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The Plain of Jars: a Mysterious Archaeological Site


In the mountains of northern Laos in Xieng Khouang province, are scattered thousands of giant jars, stone, each weighing several tons (up to 7 tons). The jars are arranged generally in groups which may have up to several hundred jars. They are mainly found on a plateau around the town of Phonsavan. There are about 3000 pots scattered on 90 sites and extending nearly 1000 km ². Each jar can measure up to 3 meters in height, and all are carved into boulders, often calcareous sandstone, and sometimes granite. Some jars are decorated with bas-relief on the outside. The Plain of Jars is considered 2000 years old and is one of the largest in South-East Asia archaeological sites.

The existence of edges on the jars suggests they have had a lid and were therefore used for storage. We still do not know the exact origin of these jars but we can doubt the usefulness of these: everything seems to indicate that they were used for storing food or fermentation tanks for the production of rice wine . They could also serve as a container for collecting rain water during monsoon seasons, or even more bizarre, funeral urns. This last assumption is valid because of the many human remains such as bones and teeth, burial objects and ceramics found around jars.

The site was discovered in 1930 by Madeleine Colani, a French archaeologist, but the war and politicians have prevented further excavation around the jars until 1994. During the Vietnam War many jars have been damaged by American bombing, and there are still thousands of tons of unexploded ordnance around jars making difficult and dangerous excavations.

From 1964 to 1973, U.S. forces completed nearly 600,000 bombing missions over Laos, dropping more than two million tons of ammunition. On a per capita basis, Laos is the country was the most bombed on Earth, and the province of Xieng Khouang, where the Plain of Jars, was the second most targeted region, with more than 63,000 bombs. It is estimated that 30% of the bombs did not explode on impact. Each year, people are killed and injured because of it.Steps have been made to classify the Plain of Jars on the World Heritage List of UNESCO, and demining campaigns are conducted by international organizations.

The site most visited is located near the town of Phonsavan, and is known as “Site 1” Seven sites of jars however been cleared and are open to visitors. These are currently the sites 1, 2 and 3. There are also 16 near the site of the ancient capital Xieng Khouang, Site 23 near the big hot spring in Muang Kham, Site 25, very little visited in Muang district and finally Site 52, the most important site known to date with 392 jars, located near a traditional Hmong village accessible only by foot.

How to get to the Plain of Jars from Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng?

To go by plane, the nearest of the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan  airport (Airport at Xieng Khouang). Lao Airlines offers six flights per week in high season and four flights in low season from (or to) Vientiane.

To get there by bus from Vientiane it takes 10-12 hours. The road is really difficult to practice. You can also come to Vang Vieng, the shorter the trip, taking 7-8 hours. Buses run daily from Luang Prabang via Route 13 and 7 and take 8 hours to reach Phonsavan. Contact this local tour operator  website for more infos about this trip ! You can also rent a minivan from Vientiane or Luang Prabang if you want to t ) ake your time …

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