THE PLAIN OF JARS: Thanks to The US government, going off the beaten track might kill you

Plain of jars, site 1, PhonsavanDuring the Vietnam War, the USA dropped several million tons of cluster bombs over the neutral country of Laos in a massive breach of the 1962 Geneva Convention.. in other words, it’s a great example of the USA’s unique way of interpreting international law (Iraq/Afghanistan/Panama/Yemen/Nicaragua/Hawaii, anyone?).

Laos did not have the greatest first impression. People living outside of the major tourist hubs were unfriendly and sometimes outright rude.

“They probably think you’re American,” The owner of your hostel told you when you brought it up. He took a long draw on his bong and politely blew the smoke away from you. “One person is killed every few days by cluster bombs, and it’s mostly children. Tell them you’re Angit and they’ll be nicer. Would you like a puff?”

For context: The USA dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes for 9 years straight. Each individual bomb contained around 600 cluster bombs (or ‘bombies’), 30% of which would not explode.

98% of casualties were civilians.

Plain of jars site 1, Phonsavan
Plain of Jars, site 1

The remaining threat from UXOs (Unexploded Ordinances) scuppered the Laotian government’s bid to certify the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan as a UNESCO world heritage site, which keeps them fairly quiet.

A group of you decided to save money by organising your own tour. After waiting several minutes for the tuk-tuk drivers to get out of their hammocks and talk to you, you manage to negotiate a ride to the old capital and Plain of Jars Site 1 for a total of 200,000 kip.

Twenty minutes after setting out from Phonsavan, a fat policeman waves you over with a baton wrapped in fairy lights. Your driver takes a well-stuffed envelope out of the glove compartment and makes his way over to the five bored police officers sitting on an assortment of office chairs and plastic stools. After an intensely composed discussion, and the exchange of a small wodge of cash, your driver returned.

“We no go Jar site 1.” He grunted.

“Why?”

“Many police. They say tuk-tuk no allowed. We go old capital only.”

“We’re not paying 200,000 kip then.”

Your driver looked forlornly at the empty envelope still in his hand.

“200,000 old capital.”

“No!”

“190,000 old capital.”

“No! 100,000 kip!”

Plain of jars, site 1, Phonsavan

Some heated bartering later, and the group settle on paying 140,000 kip to visit the old capital. He takes you to the site of an ancient monastery, of which only a giant crumbling chedi remains. You had not been told this prior to paying the 20,000 kip entry, and so spent forty minutes following a trail to an empty Lao Telecom building.

The next two stops on your tour of the Old Capital included a fire damaged office building and a small peeling buddha statue. How the former is linked to the old capital remains a mystery, much like the Plain of Jars- which, fortunately, was rather less disappointing.

Your group of six paid another tuk-tuk driver 100,000 kip to take you to the Plain of Jars site one; if you’re travelling on your own, expect to pay somewhere in the region of 60,000 kip. Alternatively, hire a bike and ride there yourself, but bear in mind that you can only enter Plain of Jars sites 2 and 3 with a guide (no matter what your tuk-tuk driver says) as the MAG markers aren’t well maintained.

It’s a thirty minute hike up and down a hill before you get to the actual Plain of Jars- a huge field full of ancient carved jars that were- according to legend-  used to brew vast amounts of rice whisky for a post-battle victory celebration. A more sensible suggestion is that they were used as tombs.

“Well, this is quite nice,” the Australian couple in your tuk-tuk group say as soon as the jars come into view. “Look more like pots than jars in my opinion though.”

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10 comments

  1. I agree with The Wife of Bath. Better rephrased as “thanks to the American government of 1962.” Most Americans are not advocates of violence.

      • The Vietnam war overshadowed the secret war in Laos, to the extent that I have yet to come across an American who has heard about it. The fact that more people can explain what napalm does than can tell me how a cluster bomb works means (imho) that we need to educate rather than distance ourselves.

        Didn’t mean any offence by the title though, I’ll change it now 🙂

  2. я очень хочу побывать в этом месте, но потом узнала что тан бомбы взываются 😦

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