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The Plain of Jars

Having a few jars without getting blasted.

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View Footloose in Laos 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Having suffered from sickness and diarrhoea all night, David did not feel up to coming out this morning, so I left him in bed while I went off to see the Central Market. Mostly food stuffs, there were many unusual fruits and vegetables on sale, many of which were completely alien to me. Ants' eggs, swallows, toads, several fruits and vegetables that Khamseng didn't know the English word for (we probably don't have one...), as well as new variations of the more familiar fruits, such as gooseberries, yam, custard apple, lychee, sapodilla, mangosteen and gourd, all beautifully presented. I even got to try mangosteen for the first time – absolutely delicious!

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Ants' eggs in the market

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Fish sauce in the market.

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Toads (or maybe large frogs?) for sale in the market.

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Unknown fruit in the market

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My first mangosteen

At the Tourist Office we saw the various bombs dropped on this area during the Secret War. The Xieng Khuang Area - one of the poorest in all of Laos - suffered extreme heavy bombing during Vietnam War. Laos was officially neutral, but became politically divided when the official leaders gave aid to Americans, while the Phatet Lao (communist faction) supported North Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. US never declared war on Laos, but staged a Secret War on this area – Laos was bombed more heavily than any other country in history or world, with 3 million tons of explosives dropped during the nine years of conflict in the area. That averages one bomb every eight minutes for nine years – hard to take on board.

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Unfortunately or fortunately whichever way you look at it, 30% of bombs dropped did not explode at the time of impact, many are still causing death and injury to this day, some 40 years after the war. With scrap metal fetching very high prices, the locals call the leftover ordnance their 'Dry Season Crops', and feel the risk of injury is worth the reward.

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Plain of Jars
Believed to be between 1800 and 2500 years old, the origin and use of these huge stone jars is still shrouded in mystery. There are 70 sites or more in this area, but only a select few have been cleared enough of land mines to allow tourists to enter. Even the largest one, imaginatively called Jar Site 1, has MAG (Mines Advisory Group) markers showing where it is safe to walk. Stepping off the path in one of the most dangerous archaeological sites in the world is not recommended, with nearly 1 million ton of unexploded ordnance still around.

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Only walk on the white side of the marker!

Various legends surround the jars, and their use has been speculated for centuries – some claiming that they are funerary urns (although no human remains have been found), others think they were used to store water for travelling traders, while popular local beliefs say that they were used for the Lao Lao – storage of the local whisky.

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Whatever their original purpose, the 500 or so jars on this site alone are certainly enigmatic and bewitching, surrounded by green fields scorched by chemical warfare and deserted save for a couple of local youths.

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In order to understand the situation faced by the Lao people, even today, a visit to the MAG office is a must. Posters on the wall go a little way towards explaining the problems caused by the American Secret War, but the one hour harrowing film will leave even the most hardened traveller feeling distressed at the inhumane use of cluster bombs. The MAG was set up in 1994 to help people rebuild their lives and alleviate suffering by responding to needs of conflict between affected communities – they know the area has unexploded bombs that could maim or kill them, but if they don't plant rice they won't eat. Since the end of the war in 1975, the MAG have dealt with 20,000 casualties caused by unexploded ordnance, disabling 100,000 bombies – the small bombs released by cluster bombs, which spread over wide area – a year.

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Navang Handicraft Studio specialise in carving the Mie Long Leng, a soft wood grown in this region. Mostly sold in upmarket stores in Luang Prabang, the products are revered by the Lao people for storing rice or seeds, or warding off evil spirits with a fake elephant tusk.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:22 Archived in Laos

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