The Plain of Jars – where the cows graze among megalithic monuments

The Plain of Jars is one of the greatest attractions of Laos and something absolutely unique in the world scale. This has been acknowledged by inscribing the monuments on the UNESCO Heritage list in 2019. Adding to that a wonderful scenery in which those megalithic stone jars are located, it makes the journey to Phonsavan is simply a must.

What is the Plain of the Jars?

Plain of Jars is the area encompassing over 2 000 Iron Age megalithic stone jars strewn across Xiangkhoang Plateau. The jars were most probably used as funerary urns by the civilisation thriving between 500 BCE and 500 CE. Some of the jars are even 2-3 meters high!

A large, megalithic stone jar covered with moss and filled with water stands tilted among other jars in the forest on the site 2 of the Plain of the Jars

There are hundreds of clusters of the jars scattered over the entire region but 3 sites in the close vicinity of Phonsavan have a high concentration of them. The most important site lies just 6-8 km outside Phonsavan and the other two are located around 20 km away.

The options of visiting the Plain of Jars

It took us a while to choose the best option to visit the Plain of Jars. If we borrowed a rather pricey mountain bike, we would be able to reach just the first site. If we hired a motorbike, we could visit all three but would risk taking roads in poor condition (and we had seen enough of mud and landslides to be worried about that). As it turned out later, the road wasn’t really too bad, apart from the potholes.

Author lifting her arms in confused gesture, standing in the  middle of a split stone jar, other stone jars in the background

The third option we considered was taking an organised trip. We were asked at one tourist agency whether we’d like to join the trip as two people had already signed up. The tour agent offered 120 000 kip (less than the price quoted in my old guidebook) and promised to stop at the abandoned tank and a village producing lao-lao (local spirits) as well. We tried to find more people to join to cut the cost further but there simply weren’t any in town.

Sharing a scooter between two travellers would cost half the price of two spots on an organised tour (even counting the petrol and the parking fees). If you’re a solo traveller, the difference between guided and independent trip wouldn’t be too big. It’s worth to check if the organised tour would include an English – speaking guide. It wasn’t the case for us but such guides exist in Phonsavan.

Tourist information centre in Phonsavan

The following day we boarded a luxurious minivan which took us first to the tourist centre, illogically located a few kilometers from the touristic area. We had to obtain a permit to visit the sites and we were also hoping to get some reliable information about onward travel.

Rusty bomb shells stacked neatly along the wall in the backyard of the Tourist Information Centre in Phonsavan

Unfortunately, the level of tourist information service was below the lowest expectations. The lady working there spoke only very rudimentary English. Whatever question we asked, she just smiled, shook her head and said her English wasn’t very good. Behind the tourist info there was a small display of bomb shells and other weapons.

Lao lao

We continued through a good quality tarmac road to the first promised attraction: a lao lao producing village. The driver stopped at the village and asked around, finally motioning us into one compound. We were let inside a shack where a huge metal barrel was standing.

Large clay pots covered with cloth used for fermentation of lao lao spirits are lying outside a wooden shack.

Neither the driver nor the ‘whisky’ producers spoke even decent English so it felt pretty awkward just standing there. Slowly, we got to know that the fermented rice mixture was boiled and distilled. I noticed other jars outside the shack: that was where the rice was fermenting, as we got to know, for two weeks at a time. Our driver bought a 1.5 litre plastic bottle of it. We left without being invited to taste it and drove on to the first jar site.

The first site

We started with a quite a well designed Visitor Centre with large display boards telling the story both behind the jars (actually not much is known -, it’s all hypothesis or legends) and some background on the most recent history of Laos. The ticket to the site costs affordable 15 000 kip and that included a map of the site and a free transfer to the site by an electric car. To be honest, the transfer wasn’t really necessary as the distance was very close.

A rolling hill landscape with a pond  and a scattering of rocks in the foreground and a mountain range in the background

The jars were scattered on top of two hills as well as on the flat area between the hills. Due to the rains, a small lake formed in front of the main group of jars. The entrance to the cave was thus flooded but actually the water made the scenery even more pretty.

A prehistoric stone jar with a flat lid and other, open and partially destroyed jars behind it, all on a verdant green meadow.

The free leaflet we received was very helpful in identifying more interesting jars, including one with a lid and one with a human shape carved on it. It took us at least 5 minutes to find the carving and we’d certainly not pay attention to it otherwise. Apart from us, there was just another similar size group of local tourists in a distance. The bliss of the low season.

The second site

Our driver stopped at the ticket booth to the second site and told us we can have a lunch at a simple eatery right next to it. I expected it to be overpriced but it was in fact quite cheap. We had simple noodles and thus refreshed walked a short bit up the dirt road.

A cluster of huge stone jars with small trees growing among them and two cows lying in front of them at the Plain of Jars

There were two hills covered with the jars: one on the right side of the road and one of the left. I really loved both. The one to the right had a sweeping views over the mountains and there were lots of cows grazing among the jars.

A lid of a megalithic stone jar decorated with concentric circles and a sculpture of four legged creature, lying on the grass in the Plain of Jars

There was also a round tomb stone with a carved human figure. The one to the left was overgrown with forest. Some of the jars there were really large.

