Ponder how ancient man moved giant vessels from the Phou Kheng Jar Quarry Site, where you can climb stairs to the hilltop “Secret Tunnel”, an Indochina War lookout. At Khoun, examine a French colonial city wall and the remains of a colonial hospital. And pay homage at Tham Piu Cave and it memorial for the 374 innocent villagers killed by a US bombing raid.
The Southern Jar Route
Xieng Khouang Presents…The Jars: You’ve read about them; you’ve heard about them; you’ve seen pictures of them. Now it’s time to experience Xieng Khouang’s seemingly random sites presenting a jumble of puzzling prehistoric jars. Of the 90-plus identified sites, jar junkies can investigate seven, from large clusters near Phonsavanh to less-visited Ban Songhak along the Nam Ngum River in the province’s northeast.
Experts have been trying to unravel the mystery behind the “Mysterious Plain of Jars” since French geologist, Madeleine Colani, uncovered one in a cave in 1930. Nearby, she dug up coloured glass beads, burnt teeth, and bone fragments, which spawned the Iron Age crematorium theory. The jars waited for more than 60 years, during which they weathered a decade of bombing, before Japanese Professor Eiji Nitta and Lao archaeologist, Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy, mapped Site 1 near Phonsavanh in 1994. Their find also unveiled surrounding graves as old as the jars, prompting Prof Nitta to consider the urns as monuments to the dead.
Mr Sayavongkhamdy returned with Australian Peter Bellwood, and they reckoned the jars date to the late first or early second millennium BC, and were cremation vessels of family heads circled by his lineage. In surveys from 2004-2005 and again in 2007, UNESCO archaeologist, Julie Van Den Bergh, added a twist to earlier theories; possibly people used the jars to “distil” bodies and finally cremate them.
Lao legend holds that giants brewed rice wine in the jars, while practical locals believe early traders crisscrossing Xieng Khouang collected rain water for drinking in the jars. Those are the current choices. Take your pick.
Jar Site 1 (Ban Na-O): Jars junkies can find relief just 8 km south of Phonsavanh at Ban Na-0, a Tai Phuan and Khmu village. A simple wooden information centre, handicraft shop, and refreshment stand signals the start of the 500-metre trail to Jar Site 1 known as “Thong Hai Hin”.
Bricks lining the path form the border for areas cleared by the Mines Action Group (MAG). Trimming the trail are plants with thick leaves that have dates and names of previous visitors carved on them. Along the way, you’ll see trenches and foxholes, bomb craters, and a Pathet Lao cave that testify to a time when the site served as a battlefield. You may even catch MAG in action in the distant fields. Amazingly, only a few of the 300-plus jars in the 25-hectare site took a hit.
Photos and descriptions can’t come close to duplicating the experience of walking for the first time into a grassy field loaded with the prehistoric megalithic jars. Most people’s brains aren’t wired to comprehend a remote vacant lot with such an oddity. With no raw material in sight, where did these giant urns come from, and how did they get here? The answer to the first question can be found a few miles west of Phonsavanh at Phu Kheng Jar Quarry, but the second…just another mystery, as is the story behind Xieng Khouang’s largest jar (2.5m x 2.57m) and its only decorated jar, both at Site 1.
Location: Follow Route 10 south for about 6 km to the “Ban Na-O” sign, turn right onto a dirt road, and travel about 2 km to the entrance to Jar Site 1.
Jar Site 2 (Ban Nakho): Take an easy trek to Jar Site 2 at the base of a forested mountain. The Visitor Centre at the entrance will transform a casual jar observer into an aficionado. Information panels describe the jar sites and materials, discuss the ethnic villages maintaining the site, and detail the Mines Action Group’s efforts in keeping the archaeological area safe.
A 500-metre path climbs past occasional bomb craters to a pair of shady knolls displaying 93 jars that appear thinner and more rectangular than those at Site 1. Many have been tipped over, acting as cover during Indochina War battles. The western hill holds a carved stone disk.
Jar Site 3 (Ban Xieng Di): Access to Jar Site 3’s ancient urns (Hai Hin Lat Kahi) comes at Ban Xieng Di, about 10 km south of Ban Nakho. A path passes the village’s small Buddhist temple to the entrance and a noodle shop. A pleasant walk leads to the hilltop site’s 150-some jars and scenic views of the rice paddies and the plain below.
