Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars



We had chosen to go to Phonsavan rather last minute, as it was the home to the Plain of Jars, which is something of a mystery. The plains are a huge area scattered with thousands of limestone jars of undetermined age. While it's not confirmed, it's thought they might have been used as funerary urns - dead bodies were placed inside to decompose until all that remained were bones, which were the either cremated or buried nearby. There were three sites which were easy to access from Phonsavan, aptly named site 1 (15kms from town), site 2 (25kms from town), and site 3 (35kms from town). Tuk Tuks aren't allowed to go there (although we never found out why), so our choices were hiring a driver, joining a group tour, hiring a car, or hiring a scooter/motorbike. Our guesthouse quoted us 600,000 kip (~$75NZD) for a driver, which was too rich for our blood. To join a group tour was 150,000 kip each, hiring a car was 400,000 kip, and to hire a trusty motorbike was 100,000 kip. Our pockets answered this dilemma for us. We asked around, and found that nowhere had scooters, only motorbikes. Unfortunately, the only had semi-automatic motorbikes - gears, but no clutch. How hard could it be? We headed out for dinner, and retired for the night, confident that we'd have no trouble the next morning.

After breakfast, we returned to the motorbike hire shop, filled out the requisite forms, left a passport, and collected the keys to a single motorbike. We had decided that this way, we had double the chance of one of us being able to drive it, and we'd save ourselves 100,000 kip. As we stood outside the shop, holding our helmets, staring uselessly at the unfamiliar bike, I began to think we'd made a mistake. I'd never ridden anything with gears, and I'd never ridden with a passenger. I began to panic a little. The owner came out and showed us how it worked (while she laughed at us). Gears up and down with your left foot, back brake with your right foot, front brake with your right hand. Surely it couldn't be too hard? Zev suggested I take it for a drive passengerless to see how it was. Gingerly, I climbed on, put the bike in gear, and rode off. First to second gear nearly threw me off the bike, and second the third wasn't much better. I figured I better turn around and head back, but changing down gears was proving difficult because I couldn't find the pedal. Plus I kept squeezing the left hand grip to try to find a brake, only to grab air, then panic, grabbing the right hand brake, which was the front brake, nearly throwing me over the handlebars. I'm sure those of you who ride motorbikes are laughing at me, and I don't blame you. I must've been a hell of a sight. The ride back was a little more successful, although if I'm honest, not much!

Zev (very bravely in my opinion) climbed on the back, and we hit the road. Very slowly, and VERY far to the right. As we rode on, I figured out that you need to stop accelerating when you change gear (seems pretty obvious now), and I forced myself to remember to brake with my right foot, and not my left hand. Nonetheless, gear changes and braking had me alternating between smashing the front of Zev's helmet into the back of mine, and nearly throwing him off the back of the bike. After about 10 minutes, we were into a pretty good rhythm. Okay fine, I was in 4th gear and we were cruising, so that made me feel better. I looked down. Shit! I forgot the 'take it empty, bring it back empty' strategy they employ over here! We needed to find a petrol station quickly! Luckily one came up, so we pulled in, and painstakingly explained that we wanted the tank filled - not an easy task with a language barrier.

Soon enough, we were back on the road and cruising. I felt like I was getting better (Zev may disagree), but already my shoulders were aching from gripping the handlebars for dear life. Thinking it was strange that we hadn't seen any signs, we pulled over to the side of the road to check our map. "Sabai dee!!", we hear from the other side of the road. "Where you go?". A man and his two kids are smiling from inside their house. "Plain of Jars?" No good, they had no idea what we were saying. We gave them the brochure and they promptly told us we were going in the exact wrong direction - whoops! We thanked them profusely, and turned around.

After a long ride through town, including a detour on a pretty crappy patch of road, we arrived to site 1. By this stage, I was feeling a little better about riding, although changing down gears was proving to be difficult. We parked in the carpark, and got off. I quickly stretched out and massaged my poor aching hands and shoulders, and allowed the blood to return to my fingers. We went into the visitors centre and did some reading about the sites, where we found out that the excavation and development of the sites was funded and organised in conjunction with the New Zealand Agency for International Development! Woo, go NZ! After a quick cold drink, we jumped in a little electric shuttle, which took us down to the site.

