Enigmatic Jars of Laos

Jutting out of the ground like some bizarre maze of the tops of bottles, the Plain of Jars in central Laos remain in situ their origins still unexplained by archaeologists.

There are huge numbers of these jars, which range in size from one to three metres, and all of them have been hand carved out of a variety of rock types ranging from soft sandstone to hard granite, with no one knowing for sure what meaning they are meant to convey.

There is a lot of speculation, of course, and recent studies have suggested that they may be funerary items, having been used by ancient people as a place to store the deceased.
What is known is that the jars are truly ancient, many dating back at least 2500 years. To add to the confusion as to their true purpose is the existence of stone discs which are believed to have been used to cover gravesites that had been dug in the ground. Whilst some human matter has been found in some of the jars, most so no trace of holding human remains.

A central crematorium site was discovered in the 1930s by a French archaeologist, so it is possible that the jars were used to store the cremated remains, whilst intact bodies were buried and covered with the stone discs.

Although the jars number in their thousands on many different locations, the best way to see them is via the town of Phonsavan which is the provincial capital of Xieng Khouang province.

Visiting the Plain of Jars from Phonsavan, in theory, should be relatively easy but is complicated by the fact that the area around the town is one of the world’s most bombed locations, thanks to the Americans blitzing Laos during the Vietnam War with more tonnage than they dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II. This bombing was done in secret as no war had been declared on Laos, and even the US Congress and Senate weren’t advised about these illegal and inhumane bombings.

In fact, about 60 people still get killed every year from getting too close to unexploded missiles and bombs. For that reason it is best to get a guide who can show you the safer areas.

Unfortunately, the locals also have a reputation for fleecing tourists, so you need to be careful when negotiating.

Fortunately, the unexploded mines and bombs are being cleared by the Mines Advisory Group, which has an office in Phonsavan, where you can buy souvenirs to help fund the removal of explosives.

Someone there has a sense of humour too. Given that when a bomb explodes it leaves its mark in the earth, one of the western-style restaurants in the town is called Craters, but I assume it’s not called that because it makes your innards explode.

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