Visiting the Plain of Jars in Laos: A Complete First-Hand Guide

A large stone jar in Laos

I was more excited to be visiting the Plain of Jars than almost anywhere else on our three month sabbatical in Southeast Asia.

At the time of our trip, Plain of Jars was still somewhat off the main tourist trail, making our visit feel like a journey into slightly uncharted territory. Unlike the Temples of Angkor or Old Quarter of Hanoi, the Plain of Jars hasn’t yet got worldwide fame, owing in part to its location and in part to a huge quantity of unexploded mines and bombs that still litter the area.

When you add the element of pioneering to the mystery that surrounds the jars, their purpose and how they came to be there, it became the perfect recipe to feed my intrigue and meant I arrived more excited than ever.

In this article, I document our journey in great detail including our route, costs, stories and also share my research on the mystery of the Plain of Jars.

I hope you enjoy it, if you have any of your own thoughts to add then I’d be delighted to see them in the comments at the end.

Ben


Visiting the Plain of Jars

The usual route through Laos takes a traveller from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, Vientiane and then maybe on down to the Thakhek Loop or as far as Si Phan Don and the 4,000 Islands.

As you can see in the map below, Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars aren’t really on that route, so to get there isn’t always easy, as there aren’t too many services that run.

Map of Laos highlighting location of the Plain of Jars

Getting to Phonsavan

There are two main choices for getting to Phonsavan (the closest town to the Plain of Jars), bus or plane, though you can pay for a private tour too. Tourism in Phonsavan is still in its infancy compared to other places in Laos, and it’s not an easily accessible place, though this is getting better.

Getting to Phonsavan by Bus

There are bus routes to Phonsavan from most major cities in the north – Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.

The travel times are around six hours from Vang Vieng, eight from Luang Prabang and eleven from Vientiane.

In all the major towns you will find up to date information at local booking agencies. Where you can, try to use ‘tourist buses’ even if they are a bit more expensive, as they tend to be bigger and have air-conditioning. Minibuses are generally cramped and hot, so avoid them if you can.

The bus routes are not as well developed as those that follow the more established route from north to south. On our trip from Luang Prabang we found ourselves on a large minibus, with no air conditioning that threw us around the mountain passes. It was tolerable, but certainly not the best travel experience of our trip.

The photo above is the bus that we got, here are a few notes I took from the trip:

  • No seatbelts
  • No toilets stopped twice on the trip for a break
  • It was cheaper to buy a ticket at the bus station than through an agent
  • We were sold ‘seat at the front for more legroom’. In reality, it was a minibus and we sat wherever there was space. Glad we got there early to get a decent seat!
  • Stopped for lunch at a restaurant and shop about half way
  • No air-con on the bus, though the windows opened to let a breeze in
  • Left Luang Prabang at 0830, arrived in Phonsavan at 1610

Getting to Phonsavan by Plane

The outside of the terminal building of Vieng Khouang Airport
The tiny airport of Xieng Khouang

There is an airport just outside Phonsavan called Xieng Khouang to which the only connecting airports are currently Vientiane and Luang Prabang(correct March 2020).

Flights leave Vientiane at 1220 daily and after a quick turnaround leave Xieng Khouang at 1350. The flight time is only half an hour.

You also get a good view of Jar site 1 as you take off from Xieng Khouang.

Current price is around $140 for a return ticket to Vientiane, but you can find up to date information on the Lao Airlines website.

Where to Stay in Phonsavan

We stayed in the Hillside Residence which is on a quiet sidestreet in Phonsavan. It was about a 10-minute walk into the centre where there were local restaurants and shops.

The hotel provided breakfast and was really helpful with booking us a tour to the Plain of Jars.

Below is a map of all the places available to stay in Phonsavan.

Booking.com

Plain of Jars Facts

  • The tallest jar is three metres tall
  • They are mostly made of sandstone (over 80% of them) but some are made of harder granite or limestone
  • There are thought to be around 3,000 jars, but more have been discovered as recently as 2019
  • The heaviest jars weigh as much as 10 tons
  • There are thought to be around 90 sites
  • Some jars were transported over 10km from where they were made

Plain of Jars Day Tour

The whole of Phonsavan is set up to cater for the Plain of Jars, though you can get to the sites by yourself.

Jar Site 1 is only a few kilometres out of town and could be easily accessed by pushbike if needed. 

There are also numerous places to hire motorbikes in Phonsavan. The roads we saw were generally pretty good, though the last 10km or so to get to jar sites 2 and 3 was sand and gravel, so be careful in the rainy season.

There are many tour companies in the town which will organise tours to the jar sites. Most have set routes, but you can find yourself with some fairly large tour groups. This has the advantage of keeping the price down but might sour your experience.

