Ponsovahn – jars and bombies

Posted from Phonsavan, Xiangkhouang, Laos.

IMG_3794Mario Andretti. Yup. That’s who the mini-van driver thought he was. That’s what my stomach said anyway. The drive from Luang Prabang was only about six hours, but that was six straight hours of rounding corners with the speed of a rodeo-barrel-runner that I was surprised no one, including myself, got sick. We were all feeling it though. Some people were suffering. The Lao countryside doesn’t disappoint though. It was much of the same beautiful scenery. I’d seen it all before – jungle-covered mountains. And I was still glued to the window.


We stopped for one pee break – well, our driver stopped at some point so he could pee too, but then we pushed clear on through to Ponsovahn. I had read there wasn’t much to do in the town. I had also read that the Plain of Jars, the site I was travelling all this way to see, was over-rated. I’d heard the opposite too. So I figured, having a lot of time on my hands, I would check it out for myself.

After Luang Prabang, Ponsovahn is kind of a let down, but it’s really not a bad little town. In fact, it’s kind of amazing when you start creeping out of the mountains into rolling foothills and lush green farmland. It reminded me of home. Then the Dutch girl in the van (who I had met in Kampot, Cambodia) said it reminded her of home. Then an Australian guy said the same thing. And then an English girl. Hmmm.


When we arrived we were swarmed by tuktuk drivers and guesthouse people vying for our patronage. After using the toilet, the four of us declined all the offers and walked (what we were told is incredibly too far to walk) 1.5km into town. I shared a room with the Dutch girl at Lao Falang – a guesthouse that could use some work, but was otherwise fine for 50,000 Kip a night (that’s about $3/each.) They showed a documentary every night about the secret American occupation in Laos during the Vietnam War. Bombs. Opium. Party-boy pilots. Things were beginning to make sense. There’s a lot of wealth in Laos that is sort of hard to explain – until drugs are taken into account. Now it makes sense.

Just some of the bombs collected ... they use the aluminum fins to make touristy items ... and spoons. I bought a spoon.

Just some of the bombs collected … they use the aluminum fins to make touristy items … and spoons. I bought a spoon.

We went looking around for motorbikes to rent, as I was feeling brave and the terrain seemed more manageable. We found out later it was a good thing we were unsuccessful in finding bikes. The roads were being re-worked so they could be paved. They were disastrous. We probably would’ve died. What we ended up doing was booking transportation with Lao Youth Travel for 80,000 Kip to jars sites 1, 2 and 3. There’s a weird monopoly on transportation in the town, though. Tuktuks are not allowed to take people to the sites, and while they are close enough to ride a bicycle there, it would be tough riding. So the tour rides offered range from 180,000 Kip to 400,000 Kip. We realized we were really lucky when the owner of the agency offered to take four of us for such a cheapish price. It was about $10 each for the day.


The jars sites are bizarre. No one knows what they were used for or why there’s so many of them. There’s dozens of sites across Laos, but due to UXOs many of them are still quite dangerous and inaccessible. What you learn in Laos is that during the Vietnam/American war, the United States used the plains area to dispose of their artillery (bombs) that they couldn’t land with. It is the most heavily bombed area in the whole world. This bombing went on for over 10 years and the toll on Lao people continues to this day. Some are too scared to farm their fields as there are still bombies (UXOs,) often cluster bombs, strewn through their fields.




While walking through the sites there are bricks on the ground inscribed with MAG (Military Advisory Group) that mark where they have cleared the land of bombies and it’s safe to walk. They caution you to not go outside the white zone. Interspersed with the jars are craters. At first you see one or two, then you start to see the craters when driving down the road. It’s amazing and shocking. And then you see a MAG team in a field marking where a UXO is and getting prepared to disarm it or discharge it.

The red paint marks where there's a UXO.

The red paint marks where there’s a UXO.

But back to the jars. The jars are nifty. At site 1 there’s over 400 jars and a cave. We strolled through the site casually taking photos. It wasn’t until site 2 that we realized how few tourists come to see these sites. At site 3 we were alone for about 10 minutes. We had to walk through rice paddies and climb over a few fences, but site 3 was my favourite. It’s remote and beautiful. They have theorized that these 2000-year-old jars (or older) were either used for burial (due to bones they found in the 1920s) or for making wine. Who knows. There were lids for some of the jars, but I can’t imagine why they would need massive stone lids. They’re mysterious. They’re old. And they’re nifty. I would recommend checking them out – and even if you don’t like history the scenery is pretty awesome too.

Walking through the rice paddies.

Walking through the rice paddies.

On the way back from the jars we stopped to see a dilapidated Russian tank (well, tank from the northern Laos army) and we stopped by a local village to taste some lao-lao – a rice whiskey which basically tastes like pure alcohol. Oh, and we saw a cock fight. Seriously.


The rice being fermented to make the impressive yet cheapest alcohol in the world.

The rice being fermented to make the impressive yet cheapest alcohol in the world.

Somehow the night ended with more lao-lao. The morning included a headache and lots of rain. I also had the pleasure of another Dale Earnhardt as we wound our way back through the mountains, sometimes hitting the roof of the van as our driver neglected to reduce his speed over numerous unpredictable speedbumps on the way to Vang Vieng – where I hoped to go tubing and kayaking (but would otherwise experience bad weather for a few days and spend a lot of time watching Ryan Renolds movies and typing away on my computer.)


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