Xieng Khouang

  By Paul

Located near Phonsavan in the mountainous north east of Lao. Xieng Khouang Plain houses one of the world’s great enduring mysteries and hides one of it‘s darkest secrets. The World Heritage Site is officially rated one of the most dangerous places on earth to visit and due it’s isolation is one of the most inaccessible. To those who persevere though the reward of an ethereal experience awaits. Wandering fenceless and alone amongst a site of the magnitude of Stonehenge or the Acropolis without tour bus, digital camcorder or even another soul in sight.

With only dirt roads and bandits residing between the capital Vientaine and the jars, travelling to Xieng Khouang by road is not easy. Getting there healthy and in one piece in the hot season after two days bouncing aback a bus-truck on dusty dirt roads is a feat in itself. In wet season the roads flood and the slowboat provides a more comfortably and lethargic two week journey. For the more brave souls in a hurry, a third option of a two-hour domestic plane ride is available. Landing on a misty mountain airstrip with no ground radar and rated the second most dangerous landing in the world. But don’t worry as the sign over the door of the boarding gate reassures you, each passenger is insured free of charge to the value of $250, and in somewhat smaller print the qualification, “paid out in the local mushy currency“ which is aplenty to cover the burial each and of every bit of you they find.

Left to right: (up) Local transport, country dirt road, (down) slowboat, Phonsavan
The jars are spread over a wide of area of Xieng Khouang Plain. Sixty sites have been uncovered so far, the largest containing over two hundred and fifty jars. The only real springboard for a visit is the shrapnel strewn town of Phonsavan, a dirt road in the middle of hell, which has the serendipity to vegetate slap in middle of jar central.

Visiting the jars is difficult, only three of the sixty sites are clear enough of US ordinance to be considered safe to visit. Left over ordinance is a real problem in the area. During the Vietnam War the peasant farmers of the area lived years under a holocaust of US bombers. On this neutral country from 1964 to 1973, the US Airforce flew almost 600,000 bombing missions, one every 9 minutes for 10 years. More ordinance was dropped on this tiny country than dropped by all sides in the whole of World War II. In the genocide the United States dropped hundreds of thousands 340-kilogram bombs and 100 million cluster bombs killing nearly a quarter of the population of the whole country. Between ten and thirty percent of the bombs did not explode, leaving 8 million to 24 million unexploded bombs scattered across the country today killing and maiming up to a thousand locals, mostly children, each and every year since the war ended.

Xieng Khouang crater strewn from cluster bombs 

One of the great miracles of the war is that the jars, in the middle of the area of most intensive bombing, survived intact.

There are no hard fast rules with the plain of Jars, they evocatively defy modern science and remain one of the few enduring mysteries of the world. With nothing being known about their use and construction, even the people who constructed them remain a tantalising mystery.

Archaeological evidence is sketchy but suggests they were built between 500 and 800CE, though a recent Lao study pushes the date back another 500 years. The jars are made mostly of sandstone, however other rocks such as coral and granite are occasionally used. The jars sites seem to be in a long line, some archaeologists suggest they were along an ancient trade route to India.



The sixty sites can range from a few jars widely spread apart to large cluster of tens or over a hundred jars. The largest site lies just outside of Phonsavan containing more than two hundred and fifty jars and the largest jar, two metres high and another two metres wide. Researchers disagree on what the jars are for. The collection of rainwater for travellers and rice storage urns were some early favourite ideas. Evidence of bodies, ashes and residue of intense heat has been found inside a local cave that shows signs of being used as a crematorium, so it’s recently been suggested they were funeral urns.

Local legend also offers an explanation, a legendary King named Khun Jeuam led his army from China to fight the local race of giants. Victorious he had the jars constructed to ferment rice wine to celebrate his victory in battle. Failure to work out how an ancient people managed to carve the jars out of such hard material leads some people to support the local legend the jars are man made from soft clay then heated in a local cave used as a kiln.

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As Lao becomes more assessable, so will the Plain of Jars, already many backpackers make the trip each year. Many jars are now being damaged as locals chip pieces off to sell to the tourists. Xieng Khouang is destined to become another Taj Mahal or Coliseum as thousands of tourists head there in an attempt to get away from thousands of tourists, but for now and the near future it will remain an isolated Xanadu.


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