Tales of Megalithic Sites, War History and Opium Fields: A Trip to Phonsavanh, Laos
Phonsavanh is the capital city of Xieng Khouang Province. It is in a less traveled area of Laos and accessible by road from Vientiane. Depending on the time of year – dry or rainy season – the trip can take anywhere between 8 – 12 hours. For those on a less stringent budget and not having the patience for the bus ride, Lao Airlines fly in on a daily basis from Vientiane. It’s a short flight, roughly 30 minutes, on a prop job and current costs approximately USD 100 each way. Most of the accommodation in Phonsavanh is of the hostel / backpacker style with a small number of 2 – 3 star hotels also available. For more info regarding traveling to and staying at Phonsavanh, refer to Wikitravel.org/en/Phonsavan.
The large stone jars of site number 2
Plain of Jars
The main attraction of Phonsavanh and its surrounds are the soon to ve world heritage listed Plain Of Jars sites. There are other attractions in the outlying areas of the province, but the jars are the main draw card. Site one, with roughly 300 jars, is the largest and conveniently, the nearest at just ten kilometers from the township. Sites two and three are roughly 25 – 30 kilometers from town and although having fewer jars, are on more forested landscapes. There is less shade available at site one and for this reason it’s a better option to visit in the late afternoon when the heat has gone from the day. There’s also the added bonus of catching an outstanding sunset from the highest point of the site.
The massive stone jars of site one in the late afternoon sun
The spread of jars at site one
Another stone jar with an upturned multi-fit lid
Sunset from the highest point of Plain of Jars site one
Visitation to the all the jars sites is easy enough to organize with most of the guesthouses and hotels providing a combination of transportation possibilities. Group / package tours in air-conditioned minivans are the most popular option. For those of a slightly more adventurous bent, rental motorbikes are also available for the do it yourself option. A number of guesthouses can provide maps and more detailed info on all major sites. A popular guesthouse for motorbike rentals, trip info, good western food and free w-fi is the LAO-FALANG Restaurant and Guesthouse: [email protected] Tel: +856 2022212456. The owner, an engaging Italian, has lived in the area for a number of years and is highly knowledgeable on all of the popular and more remote sites to visit. NOTE: Plain of Jars sites two and three have long stretches of dirt road to negotiate before arriving at the parking areas. During the dry season, November – May, this isn’t an issue with swathes of dust being the only irritation, particularly for those on motorbikes. According to the owner of the Lao-Falang Restaurant, the rainy season is a whole different ball game as some stretches of dirt become quagmires of mud. Only the most high powered all-terrain vehicles are able to get all the way up to the parking areas. Apparently the mud at times becomes so thick the locals resort to using horses for transport. There is one other transportation option available for those seeking a more unhurried outing; private car hire with an English speaking guide. But, be warned, this option is also obviously the most expensive with prices, depending on your itinerary, currently ranging between USD 70 – 100 for the day's outing. For those wanting hassle free, unhurried photography time this is definitely the way to go.
Jars site number two; best visited in the cool of the morning
Tree encroachment on the jars at site two
Multi-fit lids were also created for the jars
As mentioned, a significant benefit of a private guided tour is the hassle free time you have to visit the sites. This is a must if you want to get some serious photography time in. Another benefit is the valuable information provided by the tour guide as you work your way through the spread of jars at each site. According to my guide all three jars sites will soon receive world heritage listing as megalithic type sites. With the size of some of the jars weighing in at over six tons the sites certainly merit the megalithic designation. From the small amount info I’ve been able to gather so far all the sites have been dated back to 2500 years ago. Who the builders were is still largely undetermined. My guide tells me they were, most likely, the original inhabitants of Laos; a megalithic society reaching back to the stone-age perhaps? There are also a number of theories regarding what the jars were actually used for. My guide offered a number of possibilities. One is the jars were used for cremation and burial purposes. The lack of human remains at all the sites makes this a bit unlikely. The most realistic theory, due to its practicality, is the jars were used for the storage of food stuffs, rice and water. Given the sites are all elevated well above surrounding rivers, and water courses, this seems the most likely. The fact there are lids scattered about amongst the jars makes this theory even more plausible. As my guide pointed out, the lids would keep out rain, rodents and help in the preservation of perishable items. The construction of the lids also indicates the builders were practical lot. Each lid has stepped, concentric rings meaning they could be used on different sized jars. All of the jars were transported to each site and set in place. The quarry, which unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit, is just outside Phonsavanh. According to my guide, once again, the sandstone rock was quarried out of the cliffs and the builders then got to work with chisels turning the rock lumps into the jars. A close inspection of the jars which have been broken reveals the internal chisel marks.