A five minute walk from the drop off point had us at the first cluster of jars. They were amazing. It was a strange and eerie place. Even though there were quite a few people there (although I'd hardly describe it as busy), it was very peaceful. It was a stunning day, with bright blue skies, and the whole countryside was an amazing bright green colour. The first cluster contained the largest jar, with a diameter of 2.5m.

Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

From there, we went to a cave, which was believed to either have served as the crematorium for the bones, or (as some believe), a kiln for firing the jars. While those who discovered the site seem to believe the jars were carved, locals reported that the jars were cast. As far as we could tell, the mystery hadn't been solved. The cave also contained a shrine, and had been used as a shelter during the Vietnam war.

Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

In addition to the jars, site 1 was littered with bomb craters. Between 1964 and 1973, the USA conducted one of the largest aerial bombardments in history, flying over 580,344 missions over Laos and dropping over two million tonnes of bombs, costing around $2.2 million USD per day, in an attempt to intercept supply routes to North Vietnam.  That's equal to a plane load of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Around 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos failed to detonate, and, like Vietnam and Cambodia, the country is littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO). See our Cambodia post for more information about the devastation caused by UXOs.  Close to 60% of accidents are fatal, and over 40% of the victims are children. Each year there are over 100 casualties in Laos resulting from UXOs.

Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

We continued on to the next cluster of jars, before winding our way up a hill to another, smaller cluster under some trees. After a detour to walk over the top of the cave, we made our way back to our trusty bike, to carry on to site 2.

I definitely felt like my riding improved. I think I'd nailed changing up gears without getting head butted, and changing down gears was.... Getting better. I was even starting to enjoy myself! Just like in Thailand, it was pretty surreal to be cruising along on a beautiful sunny day, with rice paddies and green tree covered mountains flashing past, having to swerve constantly to avoid huge potholes and wandering cows. The only sad thing was that we couldn't really take photos - I was definitely concentrating on not killing us, and Zev was holding on for dear life. At one point, we were going up a hill and I needed to change down a gear, couldn't find the pedal, stomped on Zev's foot, and we started rolling backwards. Eventually poor fatty had to get off and walk up the hill.

Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

Not too long after, we pulled into the carpark of site 2, and paid our entry fee. As we went to walk down the driveway, the guy told us to drive down. Great! Save us a walk. We got back on and started down the driveway.

Driveway is a very generous description for this particular strip of dirt. It was more pothole than road, and had roughly the same texture as an acne riddled face. We bounced along, terrified we were going to break the bike. Eventually I decided we should just stop and park, which was lucky, because it turned out we'd arrived anyway.

Site 2 contained two clusters of jars, one on each side of the driveway. We were the only people at this site, and while smaller than site one, the trees covering the first cluster were incredibly atmospheric. Across the driveway, the second cluster afforded a panoramic view out over he mountains on one side, and a view out over farmland and countryside on the other.

Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

Back on the bike, we bumped back to the ticket booth, grabbed some lunch, and hung out with a couple of friendly kitties, before heading off to site 3.

By now, I was a pro on the bike, if I do say so myself. I'm thinking of taking it up professionally. We puttered along to site 3, enjoying more stunning vistas and some incredible scenes of rural Laos. We parked the bike at the gate, and wandered down to the site. The ticket booth was empty - we read that most people don't bother coming to this site, so I guess they realised it wasn't worth paying somebody to sit there.

Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

We walked across a bamboo bridge, and found ourselves in a rice farm. We meandered through the rice paddies, and followed the path through the farm and over some fences to the jars. While small, this was probably the most atmospheric of the sites. Trees were growing through some of the jars, and we really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Again, we were the only people there.

Plain of Jars, Phonsavan, Laos

Back on the bike, we headed back into town to return it to its rightful owner. Sad to say goodbye, we dropped it off and scurried away, before they looked to closely at the underside and saw all the clay on the bottom for our accidental off road adventure...

We spent one last quiet evening in Phonsavan (not that you have a choice, Phonsavan is very quiet!), mentally preparing ourselves for another mammoth minivan ride to our next destination: Vang Vieng!

Lots of love,
S & Z

(Origina post date: 28th June 2015)