Phonsavan, Laos: January 19-22, 2015

We flew from Luang Namtha to Vientiane on the 18th, then to Phonsavan on the 19th for a couple of days to explore the Plain of Jars.

Walking from the aircraft to the Phonsavan (Xieng Khouang). Baggge is picked up at the arrival

Walking from the aircraft to the Phonsavan (Xieng Khouang) airport terminal.

The Plain of Jars is a famous archaeological area in Laos. There are about 100 jar sites located in a large area mainly consisting of the province of Xieng Khouang in northeastern Laos. All of the jar sites are located on hills or raised ground,  presumably  to avoid flooding during the wet season. The jars date to between about 500 BC and 500 AD. Most of the jars were carved from blocks of sandstone brought 7 kilometers or more from a nearby mountain quarry, and range between about 1 to 3 meters in height and diameter. All of the jars discovered so far are undecorated except for one that has a human-like figure carved on it (referred to as the “frogman”). There appearss to be general agreement that the jars were used in burial ceremonies, though the details remain uncertain. There is lots of information available on the Web for those who are interested in more information on the jars and their history.

The Plain of Jars was the main Pathet Lao base during the Second Indochina War, and it was designated as a free-fire zone, meaning that anyone in the area could be considered a combatant. It was therefore heavily bombed by the Americans during the “secret” war (1964-1973). Due to the heavy bombing some jars were damaged or destroyed, and most of the jar sites cannot be visited due to the presence of unexploded ordnance (UXO). About seven jar sites have been cleared of UXO and made safe by groups such as the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works to clean up UXO in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and many other countries plagued by the explosive remnants of war. Three of the cleared jar sites (Sites 1, 2, and 3) are near Phonsavan

There are the remnants of a once-secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) air base near Phonsavan. The base was named Long Tieng (also spelled Long Chieng, Long Cheng, or Long Chen and also known as Lima Site 98, Lima Site 20A, or “The Alternate”). We did not go to see this site, but there is lots of information about it, and its role in the “secret war”, on the web or in books (e.g., “The Ravens”, by Christopher Robbins).

Craters Resturant in Phonsavan.

Craters Resturant in Phonsavan.

 

Building under construction in Phonsavan. Scaffolding like this is typical all over Laos.

Building under construction in Phonsavan. Scaffolding like this is typical all over Laos.

 

Another building under construction.

Another building under construction.

We stayed at Namchai Guesthouse ($20/night not including breakfast). It is a nice, quiet place but has very poor, and very slow, wifi access.

We briefly met an American who worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Laos before and during the “secret” war. I later found out that his name is MacAlan (Mac) Thompson; there is quite a bit of information about him on the web. His job was to help resettling refugees from the war, usually to Thailand. I mentioned to him that I thought that it was ironic that one US government agency (USAID) was working to help refugees being created by a war being waged by another US government agency (CIA). His response: welcome to the US government! I would have liked to have had the opportunity to talk with him in more detail about his experiences, but unfortunately I was not able to spend more than a few minutes with him.

We took a one day tour with Kong Keo, owner of the Kong Keo Guesthouse (800,000 lak for two people). We did not stay at his guesthouse but we do recommend his tour; his Laos mobile phone number is 020 28585858, or stop by the guesthouse to talk to him.

We first visited Jar Site 1. There are several different jar designs (round, rectangular, some with one or more lips at the top, some without). There are many bomb craters within the site, and a small cave. This site contains the “frogman” jar. None of the jars have lids, either because they originally had no lids, or the lids were made out of wood and have long since decayed.

 

Information available at the Site 1 visitors center. "Colani" refers to Madeleine Colani, a French

Information available at the Site 1 visitors center. “Colani” refers to Dr. Madeleine Colani, a French archaeologist.  Her work in the 1930’s is the basis for much of what is currently known about the jars.

 

A view of part of Jar Site 1.

A view of part of Jar Site 1.

 

Close-up of a round jar, about 1.5 meters high.

Close-up of a round jar, about 1.5 meters high.

 

Some say if you have seen one jar, you have seen them all but I kept on seeing differences. Maybe age or technique of construction.

Some say if you have seen one jar, you have seen them all but I kept on seeing differences. Maybe age or technique of construction.

 

Rectangular jar, about 1.5 meters high.

Rectangular jar, about 1.5 meters high.

 

A unique perspective through a jar on it's side.

A unique perspective through a jar on it’s side.

 

At first it was difficult to comprehend why a bunch of jars would be interesting. But they are!

At first it was difficult to comprehend why a bunch of jars would be interesting. But they are!

 

Trail marker placed by the Mines , indicating the area that has been cleared of UXO (white side of marker), and the area that has not been cleared (red side of marker). Note that the trail is on the red "un-cleared" side of the marker.

Trail marker placed by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), indicating the area that has been cleared of UXO (white side of marker), and the area that has not been cleared (red side of marker). Note that the trail is on the red (un-cleared) side of the marker.  Oh well, we were assured that the entire area was safe from anti-personnel mines, though a few more deeply buried mines may be left in the un-cleared area.

 

Bottom of a (damaged) jar with visible tool marks.

Bottom of a (damaged) jar with visible tool marks.

 

Bomb crater behind two jars. One appers to have been damaged (note the side of the jar opposite the crater that appears to have been blown out.

Bomb crater behind two jars. One jar appears to have been damaged (note the side of the jar opposite the crater that appears to have been blown out), and one knocked over.