The author reaching out with her arm to  touch the top of a giant stone jar at the Plain of Jars

Like before, the area had plenty of bomb craters. There was a board informing the area was cleared of UXO and how many of bomblets were found on site.

The third site

It was just a short drive from there to the third and last site. Or rather, to the parking site. From there, we took amazingly beautiful path through a narrow bamboo bridge over a small river and through narrow path smack in the middle of rice paddies.

A green paddy field fringed with trees and a mountain range in the horizon

There were mountains far in the distance on either side. It was simply lovely! The path then climbed up the hill. We climbed wooden stairs set over a wired fence where buffaloes and large herd of cows were grazing.

A herd of cows lying on the fenced pasture where the site 3 of the Plain of Jars is located

Just after the pasture, a small scattering of jars among the young trees could be seen. Some of the jars had slightly different shape, being rectangular rather than cylidrical.

Complete and half-broken stone jars standing on the grass and among young trees on site three in the Plain of Jars

What made this site really attractive though were the surroundings. We went through the stairs above the fence again and took a path to the right, hoping to get even better views. We were not disappointed: the pasture with white buffaloes and cows and the panoramic views over the mountains took our breath away. There were plenty of small craters around but the stone MAG poles indicated that the area was clear of UXO.

A path through a meadow with a small post-war crater filled with water and a forested hills with higher mountains in the background

War scrap recycling village

Seeing all those sights took us quite a while so we didn’t really have time to visit a nearby village specialising in production of spoons and other objects made from the bomb shells. Perhaps all the better, as buying such artifacts only encourages the locals to search for more dangerous ‘resources’. We did have one last short stop to see the leftovers of a tank half-buried just next to somebody’s house.

A part of an armoured vehicle from the Vietnam War times half buried int he ground.

Independent or with a trip?

We came back at 5 pm, totally satisfied with the Plain of Jars though regretting we didn’t choose to visit it independently as the roads definitely allowed that. Perhaps if we had a real guide the trip would have felt more worth the money.

We were glad we saw all three sites as all were interesting and the landscape was more beautiful in the further sites. However, I can imagine for some people visiting all three wouldn’t be necessary. The Plain of Jars was for me one of the highlights of our trip to Laos, especially that we were blessed with a sunny and warm weather.

Other jars sites

Due to the rainy season and the quality of the roads as well as troubles with using public transport and limited time, we did not dare to explore the area more in depth. However, there is more to see around Phonsavan that just those 3 sites.

Actually the largest group of jars (400 of them!) is the site number 52- Ban Pakeo. It does require quite a bit of effort, money and logistics to get there. It’s 42 km from Phonsavan (in the direction of Vietnamese border) and is situated in the middle of the jungle. You would need to hire a local guide and trek for over 2 hours one way to get there.

Accessible by a scooter (though recommended in the dry season) is the Phu Keng Jar Quarry located off Highway 7 in the direction of Luang Prabang, 15 km from Phonsavan. It is clearly marked on Maps.me. You can see there half cut jars as well as war-time secret tunnel and climb innumerable steps to be rewarded with an incredible view. The entrance is just 10 000 kip.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Phonsavan?
By air
Phonsavan has an airport (Xiang Khouang) but the 2 hours flight from Luang Prabang or Vientiane is not a budget option.

By road
The road leading to Phonsavan from the west (so from Luang Prabang, Vientiane or Vang Vieng) is smooth but full of serpentines. Motion sickness pills highly recommended.

By minivan
Minivans, booked at the guesthouse or at the station and often including the free pickup (very useful considering the bus station in Phonsavan is far away from the touristic centre) connect Phonsavan with Luang Prabang (6h) and Vientiane (6-7h). The minivan station in Phonsavan is located just next to the market.

By bus
Local buses terminate at the bus station (4.5 km from the Phonsavan market). You can get a shared or private tuk-tuk to the bus station from the market area.
The main bus connections are: Luang Prabang (7-8h), Vientiane (8-9h), Vang Vieng (7-8h). VIP buses are more comfortable and more expensive alternative.
If you’re travelling to Sam Neua, prepare for an old and overcrowded minivan. The journey should take min. 10h.
The bus to Vinh in Vietnam (operated by a Vietnamese company) runs a few times a week from the northern terminal though sometimes it just picks people up on the way so it’s worth to arrive early in case it doesn’t turn up.

If you are travelling in the rainy season, add 1-3 hours to any of those journey time estimates.

How to get to Plain of Jars from Phonsavan?
You can use your own transport (rented motorbike) or buy an organised tour. There is no public transport to the sites and you cannot hire a tuk-tuk to get there. Only the first site is close enough to get there by a bicycle.

Prices [in Laotian kip as of September 2018]
120 000 whole day trip to 3 jar sites
100 000 A/C minivan Phonsavan- Luang Prabang (with pick up)
80-100 000 scooter rental
80 000 minivan Phonsovan – Sam Neua
60 000 double en-suite room
60 000 private tuk-tuk to the bus station from the market area
20 000 bicycle rental
15 000 entrance to the jar site 1
15-20 000 meal at a budget eatery
15 000 shared tuk-tuk to the bus station from the market area
10 000 entrance to the jar site 2 and to jar site 3
10 000 one pomelo
5 000 motion sickeness medicine

One Reply to “The Plain of Jars – where the cows graze among megalithic monuments”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s