Plain of Jars

For Americans of a certain vintage like us, the news during our coming of age years was dominated by the war in Indochina. Words like Tonkin, Mekong, Saigon, Tet, My Lai, red tide, domino theory, Ho Chi Minh Trail, Vietcong, five o’clock follies, pacification, demilitarized zone, and so on, comprised the vocabulary of every day life. To this day the sound of any of these words makes our skin prickle.

Vietnam was the focus of most reporting, of course, then Cambodia and Laos entered our consciousness, especially when Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia in 1970, then in ‘71 with leaking of the Pentagon Papers, when most of the country became aware of the secret bombing of Laos.

Of the two regions of Laos targeted by American carpet bombing, the northern focus was a 15,000 area of the Xieng Khuang Plateau called the Plain of Jars, so-called because it is littered with more than 2000 Iron Age stone jars. The area was bombed not because of the jars, but because it was thought to be the location of headquarters and training camps of the Pathet Lao, a homegrown communist faction. The US, with the initial lukewarm blessing of the ruling right wing Lao government, thought they should stop the red tide from flowing across the border and taking over Laos. Over a period of nine years they blew it to smithereens.

For the first time in our travel experience our inclination to bear witness to places and people who have suffered the atrocities of war and our fascination with ancient archaeological sites happen to occupy the same space. We’ve wanted to come here since we first heard of the Plain of Jars. We expect it will be both mysterious and disturbing.

There are about 90 unique sites identified in the UNESCO Plain of Jars archaeological landscape but most are restricted because of the continued danger of UXOs (unexploded ordnance.) Only seven sites have been cleared and we booked a guide to tour the three most accessible locations. We were joined by a pair of young English backpackers and an Aussie.

We began at the Visitor’s Center where we learned more about the ongoing effect of the carpet bombing. The sites we’re visiting are safe but we were warned to keep on the established paths, not just here but in most areas of Laos where the bombing took place.

Our first view of jars was of a flat plain that gave the area its name, but we’re told the rest of the sites are hilly and wooded. You can clearly see several bomb craters across the field.

As we got closer the size of the jars took our breath away. They are huge, even the smaller ones.

I should say here that historians and archaeologists who have researched the jars hypothesize that their purpose was in some way funerary, but there’s only speculation about the exact function. They do know that the stone came from a quarry some distance away in the mountains. How they transported the stone, how they carved the jars, and most importantly why, remain a mystery. You can read a summary of the historical research and current thinking here.

Some of the jars are broken, which we initially assumed happened during the bombing, but I learned later that in the late 19th century bandits destroyed many of the jars at this site. We could only guess whether a jar succumbed to a bomb or a bandit.

At the bottom of the hill at Site 1 is a cave which may have been used as a crematorium. The opening and the roof are covered with scores of wasps nests but we didn’t see many wasps flying around, thank goodness.

Site 1 was a good introduction to the jars but we were eager to move on to the next one, an hour’s drive away over the notorious Laotian roads.

We were fortunate the sky was mostly overcast because not only did we escape the brutal heat of the sun, but we had the sites nearly to ourselves. We learned later that the lack of visitors is more a continuing effect of the pandemic and that tourism at the Plain of Jars is only about 30% of the pre-Covid level.

As we walked to the site we were mindful again to keep on the paths through the fields.

There are so many jars, and we’re only able to see a small percentage of them. It’s mind boggling. All day, as we walked among them we shook our heads in amazement and muttered some version of, “What the—?” I think we touched every one and looked inside. They’re empty, of course, except for the occasional candy wrapper, which I fished out if I could and relocated to a rubbish bin. Some are filled with water or plant life.

The last site, another long drive away, was our favorite. The jars are huge, the trees are old and the setting made it all so much more mysterious. A couple of the trees grew right through jars.

We lingered until our guide rounded us up for the long drive back to town. We can say with confidence that the effort to get here was worth it. We still have no idea what these jars are all about; it’s always amazing to me how quickly knowledge is lost. The jars were made sometime between about 500 BCE and 500 CE; some maybe as late as 800 CE, and yet there’s no record, either oral or written, of their design, construction or purpose. Maybe future technologies will answer those questions. We’re grateful so many of them survive.

The greater tragedy is that the men who ordered the carpet bombing had no regard for the Lao people who lived here and the place they called home. Thousands were killed or maimed, many more displaced, and much of the land rendered unsafe. The secret war on Laos will forever be a stain on our history.

For further reading I recommend this.

If you want to support the work of MAG International go here.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One Response to Plain of Jars

  1. Kennedy James

    I had no idea…

We love to hear from you!