Jars and Bombs

After Luang Prabang I headed to Phonsavan in Eastern Laos. It’s pretty out-of-the-way—an eight hour bus ride on the most winding mountain roads you can imagine to get there. Actually, for Laos I think that means it’s fairly accessible. I mean the road was paved for chissakes, so its like the laotian equivalent of a 5-lane freeway.

Anyway, there’s only two notable things about Phonsavan. First, it’s in the middle of the mysterious Plain of Jars, which is covered with scattered groupings of giant prehistoric stone jars, like this:

Taylor and a Jar

(i’ve placed a handy taylor in front of the jar so you can better judge its size)

And second, Phonsavan was one of the most heavily-bombed regions of Laos by the US during the Vietnam War. From 1963 into the early seventies, the US flew five hundred-thousand missions over Laos and dropped two million tons of bombs on the country. I mean we really bombed the shit out of it. It works out to something like an average of one bomb every eight minutes for nine years. And we never even told anybody we were fighting Laos! Go USA! High five!

Plus, due to our awesome military technology, about a third of those bombs never exploded and are still lying around on the ground all over eastern Laos. So you dont ever, ever walk off the road there, and you see tons of people with missing limbs and other disfigurements from fun encounters with UXO (unexploded ordinance). The whole Phonsavan region is a monument to the bombing in the sixties. There are bomb craters everywhere. Like in every little town there’s huge holes in the ground all over the place, and every hillside has visible bomb scars.

US Bomb Crater, Jars Site 1

That’s a bomb crater at the first Jars site I visited. The sign says something like “American Bomb Crater c1970″. The only places that are safe for tourists to go are the ones that have been meticulously subsurface-cleared. So you see a lot of these sorts of signs listing how much UXO was found and destroyed in a given region:

UXO Removal Info Sign, Plain of Jars Site 1

The Laotians seem to have taken a very dry, ironic view of their bomb-riddled landscape. The most popular articles of clothing are military jackets that say “US ARMY”, and every guesthouse is decorated with weapons scrap. Like here’s the fireplace at my guesthouse:

Kittie and Bomb Fragment

That kitty thought that warm bomb was… da bomb! badum-bum!

To go anywhere in the area you need to go on a tour with a guide who has been given a permit by the laotian government, and who (presumably) knows where not to step. So that’s how I visited the Plain of Jars, on a tour with a group of Italian people. The jars themselves were pretty cool I suppose:

Plain of Jars

A Mysterious Prehistoric Jar

Jar with Lid

They’re a big puzzle to the archaeologists apparently—nobody’s really sure what purpose the jars served, or how they got there. We know they’re over 2500 years old and the stone was quarried locally. The primary jar theory is that they were used as sarcophagi for burials. But they also might have been used to make old-timey whisky, or to store food or water. Some of them have faint carvings of people on them, which seems to support the burial hypothesis:

Jar Lid

Unfortunately it’s difficult to study them decently because of all that darn unexploded ordinance those rascally americans dropped all over the place. We visited the only three jars sites that have been cleared, but there’s still a lot that has gone un-researched.

The jars are neat and all, but at the end of the day, they’re sorta just a bunch of dumb jars. I mean, they dont really do much. I mostly enjoyed my tour because of the pleasant landscape the jars are scattered in. It’s all rolling grassy hills and small bushes—much less dramatic than the rest of Laos. Actually, weirdly, it reminded me a lot of parts of California.

Plain of Jars

Plain of Jars

Taylor in A Jar

So I had my jar fun, and then we moved on to the second half of the tour. We had been told that in the afternoon we would “go see a waterfall,” which sounded pretty nice I spose… I mostly just wanted to see the Jars, but there’s nothing wrong with a little waterfall-viewing now and then.

But the thing with Southeast Asian tours is they never really specify exactly what you’re signing up for. I dont know if it’s a cultural difference, or just a lack of English ability, but I find that tour guides always seem to leave out really obviously important pieces of information. Like that the waterfall was an hour-long hike down into a really deep river valley which we’d then need to climb out of by walking through the river.

Taylor Hiking in Laos

The hike featured lots of very grumbly Italians. But fortunately the waterfall was pretty:

Waterfall in Laos

And the hillsides were covered in sunflowers:

Waterfall and Sunflowers

and the tour guide took us to his house afterwards (which was right next to a bomb crater):

My Guide's House

and we got to meet his water buffalo:

My Guide's Water Buffalo

so, you know, the whole waterfall endeavor wasn’t entirely fruitless. One might even say it was da bomb! … I mean, I wouldnt say that. But someone might.

see my phonsavan flickr set below:

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