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The Mysterious Plain of Jars

Some people come to Laos for the partying. Others are drawn by it’s rural charm, or it’s violent history. None of these things were the main attraction for me. I came to Laos for the Jars.

The Plain of Jars. Have you heard of it? Maybe not, if you’re not an archeology nerd like me. But they are a mysterious rock formation on the level of Stone Henge in their epic mysteriousness.

Strewn across central Laos, near the town of Phonsavan , are hundreds of enormous stone containers. Big ones, small ones, fat ones and skinny ones, just strewn haphazardly across the landscape. They have no makings on them (save one), and no lids, but are thought to date back to the Iron age- meaning they are roughly 2000 years old! And there’s barely any evidence to explain who put them here, or why.

And then there’s this:

Don’t see it?

The frog man, as my guide called him. The only engraving found on any of the jars- it shows a man with his knees and elbows bent. Why this jar and no other one? Nobody knows.

There are two main theories on how the jars came to be. I’m somewhat partial to the first story, which is based on local legend. The story goes that a race of giants used to inhabit central Laos. After winning a long and important battle, he King of the Giants ordered the jars created in order to brew vast amounts of Lao Lao (the local rice wine- extremely potent stuff). Basically the whole area was an ENORMOUS keg party.

That's a BIG bottle of whiskey.

The UNESCO version isn’t as colorful, but is probably more accurate. Archeological findings suggest that the jars area was a graveyard, and the jars were actually urns, holding the cremated remains of the dead. Human remains, bracelets and charcoal found in and around the jars seem to back this up. There are also plaques scattered around the fields of jars that somewhat resemble tombstones.

One thing they do know, the jars are made of sandstone, granite and limestone, and would have been created using nothing but a chisel. Can you imagine how long it would take to chisel a solid stone jar the size of a refrigerator? The stones were mined many miles away, carved to perfection and then dragged to their current location, probably using elephants. Many miles away locals have found carving sites, where not quite perfect jars were totally abandoned unused.

Part of what makes the jars so special is that there’s barely anyone there. Phonsavan hasn’t quite made it onto the map as a major tourist destination. It’s an 8 hour tortuously winding bus ride from Luang Prabang, and close to literally nothing else. On the day I visited there were maybe two dozen tourists in an area the size of a football field.

The Plain of Jars is aspiring for UNESCO World Heritage status, and would probably have it already if it weren’t for the bombs. There is a TON of unexploded ordinance (UXO) still lying around, even at the most popular Site 1. Although main pathways and the areas directly around the jars have been made safe, there are huge red markers everywhere, begging you to keep to the path. Bomb craters dot the jars site, making me wonder what the place looked like BEFORE it was dragged to hell and back.

But you know, they’re still here. 2000 years of weather and local pillaging, a literal assault from the sky and the jars are still standing tall. I think that makes them even more astounding.

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23 Responses to The Mysterious Plain of Jars

  1. Mike March 20, 2011 at 9:59 AM #

    Very cool. I really wanted to see these but didn’t make it. Glad to read that they are as incredible as they sound. I especially like the frog man. It really makes you wonder about they whys and whats of the past.

  2. Flora March 20, 2011 at 10:21 AM #

    I had no idea these existed but I’m really intrigued now. I hope to make a trip to Laos sometime this year and if I do end up going, I hope to see this.

  3. Kiki March 20, 2011 at 12:07 PM #

    I just discovered your blog and read your posts on Laos. I did not know about the bombings nor did I know about the jars.

    Looking forward to reading more about your travels!
    Stay safe!

  4. joshywashington March 20, 2011 at 4:11 PM #

    I loved Laos, and while I enjoyed my visit to the Plain of Jars, and it was interesting to see all the big jars, I really must say for the trip out of the way it was quite boring.

    I did enjoy talking to locals about the efforts to clean up the unexploded bombs though, there is a MAG office in town with good displays where people can make donations.

    • Steph March 24, 2011 at 11:01 AM #

      I spent a lot of time learning about the UXO as well but personally I thought the jars were pretty neat!

  5. mercedes March 20, 2011 at 4:28 PM #

    Those are so cool!!!!!

    I love mysterious archeology. I feel like one of the things I am noticing most about these places is that they are located so far from any available quarry. It always makes me wonder…why do these crazy kids not find a closer building site!?

    I suppose there were probably spiritual or political reasons behind it, but man–what willpower!

    • Steph March 24, 2011 at 11:00 AM #

      Yeah I don’t know why they chose there but I think it was QUITE a hike. Apparently they used elephants to drag the jars, which seems like a good cheat.

  6. Chris March 20, 2011 at 5:26 PM #

    The History Channel should feature this place on their Ancient Aliens show.
    Never heard of the Plain of Jars. Thanks for sharing.

    • ehalvey March 21, 2011 at 11:06 PM #

      I have never heard of these either, but that is SO amazing! I love archaeological nerdiness. I totally agree that this is perfect for Ancient Aliens.

      • Steph March 24, 2011 at 10:53 AM #

        I didn’t even CONSIDER aliens. X files should have been all over this.

        • Its-Aliens-Bro January 7, 2016 at 3:45 AM #

          But… Makes you wonder if maybe it was bombed for other reasons… Government again trying to hide the evidence of aliens!!!!!!!!!! %&6+’#3589)!:”590

  7. Verity March 20, 2011 at 5:54 PM #

    Wow, that is so fascinating. I’d never heard about this place before but now if (or rather when) I go to Laos I will certainly put it on my list of things to do. How cool.

  8. Christine March 21, 2011 at 6:39 AM #

    I prefer the King of Giant’s kegger story too 🙂 I’ve never heard of this–really interesting!

  9. Bluegreen Kirk March 21, 2011 at 11:50 AM #

    I’m with you and Christine on this one I prefer the drinking party as oppose to the urns. Though it would clearly be that latter of the two. How many people would have been in those jars….they look like they could hold an entire generations of a family.

    • Steph March 24, 2011 at 10:59 AM #

      Can you beleive just one person per jar? Seems wasteful doesn’t it.

  10. Adam March 21, 2011 at 11:50 AM #

    STAY ON THE PATH PLEASE!

    • Steph March 24, 2011 at 10:58 AM #

      meanwhile there were cows wandering all over the damn place. Was worried about being caught in a hamburger shower if you catch my drift 🙂

  11. Amanda March 21, 2011 at 8:51 PM #

    Oh wow, that’s pretty cool! I’m one of those people who had never even heard of this place before. Look interesting, though!

    And I like the story of the giants, too. 😉

  12. Jilianne @ Luxury Cotswold Cottages March 22, 2011 at 12:13 AM #

    Awesome! The jars are really a mystery.. I don’t even know that Laos has this as a tourist destination. I should visit it even once.

  13. Vi March 22, 2011 at 4:21 AM #

    Didn’t you feel there like in mine field?

    • Steph March 22, 2011 at 7:43 AM #

      All of Laos feels like standing in a mine field unfortunatly.

  14. Martijn Reintjes March 22, 2011 at 8:30 AM #

    It sounds like a really cool place!
    I’ll put it on my goto-list 🙂

  15. Sarah August 27, 2014 at 3:46 AM #

    This is the first time I have read about these jars – so thanks for blogging on it! Seems like a highly fascinating place to visit. I’m sure it’s quite surreal just walking through what was a minefield.

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