With all the mystery of Stonehenge, South-East Asia’s Plain of Jars has captured the imagination of archaeologists and visitors for decades. Across the Xieng Khouang Plateau in Laos’ highlands is an ancient archaeological mystery that is both fascinating and bizarre – a collection of massive stone artefacts with an unknown purpose. The jars are huge stones, with hollowed out centres to create a cup shape. Lichen encrusted and overgrown from millennia of weathering, the function of these mysterious jars is still a matter of speculation.
The Plain of Jars is located in northeastern Laos, near the city of Phonsavan. They are grouped together in different sites, with over 85 so far discovered. There are only a few sites which can be visited, with the majority of people reaching Site 1, 2 and 3 by road. But visiting can be extremely dangerous. While there are thousands of jars scattered in clusters that stretch all the way to India, unexploded American bomb shells in Laos restricts visitors to just a handful of sites.
What are the Plain of Jars?
The jars are made of sedimentary rock, ranging from 1 to 3 metres high, and weighing up to 14 tons each, with a wide base that narrows towards the top. They are believed to be about 1500 to 2000 years old, making them one of South-East Asia’s most ancient sites, and may have been created by migrating Indian tribes. The majority of jars are made of sandstone, with some granite, limestone, conglomerate and breccia as well.
There is only one known jar with identifiable carvings, a jar at site 1 with a human figure known as a ‘frogman’. This figure, with his arms raised, is similar to bas-relief carvings found in a rock painting in Huashan, China, suggesting a possible link. Some of the jars have stone lids, but most do not, suggesting that they had a removable lid made of a perishable material, such as leather. The discovery of smaller stone discs with one flat side have been identified as grave markers to mark a burial site.
Madeleine Colani’s Plain of Jars Research
The jars were first studied by French archaeologist Madeleine Colani. In 1930, she published her findings in The Megaliths of Upper Laos, which theorised that the jars were used as Iron Age funerary urns to house human remains. Colani excavated a cave at Site 1 with man-made holes thought to act as a chimney. She concluded that the cave was a crematorium.
Colani also discovered artefacts across 12 Plain of Jars sites, such as glass beads, burnt teeth and bone, pottery fragments, iron and bronze, and ceramics. The human remains suggested signs of cremation.
Theories and Legends of the Usage of the Plain of Jars
While Colani’s theory seems pretty sound, nobody knows for certain what the thousands of jars were used for. Another idea is that they were used to collect monsoon rainwater for travellers to drink from. The stagnant rainwater could be easily collected and boiled, making them very handy water fountains for thirsty caravan merchants.
Local legends have a different explanation. The stories say that a race of giants lived in the area, under the command of King Khun Cheung. Apparently the jars may have been used to store his lao-lao (a rice whiskey distilled in Laos) to celebrate a great victory over his rivals. Another story goes that materials such as sand, clay, sugar and animals skins were used to form the jars, which was fired to create a form of pottery.
Bombing and Landmines at the Plain of Jars
In the Laotian Civil War of 1964-1975, which ran parallel to the Vietnam War, the plain of jars was subjected to heavy bombing. The United States targeted North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces which were based in the area, blanketing northern Laos with a barrage of ordnance greater than all the bombs the US dropped in WW2. With about 30% of those shells unexploded, there is still an estimated 80 million live shells buried in the ground across northern Laos.
Naturally, visiting certain areas of northern Laos is still considered extremely hazardous, so visitors are restricted to visiting only sites 1, 2 and 3, on marked paths. In 1994, the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) began their work in clearing those shells, as well as educating locals about them. If the MAG is able to minimise the threat of unexploded ordnance, Laos plans to apply for UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the Plain of Jars.
Visiting The Plain of Jars
Certain areas of the Plain of Jars is open to visit for visitors in Laos, with Phonsavan being the closest city. There are tours to the sites, as well as motorbike rentals for those going by themselves. All three sites can be found by following signposts, or by GPS, and have a small entrance fee each.
When we visited, it was by motorbike, a beat-up red warrior that took us to all 3 main sites in torrential rain. We had thin, plastic raincoats and helmets. The rain were come pouring up my sleeves as I rode the bike over terrible degraded roads, the tire splashing gooey orange mud onto my pants with every pothole. The upside? We were absolutely alone in all of the sites, and it was wonderful to admire to jars to the patter of rain as they slowly filled with fresh water.
Plain of Jars Site 1 – Thong Hai Hin
Site 1 is the closest Plain of Jars site to Phonsavan, and receives the most tourists. There are 334 jars at Site 1, which can be viewed from a high hill top, as well as up close. This is also the location of the crematorium cave, as well as the ‘King’s Cup’, the largest jar, which weights 6 tonnes and is about 2.6 metres high. As the most touristy site, expect to find a small museum, as well as people taking selfies sitting on top of the jars (which is a shame).
Plain of Jars Site 2 – Hai Hin Phu Salato
Accessible by motorbike or by tuk tuk, Site 2 is much smaller, with 93 jars. The area is much more forested than site 1, and there is a jar that has been split into pieces by a tree which had grown inside the jar, and eventually cracked it open. It’s a fascinating sight that’s reminiscent of Angkor Wat’s Ta Prohm trees. As a less touristy site, there are more cows wandering around munching on grass than tourists.
Plain of Jars Site 3 – Hai Hin Lat Khai
Plain of Jars Site 3 requires a bit of hiking to reach, as it’s located at the top of a hill in the midst of trees and brushland. It is quite a serene, quiet visit, with very few visitors. Our motorbike could barely make it up the hill, churning the mud into an orange slop that clogged up the inner mudguard. So, we parked it halfway up the hill and proceeded on foot.
The Plain of Jars is still something of an undiscovered gem in Laos. The huge, hollow stone jars seem to be have been used as a ceremonial burial site, but there is still a lot of mystery surrounding them. It is an absolutely intriguing place to visit, and if you find yourself all alone at the jars, especially at sites 2 and 3, you should take a close look at this beautiful and ancient site to see if you can come up with a Plain of Jars theory for yourself.