A Jar at the Plain of Jars by Asienreisender

A typical representant on the Plain of Jars. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

Kilometerstone 0 in Phonsavan(h) by Asienreisender

The basic destination for visitors of the Plain of Jars is the province capital Phonsavan(h), which provides a number of hotels and guesthouses. As the whole country it is under rapid development.

The photo shows kilometer stone no. 0.

Image by Asienreisender, 12/2011

Madeleine Colani

Madeleine Colani (1866 - 1943), the French archeologist who made the first substantial researches at the Plain of Jars. Unfortunately, due to decades of war and destruction, the exploration of the site is still on a very poor stage. Excavations can be made only with limitations due to the risks of UXO.

Cremation Cave at Site 1 at the Plain of Jars by Asienreisender

Inside the cremation cave at site no. 1. View upwards towards the natural chimneys. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

Bomb Shells in Phonsavan by Asienreisender

Bomb shells in Phonsavan. The largest is about 160cm tall. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

MAG Sign by Asienreisender

MAG does a good and very brave job, clearing mines in Laos. Image by Asienreisender, 2011

MAG Markers around Phonsavan

On the way to site no. 2. The small stones right and left mark the cleared path. Beyond it the contamination provides a life risk. Sometimes the pathes are narrower than this, spanning a track of 30cm only. Image by Asienreisender, 2011

MAG Markers

That's how the markers look. Image by Asienreisender, 2011

T34 Tank by Asienreisender

The wreck of a Russian T34 tank in the Plain of Jars. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

Between Luang Prabang and Phonsavan by Asienreisender

Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars are separated from the only south-north main road between Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang by a big mountain chain. It is widely uninhabitated, but completely deforested. Traces of slash-and-burn are everywhere to see. Image by Asienreisender, 12/2011

The Plain of Jars



An Enigmatic Landscape

A very peculiar sight is the Plain of Jars on the Xieng Khouang Plateau in north Laos. It's a large landscape in the wider mountainous surroundings of Phonsavan town, covering an area of about 5,500 km2. There are now a total of 85 registered sites where each between one up to hundreds of huge megalithic stone urns are spread irregularly, without any pattern, over the countryside. The urns or jars are hewn out of solid rock. Few of them have a simple decoration, and only one single piece shows a human figure (the anthropomorphic disc, see below). The shape at the urn's openings indicate that they had lids, and there are some few lids left. Their size varies considerably; the smallest have the size of an average dustbin, the biggest reach a height of 3 meters and weight up to 6,000kg. The Plain of Jars is one of the oldest archeological sites in Southeast Asia. And one of the most enigmatic.

The Plain of Jars, Site No. 1 by Asienreisender

A field of urns on the Plain of Jars, here site no. 1. The huge plain is widely deforestated. The trees in the background are young, fast-growing eucalyptus. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

The Plain of Jars is situated on an average altitude of 1,200m above sea level. It's therefore not so hot here as it is in lower places in Southeast Asia; in winter it can be pretty cool, also several degrees celsius below zero. The landscape, as it looks nowadays, is widely deforestated. That's, in this case, not due to the rampant logging activities in Laos, but a long-term effect of the American chemical warfare in the Vietnam War. The agent orange didn't wash completely out of the soil, because there is not as much rainfall here as it is usually in the sub-tropes.

The Plain of Jars is not a mass-tourist destination. It's off the road between Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang and few tourists find their way to the site.

Since years there is a pending application to make the Plain of Jars a UNESCO World Heritage.

But, what is the truly strange site about?

The Plain of Jars by Asienreisender

The Plain of Jars. Image by Asienreisender, 2006


The Meaning of the Jars

There are several speculations, myths and theories about the original purpose of the ancient stone jars. One of them is that a former king celebrated a military victory at the sites and the jars were filled with rice whiskey, drunk with straws. Others claim that the booze was an annual celebration, and it happened every year at another site, what explains the high number of the jars. That's what the locals tell to the visitors. It's most probably merely a legend, and supported by no evidence.

