Plain of Jars

“Don’t go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”

Noble sentiments for any traveller, except perhaps, for those travelling in Laos, where trailblazing is likely to be rewarded with an intimate encounter with a landmine or other equally as hostile unexploded ordinance. Laos you see holds the enviable title of being the most bombed country on earth; despite remaining neutral during the Vietnam war, Laos was bombed relentlessly as the American attempted to cut off the supply lines to the Vietnamese, more explosive were dropped in Laos than were dropped in the entire second world war by both sides, almost one tonne of explosives per person. The Americans seemed profoundly blasé in respect to the lives of local people, often dropping entire plane loads of bombs over the Laos countryside solely because no target could be found in Vietnam and the planes couldn’t land with bombs on board, an estimated 350,000 were killed during the initial campaign, in one raid alone a direct hit on Tham Piu Cave killed 473 locals as they sheltered inside.

Further tragedy followed as the Americans deserted the area after the Vietnam war, leaving thousands of tonnes of unexploded bombs littering the countryside, there they lay in wait, killing and maiming indiscriminately, farmers trying to eek out a living and curious children tempted in by the shiny metal.
The result is a country pockmarked by craters and riddled with amputees, the human damage as tangible and as far reaching as the damage to the landscape.

Arriving in Phonsavan you find one long dusty street, peppered with guesthouses and shops, the town is infact relatively new after the old regional capital was flatted by bombs, it’s a poor but functional town, lacking the charm of its Asian neighbours, visitors drawn only by the enigmatic plain of jars.

I decided another motorbike would be the best way to see the jars, unfortunately Phonsavan seemed devoid of automatic bikes and so I decided now was as good a time as any to get to grips with a manual bike, after a few jerky laps around the field behind the rental shop, much to the amusement of the locals, I signed the papers, strapped on my helmet and was off.

The Jars are spread out across 3 sites, site one being the closest to town is the busiest, although I arrived and found it blissfully quiet, for the most mysterious site in Laos it was surprisingly devoid of tourists and all the better for it. The Mines Advisory Group, a non-profit organisation helping to de-mine the area, had marked out safe paths between the jars, concrete markers lay on the floor, the white side denoting safe areas, the black denoting unsafe land, to start with you are incredibly aware of where you are stepping, eyes glued to the ground checking the markers, after a while however you get used to the sensation and can take in the bizarre Jars, set down haphazardly, some standing upright some laying on their sides, other cracked open or split apart, all surrounded by beautiful views out into the dusty countryside. Site 1 is set around a steep sided cliff with a cave dug into the face, complete with Buddhist shrine and burning incense sticks outside it adds to the feeling of mystery and intrigue that surrounds all of the sites, wandering between the antiquated jars it’s easy to get lost in your surroundings.

Sites two and three are not quite so accessible, a 20km trip along bumpy dirt tracks eventually brings you to a nondescript building acting as the ticket office, further testing the suspension on my bike a sandy track leads higher into the hills where more jars can be found atop tree lined hills. The second site was completely empty when I arrived so I had the incredible place entirely to myself. Climbing the ridge overlooking the jars rewarded me with a breathtaking panoramic view across the countryside, with fields spread afar dotted with villages and dirt tracks, eventually rising up into densely forested hills.

The purpose of the jars themselves remain a mystery, some theories suggest they were used to preserve foods or even human remains, . Some excavation work has taken place but given the precarious surroundings further work will be difficult, the truth may never be know but one thing remains certain, that these cryptic sites will continues to perplex and fascinate.

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