Justine Tyerman puts forward her own theory about the enigmatic Plain of Jars.
My fingers traced the rough pitted rim of the giant, lichen-covered urn as I stood on tiptoes to look inside.
Nothing but spider webs, insects and stagnant water.
"If only you could tell me your secret," I whispered to the darkness. "What's this Plain of Jars mystery all about?"
The site consists of thousands of stone 'jars' or urns scattered around the hilltops on the Xiang Khouang Plateau near the town of Phonsavan in Central Laos. Dating back to the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500), it is one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, but also one of the most puzzling. Known as Laos' Stonehenge, the Plain of Jars lacks a definitive explanation, unlike its English cousin. The plain also lacks Stonehenge's crowds and hefty entrance fee, so exploring the grassy hillsides is a tranquil, unhurried, contemplative experience.
By 2013, 1999 jars had been counted in 77 sites with another 30 sites still to be surveyed. The jars range in size from 70cm to four metres, some with lids, but most without.
Site one, Thong Hai Hin, is one of the largest of the 100-plus sites on the Plain of Jars. Standing on a hill surrounded by more than 300 jars, our Innovative Travel guide Fhan outlined a number of theories.
French geologist and amateur archaeologist Madeleine Colani conducted research and field trips in the 1930s and theorised that the jars were associated with ancient burial practices. Colani proposed that the civilisation that created the jars brought their dead to the nearby Tham Thonghai Neung cave for cremation and then burial in and around the jars.
Colani's excavations found burnt bones and charcoal inside the cave and human remains, funerary items and ceramics near the jars. Colani also suggested that the jars' location may have been linked to the ancient salt route. Traders brought this prized commodity to Xieng Khouang to exchange for other goods.
However, some local residents say the stone vessels were used for water storage while others believe they were created to brew and store huge quantities of laolao, potent rice whisky, to celebrate the victory of the Lao King Khoun Chueang over his enemy in the 6th century. The largest, the 'King's Cup,' is over 2 metres high and weighs in excess of six tonnes.
Locals also say Tham Thonghai Neung cave was used as a kiln to fire the jars.
A few hundred metres away in another cluster stands the only jar with a stone lid and the only one carved with a human figure – adding more question marks.
It's a miracle the jars have survived at all. Apart from the ravages of time and erosion over their 2500-year life span, Chinese Haw bandits raided Xieng Khouang in the mid-to late 1800s and broke more than 100 jars at site one.
The plateau also bears deep scars of a far more recent and tragic history.
For nearly a decade, from 1964 to 1973, Laos was subjected to intensive bombing by the United States in a covert operation during the Vietnam War. Xieng Khouang province, being close to the Vietnam border and the headquarters of the Pathet Lao (the Lao communist movement), was one of the prime targets. During the so-called 'Secret War', bombs fell every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, "like rain from the sky", said Fhan.
Laos holds a world record no country aspires to – it's the most heavily-bombed country in the world, per capita. More bombs were dropped on Laos during the Secret War than during the whole of WW2.
Millions of UXO (unexploded ordinance) still contaminate Xieng Khouang. Bomb disposal teams from MAG (Mines Advisory Group), an international non-governmental organisation founded in 1989, have been operating to clear the UXO since 1994.
Because of the presence of UXO in the area, visitors to the Plain of Jars are advised to stick to sites one, two and three which have been cleared by MAG. There are well-trodden paths and markers to guide the way and I felt entirely safe with our experienced Lao guides, Fhan and Vieng.
At site one, bomb craters, fox holes and trenches pockmark a landscape still devoid of tall vegetation due to the herbicides and defoliants also dropped here. At least 100 jars were damaged and five displaced by bomb blasts from 1964 to 1973.
We visited Tham Thonghai Neung cave where a Buddhist shrine stands as a memorial to the families sheltering there who died when a bomb struck their refuge. At Tham Piu cave, 50km away, 374 civilians died in a US rocket attack in November 24, 1968.
Our small party of Kiwis, who had scant knowledge of the Secret War and Laos' terrible suffering, were deeply shocked and moved by what we heard. Tears overwhelmed me as I pictured the horror of such an attack.
At the second site, Hai Hin Phou Salato, 93 jars are clustered under trees on two hilltops.
The jars are more square-shaped and elongated than their round-sided counterparts at site one, and there are lids scattered on the ground. Several huge vessels are lying on their sides and one has been cracked apart by a tree growing through the middle of it. It's a picturesque site overlooking paddy fields, and has the added advantage of shade from the hot Lao sun. It's easy to linger there and ponder the puzzle of the jars.
To reach site three, Hai Hin Lat Khai, we drove about 10km south to the neat and tidy village of Ban Xieng Di. The houses are built on stilts to protect them from flooding and termites and also to provide covered shelter for animals and machinery.
A young girl carrying a baby smiled at us from the decking of a house propped up on bomb casing foundations. The fence along the deck was made from recycled tank tracks. I loved the irony of the villagers' recycling efforts, using war scrap as building materials — turning lethal into useful. Nothing is wasted.
Little children playing on a trailer waved as we walked past. The people are delightfully friendly and not (yet) spoilt by tourism.
Nearby, there's a small Buddhist temple built by the villagers.
At the entrance to site three, I was immensely proud (and reassured) to see a NZAID sign alongside a UNESCO one saying: 'MAG cleared UXO from site 3 in 2005 with funding from NZAID.'
We crossed a bamboo bridge over a stream and walked along raised dykes between paddy fields where a family group was preparing to pump water into a paddock to plant rice seedlings. Further on, the fields were already planted and a friendly young woman was tending a few water buffalo.
