Day 136: Unearthing the Jar of Plains


Flying over the Plain of Jars. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Glenn Simonelli

LESS than a kilometer up a deeply rutted dirt track that keeps splitting in front of me like the fingers of a feeder stream I stop the bike. This can't be right. The scrubby forest is pressing in and the path is quickly degrading, which seems nearly impossible given its current condition.

Twice today, I've given the dice a chance to shift gears and dive into the unexploded ordinance (UXO) situation in the Plain of Jars. However, the die has been stubborn in its attempt to maintain a theme for the day: archaeology.

Back down the dirt bike track, three local woman carrying baskets and large bladed tools give me the kind of look that I was giving myself only moments ago, which said: what is this white guy doing up here.

Instead of dialing Plain of Jars Site 2 into the Maps.Me app, which is an offline map application, I looked at the map, finding this supposed road that cut across to the site.

Given that Site 2 and 3 are both major tourist destinations for the area, it quickly became clear that this was not the best path there, at least not by motor-vehicle. There wasn't enough room for a 4x4 truck, and nearly not enough room for the bike.

It was a bit difficult to turn the bike around when I realized this wasn't the best way to Plain of Jars Site 2 and 3. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Back on a real road, one that wasn't threatening to swallow me and Rocinante up, I go ahead and plug Plain of Jars Site 2 into my phone.

I'd swung by Site 1 first thing this morning, bought my ticket and walked through the visitor center, which explains the history of the area and the theories behind the jars.

These types of enormous stone jars are not entirely unique to the area, as I had first presumed, similar ones have been located throughout Asia, including India and Indonesia. Despite the clear archaeological evidence surrounding the jars in Laos, the narrative spun around the area is one of mystery.

In total 1,999 jars at 77 surveyed sites have been identified. However, there are about 30 or so other sites in the area, below the Northern Annamite Mountains, that have yet to be surveyed. Lying along ancient salt trade paths, it should come as no surprise that the cultures that developed these jars had some serious reach.

The sites are layers of culture, a clear example of the archosphere that now wraps the world up like a great big blanket of man's accomplishments and failures. The earliest archaeological evidence at the sites dates back to the Neolithic period, while more modern uses of the jars and the sites can be found all the way up to the 19th century.

I was told that I could drive the bike past the gate and park closer to the site. Past a hundred meters of long-grassed knoll, I find the parking area. A local family has set up shop selling water and other goods.

A little kid, maybe eleven years old, approaches me with a ticket book. It costs an additional 5,000 Kip to park here, which is of course cheap as chips and ridiculous as I've already paid an entrance fee.

Trusting Travel Fish, which didn't have many nice things to say about Site 1, I simply climb back on Rocinante. We head out to Site 2 and Site 3, which aren't as easily accessible as Site 1, located only a few kilometers outside of Phonsavan.

Given that Site 1 was marked by the by French geologist and amateur archaeologist Madeleine Colani in the1930s as the center of the ancient remains, I probably shouldn't be so quick to write it off.

The Plain of Jars Site 2 is a magical place with layers of human history. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Ms Colani was the first to use western archaeological methods to explore the sites, uncovering beads and human bones from a cave on the site thought to be used for cremations.

Based on the evidence uncovered by Ms Colani, it seems very clear that the jars were partially carved at sandstone and conglomerate quarries at Phukeng Mountain, the lone mountain in the plain. Once moved to the sites, they were then finished and used in burial ceremonies.

One local legend surround the jars, perhaps the one my imagination loves most, is that the cups were in fact left by giants. It's not hard to imagine super-sized humans lumbering along in the plains settling down around some grassy knoll for a couple dozen shots of local brew, occasionally breaking their cups and then wandering off again. Though, it seems like there certainly would be more evidence of their existence if that was the case.

They're really big jars. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

There are of course local legends that go beyond the truly mythical notion of giants:

“King Khun Jueang defeated the oppressor and cruel ruler of Xieng Khouang named Chao Ankha in the 5th or 6th century. To celebrate this victory, the populace made the stone jars filled them with rice wine and celebration, which depending on the story teller lasted for weeks or even months. Local stories state that the jars are manufactured by mixing sand, sugar and cowhide, baking the jars in the kiln of the Site 1 cave,” explained one sign in the visitor center.

Finally, Rocinante and I are rolling up a freshly made crushed-gravel road. An empty parking lot next to an empty cafe and an empty sovereign shop are the only break in the landscape.

I pull up to the gate. A woman appears from behind a counter in the cafe and walks over to collect the entrance fee of about 10,000 kip, cheaper than Site 1.

