The Plain of Jars

An enduring oddity

Photo of The Plain of Jars, , Phonsavan

What we say: 4 stars

Each site holds clusters of large stone containers, carved in one piece from limestone. In total there are around 4,000 jars. It was unclear until recently what their purpose was, but it is now believed that they were funerary urns. Bodily remains have been found under the jars, while the vessels themselves are believed to have contained treasure, long since stolen. The jars come in a number of different shapes and sizes, all in different positions -- some tipped over as the looters have tried to dislodge them for the bounty within.

Three of the largest jar clusters have been designated as tourist sites, and an effort has been made to ensure than these are free of UXO. It is important to note that while the main areas are bomb-free, the removal process is ongoing. Red markers around the sites identify paths outside which the sub-surface bombs have not yet been cleared. It's obviously not a good idea to wander off any well-trodden paths.

Site one has the most jars, including the largest of all, called Hai Cheaum, or Cheaum Jar. The location is fairly uninspiring, however, particularly when compared to the attractive scenery at the other sites. This is the most popular site and the one best set up for tourism with a snack and drinks bar and a small sala to sit in if it rains.

Site two has some large and interesting jars and is atmospherically located at the top of a small hill with lovely surrounding views, a good spot for lunch. The road here is dirt for about 11 kilometres and if riding your own bike is a rough journey.

Site three is the most atmospheric and beautiful, featuring a backdrop of rolling hills pockmarked with bomb craters and forests of pine trees. To get there you have to walk through fields of rice and across a small bamboo bridge. Numbering more than 130, the jars at this site are on average the smallest and many are in bad condition. There are two ways to get here from site two, but the way that is signed is the poorest option due to the road being extremely rough. It is best to head back the way you came and turn left at the main intersection where there is another sign pointing to site three.

From site three it's possible to travel to a nearby waterfall, but when we last visited it required visitors to ford a river with large rocks in it – impossible on a motorbike or in a regular car.

Tour agents in Phonsavan offer day tours with guides and guesthouses offer similar tours but often joining them with groups from other guesthouses. Prices have settled and a reasonably standard price for a basic tour of the three main jar sites and a few extra stops will usually cost about 150,000 kip per person. From the agencies on the main strip, you will typically be offered a variety of options for your tour, but you will often be limited by what other guests on the tour want to do. The options will include visits to different local attractions as well as the different jar sites and will almost inevitably include seeing an old Russian tank ,which is actually nothing more than a rusty box and a visit to a village which produces lao-lao, the local rice spirit.

For tours going a little further afield, there is also the town of Muang Khoun, the old capital of Xieng Khuang province, and Muang Kham with its hot springs and Tham Piew cave. However, it's likely you will be doing this on your own as the primary focus for most visitors is the jars – which is a shame as Tham Piew in particular is a worthwhile attraction.

Last updated: 20th December, 2012

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