Friday, 16 September 2011

The trials and tribulations of seeing the Jars

One of the unique sights of Laos is the mysterious Plain of Jars, a few sites littered with stone jars (and some lids) of various sizes, carved from local rock and filling the landscape in their hundreds. No-one really knows why they were made, but they draw visitors to the small town of Phonsavan and it was there we went after leaving Luang Prabang.

The journey itself was a bit of a disaster – a recent landslide had completely covered the road winding through a mountain pass, and although we had been assured that it had been ‘pretty much cleared’, it of course had not, and we spent over four hours parked in a long line of cars and buses waiting for work to finish (to be honest, we should have started to be suspicious when our driver had the largest lunch I’ve ever seen shortly before the roadblock, and was in no hurry to set off again. Perhaps a tad na├»ve to think he was just enjoy the view of the sweeping hills as much as we were…). Diggers were hard at work, along with a lot of manual labour, but as soon as area were cleared they begin filling in again, and it was a long slog. Rumours abounded down the waiting lines, with people claiming that they heard from someone else that people had been waiting for upwards of three days, others saying that we would have to turn back to Luang Prabang and wait it out until the next day, and some people panicked, choosing to haul their luggage up and other the footpath leading across the hill and down to look for a car on the other side. We sat it out, and eventually the path was clear enough to begin letting vehicles through. Every ten cars or so the road had to be re-cleared, and we all held our breath a little as our turn came. Fortunately, everything held, and we were back on our way. Naturally, there was opportunity in every disaster, and locals had hurried to set up stalls selling food and gifts along the road, no doubt thrilled at the unexpected boom in business.

A journey that should have been six hours had taken twelve, and when we eventually made it to Phonsavan we were tired, stiff and in need of a bed. The following morning didn’t start too well – we were keen to head out to the Jars sites but couldn’t join a tour without finding a group. We couldn’t find anyone willing (I’m not entirely sure what they came to Phonsavan for) and weren’t willing ourselves to pay an extortionate amount for a private hire, so the only option was to hire a small motorbike and make our own way.

So we did. F had only rode automatic scooters before, and almost ten years ago at that, and I have never at all, so it was a bumpy start, not helped by the uneven road. Eventually we got going, off on the road, happily whizzing along…until we got a flat tire. Around $1 got us a new wheel and back on course, although it was clear that the tiny Asian bike wasn’t overly happy with our combined Western weight, and complained all the way. Burning my leg on the exhaust pipe after a too-quick dismount just added to the fun.

We grumpily arrived at the Jar site, and were finally distracted by the stone containers dotted around in front of us. Perched on hills, under trees and in groups on the plains, the jars were unusual and many huge, revealing the skill and effort taken to carve them. The area has also been the subject of much UXO (unexploded ordnance) removal to make it visitor-safe, the vast bomb craters a stark reminder of the destruction of much of areas of Laos and the sheer luck that kept so many of the jars safe. Very few visitors (we only saw one other couple) made wandering through the site peaceful and more atmospheric and allowed us to really explore the jars.

Back in town, after a ride through some nearby villages and having eventually abandoned the bike idea, we visited the MAG centre – the organisation that deals with the UXO in Laos. The information and movie were fascinating, and many examples of defused ‘bombies’ (the local name for cluster bombs) were on display. Looking at the small globes, like pitted yellow hockey or tennis balls, I’m not surprised so many children die playing with these interesting ‘toys’ they find on the ground. The number of different bombs still estimated to be in Laos is incredible, and the Russian roulette farmers and families play every day striking the ground to farm it or even when conducting repairs or improvements on older houses is so saddening to acknowledge.

Apart from these two aspects, Phonsavan as a town wasn’t particularly nice, catering just to the very few tourists passing through, so we booked tickets for an overnight bus to Vientienne and prepared for a long, uncomfortable journey once more!

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