Most hotels also offer private tours. We paid 600,000 Kip for a private car and driver who was with us for the entire day, and took us around the three main jar sites, plus to a couple of other attractions that are on the itinerary of most companies (see below). The advantage of this is you can get out early and to the sites furthest away from Phonsavan, which means you’re likely to have them almost to yourself. In my opinion, it was worth the extra money to get an Indiana Jones-style experience at Jar Sites 2 & 3, rather than traipsing around Jar Site 1 with the huge groups we saw at the end of our trip.

Booking a Plain of Jars Tour Online

If you feel uneasy about waiting to book a tour until you arrive in Phonsavan then you can pre-book online with companies such a Viator.

These tend to be a bit more expensive until you get to a group of 3 or more as they generally charge by a group of ‘up to 8’ rather than per person.

You can also book longer tours from Luang Prabang which will remove the need to find transport to Phonasvan.

Plain of Jars Tour and Old Capital Visit (Around £110 for up to 8 people)
This Tour visits all the Jar Sites and the Old Capital City in a private car over a full day.

Private Tour from Luang Prabang to Plain of Jars (Around £335 for up to 7 people)
This three-day tour picks up from Luang Prabang and visits villages on the way to Phonsavan. On day two it has a full tour of all the jar sites. Day three they then drive you to Vientiane, saving the cost of flights. This does not include the cost of accommodation or food.

All Plain of Jars Tours
A list of all tours currently offered by Viator that include the Plain of Jars. There are some exciting ones here, from motorbike trips to full tours of the country.

Suggested Plain of Jars Route

If you have hired your own transport to see the Plain of Jars or have a chance to specify a route with your guide, then the below itinerary should help you to plan.

It means you get to the sites furthest away from Phonsavan early in the day when they are quiet, and also get to walk between Jar Sites 2 and 3, which will really give you an appreciation for the countryside they’re set in.

This route will take around six hours depending on how long you take for the trek. We took a cross-country walking route (detailed below) that added about an hour to the day.

If you get a choice, suggest a pick-up time of 0730-0800 which should get you to Jar Site 2 around 0900, which should mean you’re there before most other tourists.

Below is a mix of factual detail and stories from our time at the Plain of Jars.

Suggested Route:

  • The Tourist Information Centre on the outskirts of Phonsavan
  • Jar Site 2
  • Walk to Jar Site 3
  • Jar Site 3
  • Lunch
  • Ban Napia – War Spoon Village
  • The Russian Tank
  • Jar Site 1

Plain of Jars Map

Xieng Kouang Tourism Office

Our first stop was the Xieng Kouang Tourism Office which not only has information about the jar sites but some interesting relics in the gardens, leftover from the ‘Secret War’ that happened in Laos.

During the Vietnam War (or American War if you live in this part of the world), over 500,000 bombing runs were completed over Laos by the United States in an attempt to stop the spread of communism further east.

This makes Laos the most bombed country per capita of any in the world and means more bombs were dropped on Laos than in the whole of Europe during the Second World War.

I touch on this, partly because it’s impossible to visit rural Laos and not realise the devastation that this nine-year period caused here, but also because the thousands of unexploded munitions left in the ground are the reason that the Plain of Jars has remained off the tourist trail for so long.

If you want to know more about the Secret War in Laos and its impact on the country then have read of my visit to the UXO Museum in Luang Prabang where I go into lots more detail.

Close up of a rusty tank
The rusty top of an old tank, taken in the grounds of Xieng Kouang Tourism Office

This is the top of what looks an old tank.

Pile or rusty shells and mortars at Xieng Kouang Tourism Office
The casings of shells, bombs and mines removed from the local area.

Plain of Jars Site 2

So after a small journey in the car, here we were at Jar site 2. The driver told us it was an easy walk to Jar site 3 from here, so dropped us off and said he’d meet us there.

The site is split into two by the road, with each side very different.

On one side there are jars on the top of a small hill with dramatic views of the plains beyond, on the other side jars secluded in a small copse of trees.

First, we headed up the small hill to the jars, that overlooked the plains.

I could barely contain my excitement. We had planned this Southeast Asia sabbatical many months ago and this place had been on my list right from the start.

Seeing the first jar sitting there stoically against the elements as it had done for over 1,500 years was a little surreal. As always, when you’ve dreamed of visiting somewhere for so long, getting there never quite feels real.

The jar sat in front of me as plainly as a traffic cone on a London street. Another object in a world of objects, a grouping of atoms reflecting light into my eyes. Looking forward is always exciting, looking back nostalgic but being in the moment, being present and realising what’s in front of my eyes, I’ve always struggled with that.