The picturesque setting of jars site three
This broken jar reveals the chiseling work on the interior
Something one can’t help notice as you work your way around Phonsavanh is the amount of evidence of the war that was fought between the Pathet Lao Forces and the United States. A lot of the streetside cafés and restaurants have bomb and shell casings as part of their perimeter walls. The tourist information office has a collection of bombs, shells and military hardware which measures in tons, sitting around the parking area. As one wanders around the jars sites there is also the stark evidence of the heavy bombing which took place in the area as well. Deep bomb craters pock mark the landscape and in some instances the damage to the jars is the direct consequence of the powerful bomb blasts. What is also significant is how resistant solid rock is to the effects of heavy bombing. Of the jars that were damaged it normally only occurred as the result of a near, or direct, hit. Seeing this it’s easy to understand why the Pathet Lao used caves to shelter from the bombing raids. Caves were used extensively throughout the area during the wars years as shelter from the heavy bombing. There’s a small cave at the jars site one with a number of deep craters within a few meters of the entrance. As a gesture to the memory of their deceased forebears, the locals have stacked up hundreds of rock pyramids just inside the caves’ entrance.
The front entrance to the tourist info office in Phonsavanh
A stack of war hardware to one side of the tourist office car park
A row of bomb casings just outside the office window
A powerful bomb blast (crater at the rear) caused the split in this jar
A cave, at jars site one, used by the Pathet Lao to survive the bombing raids
Another interesting cave, used by the Pathet Lao, is the Buddha Cave. At approximately fifty kilometers from Phonsavanh Township the Buddha Cave – Tham Pha – lies just beyond Nong Tang Lake. When compared with other more spectacular caves in Laos, the Buddha Cave fairly unimpressive. The Buddha statue, situated just inside the entry point to cave, is reputed to be in the vicinity of 450 years old. The interest in the cave lies in the fact it was used as a hospital during the war years. Also known as the hospital cave, it has no lighting so flashlights are required to venture farther in. Roughly half way along the black interior of the 150 meter penetration sits a rusting surgical bed. It is the only visible remains of the war within the hospital cave and, according to my informative guide, was used for operations on the injured Pathet Lao soldiers. There is actually two caves at the Buddha Cave site. Approximately 100 meters around the cliff face, from the entrance to the Hospital cave, lays the smaller medical supplies cave. A cliff hugging, narrow track will bring you to the entrance. The cave is much smaller than the Buddha/Hospital Cave and would probably be classed more as a cavern. The main point of interest is the thousands of small, empty medical bottles scattered about on the cave floor. Forty years on the waste of man’s futile efforts to settle differences through the use of violence are still in evidence as a silent marker, cluttering the cave floor, until they eventually disintegrate into the enveloping sands of time.
The long eared Buddha at Tham Pha; reputed to be 450 years old
A metal bed, within the Buddha Cave, used for surgery on injured Pathet Lao soldiers
Thousands of empty vials litter the floor in the medical supplies cave
At 6 PM on most evenings at the Lao-Falang Restaurant a documentary about the CIA’s secret war in Laos is screened. Not much is generally known about the conflict which took place during the time of the Vietnam War in this area of South-East Asia. Most, of an older generation and with some kind of interest in the tragic events which occurred during a forgettable era of the world’s history, have heard of the bombing which took place during that time in Laos. What is generally not known is the extent of the bombing raids. According to the documentary more bombs were dropped on Laos in a ten year period than all that were dropped on Germany and Japan during World War II. It is hard to contemplate or conceive of the idea of 90 million bombs being dropped on this small, and rather insignificant corner of the world. What is even harder to conceive is the insanity of the American government for even thinking a bunch of dirt poor rice farmers could be a threat to the western world’s way of life. The cost in terms of human death and financial waste is difficult to justify when surveying the dusty, parched land around Phonsavanh today. Unfortunately the effects of 10 years of unrelenting bombing are still being felt by the locals as they go about trying to make a life for themselves. A high percentage of the bombs dropped over Laos were what’s known as cluster bombs. Of the total dropped, something in the vicinity of 20 million failed to detonate (estimates given by military people interviewed for the documentary). Cluster bombs are a rather nasty type of bomb as each large bomb unit has 300 smaller “bombies” with in. The bomb unit has an outer casing which, at a predetermined altitude, separates allowing the 300 bombies to fan out and drop to the earth.
