Thursday, June 18, 2009

SE Asia Trip, Part 5 - The Mysterious Plain of Jars

28/02/09 - 02/03/09

The Plain of Jars is one of those things that I've heard of before but never really realised where it was, until I started researching my trip to SE Asia. I wasn't sure if I could squeeze in a visit during my time in Laos and how difficult it would be to visit the sites on my own. In Luang Prabang, however, practically every tour company was asking for extra people to join trips to the PoJ so I decided on the spur of the moment that joining a tour would be a lot easier than trying to do it all myself. I opted for a 3 day 2 night tour by minivan. My group consisted of me, 3 Germans and another guy from New Zealand - the one and only Kiwi I met throughout the entire trip!

We set off along the winding road south of Luang Prabang fairly early in the morning. I'm sure the views from the tops of the hills would have been amazing if it was not for all the smog from the slash-and-burn farming going on. Our guide spoke good English and was up for a laugh and a joke which made the drive a lot more enjoyable. On the way we stopped at a Hmong village and a Khmu village for a quick look. I felt like a bit of a voyeur having a poke around, but the kids seemed to enjoy having us around.

A traditional Hmong house.

A Hmong village south of Luang Prabang.

This cute kid kept following us around. I'm not usually one for taking photos of kids, but they seemed to be expecting it and enjoyed looking at the camera screen to see themselves.

Villages along the road to Phonsavan.

We arrived in Phonsavan in the afternoon. I think I was expecting the town to be a lot more touristy but in reality we hardly saw any other foreigners. I'm not sure where they were all hiding! Phonsavan basically consists of one fairly busy main road with a couple of streets on either side of it. The town was built in the 1970s after the original capital of the province, Xieng Khouang, was destroyed due to fighting between the Pathet Lao and anti-communist troops (backed by the USA). It is on the main road to Vietnam, so there was a fair amount of traffic passing through, including a lot of motorbikes and mopeds - seemingly most people in Laos own one!

The view from our rather posh hotel - Dave desperately wanted to reach the cow but couldn't quite make it!

War souvenir display at the hotel.

Some more war memorabilia. There is A LOT of this type of stuff displayed around town, leftovers from the Vietnam War, which affected this area of Laos really badly.

I had a good first night in Phonsavan, eating at a local restaurant and chatting to some Vietnamese workers who were very pleased to see me drinking a huge bottle of Beer Lao.

The second day was the day we would actually be seeing the Plain of Jars. There are apparently more than 400 sites across the region, in Thailand and as far away as India, leading experts to suggest they were put along trade routes. Only Sites 1, 2 and 3 are easily accessible to the public. The others are unsafe due to the huge amount of unexploded ordnance in the area, left behind in the 'Secret War'. Laos is apparently the most bombed country in the world, and yet nobody really realises it was affected so much by the war in Vietnam. Apparently American planes dropped their extra bombs here on their way back to Thailand.

We visited Site 1 first, a short drive along dusty roads from Phonsavan. This is one of the largest sites, with over 250 jars of different sizes. We had to make sure we kept to the paths within the markers to ensure we didn't tread anywhere which hadn't been swept for bombs... I took tonnes of photos, but here are just a few of my favourites.

The mouth of a cave where local people and Pathet Lao soldiers sheltered from the dropping bombs. It is pretty big inside. There is a small hole in the top, probably damaged from a bomb hitting it. The landscape is spotted with craters, now overgrown with shrubs and weeds.

While some of the jars are intact, a lot have been damaged by time or by bombs.

Some jars have lids.

On the way to the next site we stopped by the old town of Muang Khoun. The German woman who travelled with us the day before had gotten food poisoning so she didn't come on the trip today, and one of the German guys was feeling worse as the day wore on. Our guide went on a mission to find him some medicine at the local pharmacies. In the meantime, we had a look at the local sites, including a stupa and a Buddhist temple.

Notice the bomb casings in the background.

We came across some monks exploring the stupa as well.

Inside the stupa - this one had been hollowed out by invaders attempting to find hidden treasures.

At least the Buddha is still standing... I mean, sitting...

We headed to Site 3 next, where we were pretty much forced to eat the lunch at the noodle shop that had set up by the entrance. Yum, noodle soup with the most grisly chicken I've ever seen - I fed it to the cute puppy that was hanging around... After that experience, it was a short walk through some cow fields and rice paddies, over a couple of bamboo bridges, to reach the next site. It was a really pretty one, set amongst trees and farmland.

Cows on our path on the way back from Site 3.

Finally, we visited Site 2, which for me was by far the prettiest and most atmospheric. It was set on top of a hill in a copse of trees. Some of the jars here are huge. Somebody joked that it was as though a group of giants had had a drinking session one night, and left their empty jars behind.

I think the tree grew up through this jar.

The sick German guy was still feeling pretty rough, so we opted to head back to town after seeing the final site, instead of taking a detour anywhere else. I had a quiet afternoon exploring the town and reading my book, heading out to eat on my own. Have to say, most of the food I've eaten on this trip hasn't exactly been mind-blowing, but at least I didn't get food poisoning, like the rest of my group. Must be the doxycycline at work!

The third day was basically just driving back to Luang Prabang. The Germans were all heading to Vang Vieng, whereas the Kiwi and I wanted to go back to LP. This meant a coordinated crossover at the town where these roads met. Didn't run so smoothly due to a lack of cellphone coverage, but we eventually caught up with the other minivan and dropped them off. Then Dave and I got a row of seats each to ourselves, which definitely helped with the windy trip back along the road to LP.

I knew I wanted to go back to LP because I wanted to head north, but I wasn't exactly sure of my plans. Time for a little spontaneity after my organised couple of days.

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