The Plain of Jars is known today both for its ancient burial jars and for the unexploded ordnance left by the USA

En route to the Plain of Jars we stopped in the so called Bomb Boat village: "bomb boats"are fishing canoes made from long range fuel canisters discarded by US bombers during their Secret War bombing campaign in Laos. When they were empty, these fuel tanks were dropped over jungle and rivers, especially close to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, although they were also dropped full if a pilot needed to increase his aircraft’s manoeuvrability under anti-aircraft fire, for example. Hence the area was liberally scattered with the jettisoned fuel tanks. Today they make very durable and maintenance free canoes

We had further stops today for monks, local weaving, and seeing bulls bred for bull fighting in local towns

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Wat Phia Wat is to be found at this Laotian region’s former capital of Muang Khoun. The temple was destroyed by US bombs. It was apparently bombed because the Americans suspected that it had been converted into a food storage area used by the North Vietnamese. Today, only the temple’s brick foundation, a Buddha and a few columns survive.

The temple is said to have been constructed in 1322; since that time it’s faced numerous bouts of destruction. In the fourteenth century when the Chinese invaded, the temple was largely destroyed and the Buddha statue’s arm was severed. It was soon rebuilt. In 1953, Wat Phia Wat was again destroyed by the French during the first Indochina War. After being rebuilt for a second time, the temple was once more shattered, this time by American bombing raids in 1966. The enduring Buddha statue with the now-melancholy face (thanks to its missing eye and scarred right cheek and lip) is highly revered by worshippers.

Also at Muang Khoun is That Foun Stupa, on top of a hill in the middle of town. An ancient temple, built in the late 1500s. But now all that remains is an impressive 30-metre tall stupa made of brick with a hole right through the base of it, apparently burrowed by rampaging Chinese bandits in 19th century. The stupa itself is said to cover ashes of Buddha that were brought from India.


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Vasana Plain of Jars Hotel - Phonsavan

We had one of their 2 room suites overlooking the rice fields below. It was nice accommodation with polished wood floors, a separate sitting room, and a spacious balcony, where we enjoyed a sundowner. The room was the best bit of this hotel. Its weakness as with most Lao hotels is in its service. Breakfast is not good, fruit (bananas or melon) , eggs murdered in a bain marie were not edible, or fried rice (cold). Bad coffee. The bread was just edible when you toasted it. Insipid jam in plastic containers.

The hotel is a long way from the town centre, though they do provide a spasmodic shuttle to town. You would need to carefully check return times if you used it. We dined therefore both nights in the hotel. A fairly standard selection of Lao food with a few western dishes thrown in. You are best ordering Lao, Chris's steak was not a success, tough as old boots. I tried banana flambee one night, with a spectacular burst of flames, but they used the wrong sort of bananas so I could not eat it. The flambéed crepes on the other hand were very good.

Restaurant service was appalling, the girls just plonk your food down and retreat to the kitchen, where they remain. If you want anything then you have to winkle them out of the kitchen. During dinner the manager sat slumped watching the guest lounge TV and was of little use.

Wifi is bad and can only be picked up within a few metres of reception area.

Overall though I thought that this was an acceptable hotel for this part of the world, but it is certainly not outstanding. I fear until a better hotel opens in town, then you will be forced to stay here - the joys of travelling!

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The Plain of Jars is a megalithic archaeological landscape in Laos. It consists of thousands of stone jars scattered around the upland valleys and the lower foothills of the central plain of the Xieng Khouang plateau. The jars are mostly arranged in clusters ranging in number from one to several hundred.

More than 90 jar sites have been identified on the Plain. The jars vary in height and diameter between 1m and 3m and are all hewn from rock. Their shape is cylindrical with the bottom always wider than the top. The stone jars are undecorated, with the exception of a single jar at Site 1. This jar has a human "frogman" bas-relief carved on the exterior. Since most of the jars have lip rims, it is thought that the jars originally supported lids, although few stone lids have been recorded; this suggests that the bulk of lids were fashioned from perishable materials like wood. No in situ lid has ever been found.

Stone discs have also been found. The discs, which differ from the lids, have at least one flat side and are grave markers which were placed on the surface to cover or mark a burial pit. These grave markers appear more infrequently than jars, but are found in close proximity. Similar are stone grave markers; these stones are unworked, but have been placed intentionally to mark a grave.

