The Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, Laos, is certainly not the first thing that springs to mind when considering attractions in South East Asia. When compared with Cambodia’s majestic Angkor Wat, Thailand’s Grand Palace or Vietnam’s Halong Bay, the Plain of Jars, Phonsavan might seem underwhelming. After all, isn’t it just a few fields filled with giant cement jars?
Well, yes. It is. And while the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan may not have the glitz and glamour of some of South East Asia’s other attractions, it certainly has the potential to stir the imagination. There is a healthy dose of intrigue and tragedy that can be found in the history of this place. It is enough to lure any tourist to Phonsavan in North-Eastern Laos.
After all, how did hundreds of large, heavy, perfectly-shaped stone jars of different heights and widths with lids to match end up scattered across the empty fields of Laos? Indeed, some of these sites are quite far away from one another. And they’re said to date back to thousands of years ago, well before motor-driven machinery. The tallest of these jars is about 2m in height, rendering the idea of carrying one quite redundant.
In this article we’ll discuss the following: the different theories of how the Plain of Jars came to be, how to get to the Plain of Jars, how to visit Plain of Jars safely, how much it costs to visit the Plain of Jars and how many sites at the Plain of Jars there are!
Please Note: Apparently Plain of Jars refers to an actual plain that is covered in these jars, and not all sites that contain jars. However, for ease of understanding, we refer to all sites collectively as Plain of Jars.
Plain of Jars: Theories
Several theories can be cited when attempting to explain the perplexing history of the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan. However, there is no one theory that seems to explain this place’s existence perfectly.
One explanation is that a series of travelling Indian tribes left the jars there over 2000 (some believe up to 4000) years ago. It’s clear that the jars have been there for a long time. The Xieng Khuang province of Laos has access to key regional trade routes that lead to the coasts of Southern China and the plains of Korat beyond the Mekong. And there is evidence to suggest that these jars are connected with similar jars found in the North Cachar hills of the Assam state in India.
But how would a tribe of even the strongest individuals transport such heavy pieces (one jar weighs about 1 ton, with the heaviest weighing about 10 tons)? A question for which there is still no answer.
Locals have a different view. According to local legend, the jars were used to store lao-lao (Lao rice whiskey) and rice for a giant who lived in the area. The jars were made using congealed water-buffalo skin to prevent leakage. A plausible explanation if you’re willing to accept the existence of giants.
Another version claims that the jars are made from sandstone and were used for ancient funeral ceremonies. This theory is somewhat supported by human-shaped bronze figures that were carved into urns. Also, bronze and iron tools, bronze bracelets and cowrie shells were found at some of the sites.
However, there are conflicting claims about the presence of organic matter inside the jars. Some claim there is none, while others testify that cremated remains of children were present in the jars and non-cremated remains were found around the jars.
Some even suggest that the jars were simply there to collect rain water for those travelling past to drink. The jewellery and shells found nearby were offerings of thanks for the water.
Whatever the true story is, today you can find these large jars all around Phonsavan in Laos. They were damaged by heavy bombing during the Secret War waged against Laos in the 60s and 70s. See HERE for more details.
Unfortunately, the jars don’t draw as many visitors as a lot of other ancient sites in Asia. They are quite old, covered in algae, bird droppings and spider webs. Some of them seem to serve as unofficial rubbish bins. However, if the area is granted UNESCO status, then we may see an increase in tourist numbers.
Plain of Jars – How Many Sites Are There?
According to Wikipedia, there are about 90 sites in Phonsavan where these ancient jars can be found. However, the sites themselves are still being demined after the horrendous bombing that was inflicted upon Laos during the 60s and 70s. About 250,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance (UXO) remain in Laos. For this reason, only a small number (between 9 and 12) of sites are actually open to the public. They include: site 1, site 2, site 3, site 16, site 23, site 25 and site 72, although new sites are being opened all the time.
The most popular sites to visit are Site 1, Site 2 and Site 3. All three are within about 40kms of Phonsavan and easily accessible by vehicle.
For useful maps and info about these three sites and how to get to them, check out HERE.
Plain of Jars – Site 1 (Thong Hai Hin)
Plain of Jars Site 1 covers an area of about 62 acres (25 hectares) and boasts 334 jars. The jars are scattered on a small, grassy knob and down onto a small grassy clearing. The nearby limestone cave is also worth a look as it has become a bit of a Buddhist shrine Legend might have you believe that these caves were used as crematoriums in the past as there is evidence of the walls inside being blackened by smoke.
As you explore the area, you’ll come across bomb craters on both sides of the path. They are usually marked with small blue signs in English and Laos.
Plain of Jars – Site 2 (Hai Hin Phu Salato)
Site Number 2 is slightly smaller than Site 1 with 93 jars and 14 stone discs (that are very hard to find). Apparently, these stone discs are often mistakes for jar lids, but they are in fact artefacts in and of themselves. The most interesting thing about this site (apart from the awesome jars) is the paintings of the squatting man. Similar paintings have been found in Guangxi of Southern China, suggesting some connection between the jar creators and the people living in Southern China over 2000 years ago.
The site itself is divided into two parts, with an access road running through the middle. At the site to the right of the road, there are some great views of the surrounding hills and valleys. It’s interesting to note that the lack of flora here is not due to deforestation as in other parts of Laos. It is caused by the amounts of Agent Orange used by the Americans during the Secret War in this region. As this area receives really low amounts of rainfall, the Agent Orange was washed away more slowly here.