But nonetheless here we were.

As we walked further down the boot-worn red tracks through the grass, more jars came into view.

Whilst I’d read there was lots of variation in the size of the jars, the ones here were all fairly consistent. I’d guess at about five foot tall (with probably another foot or so buried underground), each slightly wider at the bottom than at the top and with a hole down the middle about the size of a dustbin lid in diametre.

There are ancient tales that the jars were left behind by a giant wandering the plains. In these imposing surroundings looking out over the valleys, it’s not hard to see where the stories came from.

We crossed back over the road and climbed a short, muddy track into the woods for the second part of Jar Site 2.

Whilst undoubtedly the same objects we had just seen, these jars in the woods felt different – more intimate, more secretive.

Time and nature have taken their toll here, with many of the jars showing damage from roots, whilst others were completely split in two by their forest neighbours.

Two damaged jars in the woods, one falling over at the Plain of Jars in Laos.

The leaves above and rotting bark below dampened the sound, making for an eerie setting. The only sound was reflecting off of the jars themselves, occasionally echoing around their ancient interiors and being shot back out again like an early stone amplifier.

There are not many places in the world where it’s possible to get this close to such incredible historical landmarks, but to do so unescorted was more unusual still. We had the place to ourselves, no other tourists, no locals, just us and the jars.

In some ways, it felt no different to a stroll through our local park on a Sunday morning: the sigh of trees bending in the breeze, the damp of morning dew rising from the ground, the pointillistic light art breaking up the shadows.

But in others, it felt very different.

Namely those bloody huge jars lying all over the place.

Certainly not something you see every day!

Walking from Jar Site 2 to Jar Site 3

We decided to walk from Jar Site 2 to Jar Site 3, which according to the driver was ‘easy’.

And I guess that is the case if you go in the right direction!

We set a path up the hill that cut the plain in two. This seemed to be the most direct route according to Maps.me, however, it quickly became clear that it would have been best to stay on the dusty road and go around the bottom of the hill.

Laos is not a place you want to go off-road in the countryside.

This is why….

These small stone markers placed by the Mines Advisory Group are designed to show where it was safe to walk. Stay inside them and be comfortable that the area has been cleared of unexploded ordnance. Step outside them and we were at risk of joining the 20,000 people who have been killed or injured by mines and bombs since the war ended.

This is an easy rule to follow.

That is until the path became little more than a cow track and, where the markers were visible, they were living a solitary life. It’s a little hard to stay ‘in-between’ markers when only one is present and more than a little disconcerting to wonder which side you should be on!

Views over the plain of jars

Still, the trek up the hill had led to some stunning views over the plains. There had been heavy rain the previous day and the river was swelling over its banks onto the flood plains around it.

The other benefit of getting off the beaten track is we saw jars that must be rarely seen by tourists. Whilst more than 90 jar sites have been identified, most are either inaccessible or only contain a few jars, meaning most people only visit the three big sites.

This walk showed us just how many jars are littered across the plain, often looking completely out of place, like cans tossed out the window of a passing car.

You can see in the left photo above just how confusing the MAG markers could be, which side of this should we be standing exactly?

Plain of Jars Site 3

We got to Jar Site 3 around 1130 after what turned out to be about a 4km walk over the hill, which culminated in me ending up knee-deep in red mud, much to the amusement of a local farmer.

We found our driver waiting by the payment kiosk (who also seemed very amused at my mud-covered legs), paid our money and headed through.

It is a 10 minutes walk through farmland to reach the jars but by now the sun was fully out, turning the rice fields into a green colour that didn’t look entirely natural.

Plain of Jars site 3, stone jars in a forest covered in lichen.

This jar site is again set in a small cluster of trees. The jars here are less uniform, with some that are much wider and others thinner and taller.

The impact of the bombs also showed at this site, with a number of the jars blown in half and others showing damage.

The walk between sites, followed by this final push made this feel the most authentic of the three sites we visited. They are away from roads and houses and whilst there is some farming activity here they do feel really hidden away in the landscape.

Lunch

Showing a little boy photos on a digital camera

Just outside Jar Site 3 is a small restaurant where a local lady serves noodle soup.

For ₭90,000 (around £8) we had the most amazing homemade soup, full of vegetables and chillies as well as some much needed cold drinks.

The owner’s little boy was fascinated by the camera and wanted to look at the photos we’d taken during the day. He didn’t seem to understand why we’d come all this was to visit the jars that he must have been playing amongst all his life!

Ban Napia: The War Spoon Village

Next stop for us was Ban Napia, which has also been nicknamed the ‘War Spoon Village’ thanks to an unusual trade which is practised here.

