17.07.2008 - 23.07.2008 24 °C
After a few days wallowing in the laid back atmosphere of Luang Prabang, we chose to explore the area that is commonly known as the "Plain of Jars". We could have taken a public bus to Phonsavan, and took a tour from there, but chickened out when we read of occasional attacks by bandits and insurgents in this province (Xiang Khouang) on public transport. In one case, several people in 2004 were killed by gunmen on this road (including foreign tourists). Although nothing seems to have happened since, and from what we saw, it appeared safe to travel in this area, we decided to take a tour in a mini van from Luang Prabang. We still saw several men with semi-automatic weapons (that appeared over the top for hunting!) on the journey from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng - but they didn't seem to be pointing them at the tourists.
Typical decor on Luang Prabang's numerous Wats.
Leaning Buddha in Luang Prabang
The first day was taken up by driving a gruelling 7 hours on winding, vomit inducing mountainous terrain. Although the Brunton's don't really get car sick, we felt decidedly queasy by early evening. We should have skipped tea, not because we felt sick, but because the cuisine in Phonsavan resembled sick. And the following day it made our Norweigian friends actually sick (and gave Lisab a dodgy tummy).
The following day was taken up by a tour of the Plain of Jars sites. They are set amongst beautiful scenery of rolling green hills and farmed fields. Since French archaeological research in the 1930's, the jars (which are sometimes higher than Lisab) are believed to have been produced around two and a half thousand years ago, for the use of funerary urns - as human remains and ashes have been found in some jars. However, the Laos people still like to believe that they were used to store Lao Lao (rice whiskey) or food stuffs. They appear a little elaborate to be used as ancient tupperware though.
A large number of the jars were bomb damaged during the 2nd Indochina war (1964-1973) but they still amount to several hundred intact jars over numerous locations. Incidentally, this is a relatively new attraction for Laos, as the sites were only cleared of mines and UXO's in 2003 by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). We saw these in action, clearing a field close by. There are a few warnings to stick to the paths, and Andyb was bursting to sneak behind a bush for a pee, but couldn't for fear of losing a leg. Eventually, the Plain of jars sites are aiming for UNESCO world heritage status, but it is clear that a lot of work needs to be done to improve access and increase research regarding the significance of the jars. Little work appears to have been done since the initial French investigations.
The Brunton's at the jars
Talking of the 2nd Indochina war, The Rough Guide tells us that Laos was the most heavily bombed country (per capita) in the history of warfare. Apparently, our friends the Yanks flew 580,944 "sorties" (missions), and dumped a total of 2,093,100 tonnes of bombs on Laos. This is equivalent to one plane load of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years being dropped on the locals. Little wonder that the National Museum in Vientiene gives a totally unobjective account of the American involvement in the war.
You can still see the bomb craters pocketing the landscape today
Russian tank. The locals had taken the top off to use as part of a fence
Bomb damaged temple in the old capital of the Xiang Khouang province
The final day of the tour was another arduous winding journey through the beautiful Laos landscape, stopping only briefly to observe the landslides and collapsed roads caused by the heavy rains that had fallen on Laos recently. We were told that the road was completely blocked the day before, and probably still would be but for the several JCB's we passed on our way. We saw lots of over - flooded rice fields, as the river had burst it's banks, resulting in more ducks than workers in the fields.
Balcony view from our hotel in Vang Vieng. The river had flooded several bungalows and bars
We had one day in Vientiene and went to see the concrete monstrosity of the Victory Monument. Apparently it's Laos's answer to the Arc de Triomphe.