A common Stone Jar in contemporary Southeast Asia by Asienreisender

A common stone jar, how they are used widely throughout Southeast Asia. In the dry season, after months of no rain, they serve as a water reservoir for private households. Some areas have water problems every year, many dwellings have no water access anyway. The people bring water then in buckets from the next well or a nearby river. Image by Asienreisender, 2014

An Australian traveller once told me his theory. He thought it would be possible that the jars served all-day purposes as private water reservoirs in the gardens of the housings of the time. In nowadays Southeast Asia there are indeed still many jars in the gardens, containing raining water for household or gardening purposes. The idea is very convincing.

The (re-)discovery of the great jars happened in 1930. The French archeologist Madeleine Colani did the first research here for the École française d’Extrême-Orient. Archeologists explain the jars as burial urns of ancient people. Bone and tooth remains were found in certain jars. Around the jars other artefacts as pottery shards, ceramics, glass and metal objects were found. The human remains partially show signs of cremation, but not all of them. Newer researches led to the conclusion that the jars were burial sites for certain people of higher social ranks, while the surroundings of the jars were presumably burial sites for family members. But the theory is still on weak legs, for evidence is thin. It can also be that the human remains were put into the jars as a ritual offering. It is also thinkable that the jars served for different purposes over the centuries.

Sketch of the Anthropomorphic Disc from Site 13 at Plain of Jars by Asienreisender

This sketch reflects the very unfamous anthropomorphic stone disc which displays a human being. Ever heared of it? It was found at site 13 by M. Colani. She took it with her and I have no idea where it is placed now - maybe in the Louvre in Paris. Originally it was certainly round.

The site is dated around 2,000 years old, but there are big variations in the dating. The oldest estimations start at 2,000 BCE for the oldest jars at the first sites, though. Mainly it's estimated that the jars were made in a timespan between 500 BCE to 200 CE; the creation time of the jars extends over centuries.

Similar urns have been found in Assam / India and allegedly on Sulawesi Island / Indonesia. It's therefore supposed that the people who shaped the jars were proto Malays who came from India and went later to Indonesia.

Madeleine Colani related the location of the Plain of Jars to a trade route of the ancient times. She assumed the local people were interested in purchasing salt and grain in exchange for iron ore, which is found in the granite stones in the area. The jars could also be a byproduct of mining activities. It's therefore also possible that the jars served as a storage for trade goods as grain, rice or other merchandises.

At site 1 there is a natural cave inside a limestone mountain. Madeleine Colani identified the cave as a former crematory; the theory is supported by artefacts who were found there.

Meanwhile, in 2012, there has another site opened for visitors. Site 21, northwest of Phonsavan, was the quarry for the jars of site 1. There are finished and unfinished jars in various stages of processing to see. Site 8, the quarry for the sites 2 and 3 is not open for visitors; it's not save to go there.


The Jars

A number of quarries have been used as a source of the jar's raw material. The jars consist partially of sandstone, others of granite, limestone and other materials.

The origin of the jars dates back into the iron age. The manufacturers of the jars used supposedly iron and bronze chisels and other tools to form the shapes out of the rocks. Interestingly, there are no remarkable differences in the shapes of all the jars in all sites, except slighter differences who are due to the different raw materials wrought.

Shapes of Jars at the Plain of Jars by Asienreisender

A choice of the variety of the jars. Although they basically look similarly shaped there are differences. Lia Genovese points the differences out in her scientific contribution 'Plain of Jars: Mysterious and Imperil[l]ed' (2012).

All images and composition by Asienreisender.


Havoc and Unexploded Ordnance

The jars have been exploited since a long time. A French archeologist in the 1920s wrote already that the villagers around were plundering the jars for pieces they could sell; the kids were curious of things to find they could play with. Whole urns got smashed, because the locals believed to find precious content inside. Many jars had been broken already. Besides, who knows what for treasure hunters (tomb raiders) have been there in all the centuries before?!