We climbed to the top of a hill where 130-odd jars were standing like the chimneys of a subterranean village. A startled lizard scuttled out of a crack as I tried my luck communicating with another jar. Needless to say, the secret remains intact.
For me, the lack of a raison d'être just adds to the allure and fascination of the Plain of Jars. Perhaps the ancient civilisation who created the jars did so for precisely that reason - to create an eternal puzzle which can never be solved.
Panoramic views over the green countryside make this the most scenic of the three sites we visited. It's hard to imagine this peaceful place was bombed to smithereens in my lifetime. I pictured the cheerful faces of the little children we had just met and shuddered at the thought of what happened to the people here just 50 years ago.
Information boards and displays at the Plain of Jars visitor centre at the entrance to site one tell the full history of the Xiang Khouang Plateau from 10,000 BC until the present day, and provide a detailed description of the jar sites.
We stopped for lunch at Meaung Khoun Restaurant in Phonsavan where we were treated to delicious Lao cuisine and sampled the local rice wine. I was intrigued by the display of bomb art outside the restaurant. It both satirised the Secret War and epitomised the resilience and determination of the Lao people not to allow the horrendous recent past to define their future.
We also visited the MAG headquarters in Phonsavan where our guide Vieng described the work of bomb disposal teams.
MAG hires and trains members of rural communities and actively recruits women because of their dexterity in handling delicate and unstable UXO.
In an excellent documentary on the Secret War and its aftermath, we learned about a young man who was blinded in both eyes and suffered injuries to his arms and legs when he lit a fire in his house and set off an UXO. His wife goes to work in the paddy fields while he stays home and takes care of their two children as best as he can. He feels guilty for not being able to work. Just one of thousands of victims of the Secret War during which the US dropped the equivalent of two tonnes of bombs per person in Laos.
Perhaps the most disturbing discovery was that many bombs were dropped on Laos as US aircraft returned from aborted attacks on the Pathet Lao in the north and the Ho Chi Minh trail in the south. The crew dumped their bombs in Laos so they didn't have to go through special procedures required when landing fully loaded. I felt incredibly angry at such gratuitous slaughter.
Earlier in our tour of Laos, we had visited the headquarters of COPE (Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) in Vientiane, an organisation that provides orthotic devices, prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs and other aids to those injured and disabled by UXO. An earnest young man explained COPE'S impressive rehabilitation services and we watched documentaries including newsreels of the Secret War era - images of cluster bombs exploding over green landscapes are seered into my memory.
Five decades later, UXO continue to kill and maim people as they go about their everyday work. Farmers and those who work on the land are most at risk but in recent years, more than 40 per cent of casualties have been children. 'Bombies' as they are known locally, are the same size and shape as tennis balls, and sometimes bright yellow in colour so they are tempting to play with.
Rather than buy souvenirs, our Kiwi group combined to donate a lump sum to help fund COPE's work. There's a photo of us on the wall at COPE. We all felt good about that.
Phonsavan, which means 'Hills of Paradise', is the capital of Xieng Khouang. The town was built in the 1970s to replace the former capital Muang Khoun which was destroyed during the Secret War.
Laos has many splendid temples and countless statues of Buddha but one of the most striking to me was the giant sitting Buddha who presides over the ruins of his temple at Wat Phia Wat in Muang Khoun.
The temple, which dates back to 1322, was bombed in 1966. The blackened, scarred Buddha and the temple's brick foundation and a few columns are all that remain. He's suffered much violence over the centuries resulting in a severed arm, lopsided face and missing eye. In the pouring rain, he had a forlorn, melancholy look but is highly revered by worshippers nevertheless.
Guide Vieng said the temple will not be rebuilt. It has been left as a reminder of what happened during the Secret War.
A short distance away is That Foun, a 30m stupa dating back to 1564. It is said to cover ashes of Buddha that were brought from India.
With trees and grass growing from its spire, it's not grand like the golden That Luang stupa in Vientiane but it suits the rural countryside.
The local caretaker unlocked a door so we could go inside but there's nothing there. Chinese Black Flag bandits raided the stupa in the 19th century cutting a hole in the side to steal the golden Buddha and other treasures hidden inside.
Nearby we met a local weaver who was busy at her loom, making beautiful scarves. I'd left my wallet in the van at the foot of a muddy hill so sadly, I could not add to my scarf collection by buying one of her creations. She understood my distress and hugged me. I vividly remember her gentle, smiling face.
Our Innovative Travel/Singapore Airlines tour group had much to talk about that evening over dinner at Bamboozle restaurant in downtown Phonsavan. As we downed glasses of ice-cold BeerLao, the local brew, and dined on the excellent local speciality pork and sticky rice dish, there were many questions asked about the Secret War and theories posited about the Plain of Jars . . . but I stuck to mine. Perhaps the ancient civilisation had a wry sense of humour and the jars are randomly placed to create intrigue. Whatever the case, I like the mystery of their history.
* Justine Tyerman travelled with Innovative Travel, a Christchurch-based boutique tour operator with 27 years' experience offering travellers the opportunity to explore historically and culturally unique destinations worldwide that provide a challenge but with the security of a peace-of-mind 24/7 wrap-around service.
* Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Singapore daily, from Wellington four times weekly, and from Christchurch daily.
SilkAir flies from Singapore to Vientiane and Luang Prabang three times weekly.
Lao Airlines flies from Vientiane to Xieng Khuang.
* Accommodation: Vansana Plain of Jars Hotel.
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