Current thinking is that the jars are 2500 to 3000 years old, have been cut from solid rock, and were used for funeral purposes.

We saw archeological progress in the making here. Soon after our visit to the site, where we saw the below mentioned Dr O'Reilly, the Shanghai Daily reported :-

VIENTIANE, March 3 (Xinhua) -- Human remains dating between 2500-3000 years ago are among finds by Lao and Australian archaeologists operating in the historically significant yet long-puzzling plain of jars located in the South-East Asian nation of Laos. The items were identified by scholars from the Australian National University and the Archaeology Division of the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism's Department of National Heritage while working on a site associated with the work of pioneering French archaeologist Madeleine Colani in the 1930s. Skeletal remains of two individuals were reportedly located some 70 cm underground while the third was discovered some 13 metres away, evidencing complex burial procedures indicative of a unique cultural context that is still being pieced together in a region with millennia of complex migratory movements.

The project, entitled Unraveling the Mysteries of the Plain of Jars, Lao PDR, is a five year research endeavour funded by the Australian Research Council and led by the Australian National University in cooperation with the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism represented by Archaeology Division Director Dr Thonglith Luangkhoth. The site is one of many clusters of up to several hundred stone jars scattered around the upland valleys and the lower foothills of the central plain of the Xieng Khuang plateau believed by scholars to reflect complex burial systems, but in local legend, for brewing potent rice whiskey.

The team utilised Ground Penetrating Radar to guide the excavation before unearthing the remains and relics. Speaking to Xinhua, Project Chief Investigator Australian National University Senior Lecturer Dr Dougald O'Reilly described the sites as "one of the most important heritage assets in Laos.""Our research, while in preliminary stages, has revealed a wide range of mortuary practices," Dr O'Reilly said. "Such diversity of practice in disposal of the dead is uncommon in one culture... there may be several explanations for this diversity and we hope to establish why this is the case. ""It is hoped that the knowledge gained from our research will be of assistance in seeing these sites nominated as UNESCO World Heritage."

Dr O'Reilly said archaeological work in Laos was complicated by geography, climate and the threat of unexploded ordnance (UXO) after U.S. military raids on Lao territory during the Vietnam War left wide swathes of the landscape of the heavily bombed province affected by tennis ball-sized cluster munitions that could explode if disturbed. The archaeological dig and the wider Jar Site 1, was previously cleared with the assistance of the Mine Action Group (MAG).

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Grim stuff, the UXO in Laos, the majority dropped by the Americans - the most dangerous of the explosives dumped on Laos was the cluster bomb, slightly smaller than a tennis ball they blast 300 ball bearings in all directions and account for most of the casualties. Some say it could take 100 years to clear Laos of all its UXO others say it will never be completely free. Then there are also land mines planted by both sides during the Civil War. The Plain of Jars was fought over, and re-fought over several times, and each time land mines were sown

We saw an hour long film in the MAG (Mine Advisory Group) building in Phonsavan, and grim viewing it was too.The Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, often simply called the Mine Ban Treaty, aims at eliminating anti-personnel land mines around the world. To date, there are 162 States Parties to the treaty, while 34 UN states including the United States, Russia and China are non-signatories - makes you wonder if it was worth having a treaty if this lot carry on using them.

♦  2 million tons | Estimated ordnance dropped on Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973

♦  260 million | Estimated number of sub-munitions (bombies) from cluster bombs dropped over Laos between 1964 and 1973

♦  580,000 | Estimated number of bombing missions flown over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973

♦  30% | Estimated failure rate of sub-munitions under ideal conditions.

♦  80 million | Estimated number of sub-munitions that failed to explode

♦  1,090,228 | Estimated number of unexploded sub-munitions destroyed by UXO LAO from 1996 to December 2009

♦  300 | Estimated number of new casualties from UXO incidents every year in Lao PDR

Sources: National Regulatory Authority (NRA) Lao PDR Annual Report 2009 | NRA Website

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A walk round Phonsavan took us to coffee and chocolate muffins at Crank-T , a very western cafe right beside the MAG building. And the inevitable local market.

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From Phonsavan we headed north to remote Sam Neua

On to Sam Neua

Our Cambodia and Laos Holiday

All Our Holidays