 

The "frogman" jar at Site 1. The lighter scratch marks on the right side of the figure appear to be new, and are likely due to vandalism.

The “frogman” jar at Site 1. The lighter scratch marks on the left side of the figure are from recent vandalism.

 

Jar site 2. Denise took a guide and motorbike to the last two sites while Pete took a break.

Jar Site 2. Denise took a guide and motorbike to the last two sites while Pete took a break.

 

Jar site 2.

Jar Site 2.

 

On the bridge on the way to jar site 3. This monk took Denise's picture so she decided to take his. He told her it takes 20 years of study to become a monk!

On the bridge on the way to Jar Site 3. This monk took Denise’s picture so she decided to take his. He told her it takes 20 years of study to become a monk!

 

Jar site 2. Denise took a guide and motorbike to explore the other jar sites while Pete took a break.

Jar Site 3.

 

Jar site 3.

Jar Site 3.

The next stop was an area of bomb craters near Nongpet and Ban Kay villages, about 30 km east of Phonsavan. Here we learned that during the “secret” war the people living in the Plain of Jars were forced into living in either caves of tunnels to escape the incessant bombing. In areas where there was no forest cover to quickly escape to villagers had to remain hidden during the day and work their fields only at night. Our guide told us that he grew up in the area, and he used to play with UXO when he was a child (he was born in 1981). Two of his friends wound up being killed while playing with UXO. In those days the current campaign to educate villagers of the dangers of UXO did not exist. Also, during that time villagers used to actively search for UXO since the explosives and metal could be sold for much-needed cash. Unfortunately this practice still continues despite the dangers and despite the fact that it is now illegal to possess or sell explosives or metal obtained from UXO.

 

A couple of bomb craters.

A couple of bomb craters.

 

View from the bottom of one of the craters.

View from the bottom of one of the craters.

 

Pete standing inside one of the craters. It had been cleared of UXO according to our guide!

Pete standing inside one of the bomb craters. It had been cleared of UXO according to our guide!

The next stop was the Hmong village of Ban Tsagok, where the villagers make use of bomb metal. We saw a Hmong man making a new knife from a piece of car spring. His home-made blacksmith shop included a bellows made from what appeared to be an empty artillery shell, and his anvil appeared to be the business end of an artillery round. We also saw a woman and girls making a rice gruel using a hand-powered grinding stone (we saw similar grinding stones in Vietnam). The village people need to have many skills such as blacksmithing, farming, and construction to survive, especially back in the days before electricity, motorbikes, roads, and access to modern towns.

We also saw a few houses and storage structures in the village that used cluster bomb casings as pilings. Our guide was a great hit with the village children as he passed out balloons to the young ones.

Bomb casings used as supports.

Bomb casings used as supports.

 

Blacksmith shop. The bellows is to the rght of the fire pit, the anvil on the left side of the photo.

Blacksmith shop. The bellows is to the rght of the fire pit, the anvil on the left side of the photo.

 

Grinding rice into paste for noodles takes effort from all of the family.

Grinding rice into paste for noodles takes effort from all of the family.

 

Cluster bomb casings used as supports.

Cluster bomb casings used as supports.

 

Some of the village children posing for a photo. They were very happy because they had received balloons from our guide.

Some of the village children posing for a photo. They were very happy because they had received balloons from our guide.

Our next stop was Tham Piu, a cave that local villagers lived in for protection from American bombers during the “secret” war. According to a memorial located near the cave, on November 24, 1968 an American plane fired a rocket into the cave, killing 374 people. Our guide told us that the toll would have been even higher, but many of the younger men and women were in the fields working when the attack occurred. In this area people could work the fields in the daytime because they were able to run and hide in the nearby forest when they heard the sound of airplanes approaching. The cave includes many small stone stupas built in memory of those who were killed, and there is a memorial service there every year on November 24.

Unfortunately the people of the Plain of Jars suffered after the “secret war” as well as during it.  In addition to it being a Pathet Lao stronghold it was also the main area where the US-led pro-government army, consisting mainly of Hmong people, was based.  After the war the people that had supported the US-backed monarchy, and in particular the Hmong, were subject to vicious reprisals by the victorious Pathet Lao forces after 1975.  According to one source up to 100,000 Hmong, out of a population of about 400,000, were killed.  More details can be found here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insurgency_in_Laos#Lao_Hmong_insurgency

 

Cave entrance.

Tham Pieu Cave entrance.

 

Another view of the cave entrance. You can see the small stacks of stones that stood for small pagotas to assist the people to get into the afterlife.

Another view of the cave entrance. You can see the small stacks of stones that stood for small stupas to assist the people to get into the afterlife.

 

Memorial stupas inside Tham Pieu Cave.

Memorial stupas inside Tham Pieu Cave.

Our last stop was a hot springs near a village. The water from the springs was scalding hot, but the spring is located on a river bank so that the hot water can be diluted with cold river water. There was quite a bit of activity while we were there since the villagers use it for bathing, brushing teeth, and washing laundry.

Having a blast with hot mud that you could immediately wash off in the hot springs.

Having a blast with hot mud that you could immediately wash off in the hot springs.

2 thoughts on “Phonsavan, Laos: January 19-22, 2015

  1. Hey guys, great pics and stories from Laos! on I hope they have PE’s stamping the construction drawings for those buildings under construction. Also, the use of bomb casings for supports – quite a sight. Enjoy the rest of Laos and hope Cambodia is just as interesting!

    Patrick

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