Sites Megalithiques de la province de Xieng Khouang
Sites Megalithiques de la province de Xieng Khouang is part of the Tentative list of Laos in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Click here for a short description of the site, as delivered by the state party.
- ●● Tentative
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
From Luang Prabang, I flew (via an overnight in Vientiane) to Xieng Khouang Airport, the air gateway to the Plain of Jars, where I stayed at the Vansana Plain of Jars Hotel in Phonsavan (www.vansana-plain-of-jars-hotel.com). I pre-arranged a tour of the Plain of Jars with Tey Lassada, who is responsive, well informed and fluent in English (he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org). In order to avoid crowds, which were minimal in any event, we visited the sites in reverse order, beginning at Site 3 (which has about 150 jars on a wooded hillside), then Site 2 (spread around a pair of hillocks) and finally Site 1 (the largest collection with 334 jars or jar fragments).
Many Prehistoric sites attract the description “Enigmatic” – meaning that the exact purpose of the objects on view is unclear - and those of the “Plain of Jars” certainly justify the epithet! Just why were these enormous stone jars carved and scattered across this remote plateau in Northern Laos?
We visited in 1997 – flying from Luang Prabang into the ramshackle provincial capital of Phonsavan. This itself was an experience as one looked down onto a countryside pockmarked, as far as the eye could see, with bomb craters. This area was the subject of a saturation bombing campaign by the US in 1969 (the area was strategically significant to Vietnam to protect Hanoi’s rear flank and its many caves provided shelter, both for the Vietnamese/Pathet Lao troops, and supplies). Phonsavan is the Laotian government’s attempt to create a new capital after the old French colonial one of Xieng Khuang was abandoned, having been totally destroyed in the war – in 1997 however Phonsavan itself was only partly formed and had an impermanent “wild west” atmosphere.
I understand that much multinational work has been carried out since 1997 on removing the vast amount of UXO (“Unexploded ordnance”) left over by the war. This had commenced when we were there but only 3 areas of Jars were “open” – and even there
we were cautioned to stick to marked paths. Wiki indicates that the number of cleared areas has risen to 7 in 2010 and also there are opportunites in Phonsavan to visit the organizations involved in helping both the task and the many maimed locals.
The roads outside Phonsavan made its rutted town streets look almost good and our taxi trip to the 3 Jar sites took a whole afternoon – even though the furthest was only around 30kms away! It was interesting to note how old bomb cases etc had been incorporated into the structure of the houses we passed.
The location of the jars, largely scattered in open locations on the rolling “plain”, adds to their mystery – they do not appear to be part of any contemporaneous ensembles. They are carved from single pieces of rock, mostly weigh around 600kg to 1 tonne and are large enough for a “big Westerner” (carefully!) to get inside (photo – no doubt “forbidden” now!!). From lips carved on some jars, it appears that the jars were originally covered by lids – though the flat circular stones at the sites are not thought to have been these lids but rather pit grave markers. They have been dated as belonging to the area’s late Iron Age at around 500Bc to 500CE. Their purpose appears probably to have been as funerary urns – though so little is known about the peoples who carved them that alternative views abound –see the subsequent review! The stone from which they were made was quarried some way west of Phonsavan.
We were the only visitors that afternoon, entry was free and there were no tourist facilities. I understand that there are now small charges at each location and that site 1 has 2 pavilions and rest rooms “built for the visit of Thailand’s crown prince”!! We enjoyed the visit and it would be a shame to miss it whilst in Laos – indeed we perhaps rushed it too much and should have spent more time with the local tribespeople. Indeed, from photos of I have seen of the sites today, it would appear likely that Hmong and others have “moved in” with their souvenir stalls!
It would seem that it is a matter of “when” not “if” the site will become a WHS – “In 1998 UNESCO and the Government of Lao PDR initiated a multi-year project to safeguard the archaeological resources of the Plain of Jars. The UNESCO-LAO Project to Safeguard the Plain of Jars is intended to remove the danger of unexploded ordnance, help to rehabilitate the plateau's agricultural land and identify priority areas for protection for archaeological research and tourism development.”. See www.unescobkk.org/culture/world-heritage-and-immovable-heritage/the-plain-of-jars-important-but-imperiled/
Among the thousands of Tentative Sites, this is one of the few that should be promoted to WH status right away. The Megalithic sites of Xieng Khouang province, better known as the Plain of Jars, are so numerous and shaped unlike anything that you will see elsewhere in the world. Getting there is still pretty adventurous - it is either a flight or a bus ride from Vientiane / Luang Prabang. I did the latter (from Vientiane) and it took 13 hours.
