After breakfast we set off with N on the twenty minute drive from Phonsavan to Muang Khoun, the former provincial capital of Xieng Khuang, and before that the royal capital of the Kingdom of Xieng Khuang. The drive took us through a rolling landscape of rich agricultural land. Although many fields had been planted with rice, many others were fallow and some contained lines of ponds. These features - and the state of the Muang Khoun - are consequences of the Hidden War.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of jars sit on undulating grassland. Who put them here and what for remains a mystery, but it was a time consuming task and obviously important to someone. Best current guess is that they were placed here some two thousand years ago. Local legend has it that a race of giants stored their whisky in them - there are many jars which explains why no-one remembers the party. Archaeologists, prosaic as ever, suggest they were used in funerary practices - the largest jars would easily accommodate a full grown man in foetal position, but exactly how they were used is anybody's guess. Any information held in the archives of the kingdom of Xieng Khuang went up in smoke along with rest of Muang Khoun in the 1970s.
|Lynne with one of the larger jars, Plain of Jars, Site 1|
N showed us a cave used as a shelter during bombing raids, a direct hit, he said, led to the deaths of some 200 people and it is now a shrine. It may have been used as a bomb shelter, but the holes in the roof N pointed out are, according to other sources, natural and ancient. It may once have been used as a crematorium, and the human remains found outside were of people not important enough to qualify for a jar. Like everything else about the Plain of Jars, this is conjecture.
N sat in the shade while we wandered about the site. He had not been the most active of guides and his information seemed as unreliable as his work ethic.
There were also many small concrete markers. MAG (Mines Advisory Group - web site here) are a British based charity who, as part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, were co-recipients of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. They are currently taking the lead in clearing mines and unexploded ordnance in thirteen countries, including Laos. Each plaque represents an item of unexploded ordnance removed by MAG - the whole jar site has been meticulously swept as foreign tourists will, the authorities hope, bring in money, so not blowing us up is a priority. We were, though, advised not to wander into the long grass, nor to pick up or kick at any unidentified object or piece of metal lying around. We took the warning seriously.
We walked all over the site, spending an hour or more, but the only other visitor we saw was a middle-aged Frenchwomen talking to N. She had come from Vientiane and wanted to go to Luang Prabang and N was arranging to take her next day after dropping us at the airport for our flight to Vientiane. She seemed a brave lady travelling on her own, but we were sure she would be safe with N and his driver, so it seemed a good idea.
Deciding to leave tomorrow’s problem to tomorrow, we took a walk through Phonsavan. If Luang Prabang was the epitome of cutesy charm, Phonsavan was an exemplar of the plain and workaday. There is a building boom, but that did not deter a donkey from wandering down the main street searching for something to nibble. We passed shops selling tyres, car parts, clothes, shoes, religious objects and football shirts - the tentacles of the Premier League (and Barça) reach even to this backwater.
Reluctantly he agreed and after a delay while he phoned the airport in the vain hope that the situation might have changed, we set off. We drove around for a while but N failed to find anything interesting, maybe he did not want to, or maybe he did not know the area well enough but an hour later we were back in Phonsavan.
We took charge and directed the driver to the MAG Visitor Centre which we had spotted earlier.
|Tools, Phonsavan market|
|Fruit and veg, Phonsavan market|
And at the end were a couple of local specialities, squirrel and swallows.
|Swallows (on the left) and squirrels, Phonsavan market|
After that it was time for lunch where, sadly, neither squirrel nor swallow appeared on the menu.
Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos
Part 3: Chau Doc
Part 6: Across Cambodia to Siem Reap
Part 7: Siem Reap (1) Angkor Wat
Part 9: Siem Reap (3) Tonle Sap Lake
Part 10: Luang Prabang (1) The Old Town
Part 11: Luang Prabang (2) Back on the Mekong
Part 12: Luang Prabang (3) Elephants
Part 13: Luang Prabang to Phonsavan
Part 14: Phonsavan, the Plain of Jars and UXO