncertain reputation. In particular, tourists have long been discouraged from travelling along Route 7 between Phou Khoun and Phonsavan due to attacks on vehicles by armed bandits – these days, the threat appears to be less, and with limited flights into Phonsavan it’s likely that you will travel this route in order to reach the area. In 2003, two foreign nationals were killed as a result of banditry on this stretch, but it’s important to remember that hundreds of tourists visit the area each month without incident. Of more immediate danger are the mines, bomblets and bombs littering the province. The main Jar sites have been cleared of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO), but it’s important to stick to the paths, and not to pick up or kick any object if you don’t know what it is.