Not far from the geographical center of Laos, I had made the journey (by local bus from Luang Prabang) to Phonsavan, a relatively backwater town, for one reason – to visit the mysterious Plain of Jars. It’s not known for sure, but scholars put the jars (sculpted from boulders 20km away and transported to various sites in the surrounding region) to be around 2,000 years old, and used as funeral urns by a lost society of ancient people.
Unfortunately there is more to this story than just a few hills with stone jars scattered across them as I would learn. This area of Laos and along the Vietnamese boarder suffered horribly during the Vietnam War which contributed to the continued poverty of many in this nation. During the Vietnam War the United States was conducting a secret war within Laos in a failed attempt to suppress communist elements and disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail. Their weapon of choice was bombing, unimaginable amounts of bombing, which ended up making Laos the most bombed country in history. The US dropped more bombs here than they did on Germany and Japan combined during WWII. They carried out over 550,000 bombing missions dropping some two million tonnes of ordnances, including cluster bombs - 30% of which lie unexploded (UXO) waiting for a peasant farmer or child to find. People still die every year here from bombs dropped 30 years ago.
The Plain of Jars weren’t spared by the bombing, many of Jars were destroyed when bombs landed near-by. Due to the fact that the area could still have bombies (kind of like hand grenades), from cluster bombs in the ground, we had to keep to areas that have been cleared of ‘bombies’ while exploring the Jars. The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is doing a lot of great work in Laos to clear the land of this deadly threat to daily life.
On a brighter note, our guide that we had for the day, Poa, was never short of an interesting story or fact about the area. Like, the largest Jar which weighs in at more than 6,000 kgs represents a high status funeral Jar. Some who I was on the tour with were more reflective about the whole thing; I was just excited to be in such a unique place on my birthday. Definitely worth the visit if you’re in this neck of the woods!