Saturday, March 15, 2014

Phonsavan: Plains of Jar

Our minivan, which wasn’t packed to the fullest for a change left Vang Vieng in the morning at around 9. There were only two locals apart from two of us, a Dutch guy and a French girl. The limestone mountains never left us, but soon we were in the heart of these mountains. Flat and straight road  was replaced by a winding road sloping up the mountain. The river along the road was replaced by a beautiful valley lush green with various kinds of tropical trees, bananas dominating among them. I was thankful not to have eaten too much as the minivan kept swinging us from one side to another. In spite of the ever winding road, the ride was beautiful.
As we finally hit the straight road again and arrived in Phonsavan, dust cloud was in the air, giving it a brownish color. This, plus the wooden houses along the road side gave it wild-west feel. As we walked in search of a guesthouse, the wild-west feel changed suddenly, and now the town seemed all Russian, rugged and dusty. Most of the guesthouses and restaurants display wide variety of bombs and bombshells, as if it’s a decorative item. 
Bombs displayed at a restaurant

Settling down in the guesthouse, we took a small walking tour of the town. It has only one main street and all restaurants and most of the guesthouses are along this street. A small alley leads you to the fresh market selling fresh vegetables and meat. There is a MAG office on the street, similar to Cope centre in Vientiane which gives information about bombing and UXO clearance mission.
Before going for dinner, we were surprised, when our guesthouse owner offered us home-made wine having opium fruits, which we refused. In the evening we were shown couple of short films related to American bombing and CIA secret war to give us the feeling of what happened a few decades ago. Phonsavan turned out to be on American radar and most of the bombs were dropped in this part of the country.
So this time our group consisted of me, Josette and the Dutch guy and French girl we met on the van. Next day, we rented a couple of motor-bikes for 80,000 kip each and set off in search of what we had come there for, Plain of Jars. A few decades ago, an archaeologist, found burial remains and a big jar near Phonsavan, which lead to the discovery of something special. Huge stone jars, assumed to be used in burial ritual, span southern part of the town for many a miles. The jars weigh between 800 KGs to 6 Tonnes. It’s an archaeological wonder and till now, there has not been clear information about their origin and time period. Archaeologists believe that these jars are from stone age and were used in burial rituals. Local legend, instead states, that the jars were used by giants to make rice wine. No matter what you believe, the jar sites are quite impressive and a must do activity if you are in Laos. Unfortunately however, these jar sites were not spared in the bombing and many of the jars were destroyed during the war. There are also UXOs on almost all the jar sites and MAG is working hard to clear it. Once cleared of all UXOs, these sites are mostly likely to receive World Heritage status.
There are more than 80 jar sites discovered till now, out of which 3 sites are easily accessible. Based on a map and directions given by the owner of the rental agency we reached Jar Site 1 in less than 30 minutes. Its proximity to the city means that this is most famous jar site and most crowded as well. Entrance to this site costs 15,000 kip. A small dirt road runs a span of the hill where you get your first glimpses of the Jars. The largest jar weighing 6 tonnes is at this jar site. There are numerous boards giving warnings about UXOs and also a couple of B-52 bomb craters giving us a chilling reminder of the massive bombing. Small red and white tiles placed by MAG provide a path and you are better off within these marked paths. There are more than a hundred jars here each differing in size and shape. Only one jar has a lid, and it maybe that all the jars were covered with these lids during ancient times. There is also a small cave having small stone mounds kept by people for worshipping. As you climb a hill, it gives you a clear view of the plain dotted with dark stone jars, some standing tall and some touching the ground. Yellow-green grass covers the plain and small seasonal flowers jutting out dance on the wind. It has every feel of a lost and forgotten place from the history of mankind.
A jar at Jar Site 1

A different design

This one had a lid and looked like a mushroom

Cave at Site 1

Second and third jar sites are further ahead and take at least an hour from each other. The road is not good and mostly is a winding dust road, at times covered with big stones or huge amount of sand, testing the tyres to the fullest! Second jar sites consist of two adjacent hills having numerous jars on the hilltops. There is a big tree in the center which appears to have grown straight from the jar thereby causing the jar to break from all sides. 
Jar at Site 2