The site to the left of the road is a nice, shady area where trees grow around, over and even through the jars. A good testament to the power of mother nature.
Plain of Jars – Site 3 (Hai Hin Lat Khai)
The third site contains 247 jars and 45 stone discs. We found this to be the most serene site. You have to walk across a quaint bamboo bridge, through surrounding paddocks, passing cows and farmers, to reach the shady grove where the main group of jars is. It is a peaceful, picturesque area, the beauty of which is only tainted by the surrounding MAG tiles that remind you of the destruction that was caused here during the Secret War.
Plain of Jars: Other Sites
Apart from the three main Jar Sites at the Plain of Jars, there are a few interesting spots to check out. Site 52 is rarely visited and can only be reached by foot. However, if you’re up for the walk, the site boasts a whopping 392 jars! For more information about how to get there, see HERE.
Another site that well and truly worth checking out is Phu Keng Jar Quarry (Keng Mountain). It’s basically a Jar Site on the side of a huge hill. It’s only about 14km from the centre of Phonsavan and entry costs 10,000 kip (plus more if you’re on a bike).
The walk up the hill is brutal. 1200 meters of stairs on stairs on stairs. Straight up! There isn’t much shade so take a hat, sunscreen, loooots of water and a torch. After climbing for what seems like eternity, you’ll come to a T-intersection. You can go left to the secret tunnel or right to a natural cave.
The secret tunnel at this site was used by the Laos communist movement as a strategic point during the Secret War. It is well worth a visit (just make sure you take that torch). Whether you turn left or right at the intersection, you’ll be met with beautiful views of Laos valleys and countryside.
After checking everything out, you can make your way back down the never-ending stairs. Leave about 4 hours for the round trip if you’re not in super good shape. Halve that if you are well acquainted with your gym’s Stairmaster and have iron lungs. The gate to this site is locked at 5.00pm so take that into account when planning your day.
Phonsavan: Plain of Jars – Important Advice
While reading various blog posts about the Plain of Jars, we were struck by the fact that some bloggers were giving people advice on how to avoid the ticket booths at the various sites. We are not going to do that in our post and would discourage any traveler from participating in similar behavior.
Laos is a poor country with a particularly violent history of suffering and injustice. While it may seem tempting to avoid the $3 or $4 entry fee because you’ve already forked out the big money for the tour guide and air-conditioned vehicle, please take a moment to consider the decision from an ethical point of view. Even if the majority of your money goes to the Laos government, a portion will most likely be given to the people who are working at the ticket booths. Is it really worth ripping them off a few dollars?
Also. The jars are cool and interesting. But standing on, sitting inside or posing disrespectfully around the jars for the sake of a insta picture is not. Just because the place isn’t teeming with tourists doesn’t mean you have a licence to behave improperly.
Is Plain of Jars Dangerous?
The answer to the question of whether the Plain of Jars dangerous or not is both yes and no. Laos, as an entire country, and the province of Xieng Khuang are unfortunately home to large numbers of UXO. This means that practically the whole country has to be demined. A painstaking and lengthy process that is being carried out by many committed individuals in Laos. Hard to believe that the wage for a Lao mine clearer is about $55 a month.
This is why it’s incredibly important not to stray from the marked paths in Laos and not to pick up or kick any unidentified object. Jar sites in the province will have a specific path leading through the jars and on either side of the path (sometimes just an eroded trail) you will find small cement tiles with the inscription MAG indicating that the area BETWEEN the white sides of these tiles has been demined already.
While travelling throughout Laos and particularly in Xieng Khuang province, you will see MAG teams demining different parts of the countryside. Rather than scaring you off, this should fill you with a sense of security AND a healthy respect for your own mortality. The Plain of Jars is perfectly safe. Just don’t stray from the path.
The sites themselves also serve as a reminder of the violence that was inflicted upon Laos during the Secret War. Huge craters in the ground and denuded hills and valleys are common around Laos as the country recovers from past wounds.
Xieng Khuang had, in years gone by, a bit of a bad reputation thanks to bandit and insurgent attacks. One incident in 2003 where two foreign nationals were killed, caused particular concern among tourists. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that hundreds of tourists, including us, have visited the area without even a hint of anything untoward. Nevertheless, be cautious when travelling along Route 7 between Phou Khoun and Phonsavan.
If you’re a solo traveler, check out THIS BLOG for tips and tricks.
Plain of Jars – Costs
So, how much does it cost to visit the Plain of Jars? Tours around the different sites can be booked anywhere in town and prices will only vary by a few dollars. Make sure to clarify whether your tour includes entry fees and lunch/drinks.
If you want the ‘full package’ (food, drinks, air-conditioned car, entry to all sites and a guide), then you’re looking at about 350,000 kip.
You can, alternatively, hire a motorbike for about 120,000 kip per day (plus fuel) and sort out the other costs yourself. Be mindful that some places might charge you a separate entrance fee for your bike.
Entry Fee Site 1: 15,000 kip per person
Entry Fee Site 2: 10,000 kip per person
Entry Fee Site 3: 10,000 kip per person
How To Get To The Plain of Jars
Phonsavan can be accessed by bus from most other Laos cities and can be accessed by airplane from Vientien. For more detailed information about this journey and Phonsavan itself, check out our blog post HERE.