Damaged Jars at the Plain of Jars by Asienreisender

Many of the jars are damaged for the most different reasons. The one at the left might have been smashed by locals, for they use parts of them for different purposes. The one in the middle got victim to a tree who's remaining piece of trunk is still sticking inmiddle of the bursted jar. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

The tooth of time is nagging at the jars. Their surface is very rough - in the original state they were certainly smooth. Erosion due to weather conditions happens. The temperature differences between hot summer noons and cold winter nights are also a strain for the material in the long run. Slash and burn happens around the jars. Cattle are scrubbing their horns at them. Plants start growing in cracks in the urns and, growing bigger and stronger, causing harm to them, sometimes even bursting them.

Sometimes jars or parts of them are used for building purposes in the villages. Jars are used as filling for fundaments of new roads. A great number of different damages are done by the peasants who use the jars for different purposes - and consume them. For example as wetstones for their knifes.

Whole jars have been undigged and transported away, to surrounding villages, to Vientiane or even into the USA - as a souvenir from the brave war in Indochina, presented by the Hmong general Vang Pao.

Whatever the purposes of the jars in the past were, now they found a new, modern purpose: as dustbins for the litter tourists drop at the sights.

Bomb Crater at the Plain of Jars by Asienreisender

A bomb crater at site no. 2. Concluding from the size it could have been a 'bomby'. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

In the American Vietnam War the US Air Force dropped 260 million cluster bombs on Laos (see also the article 'Bombs on Laos'); the greatest aerial bombardement in the history of warfare targeted also very much the Plain of Jars. These cluster bombs opened in the air and released a number of bigger explosives and 300 smaller ones (bomblets). About a third of them didn't explode when falling on the ground. But they are still explosive. If they get moved, shaken or stepped on they act like landmines. They are no failure, but were designed to behave so. They are also programmed to tear off arms or legs or damage eyes rather than to kill. The calculation is, that a wounded enemy is a burden for the enemy population, for others have to spend resources, time and energy to care for him/her, and he/she is itself unable to support war efforts. The Laotians call the small bomblets 'bombies'.

A great number of the jars have been destroyed in the bombardments. One can find fractions of jars and many huge bomb craters around. Madeleine Colani counted around 10,000 jars and catalogued them according to the villages of her time. 20 villages on the Plain of Jars have vanished in the American Vietnam War. Till now 3,000 jars have been relocated after the war.

Bomb Shells at a Restaurant in Phonsavan by Asienreisender

"Craters" is a 'bombastic' restaurant in Phonsavan. Bombshells and the horrors of war as a marketing idea. Image by Asienreisender, 11/2011

Moreover, a great number of people have been killed and millions of the bombs remained unexploded (UXO) and provide a high live risk for anyone who walks around in the area appart from the cleared areas. Annually still 300 people die due to UXO accidents in Laos. Many of the victims are children, until today.

The former province capital, Xieng Khouang, has been completely destroyed in the war. The capital was therefore moved to Phonsavan after 1975.

From 2004 on international organizations started to clear parts of the Plain of Jars from UXO. Still, most of the area is mined and not save to go. The most visited sites 1 (Ban Ang), 2 and 3 are mainly cleared. There are certain marked paths one has to walk on only and must not leave. Behind the marks nothing can be guaranteed. The Plain of Jars are one of the most dangerous sights on earth.

That is also the reason why further exploration is impeded, at least delayed, until more clearing is done. The clearing, undertaken by different international institutions, has never been supported by the USA.

The war's legacy will probably never been cleared completely and find many more victims over the next generations.


Map of the Plain of Jars

Map of the Plain of Jars by Asienreisender

Map of the general location of the Plain of Jars.

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Published on March 16th, 2014