Going to Phonsavan struck the perfect balance for us; we were going off the beaten track, but not so far off it that tourists were unheard of and so a bit of infrastructure is in place. Just three white people arrived in Phonsavan from Luang Prabang that day, us and a guy called Matt. Probably about the same number arrived from Vientiane. That was it.
It was our first public bus journey in Laos. We trundled along for 8 hours over roads of changeable quality in a minibus mostly filled with women and children. Our backpacks, a sewing desk and some chickens were strapped to the roof. There was no AC but the windows were open and we were generally pretty comfortable, if very dusty. Matt was an interesting chap; he is passionate about football and had decided to travel to every UEFA country in one season, watch a top league game in each and write a book about it. 55 countries in all. That’s dedication. He was travelling around Asia whilst writing the second draft and even without his UEFA adventure he was one of the best travelled people we have met; being a passionate diver as well meant that he had been to all manner of far flung places. So, Matt made for very interesting company on the journey, although Caro tuned out most of the football stuff. It also turned out that we were staying at the same guesthouse so we shared the short tuk tuk journey from one of Phonsavan’s seven bus stations to get to Kong Keo Guesthouse. Phonsavan has a population of about forty thousand people, it does not need seven bus stations.
Kong, who runs Kong Keo, reckons that he receives about 90% of the backpackers and independent tourists who come through the town, no small claim in a town that has over 3000 rooms. His guesthouse is in the Lonely Planet and among the top rated on booking.com, so that helps. Kong also runs tours to the jar sites himself, and he’s very good at it. Phonsavan is an 8-hour each way detour from any standard Laos itinerary and whilst there are a couple of other things to see, if you are there, it’s to see the Plain of Jars. So, you want to be on a good tour. The guesthouse itself is good enough; there’s tea and coffee for free but no other food on site, the beds aren’t that comfortable and there’s a cockrel next door that definitely needs to be made in to soup but it suited us fine for a couple of days.
So, we’ll skip ahead to the tour. There are 3 sites in close proximity to the town and these make up the standard itinerary. You can get to Site 1 and back on a push bike, so it’s possible to go on your own and do a self-guided tour. Sites 2 and 3 are too far away to manage. You could also comfortably do all 3 sites on a motorbike. The entry fees are due to increase in 2019 but are still very low, so it would be a cheap day out to do it on your own.
We considered cycling to Site 1 ourselves but James wasn’t feeling so hot so we decided a day on bikes in the baking sun was not ideal. Kong’s tour is not cheap; as there were three of us we each paid 270,000 Kip, in the region of £25, but it’s a thorough and unrushed tour and we felt that it was definitely worth the money. Having been, we also think that going on a tour was far better than self-guiding, because you get so much more out of it. Plenty of reviews say that the jars are a waste of time, and we could see how they might be if you aren’t being given all of the information. If you are going to travel 16+ hours to see something, you may as well do it right. For the record, we thought the Plain of Jars was absolutely magical.
Before we got as far as the jars themselves, Kong took us to the Phonsavan Official Tourist Information Centre, giving us a history lesson in the car as we went. We’re going to repeat a statement that finds its way it to most blogs you read about Laos, but it really cannot be said enough: Laos is the most heavily bombed country ever in the world per capita; 270 million bombs over a period of nine years. A truly mind-boggling number. And remember, Laos had been deemed a neutral state at in Geneva in 1962 and yet it was being bombed back to the stone age. Most people know very little about the so-called Secret War, us included, and Laos is still recovering from its ravages four decades later. At the Visitor Centre, Kong leant against a stack of decommissioned bombs with his shoulder length black hair, aviators and chunky gold chain necklace and told us about the pain that his country had suffered, and continued to suffer, and of which we had been almost completely ignorant. It was a humbling experience.
We won’t go in to all of the detail of everything that he told us but we will share one final statistic: 70,000 people in Laos live with UXO (unexploded ordinance) injuries, these are injuries from bombs left behind by the war; adults losing arms whilst ploughing fields or setting fires to keep warm, children losing eyes whilst playing. 70,000 people, innocent bystanders, 1% of the entire population, and those are the people that survived.
This sounds heavy, and it is, but we weren’t being lectured or preached to. For the most part Kong was bright and light-hearted and he was absolutely delighted that we were there, and that we were willing to hear about it and to learn something from him. Whilst we nosed around he casually played petanque on a court behind the visitor centre; Laos hold the Asian title for petanque, according to Kong the police and army are particularly good at it, because they have nothing else to do. There’s a couple of good bits of information in the Visitor Centre but really it was Kong’s input that made it so interesting.
Next up was Jar Site 1 and we started the visit with a quick spin around the information centre. It’s quite a sparse room, because they still don’t know anything definitive about the jars, but there’s some interesting stuff about the investigative work that has taken place and the theories that have been posited. From there we jumped in to an electric golf buggy and whizzed up the road to the Jar Site. Kong took us through the entrance and strolled off the path under the cover of some trees; we followed him in to the shade. He told us that on August 15th 2018 Jar Site 1 had been declared bomb free. We were there on October 17th. Just two months earlier stepping off the path, like we had just done without even thinking about it, would have been an incredibly dangerous thing to do. Kong told us that on August 28th, a selection of the jar sites were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The timing is not a coincidence, they were waiting for the bombs to be cleared first. The official announcement hasn’t been made yet, that’s due to happen at the end of the year. The upshot of this was that there was relatively little signage and relatively few rules to follow, so we could stroll through the sites at will.
