Wednesday 14 January 2015

Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars: On the Road from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng

The sloping river banks and colonial French architecture of Luang Prabang were tugging at our hearts as we bumped out of the city in the direction of the Phonsavan. Our expectation of the next destination looked a lot less appealing than where we had been reclining for the last week and even the name sounded leaden in comparison to the chirruping ‘Luang Prabang’. We had been told vehemently however that Phonsavan and the ancient stone ‘jars’ spread across the Xieng Khourang plateau were a ‘must-see’. Also, considering that our destination after that was to be Vang Vieng - the river side town saturated with hostels, booze and cushioned bars supporting drowsy backpackers watching Family Guy and eating chicken burgers – we felt we ought to get some culture out the way first.

Smoking languidly at an empty bus stop past the scheduled departure time, we would have missed our coach if it hadn’t been for the frantic cry we heard behind us: 'Phonsavan! That one there!' We turned to see three girls, red-faced and strapped to backpacks, racing across the station. We grabbed our bags and joined their rush towards a coach with the words Phonsavan scrawled faintly on a lined-piece of A4 stuck to the windscreen.

We found seats at the back of the coach next to a French couple and their child, all with loose cotton clothing covering rich, mahogany skin. The woman had thick blonde hair that hung free over her shoulders, as did her daughter, who was laying, wriggling across their laps with her legs splayed. The man had a large nose, that looked - in the French fashion - more noble than grotesque, below sparkling black eyes and a mat of charcoal hair speckled with grey which descended down his cheeks into a four day beard. As the woman produced a small wicker pouch of sticky rice and began wrapping balls of it up into dried seaweed, the man launched his nose into the face of his daughter, repeatedly intoning in an alarming rumble: ‘Hallo Baby! Hallo Baby!’

One of us followed the example of the red-faced girls in front, pulling the curtain to and trying to fall asleep, while us other two craned our necks passed the feasting French too look at the landscape beyond. Our coach was soon ascending into the mountain range. The road we were taking was known to be particularly stomach-churning but the world outside was worth any sickness. Great clefts of mountain rose up around us draped in the thick, green forest: awesome towers of foliage clumped together in a range that peaked and loomed all about us, our broken road clinging to the edge. We were heading South East to the province of Xieng Khouang; an eight hour journey to Phonsavan, the capital of the region. A few hours into the journey we were granted a better view of the swooping valleys bellow us. We stopped at the Lao answer to services: a few huts selling stale biscuits and miniatures of the national flag. Stepping stiff-legged off the coach amongst this ramshackle little hamlet, I wondered whether the trucks laying tarmac and globalisation had arrived unwelcome, thundering through what had been a quiet and content little village. Or whether alternatively, the arrival of the trucks had been celebrated, the freshly lain tarmac offering an easier way of life for industrious mountain dwellers.

By chance we found ourselves sitting next to our French neighbours on a log looking over the valley. We had bought some biscuits that didn’t crumble when bitten so much as dissolve as soon as they made contact with your tongue. The little French girl, sucking on the remains of a slice of papaya, looked up at our snacks with covetous eyes: we in turn looked morosely at our cookies and enviously at the remains of her fruit.

As we came down from the pine tree mountains and entered Xieng Khouang, a landscape of bare fields stretched out from the coach. The province is dominated by cattle rearing, and the Hmong cowboys in their flamboyant purple hats are supposedly a common site racing across the meadows, and as dusk rose we scanned the horizon avidly hoping to catch sight of one.

Darkness came before a sighting however, and when we arrived at what we thought was a second round of services our shrunken and cheery conductor informed us that we were in Phonsavan. We were last out of the coach and by the time we had retrieved our bags all of our fellow travellers had dispersed into the night. The town was quiet and looked empty. The main strip extended far into the distant darkness at both ends, lined by balconied buildings with advertisement signs protruding from them. The conductor pointed us down a perpendicular road from this central strip and soon we saw a yellow signed emblazoned with the words GUEST HOUSE. Out of this little building light streamed onto two white plastic tables with chairs about them, upon two of which two Laoation women sat: one young, one old.
‘Sabeidi’ we chorused and the young one sprung up and took us into the building, smiling her brilliant Laoation smile that balled her cheeks and squidged her eyes into little slits. She presented us to our room: about the size of a double bed, and taken up almost entirely by a queen sized mattress which was stained and a little damp to the touch. The room cost a dollar a night however and the novelty of this inspired a certain thrill and eagerness within all of us to stay there. While two of us struggled with mosquito nets a third went off to find the toilet, and returned, slightly ashened faced, and told us he could hold it.

Leaving the nets in a tangled mass on the bed, to stretch our legs we wandered further down the dry road we had come up on. There were less and less buildings as we went on and soon we were standing between two expanses of darkness, which we imagined must be fields in the daylight. With the glare of a phone one of us rolled a joint and sitting in the ditch we smoked this, remarking a few times how quiet it was. We then returned to the hostel and had a supper of Beer Lao (a wonderful beer, disappointingly locally brewed by Carlsberg) and Orios. We had a few course of this, tripling our trifling bill, and eventually went to bed merry and content.

