The Plain of Jars, in northern Laos, remains one of Southeast Asia’s great mysteries. Shafik Meghji journeys here to uncover the secrets of this little-touristed site.
The most heavily bombed region of the most heavily bombed country in history appears remarkably bucolic, at least at first. But as we drive through Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos, my guide Tey casually punctures my naive first impressions. The scenic lakes? “Flooded bomb craters,” he tells me. The expansive green plains? “Poisoned by Agent Orange.”
Between 1964 and 1973, the US military carried out a bombing raid on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In total, more than two million tonnes of ordnance were dropped on the country during the Second Indochina War (as the “Vietnam” War is known locally).
Thirty percent of the bombs failed to detonate – a statistic that initially sounds relatively positive, until you learn that only one percent of these have since been cleared. The rest remain in the ground, rising unpredictably to the surface thanks to rainy season erosion, fast-growing bamboo and farmers’ ploughs. Cluster bombs are the most dangerous, and every year horrific numbers of Laotians are killed or maimed.
Given this onslaught, it is remarkable that one of Southeast Asia’s most significant – but least visited – archeological sites survived. Hundreds of huge stone jars dating back some 2000 years remain scattered across Xieng Khouang. Little is known about their origins or purpose, though theories abound.
“Archeologists believe they were funeral urns,” says Tey, as we explore Site 1, the largest jar site open to the public. “Inside were found ashes and charcoal. Some contained offerings to the spirits, others bone fragments. But there are also local legends. Some say they were used to make Lao rice whiskey, lao-lao, and carried to celebrate military victories. Others believe they were egg cups for giants.”
There are more than 330 jars at Site 1, and although 60 percent were damaged by bombs, those that have survived are remarkable. Most are made from sandstone, and the biggest one weighs around six tonnes.
Many lie on their sides, but some stand upright, and a few lean at odd, seemingly gravity-defying angles. Little is know about the Iron Age megalithic culture that built the jars, but they are testament to the fact that the region was once a major trade route, stretching from the southern Chinese coast to the Korat plains in Thailand.
Tey takes me on to Site 2, which is divided between two neighbouring hillocks. Here tree trunks and roots encircle the jars, shards of metal – the remnants of exploded bombs – crunch under out feet, and freshly painted red posts warn us not to stray off the path.
We end the day at Site 3, accessed via a rickety bridge, and surrounded by rice paddies, fish ponds and grazing cattle. This is the most scenic of the sites, and home to around 150 jars. Only the bigger ones remain in situ; the smaller ones have long since been used to build the foundations of nearby houses.
There are no other tourists, or indeed locals, and the wind carries over the gentle tinkling of cow bells. It’s a peaceful sound, I tell Tey. He smiles: “Yes. The farmers make the bells from bomb fragments.”