A spooky feeling creeps in as I carefully walk between the cement markers leading up the hill. The red paint has entirely worn away, while the white paint is chipping. However, the word “MAG” impressed into the marker is clear. Each pair of the dozens of markers that cover the grassy hilltop signifies where the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) detonated or cleared an unexploded ordinance. A total of 26 UXOs were cleared from the site. However, a sign at the base of the hill reads: YOU ARE ADVISED TO STAY BETWEEN THE WHITE MARKERS.

I, of course, didn't read that part of the warning.

A total of 93 giant stone jars liter the top of the grassy hill like the Greek gods' discarded shot glasses. The tall, roughly carved artifacts are coarse to the touch. It's easy to understand why people believed that the stone jars were baked in a kiln due to the nature of the rock, which is so consistent and chalk full of pebbles. The rock is in fact a quarried conglomerate, calcified river sediment. Laying near some of the jars are large flat discs that one might mistake as lids, though evidence suggests they too are burial markers, these are made from a smoother sandstone.

The cluster of jars is protected by a handful of small, twisted trees, or perhaps a cluster of small, twisted trees are protected by the jars.

The jars, big enough to hide in, stand off-kilter. A few stand up right, while many more are on their sides, or leaning heavily in one direction or another. Those that have not been cracked open by weather or war have started to fill with rain water. The water's surface nearly glows a bright green from something similar to Duckweed floating on its surface. In addition to the algae and marine plants, a few of the jars have pieces of candy wrappers thrown into them.

Many of the jars at Site 2 have filled with water. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Walking along the ridge, away from the jars, I follow the UXO markers, baffled at the number of bombs that were dropped on this single location. I find myself in the shade of a pine grove. There is the sound of something moving, a couple of cows let out to graze. A bell around a heifer's neck jangles.

I wonder how many people have lost cattle to bombs. I also wonder if I should keep wandering so far from the site.

Back down the hill, on the other side of the road, is the other part of Site 2. Unlike where I just was, this area remains in the cool shade of large trees. A Banyan tree has grasped onto one of the jars, splitting it in half. An old woman sits on a little pink stool among the jars and dramatic trees. She and her family are having a picnic, which, technically isn't allowed.

A younger woman stokes up a fire and sets three fish salted and sliced along their sides on a little makeshift grill over it. A light smoke rolls up from the flames, smelling like a camp fire.

Though the fish fry is illegal, it's adding to the archaeological record. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

The older woman turns away from me and my camera, hiding her face as I snap away. The carpet of fallen leaves are crisp and crunchy beneath my motorcycle boots as I explore the sacred little area, musing how these people's picnic today is adding yet another layer to the archaeology of the site.

Site 3, is even more poorly marked than Site 2. Down a small branch of dirt road off a slightly wider dirt road that I'd already been up and down once, I spot the small sign for Site 3.

There is a restaurant on stilts near the wooden, single room visitor center. I order a big bowl of Laos-style Pho and watch as a few adults play game of petanque in the shadow of a house next to the visitor center.

An Italian guy on a Endro-style motorcycle that has apparently been hot on my heels ever since I left Vang Vieng – he kept seeing my bike around town – has parked his bike not far from mine. We caught up at Site 2, sharing a bit of travel advice. He wasn't anticipating coming to Site 3 today, but apparently he did.

“I can't find it,” he says, after appearing from a thicket of woods that clings to a small stream between the grassy parking area and the rice paddies on the far side.

“Here, let me finish eating, and we'll look for it together.”

Walking the narrow paths between the sunken rice paddies, stems heavy, nearly ready for harvest, we head away from the parking lot.

“It's got to be up hill, right?” I say.

“I went that way already, but we can try again.”

We arrive at a fence.

“This is where I stopped,” he says.

“Okay, so we just climb over this section here,” I say indicating the gradually inclined wooden ladder over the fence.

Shortly after making our way over the fence, we climb over another fence and into a small plot of land cordoned off from the pastures around us. The site is not at the top of a grassy hill or mountain, it's just along the slop, as if the jars had all come tumbling down together, on their own accord.

There are more than 150 jars on the small plot, yet it's a flock of Cattle Egret, soaring against the autumn blue sky that captures my imagination. Sitting with my back against one of the stone jars, I listen to the sounds of the world as my Italian companion takes a look around.

He leave before I'm ready. Another group, an elderly French couple and their Laos guide appear about five minutes before I head back.

A small brown calf has snuck through an opening in the barbwire fence around the the site. I shoo her out.

“Yeah, I did Site 2 already,” I tell the guide.

“Site 1 at sunset is the best time to go,” he confirms.

And though I agree that I'll probably see them at Site 1 for sunset, making it sound as if that was my plan all along, I'm hit by a wave of tiredness as I return to Rocinante.

Maybe tomorrow I think, letting the die send me up into some nearby hills north of town to catch the sunset.

It was a stunning, dusty sunset. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

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