We spent a great deal of time on the internet discovering the mystery behind a famous attraction in Laos – The Plain of Jars. For what purpose were those Plain of Jars really made for? It is a kind of curiosity that leads to spending our next summer vacation in Phonsavan, Laos. We were not contented on just looking at the pictures on the web; we must experience and draw our own answers to our question. Spending that summer in Laos was a good way to understand an important part in history and understand why war is a memory that is fondly remembered for its lessons but best forgotten for all the pain it caused a once war torn country.
In the Plain of Jars, we visited the three famous sites. We were early in the morning and there was almost no tourist when we arrived and we have viewed everything in peace. It is the main attraction in Phonsavan and really the only inspiration to take twelve hours by bus from Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Site 1 is easily accessible by scooter as it’s about six kilometers from the main road. It has over six hundred jars on a hill with deep bomb craters and a cave. So much mystery invaded this site. Most of the huge earthenware vessels are still intact and mysterious. Our guide told many hypotheses about the origin of these pitchers. Was it to keep the ashes of the dead? well most likely. For folklore, to keep the rice, cereals, store food, or rice wine. There were paths marked by white and signs of caution and warning as the area still have undiffused war bombs and mines from the war with Indochina. We also saw many bomb craters and vast areas that are poisoned by dropped bombs since the war. The largest jar here measure two meters in diameter and weighs 6 tons. Site 2 was a tedious walk through rough road in the middle of the forest but the context was very cool. Site 3 is where we made a passage through a rice field and grassy part with broken jar pieces scattered around. The area is very beautiful and I was so happy when we got there.
On our second day we got more educated about the horrors of war at the Uxo Lao Exhibition. Anyone who comes to Laos should take time to visit this “museum”. It sheds light on the still existing risks on the Plain of Jars area. Remnants of war are available on this area at every turn. The stories I read on the war exhibit left a queasy feeling in my stomach. During our trip to the Plains our guide took us to a field where he found a live bomb after a heavy rain. He has reported three bombs to this museum which the bomb disposal staff immediately acted upon. Two of them were clearly already blown up, and the third is displayed on this museum. Many of the areas are still mined or the presence of ammunition is still evident. There was a war documentary being shown during our visit. Ruthlessness and selfishness is the impression that is left on my mind about war when we finished our tour of the war exhibits. I got two free shirts for my US$ 20 donation for their cause. Before heading back to our hotel we took time to shop for fresh produce and fruits at the crowded Hmong Sunday Market.
The next day we visited a museum that is located in an old farm and on top a small hill house, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. The museum explains the diversity of ethnic Lao and their customs. A visit is a must because it allows tourists to discover the history, culture, customs and traditions of different ethnic groups, rather than just see them from afar. The items and artifacts are well explained and it was fun to learn their way of life. For two Euros, we get to see traditional clothes of Laos’s people from then and now. Traditional marriage ceremonies and the simple life of the ethnic minorities were explained. The museum is very small and there is an adjacent shop for souvenirs connected to it. Around the corner from the museum is a quiet café patio where we take a break after our educational tour. This museum is worth the visit even if the entrance is a bit expensive. Before the night was over we watched the Ethnik Fashion Show at a local diner in town. The models are students who work for about two hours but are paid for a full day. In this way they can pay for their education. What a wonderful initiative! It was nice to see the traditional costumes of different groups in Laos.
Granted by a good weather we took time to assault the peaks of Mount Phousi. It was an ideal point to get an overview and to admire Luang Prabang and the Mekong from the top. The summit can be reached just over 100 meters high and at the top there is a small temple where we took time to pray and rest. The climb was not particularly strenuous and the views of the city from above were nice. Several small temples can be found on the way up. The path down through the monastery and the Buddha statues as well as the footprints of the Buddha on the cave are not spectacular but worth seeing. As we stood on the platform we photographed the best sunset behind the majestic mountains with the Mekong River on the foreground. Upon our descent we head straight to the Royal Palace Museum which is at the foot of the mountain. To get to know a little history of Laos, it is advisable to visit this museum. The rooms are beautifully decorated with lots of mirror mosaics and reflect a great impression of opulence. Many rooms are just typically decorated and some rooms give the West 60’s era again. I like the boats and car collection at the back of the museum/palace.
On our last day we participate on a daily activity for the monks here called the Alms Giving Ceremony. Before we joined other tourists with offerings we were given a short briefing about proper behavior and protocols for the ceremony. The century old tradition starts at six in the morning with the monks coming out silent, and barefoot with their collection kettles at their respective temples. Along the way they collect food gifts from kneeling believers, including many tourists especially in front of Wat Sensoukaram. We did not forget to be respectful, avoided taking photographs that is too close, no flash on cameras, look down and do not stare at a monk like a woman, be very discreet and above all no touch or physical contact with a monk. It was certainly a special experience, the atmosphere was full of magic and the monks seem to float in the air with their red orange robes! Being the peak season for tourists it was so crowded and not everyone is equipped with the same sense of respect for the monks. I enjoyed the spectacle and felt sorry for some tourist who can’t practice respect and restraint of an old tradition.
Seeing memories of a troubled era gives a very realistic view of the long term effects of war on Laos. The plain of jars speak for themselves as bare witness to an event that was once a painful struggle for their people. It was an eye opening experience that gave me another perspective on how I view war and its consequences. I wish Laos its lasting peace, and I look forward to being there again with my family this time.