Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Plain of Jars Site 1. The purpose of these ancient stone monuments is a mystery.
A light rain falls as I make my way along a soggy path towards a grassy hill. Muddy water from the trail is splashing all over, leaving my shoes cargo pants thoroughly muddied. But I could care less about the stains; I’m excited about what I see ahead of me. 

Reaching the top of the hill, I’m surrounded by signs of an ancient civilization! These remnants are enormous jars, made of solid stone. The jars are magnificent; immense in size. Each ways several tons, and has been carved out of a single giant block of sedimentary rock. A couple are so massive, that they stand taller than me. These giant jars are what gave the ‘Plain of Jars’ its name here in northern Laos. 

These mysterious stone relics are thousands of years old, and running my fingers across them, I can’t help but wonder. How on earth did such primitive people create these? Why were they brought to the top of this hill? What were they used for? The answers to all these questions have been lost to history. 

Large stone jar destroyed during 1964 - 1973 war
The jars are dark in color, spotted with whitish fungi. I peer inside the jars for a look. Whatever their ancient contents were, they are long gone. Now most of them have algae and small plants growing inside, with rain water pooling in the bottom. Some jars have immense stone covers lying next to them, though few of these remain. Curiously, they are shaped much like the covers of modern aluminum garbage cans. 

The people who lived here on the Plain of Jars during ancient times were not ethnic Lao, and they weren’t Hmong either. Nobody knows who they were, where they came from, or where they went. These weighty relics are some of the only remnants left from their lost and ancient culture. 

The location of this anthropological riddle, is known as Site 1, and like other jar sites scattered across the plateau nobody knows for sure what its use was. Most experts agree that the jars had some sort of burial function, since human remains and artifacts have been found beneath some sites. But not everyone agrees with that theory; one local told me that the giant jars were really used to make whiskey! 

Huge crater from bomb that destroyed or damaged many ancient stone jars
For years the jars’ origin was also a mystery, until a quarry with unfinished jars was found recently west of the region. But the quarry’s discovery created another mystery. If the wheel wasn’t in use yet during those ancient times, how is it that they were able to bring these heavy stone jars here from so many miles away?

The rain lightens, and I look out at the open country surrounding the hilltop. Like most of the Plain of Jars, the countryside is rolling hills covered with green grass, dotted with a few trees. More stone jars are situated across a ridge and nearby field. Site 1 has more than 300 of these mysterious jars. 

Walking through wet grass to another side of the hill, I find some jars that were here are gone. In their place, is an immense bomb crater, and the rain runoff has formed a rising puddle in the bottom. The crater is deep enough that if I stood in the bottom, I wouldn’t be able to see above the sides. 

Standing on the crater’s edge, I spot a lone stone jar further down the hill, further away from the rest. Lying on its side, it was probably thrown down there from the blast force that created this crater. Although these jars survived the weather and ravages of nature for millenia, they couldn’t withstand the ravages of war. 

As I walk about the hill I count 10 of the giant jars as undamaged, but most of the rest have been cracked or destroyed. Some have been chopped in two, or blown into many pieces from the heavy aerial attacks. One jar still standing upright, has a telltale hole blown into its side. 

Lower left warning marker, left by deminers. Down path on right are unexploded bombs!
This hill once had religious significance for the ancients, but during the 1964 - 1973 war this high ground drew foot soldiers, who found it a defensible position. Digging trenches into the hillside, fighters shared this hilltop with the 2,000 year old stone jars. When the battle came, it was fierce and powerful. 

As the jars were blown apart, defenders died here alongside them. In the ebb and flow of the 'Secret War', nobody knows how many men died up here.

The Plain of Jars was strategic for holding northern Laos, so the communists coveted it. As it was also a home for thousands of ethnic Hmong, they fought to keep it from the invading North Vietnamese Army (NVA). So control of the Plain of Jars shifted back and forth between the warring sides several times during the war, depending on the season. During the dry season, the NVA and Pathet Lao mounted large scale attacks, gaining ground across the plateau. During the wet season roads turned to mud, much like today. Moving heavy weapons, troops and supplies became difficult for the communists. That’s when the Hmong gained the upper hand, since they were resupplied by air from CIA planes and helicopters. During rainy season, they forced the communists back, and the territory was theirs again for another season. 

Besides bomb damage to the old jars, other evidence of heavy fighting remains. Along another corner of the hillside a trench line is still visible in the deep grass. Much like in the old craters, erosion is taking over, and the earthen fortifications are gradually disappearing. The evidence of war is fading from this archaic site, while the sturdy stone jars continue to stand guard. 

At base of hill, cave was used by communist side to hide weapons from air raids
I’m glad I was able to make it to this site now, because years back, it was too dangerous to even walk up here. As a former battlefield, the hill was literally littered with tons of unexploded bombs. Hoping to lure tourists to the Plain of Jars, the government brought in the non-profit organization known as MAG: the Mines Advisory Group. Specializing in finding and removing landmines and unexploded bombs, MAG worked Site 1 for three months. By the time they left, they had found and cleared 127 unexploded bombs, along with 21,814 pieces of shrapnel! 

Further down the hill from the jars, I spot the dark entrance to a cave. Walking down a path for a look, I notice red and white markers on both sides of the trail. These markers are from the bomb disposal teams. The white sides of the rocks mark safe areas, while the red sides point to the danger zones. Although a great deal of UXO was removed from Site 1, there are still many areas that haven’t been cleared yet. Unexploded bombs remain hidden underneath the thick wet grass. 

Reaching the cave entrance, a young Laotian boy is playing with rocks, while his father looks on. Next to the opening is a small Buddhist ceremonial spirit house, with stubs of incense left in remembrance. 

Buddhist spirit house with incense at cave entrance
Peering into the darkness, I find it’s not a very large cavern, thought it did have an important function during the war years. Used by the Pathet Lao, the cavern made a great air raid shelter, and was a convenient place to safely store ammunition. Apparently American pilots knew this, since a few bomb craters are outside the entrance,  left by pilots that tried to destroy the cave and its contents. 

Since this cave is so close to the stone jars, the ancients probably used it too. My guide tells me he believes they used to burn fires inside the cave to cremate their dead, burying the bones up by the jars afterwards.

Circling past a ridgeline, I pass more of the mysterious jars. Before departing, I look back at the first hill of jars that I climbed earlier. New visitors have arrived, holding umbrellas due to the rain. From a distance, the jars resemble headstones. I’ve seen this scene before. With people under umbrellas, atop a hill with stone monuments around them, it looks just like a cemetery funeral.

Maybe there is something to that old theory after all. 

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