Site 1, 2 and 3 are the main sites to visit. Others have opened up now too, but they are not on the itinerary of the guided tours. I went on a minibus tour with 3 others, organized via a guesthouse in Phonsavan. The most interesting new development is the discovery of a quarry some km's away, where they also found half-finished jars. Our guide told that a foreign archeologist was working at the sites now, to piece together more about the history of the jars, who made them and why. They will not apply for WH status until more scientific evidence is found to sustain the theory that the sites are cemeteries.
The visiting experience of the sites is still much as described below by the 2 reviews from 1997 and 2006:
- You have to stay within the marked paths for fear of UXO's
- The whole surrounding landscape is dotted with bomb craters and trenches
- The road to site 2 and 3 is still unpaved and bumpy
- And yes, at least at site 2 and 3 you are still allowed to climb on or in a jar to have your picture taken
There's an entrance fee now at each site (10.000 kip, 0,90 EUR), and at site no. 1 there's a little souvenir shop. All sites also have a small drinks&food stall. It is all very low-key however. At sites 2 and 3 there were maybe 10 tourists when we were visiting, while there were about 30 (mainly Laotians) at the much bigger site 1 that is also the closest to Phonsavan. We went first to site number 3, and that is also the one I liked best due to its fine, idyllic location. Site 1 not only has the only jar with a carving on it, but also the biggest jar (2.5 meters) and the only jar which still is covered by its lid. The mysteries that still surround this Plain of Jars, the strangeness of the objects and the remote location reminded me of Easter Island.
Since I cannot read French I assume that what they are planning to apply for world heritage status in this province is the Plain of Jars.
I took a trip to Laos in December 2006 with some friends to sort of escape Christmas at home. After having read about the Plain of Jars and seen pictures of them, I made sure that I went to see them, even if I had to brave 12 hours of an uncomfortable bus ride from Vientiane.
These so-called jars are really urn-like structures made of stone. Even though it is called a "Plain of Jars" there isn't really one single plain or area where one can find all the jars in there. The jars are scattered across a wide area in the countryside in various sites of varying concentrations of jars.
No one can really be sure why these jars were created. Experts theorised that they were made to store ashes of deceased people or food. But I much prefer the local theory. Apparently some king won a war and to celebrate he ordered the jars created to make and store wine.
The base from which to explore the Plain of Jars is the very little town of Phonsavan, the capital of Xieng Khouang. My friends and I arranged for a minibus and a driver from the guesthouse we stayed at to take us around the area.
The area is apparently the most heavily bombed one in history. During the Indochinese war, American planes unloaded tons and tons of bombs on the area. Even today, there are still plenty of unexploded ordnances waiting to be discovered. Travelling in the area can be dangerous (and therefore visitors MUST AT ALL TIMES follow the directions on the paths) but the authorities have cleared three sites for tourism. They are simply named Sites 1, 2 and 3.
Site 1 is the nearest to town and definitely the most heavily visited. I think this is the site with the most jars. The bigger ones are there as well.
Look out for one particular jar on which you can vaguely make out the carving of a man. I sure did not know there was such a jar until I overheard a guide telling her group about it and pointing it out to them!
Besides the jars, visitors are also treated to spectacular sceneries of the Laotian countryside. Personally I find the sceneries around Sites 2 and 3 better than that at Site 1. The trade off though is that the jars at Sites 2 and 3 are perhaps not as impressive.
The scenery at Site 3 is the best I think. To get to the jars, one has to walk for at least 15 minutes across scenic farmland and fields situated among the hills. It was not an easy walk but I did feel that even if I could not get to see the jars at this site, the scenery alone was worth the trip. In any case, the jars at this site were not that significant.
There are apparently many more of such sites in the region but they are closed off to visitors because they are not declared safe yet. And again I will advise visitors to really toe the line! The sceneries are spectacular and one can easily be distracted and wander off the approved paths like I did! I live to tell the tale now but I am pretty sure I was lucky.
I wonder if the presence of the unexploded ordnances is the reason why this site is still sitting on the tentative list after so many years. This site is definitely an important relic of a lost culture in South East Asia which in my opinion must be protected as a world heritage site.
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1992 - Submitted
In the News
- » Laos' Plain of Jars recreated in virtual reality (October 2016)
- » New Findings on Lao Plain of Jars Help Unravel Ancient Mysteries (March 2016)
- » Drone allows new view of Laos's bomb-riddled Plain of Jars (December 2015)
- » Laos will hold talks with Unesco in June about listing the Plain of Jars (April 2013)
- » Successful de-mining is crucial to the preservation of Laos its possible Unesco World Heritage listing that can, in turn, offer a lifeline to an impoverished community (December 2008)