Third jar site needs a small hike from the ticket centre through rice fields and a small rustic village with no apparent activity. As you cross a small wooden bridge and enter the rice field, you get a feel of being in middle of nowhere. You have to climb yet another small hill which is covered by many trees and stone jars lying idly in the shadows thereof. It can get quite breezy on the top and not many tourists come here. Evening maybe the best time to go to the third site. Tickets for both second and third sites are 10,000 kip each.
Jars at Site 3

Way to jar site 3 through rice fields

Having done all the sites and with a lot of time to spare, we decided to visit a spoon village. After lot of asking around, we found our directions and we were once again on dirt road, our bikes raising the clouds of dust as we rode through empty villages and barren landscape. Soon, my bike started to cause some problem and we realised that the rear wheel had started to give up and moving a little. Ignoring its pleas for repair, we continued on to the village. Before reaching the village we saw a cloud of smoke rising in the distance which must have been a controlled explosion of a UXO by MAG folks. 
An explosion cloud in the distant

Continuing on, we reached a sign saying “Welcome to the Spoon Village”. 
It a small village, probably consisting of less than 50 houses, most of them carrying boards of “Mr....makes spoons out of bombs”. As the boards state, most of the families in this village collect bombs or bomb parts and convert them into spoons, key-chains or other souvenirs to be sold to tourists. As we entered a house we saw a woman sitting near what looked like a small furnace with moulds, making spoons. She welcomed us with “Sabaiddee” and we sat there for a while watching the process. Soon, her son brought a small bomb to show us exactly which part is melted. The bomb still had the fuse (which is not a good sign) and all of us were pretty scared. He was trying hard to open the bomb and finally his mother took over the job. As she started to turn two parts of the bomb, the French girl ran away, scared and all of us held our breaths getting ready for an explosion. But finally when the two pieces came together, the woman wearing a wide smile now showed us the empty contents of the bomb. Still a bit scared, we returned her the smile, before moving out of the house.
Set up for making spoons

A kid trying to open a bomb as if its a toy

A real (but empty) bomb

We decided walk the full length of the village and soon found a red board belonging to MAG carrying a warning that bomb clearing work was undergoing and asking us to stay away. Dutch guy who served in the military for six years was quite courageous and he asked one local if he could go across the fields to watch them work. With a short and quick “No” we were turned back. But before we left, we caught a glimpse of MAG people at work, out in the field, probably trying to locate the bomb or having located, trying to evacuate the village.
MAG warning board
The spoon village
Maybe about 30 kms from the jar site 2 there is an ancient statue of Buddha and with some time still in hand we decided to go there. However, instead of going back to the main road, we decided to take a short cut which runs just outside jar site 3 and takes you through many small villages on a very bad dirt track. If I had a better bike with stronger wheels, I would have probably loved this ride. The dirt road ran through numerous rice fields, climbing up the hills before running down again, small houses would appear in between and hardly any people around. But soon, my bike gave it up completely and the rear wheel started to move viciously. It looked like a never-ending ride and at a particular point of time I felt that we might get stuck there. But as it turned out, it was indeed a short cut and before long we could see a tar road running right across a field. Pushing the bike further we finally hit a proper road. But we decided to take no further risk and took the bike to a repair shop instead.  The repairman shook his head and showed us the number of spokes that were broken due to bad road. He quickly estimated the amount of repair work which was kip 40,000 and was quite helpful in calling and telling our rental guy before starting the work. The rental guy agreed to refund us 40,000 kip.

The repairman was a fast worker and as the evening rolled on; he had already removed the wheel and started to replace the spokes. His old mother was sitting on a small stool, facing the road. Soon a few kids came there on small bicycles and one of them turned out to be his son. The mother, the repairman and these kids had something about them that in spite of such a bad ride, I was feeling quite relaxed and peaceful. Maybe it was the helpful nature of the repairman or the smiles all of them carried all the while. Maybe it was lack of any other activity. Whatever it was, half an hour spent at this repair shop left an imprint on my mind. And as I rode back on the plain street, sun setting down to my left and wind on my face, I realised that the whole day was a success and riding the broken bike was an adventure I will never forget!

Bike under repair

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