Local villages collect the casings of old bombs, melt them down in homemade kilns and pour the liquid metal into wooden casts.

Ban Napia is home to around 50 families, and around a third of them make money this way. The whole family will get involved, from collecting the metal to grinding down the sometimes rough edges of the creations.

It is a controversial skill, with claims that it encourages locals to go into dangerous areas looking for metal. With being the Laos poorest country in Asia and much of the land unavailable for farming due to the unexploded ordnance, people have had to find other ways of supporting their families and this is one of them.

FURTHER READING:
The Village That Turns Bombs Into Spoons
Relics of the Secret War in Laos

The Russian Tank, Plain of Jars

An old rusty Russian Tank at the side of a red mud road in Laos

Our next stop off was known as ‘The Russian Tank’ because, I guess, it is a tank and it is Russian.

It was not really worth the stop off, but it was on route and the driver seemed pretty determined, so we dutifully took some photographs and hopped back in the car.

Plain of Jars Site 1

Site 1 is the biggest, easiest to access and most visited of all on the Plain of Jars.

This feels the closest to actually being a tourist attraction, with a visitors centre and small bus ferrying people to the jars.

We decided to walk, which could easily have been a mistake given the brooding clouds above but we managed to avoid the showers and it was only a 15-minute walk over the top of a small hill.

Jar Site 1 has a number of unique elements to it. The biggest jar, jars with lids, jars with carvings on them and a large cave which is thought to be an ancient crematorium. We could see exactly why it was so popular, a kind of one-stop-shop of all the interesting parts of the Plain of Jars.

Walking down towards the start of the jars there was lots of damage visible from bombs dropped in the area. You can see above one crater which was marked out with a sign and a jar which has been completed shattered by a nearby impact.

This was the first time we had seen a jar with a lid on it at any of the jar sites and even then there was on a single one. Many of the jars are thought to have originally had lids but the theory is they were made of wood and have since rotted away.

One of the most interesting sights here is the huge jar that is found in the far corner of the site. It is thought to weigh over 10 tons and would be nearly three metres tall if fully excavated. It is the biggest jar found so far in the area.

This site is easily the biggest of the Plain of Jars, but it wasn’t our favourite. At the time we got there it was very busy and it was sad to see people climbing on top of and into the jars. It’s great that these incredible objects are so open for people to see however, there needs to be some more control put in place in order to protect them for the future. As this place grows in popularity, more people will visit and they could easily be lost for the next generation if not protected.

Jar Site 1 is the closest to Phonsavan, and we were finished here at around 3pm and got dropped back off at our hotel.


The Mystery Of The Plain of Jars

When I was a kid I had a picture book that described the great mysteries of the world, from the Turin Shroud to the fairy circles of the Namib Desert. I found it fascinating, all these unsolved puzzles, in what felt like unreachable places miles from home. I think there’s something about an unsolved mystery that intrigues us all, giving our mind space to fill in the blanks and imagine our own stories.

It’s a reality of life though, that with the advancement of science and archaeology, more and more mysteries are being solved. It’s now easy to map the entirety of Loch Ness or prove that the Mayans died out due to drought, not alien intervention. We now know that the Bosham Head was from a statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan, and we’ve even found the body of Richard III (though that was more down to luck than science!).

But they’re not all solved…. 

….Today, we were heading out from a quiet town in Xiangkhoang Province, Central Laos to see with our own eyes one of the greatest mysteries in Asia, the Plain of Jars.

There are two elements that bring mystery to the Plain of Jars.

Firstly, no-one really knows why the jars are there. There are many theories, which I will cover in detail below, but as of yet no conclusive proof exists. In some ways it’s similar to Stonehenge in the UK. An incredible feat of manpower (some of the jars are estimated to weigh over 10 tons), in an age long before mechanical assistance, and with no written records to give us clarity as to their purpose. 

The second part of the mystery is thanks to the ‘Secret War’ in Laos. Amid fear of the spread of Communism through Asia, the United States of America dropped over 280 million bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973 to try and cut off supply lines between North and South Vietnam. Around a third of these bombs didn’t explode, leaving an estimated 80 million unexploded ordnance or UXO littered across the Laotian countryside. 

This means the Plain of Jars has been largely inaccessible for many years due to the risks associated with the unexploded bombs. Some sites have now been cleared, but most are still off-limits to the public until they are cleared. There are over 90 sites, but at the time of writing, only eight are safe enough to visit.

