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The Mysterious Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, Laos

Between 2 and 3 thousand years ago, in what is now Central Laos, an ancient civilization decided to build thousands of jars. The obvious question is why, and it’s one that has never had a definite answer. There are a few theories floating around for why the Plain of Jars came into existence.

  • The most likely theory is that the jars were used as a place to decompose dead bodies. They would later be buried nearby or cremated.
  • They were used to collect water.
  • Local legend states that giants drunk alcohol from the jars after a long battle.

While these theories are all possible (I like the giant one best), I thought I’d throw forward some of my own theories…

  • A race of midgets dominated the area at the time and lived in the jars because they needed protection from tigers and bears.
  • Ancient aliens sent gifts down to mankind, and the jars were what the gifts were stored in. If you watch the history channel you’ll know that pretty much any mystery can be attributed to ancient aliens, and there’s no evidence that aliens WEREN’T responsible for creating the plain of jars.

I visited the Plain of Jars recently and had a great time wandering around the deserted sites and contemplating the history behind them. Getting to Phonsavan wasn’t easy – September is very much the rainy season in Laos and landslides had caused chaos in the area at the time I visited. I tried to get a bus from Luang Prabang but part of the road had been washed out, so I had to go through another town which added another couple of hours to the trip. It was a treacherous bus ride, and one that not too many other tourists decided to embark on.

Jar site 1

After a short look around the visitors centre, which was built by NZAID, it was time to see the famous jars.  You’d think that because I’m from New Zealand and my countrymen helped out so much that I’d get a free ticket, but I had to pay the 15,000 kip like everyone else. The jars are far more interesting than you’d expect them to be, and we spent a long time looking around, taking photos and discussing our theories. The jars vary in size, with some reaching up to 3 metres high. They are in various states of disrepair, thanks mainly to the area being on the receiving end of incredibly heavy bombing from the Americans during the Vietnam War. Bomb craters dot the landscape and markers signal where it is safe to walk – this area of Laos still has massive issues with unexploded bombs and mines.

Site 1 at the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, LaosA jar full of water at site 1, the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, LaosBig jars at site 1 of the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, Laos

Jar site 2

Jar site 2 is a lot smaller than site 1 but the setting is a lot nicer. There are some nice views of the surrounding countryside and the jars themselves rest lazily under the shade of the trees. We met an Australian army veteran who cleared mines in Cambodia and is now doing aid work in Laos and Vietnam. He had recently heard another interesting theory about why the jars were built – he heard they may have been prison cells.

The road leading to Jar Site 2 in Phonsavan, LaosJar site 2 of the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, LaosJars under trees at the Plain of Jars site 2 in Phonsavan, Laos

We had organised to go to jar site 3, which I’d read was the best one, but the bridge we needed to cross had been washed away after the recent torrential rain. There was still a way across the bridge but my balance isn’t the best and I didn’t fancy falling into the murky water while holding my (non-waterproof) camera. Instead, we went to a waterfall which was alright but nothing too special. On the way back to town we stopped off to see the remains of a Russian tank, one of many reminders around town of the conflict between Vietnam and America which spilled over into Laos.

A Russian tank in Phonsavan, Laos

The Plain of Jars tour

You can join an organised tour to a few of the Plain of Jars sites and some surrounding villages/waterfalls. There were no tours when I was there on account of the complete lack of tourists, so I joined a middle aged Australian couple I’d met on the bus and we hired a van and a driver. It was pretty expensive (400,000 kip, or around $50 USD) but we really had no other option. People hire motorcycles but because of the recent rain the roads were treacherous to say the least. If you go in high season you can visit the jar sites for a much better price.

Phonsavan

The town itself isn’t great but it’s a comfortable enough place to spend a couple of days. There are some decent guesthouses and a restaurant/bar called Bamboozle which serves great western food and also gives 5 % of their profits to charity, which made me feel a little better about all the unhealthy food I was eating. I’ve heard there is a lot to explore in the countryside around Phonsavan and hiring a motorbike seems like the best way to see it. Phonsavan is around 11 hours from Vientiane and around 10 hours from Luang Prabang.

Further reading: Interested in finding out more about the Plain of Jars in Laos? Check out this site!

Have you been to the Plain of Jars? Let me know your theories on what the jars were used for!

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Jon Algie

Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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4 Comments

  1. September 24, 2014 at 10:04 pm — Reply

    that’s so random and interesting. I feel like I would like a place that. It does make you wonder what the deal was with the jars?

    • Jon Algie
      September 25, 2014 at 11:18 pm — Reply

      Yeah it’s pretty weird, most civilizations built temples etc and they built jars!

  2. September 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm — Reply

    Cool post Jon. We went to the Plain of Jars back in May and loved it. We are riding our own motorbikes around SEA and were at the top of site 2 when a huge downpour came. That trail back to the road was an absolute nightmare to get down. A lot of fun though. I like your theories on what the jars are for too.

    • Jon Algie
      September 25, 2014 at 11:19 pm — Reply

      I can imagine that road being terrible on a motorbike at the best of times! I’ve read a few of your posts, sounds like a great trip.

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