Finally, Kong led us up to the first Jar Site, perched on the top of a hill.
It is a truly bizarre place, it looks like you’ve stumbled upon a giant’s board game, half finished. The jars are scattered around, some standing tall and in near perfect condition, others split and lying on their sides, all unfathomable.
The most widely accepted theory is that the jars have some funerary association, given that there are human remains buried all around them. The presence of a fragment of bone inside one of the jars prompted the suggestion that perhaps the bodies were actually stored in the jars for decomposition, and then removed and buried. The local theory is that the jars were used to store Lao-Lao or rice wine, for an enormous celebration of King Khun Jeuam battle victory against an evil enemy. The story goes that some of them have been tipped over because everyone drank a bit too much and got a bit lary. There is no evidence to support this theory but it is certainly the most charming.
Jar Site 1 is home to the largest Jar across the entirety of the Plain of Jars.
The site is quite spread out so we ended up spending over an hour there, wandering amongst the jars and admiring the scenery, which is lovely.
On the way to Jar Site 2 we stopped for lunch. Kong asked us if we ate meat and we said yes with the caveat that we weren’t keen on swallows, bat, frog or squirrel, all of which had been on the menu the night before. Kong laughed and said that all tourists are worried about being fed strange meat, particularly dog, and they really shouldn’t, it’s too expensive to give to tourists; “even if you order it”, he said, “the chances are you still won’t get dog”. This was extremely comforting.
Jar Site 2 is spread over two hills and has an eerie almost magical feel about it. The first hill is covered in trees and with the cool of the shade, the wind rustling through the leaves and the woodland scene, we could have been back on Wimbledon Common.
The jars here are taller and thinner and clustered together on the top of the hill. It’s incredible to think that when the jars were first moved here the trees didn’t exist, as evidenced by the jars that have been split in half as trees and roots have grown through and around them.
Kong comes to these sites about 200 times a year, but he still appears to be completely absorbed by them. He also knows all of the tricks and had us all line up and attempt to throw pine cones through a small hole in one of the jars, promising us a free beer for each cone we got through. We failed spectacularly and Kong showed us how it was done, sending his first pine cone sailing through the hole. He said he gets about 1 in 10 in, so we obviously caught him on a good day. It was innocent fun and doing no harm at all to the jars or the site, such things will probably not be possible when UNESCO moves in next year.
There were fewer trees on the top of the opposite hill and we had fantastic views all around.
Jar Site 3 is only 4kms from Site 2 but it takes about 15 minutes to get there on the poor roads. We rounded a bend and saw a group of 3 MAG (https://www.maginternational.org) trucks parked in front of a house. MAG is a charity which clears Unexploded Ordinance left by conflicts. One hundred metres further up the road there was a team scanning for bombs: A few people went ahead clearing the undergrowth, two chaps carried a large scanner over the area, setting down cones whenever they got a reading, another chap followed along with a smaller metal detector, scanned around the cone and dug a hole to find out what was there. It seemed like such a rudimentary exercise but the reality is that it can’t really be much more sophisticated than that. They didn’t find anything whilst we were there and we left them to their work.
To access Jar Site 3 you have to walk through some rice paddies. Kong had showed us pictures of tours in the wet season where everyone was up to their waists in mud and the only way to follow the path is to shuffle sideways in a line. Fortunately for us we were there at exactly the right time of year to both remain dry and see the paddies in gold.
After the paddies, we crossed a paddock of buffalo and passed through a gate in to the Jar Site, it is literally a cordoned off area in the middle of farmland.
The spot is very peaceful with the occasional clunk of a buffalo bell. Definitely remember insect repellent as the rice paddies attract the fighty buckers. The jars at Site 3 are all clustered together in one spot so we didn’t spend as long there but we did have plenty of time for Kong to stage a perfect pano shot with the jars, something he has clearly done many many times.
We asked to be dropped off in town on the way back to the guesthouse so that we could stick our noses in to the UXO survivors’ centre. It’s not a big place, you only need 20 minutes for a brief look around, although much longer if you want to read all of the reams of material that they have there. The stories of hundreds of UXO survivors are displayed and what we appreciated the most was how honest the recovery accounts were; there isn’t much by the way of happily ever after to be seen, as life is rarely better after you have lost an arm, a leg or your sight in both eyes, particularly when you farm for a living. But the work itself was inspiring and the project gives hope to people who would have previously had none, so it’s worth taking a look.
So, was the 16 hour detour worth it? Absolutely. It’s a fascinating place, set in beautiful countryside and in the evening, it’s delightfully cool, enough for Kong to light a fire in the bombshell firepit he has constructed in the communal area. We think that it is probably a good idea to go with Kong, even if you don’t stay at his homestay. A lot of the guides try to get to the bus station for 3pm each day, to meet the next group of incoming tourists. This means that your tour is going to finish by 2pm whether you want it to or not. With Kong, we finished at about 4:30pm, because he doesn’t go to the bus station to find clients, they generally come to him.