After a mug of thick Laoasian coffee for breakfast we headed to where we were to catch out mini bus out to the Plain of Jars. This is an area of the Xieng Khourang plateau peppered with hundreds of cylinder shaped rocks with their middle carved out, estimated to be dated back to the Iron Age (500 BC – AD 500.) The jars vary in size, ranging from 1 to 3 meters; different types of stone has been used, and all but one are utterly without markings. The Jars are situated in almost 100 clusters, some of these with as many as 400 jars, others with just one solitary jar.
During the Vietnam War, between 1964 and 1973, Laos - and in particular the Xieng Khourang plateau - was subjected to intense bombing from US planes subsequently referred to as the Secret War; an attempt to break the suspected the traffic of arms heading towards Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Over 9 years the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance, thus when visiting the jars you are also visiting the most bombed part of the planet per capita in the history of the world. The land is plagued with craters carved out of the land like the work of a vicious, giant ice cream scooper. An estimated 80 million of the American bombs failed to explode and therefore UXOs (unexploded objects) have remained a mortal threat to the people of the region ever since. When visiting the plain you often have to walk along narrow fenced paths to keep you off un-cleared land.

The Vietnam War – referred to as the American War in Vietnam – left a deadly and lingering hangover in Laos, long since the protestors packed up the placards in Washington Square and returned home. There are tens of casualties every year, almost exclusively locals, and a large amount of children. The U.S. Government spent nearly 17 million dollars every single day to bomb Laos. Since the end of the bombing, it has paid on average 2.7 million a year to purge the place of its deficient yet deadly arsenal, snuggly embedded in Laoasian soil.

As one might look at the lumpy, muddy ground of the plain, and feel the thrill of imagining the slumbering potential carnage that lies under it - like Sartre and his rickety bridge across the canyon, walking alongside the paths I habitually felt the tugging urge to leap over the fence and run hysterically across the mine field; naturally, I didn’t - so when inspecting the jars, the only real interest we felt was in finding out what the hell they were. The clusters we wandered about weren’t particularly impressive themselves. Queerly placed prehistoric rocks, do not a Stone Henge make. Objectively, they are neither beautiful nor remarkable. Some intact, some bent, some full and proud, some large, some small. Some you can sit in like a throne. The amount of them is impressive to think about, but they don’t provoke any reaction in your gut. What is interesting, is thinking about who went to the effort of arranging them there in the first place, and why.
And no one really knows.

Research in the 1930s found that the jars related the stones to prehistoric burial practices, this theory was later supported by the discovery of human remains, burials good and various ceramics around the jars. Archaeological data collected during UXO clearance in 2004–2005 and again in 2007 claims that the stone jars initially may have been used to distil the dead bodies, following in the form of traditional south-east Asian royal mortuary practices. In contemporary funerary practices connected to Thai, Cambodian and Laotian aristocracy, during the early stages of the funeral rites the corpse is placed into an urn, marking the transformation of the deceased from an earthly to a spiritual state. The idea is that those from the higher tiers of society are cremated so to release their soul on its journey to heaven, while the souls of the poor are condemned to remain on earth.
A yet more exciting explanation has been provided by some of the locals, who tell of a great battle that was once waged on the plain by two rival clans of giants. The jars were arranged for the subsequent feast of the victorious King Khun Cheung, to be used as glasses for the celebratory drinking of lua hai, Laotion rice wine.

 These innately dull jars, like the bomb crater that could be mistaken for bunkers on an out of use golf course, are imbued with mystery from the context and uncertainty that surround them. Giants on the plains and planes in the sky have given this largely unimpressive stretch of land an interest and significance to tourists; foreign wars and improbable myths. While backpackers and groups of Japanese tourists take pictures and use some of the more humble looking jars and rubbish bins, geo-political battles continue to rage, as mining companies from China and the States clammer to scour the Lao earth once more.
We thought little of this all as we ate our supper of fried pork and noodles that night. When we had finished we wandered down the main strip of the town. With the detached buildings and stretching flat landscape beyond, the centre of Phonsavon feels like the setting for a shoot-out in a Western. The road seemed to go on forever as the houses got smaller, and less like houses, and the space between each one grew. We walked, further and further, passed empty department stores with grinning clownish mannequins, gas stations, receiving less friendly and more quizzical looking locals, cigarettes in mouths, dirty and hot, working, sitting, chatting. Dogs barked at us in barns, and if we had continued to walk we would have come to the plains, the bomb sites, and eventually the mountains.

But we turned back. The next day we would be in Vang Vieng, and as we strolled back to the hostel for more Beer Lao and Orios, we weren’t sorry to leave Phonsavan, but enthused about rubber tubes, zip-wires and getting shit-faced on buckets of iced whiskey.

Bertie Digby Alexander

Berlin 2014

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