sign in a cave in Laos

8 June 2008

Laos Plain of Jars - Star 2008

Plain baffling

Saturday January 12, 2008

THE STAR Lifestyle

[Also on CloveTwo]

The large heavy stone objects in Laos’ Plain of Jars continue to mystify experts and visitors alike as to what exactly they are.

The Plain of Jars is one of the most enigmatic sites in Laos. This area near Phonsavan is littered with huge stone jars, whose origins remain shrouded in mystery despite a few theories propounded by archeologists.

The Plain of Jars covers a large area in northeast Laos, in Xieng Khuang province. There are about 15 sites in Laos itself, although more than 60 sites have been recorded covering a much wider area extending to Thailand and India.

We arrived on a cold winter’s afternoon and an icy wind was blowing across the plain. Getting out of the van, I was confronted by a sign warning us of the dangers of landmines and telling us to stick to the marked paths.

Swallowed up by a jar

The wind went right through me as we eagerly headed for the jars, being curious and impatient to examine them. One of the theories about the purpose of the jars is that they were used as sarcophagi; others have suggested they were used to ferment wine or for storing rice. All of the jars were found empty, however, so there is no ascertaining the theories for now.

A few of the jars have discs lying nearby, which are thought to be lids.

The jars are made of solid stone boulders, some from granite, but most from a material similar to sandstone. Recently, researchers have found quarries (actually boulder fields) they think the stone for the jars originated from, for the site contains half-finished jars. This place is west of Muang Sui.

The jars are angular or round and can weigh up to 13 metric tons and range from 1m-3m in height. They are thought to be 1,500-2,000 years old. Some of the excavated material has been dated to around 500BC-800AD.

The first Westerner to study the site was Madeleine Colani, a renowned French archaeologist. She spent three years studying the plain in the 1930s. Her work is still the most comprehensive. The bones, beads, bronze and iron tools and other artefacts that Colani discovered led her to believe that the jars were funerary urns.

She also found vases that may have held human remains lying next to some of the jars. Aerial photos show the jars appear to be laid in a linear path that was probably a trade route. This leads to another theory that the jars were used to store rainwater to supply travellers.

Of course, the locals have their own legends.

The eerie Grotte Crematoire

It is said that a race of giants once inhabited the area. One legend tells of an ancient king who fought a long, victorious battle against his enemy. He supposedly created the jars to brew and store huge amounts of lao lao rice wine to celebrate his victory.

Another says that in the 6th century a cruel chieftain, Chao Angka, ruled the area as part of Muang Pakan. However the Lao-Thai hero Khun Jeuam supposedly came down from southern China to help the Pakan people get rid of Angka. To celebrate his victory, Khun Jeuam had the jars constructed for the fermentation of rice wine.

According to this version, the jars were cast from a type of cement that was made from buffalo skin, sand, water and sugarcane, and fired in a nearby cave kiln, Grotte Crematoire.

Grotte Crematoire, which is on Site 1, was studied by Colani. In it, she found human remains, including burned bones and ash.

This 23m long cave consists of a single chamber with natural holes in the top. Due to the evidence of smoke, Colani thought the cave may have been a crematorium and speculated that the jars were used to deposit cremated human remains.

Later excavations have found more human remains and also unburned bones.

The Laotian Civil War (1962-1975), also known as the Secret War, is a term used to describe the Laotian front of the Vietnam War. The Pathet Lao (the Lao Revolutionary Movement) used Grotte Crematoire as a shelter during the Secret War, and an American bomb supposedly damaged the cave.

The surrounding area still has trenches and bomb craters, and we passed several as we walked around the sites. The town of Xieng Khouang was destroyed during the fighting between the Pathet Lao and American-backed, anti-communist troops. A new town was built in the mid-1970s, known as Phonsavan.

Not all the sites have been fully excavated and researchers are always hoping to find sealed jars, whose contents might still be intact. But the dangers of UXO (unexploded ordnance) have slowed progress over the years. Only Sites 1, 2 and 3 are considered relatively free of UXO and therefore open to visitors.

Even at those sites you should stick to the worn footpaths and take note of the stone markers left by the UXO teams. UXO still pose a risk of detonation, decades after being employed.

Laos has the distinction of being one of the world’s most heavily bombed nations. During the period of the Vietnam War, over half-a-million bombing missions dropped more than two million tons of ordnance.

Some of the jars come with lids even.

Site 1, Thong Hai Hin, is 15km south west of Phonsavan and the largest of the various sites. It is also the most accessible. It is home to 250 jars that weigh mostly from 600kg to one tonne each. The biggest weigh six tonnes.

Some people say this was the victory cup of the mythical King Jeuam, so it’s called Hai Jeuam. Near Site 1 is the Lao air force base.

Two other jar sites are also easily accessible by road from Phonsavan. Site 2, Hai Hin Phu Salato, is 25km south of the town. It features 90 jars scattered across two adjacent hillsides. You can drive to the hills and then take a short, steep walk to see the jars.

Hai Hin Lat Khai or Site 3 is more interesting; it has 150 jars on a scenic hilltop. It lies 10km south from Site 2, and 35km from Phonsavan. To reach the site, you have to hike for about 2km along rice fields and then up the hill. In the nearby village of Ban Sieng Di is a small monastery with what remains of Buddha images damaged during the war.

The villagers live in unusually large houses and grow rice, sugarcane, avocado and bananas.

It is possible that the jars are linked with the equally mysterious stone megaliths (menhirs) found off Route 6 on the way north, 57km before Sam Neua in Houa Phan province, where the Hintang archaeological park has 2,000-year-old standing stones. The jars may also possibly be connected to the large Dongson drum-shaped stone objects discovered in Luang Prabang province.


You can charter a “jumbo” (motorbike pick-up) from Phonsavan. Expect to pay about US$4 (RM13) for a round trip to Site 1, and more to sites further away.

Alternatively, you can take a tour which will go to more sites as well as some villages. There is a small entry fee for each site.

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