There was a triggering mechanism on each bombie which was activated as it spun towards the earth. If the bomb units opened too low to the ground the triggering mechanism would not have enough momentum to activate and the bombie would fail to ignite upon hitting the ground. A high percentage of these cluster bombs also failed to detonate due to dropping into water logged rice paddies. The unexploded ordinance has had lethal consequences well after the hostilities terminated. According to the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) the locals just lived with it for years. Death and maiming from dormant bombies were common place as they got on with the business of farming their land. These days things are a bit safer for the locals and tourists alike as MAG, for the past 15 years or so, has got on with mine clearing and instigated a program of training the locals in the art mine clearing.
A MAG marker, along the tourist trails, indicates a bomb free passage
All the main tourist attractions in the area are now cleared of bombies and safe to visit. Secure trails into each attraction are indicated, at regular intervals, by small concrete MAG markers declaring as such. The clearing work still continues, 40 years after the last bombs were dropped in the area, allowing the locals to make a better life for themselves. But, the fact remains; it is still an economically disadvantaged backwater with rice farming constituting a major part of the limited income stream for the majority of the locals. In February the rural landscape is dry and brown tinged. The dormant rice terraces providing sparse fodder for herds of foraging cattle. Most of the outlying villages have that familiar look, so often seen in other remote regions of S.E. Asia, with bamboo thatch, roughhewn timber, and rusting corrugated sheeting being predominant in dwelling construction. Those living in town, and having better access to the inflow of tourist dollars, are the more fortunate with rendered buildings and new four wheel drive vehicles a common site.
The ruins of the French hospital, bombed in the 1960s, at the old provincial capital of Muang Khoun
Even though Wikipedia makes reference to a range of ethnic diversity (Thai Dam, Khmu, and Hmong) in the area my tour guide simply referred to all populations, living in the outlying villages, as Hmong. Whether this is true, or not, I have no idea as I don’t have the depth of knowledge required to make an informed assessment of such. All, that I saw, living in the rural enclaves appeared the same with no oddities in attire to differentiate them. Perhaps, as my tour guide indicated, all are Hmong. The rainy season in these outlying rural areas apparently paints a completely different picture to the one I was presently seeing. The landscape is green, fertile and the sticky rice, a local staple, is in abundance. In the cooler, dryer months things are not quite as good and as the brown dust swirls about the parched landscape things are a bit tougher for the locals. Some, with an adequate water supply are able to turn to alternative means in terms of agriculture. Rows of vegetables are regularly seen in roadside rural plots. Other more enterprising individuals grow more lucrative crops. When my driver told me of the possibility of seeing opium fields I was a little unsure what the situation might be. The driver assured me it was for medical purposes and the lack of concern shown by the locals, at my presence, seemed to indicate they had nothing to hide; that everything was entirely legitimate. Whether it was, or not, I really had no idea but it was interesting to get an up close look at an opium poppy field. After travelling roughly 40 kilometers from Phonsavanh the driver pulled up at one of the many remote villages dotting the landscape and, after a short walk down a dusty track, we approached a fenced off area in the rear of the village. There was a herd of water buffalo to negotiate, in a penned holding yard, before pushing through a bamboo fence and into a field of lush, green growth. Some of the plants were still in bloom and a closer inspection revealed the bulbs had recently been milked.
The poverty of dusty, parched villages a common site in outlying areas
A common site in these rural villages; a young Hmong girl with child
A herd of water buffalo guarding the approaches to the opium field
Milked poppies in the afternoon sun
The story of the Hmong in Laos is an interesting one. That they populate the landscape to any great degree is a testament to their resilience. During the war between the Pathet Lao and the United States, the Hmong were recruited by the CIA to engage the communist forces in a ground war. According to the documentary, “The CIA’s Secret War in Laos,” Hmong males as young as 14 were used in that futile struggle. The attrition rate was high. In one battle alone the Hmong lost 900 soldiers. The impression the documentary tried to give is the Hmong, as a race, are lucky to exist. And yet, and yet, as a whining, ex-military, aged whistle blower prattled on about the evils of the US Government, and it’s military apparatus, the Hmong have survived. Their numbers have not diminished. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of a rural based, largely subsistence, existence. Apart from farming the land, watching TV and drinking Lao Kao there is very little to do except procreate. People marry early and having babies, at a relatively young age, has the effect of growing the population. And a youthful population tends to have a more optimistic outlook on life than an older one. They look forward rather than dwelling on the past.
The whining, ex-military, aged, whistle blower finished his pessimistic, stuck in the past, diatribe. A few minutes later the youthful face of twentyish Hmong woman flashed up on the screen. She had been through the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) training program for finding and disposing of bombs. There was no mention of the past tragedies which afflicted her nation. No recriminations. No blame. Just the idea that there was a job to get on with, in making Laos a better place, and she was proud to be doing the work for her country.
And to think you chose Laos over the invitation to join me in India….tut, tut, tut!