This leaves the Plain of Jars still shrouded in mystery. With so many UXO to clear, large parts of it will continue to remain cut off for many years. Whilst sites have been made-safe recently (such as the Phou Keng Quarry), you will hear tales of ‘site 48’ or ‘quarry 2’, leaving you with the excited feeling of butterflies in your stomach, longing to see a mystery world still out there in the hills.


The Plain Of Jars History and Theories

The Jars have been dated back to the Iron Age, so that makes them somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 years old.

They remained all but secret to the Western World until 1932 when a French geologist and archaeologist Madelaine Colani surveyed the area for École Française d’Extrême-Orient, a French institute dedicated to the study of Asian civilizations.

She put together all her findings and theories in a 719-page two-volume epic called The Megaliths of Upper Laos, which was written in French.

In the book, she sets out her theory that the jars were used as part of a funerary process.

Colani believes this site was on a trade route that went as far as Northern India. There have been similar jars found in North Cachar District in Assam that are unparalleled anywhere in India. There have also been stone urns found in the Pyu cities of Myanmar a practice which may well have been picked up from a previous cultural group in the area,

Very little is known about the people who created the jars, though Colani believes they used the jars as part of an ancient funeral process, where bodies were put in the jars to decompose before being buried nearby. During her research in the 1930s glass beads as well as burnt bones and teeth were found in the jars. Around the jars, archaeologists found grave goods and bones.

Archaeologists think the jars originally had lids, as lips around the top of them would allow a lid to sit without falling. One jar at site 1 still has a stone lid and it is thought the rest were made from perishable material such as one. Stone discs between the jars mark the location of graves.

Whilst this is by far the most popular theory, little to nothing is known about the people who created the jars or where they went to after the sites were abandoned, so there is no concrete evidence.

Another theory is that the jars were used to store water from monsoon rains for travelling traders.

Rainwater could then be boiled, even if stagnant, to become potable again, a practice long understood in Eastern Eurasia. The trade caravans that were camping around these jars and could have placed beads inside jars as an offering, to accompany prayers for rain or they might simply have been lost items.

The local legend is of a race of giants who used the jars as chalices to celebrate great victories, sipping rice wine with the biggest jar reserved for the king himself.


Plain Of Jars – The Future

*Please note I started writing this post in 2018. The Megalithic Jar Sites in Xiengkhuang officially became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019.

With a live application in to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Plain of Jars may well be getting closer to becoming secure for future generations. UNESCO heritage site status would see an influx of money, partly from the extra media attention and tourism benefits, and partly from UNESCO’s preservation fund. 

This would help fund the effort to clear the UXO from the remaining sites and open the entire plain up to potential visitors.

But there is a downside too.

Jar Site 1 already feels like it is starting to wear away through tourism. We witnessed people climbing all over the jars in order to get the perfect photo. More tourists means more potential for damage. There are signs everywhere warning people to show respect. Most did, but as with most things in life, it is the actions of the few that cause problems for the majority.

It was an incredible feeling to be by ourselves amongst the jars. It was like being an explorer, happening across an ancient monument dug into the hillside. At Jar sites 2 and 3 we were all alone, and on the walk between the two, we even found some jars on a hillside that don’t appear to be listed anywhere.

But with more tourists, this would have to change. To quote directly from the UNESCO website:

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.” UNESCO Heritage sites “belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located”. 

This would mean a big shift in attitude by Laos. 

I don’t think we are many years from these extraordinary monuments being locked away behind fences and walls. It’s the unfortunate, but logical evolution of World Heritage Site status. UNESCO is not going to sign off the application and start handing over money unless Laos can prove they have steps in place to ensure the preservation of the Plain of Jars for the future.

I couldn’t help feeling today that I was part of an experience that will gradually become extinct.

I remember my parents telling stories of being able to touch and even climb on the stones at Stonehenge as kids. Now you can’t even get close. They are protected by fences and tourists are marshalled around on footpaths. I felt like the stories, photos and videos we’ve got today will, in a not too distant future, become the stuff of archive footage and ‘remember the good old days’ tales.

This is one of those bittersweet realities of life that has to be stomached. 

No control means an uncertain future, but complete control leaves you feeling like the experience wasn’t authentic.

I’m genuinely excited about the future of the Plain of Jars. This place really pricks that sense of mystery I had as a kid, and I’d love to come back and experience more of these incredible jar sites.

But I’m also left wondering as to what that experience in the future will feel like.

Can Laos get the balance right between tourism and preservation in a way that keeps the Plain of Jars feeling both accessible and authentic

It’s a tough question, but regardless of the challenges that lie ahead, it’s a place that’s worth the effort.


Further Reading and Interesting Articles

Whilst researching this post I came across lots of interesting articles about the Plain of Jars. My favourites are below and add more to the story of the Jars.

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