Location for Jar Sites 2 & 3: Follow Route 10 south for about 6 km to the “Ban Na-O” sign, turn right and travel about 14 km to Ban Nakho and Jar Site 2. Travel another 1.5 south on the road and turn left at the “Tad Lang” sign. Jar Site 3 is about 10 km further down the road.
Head out on the “Historic Khoun Circuit”, the area’s ancient capital. In the 19th century, a Franco-Siamese treaty placed Xieng Khouang in French hands. The town fell under intense bombardment during the Indochina War, which levelled much of the town’s buildings. However, you can still examine remnants of a few major structures in and around Khoun Town. The French colonial hospital piques the imagination. A short, once-majestic staircase remains intact. It leads to a portico, with its surrounding balustrades still adding an elegant touch to the rattled structure. You can explore the a few first-storey rooms. Also in town, you can examine the skeletons of the governor’s residence, church, and school.
Just outside of town, stop and marvel at a lonely section of a French colonial rock-and-concrete wall with an open brick archway exposing tiered paddy fields. To find the wall, turn south off the Main Road at the Vat Phiawat intersection. The wall is a few hundred metres out of town on the east side of the road.
Tham Piu “Coffin Cave”: The Tham Piu Cave area is like a movie that evokes a wide range of feelings: sadness, curiosity, introspection, resignation, hope. Though accounts differ of the fateful day when a missile from an American jet found its target – Tham Piu – one fact goes undisputed: the explosion killed hundreds of innocent villagers. Today, a statue of a man stands while straining to hold his anger as he carries the body of a lifeless child. The solemn monument presents a tribute to those who died, and calls for an “Annual Day of Remembrance” for the 24 November 1968 massacre.
Juxtaposed in the background of this sober memorial, a 10-yr-old concrete aqueduct built by locals rises on posts as it crosses the entrance to the stairs climbing to Coffin Cave. Before the ascent, go to the Visitor Centre and contemplate the display of photographs and history behind the bombings. You’ll read about the single shell that hit the core of Tham Piu Cave, and claimed a reported 374 lives of locals seeking shelter from the daily bombings. Pictures of victims horrify all those who see them, while the snapshot of Officer Thidbounkon, who allegedly downed an F4 fighter jet with three rifle shots, brings a grin.
Duly informed, start your climb to the cave on the upper staircase, which passes a golden Buddha, grave markers, and bomb craters set in an eerie park-like scene. Practical yet peculiar, a series of narrow concrete channels crisscross the walkway, as they feed mountain water to diversion dams rerouting the flow to irrigate nearby village fields.
Tham Piu presents a sad hole in the hillside, with a rocky rubble floor as the only reminder that an explosion shattered the cave. Inside, locals light incense to pay tribute to those who died.
Back outside, the stairs head downhill to a stream you can cross on a short but challenging bamboo bridge, or play it safe and simply wade through the creek, where refreshment stands and small restaurants offer a respite for reflection.
Location: Take Lao Route 5 north from Kham Town for 3 km to Ban Bouam, turn left (west), and follow the road to the end and the Tham Piu parking lot.
Tham Xang “Hospital” Cave: According to locals, during the Indochina War, no villages existed where Ban Ta now stands. Only Xang Tham Cave in a cone-shaped peak and a great view of the karst landscape and valleys occupied this patch of Xieng Khouang. When the war hit, Pathet Lao soldiers capitalized on the cave complex, changing its rocky chambers into a hospital, pharmaceutical warehouse, and arms depot.
Today, terraced rice fields and forested mountaintops captivate visitors as they stand atop the stairs leading 400 metres down to the cave entrance, which is maintained by the Hmong villagers in Ban Ta. You can still envision the well-lit cavern’s war-time setup, though it competes with the natural rock formations for attention.
Location: From Kham Town, travel 15 km west on Lao Route 7 to Ban Ta, turn right at the sign for the cave near the market, and follow the road for about 5 km to the parking area and stairs. Ban Ta is 35 km north of Phonsavanh.
Songhak’s Sacred Jars: Treat yourself to a 42-km drive northwest of Phonsavanh to Ban Songhak Village on the Nam Ngum River, and a recently opened jar site surrounded by the remnants of war. After crossing the river, stop at the Jar Site 25 information kiosk to get your bearings, before strolling to the jars and the Pathet Lao trenches near the main jar group.
Locals believe that water collected in one of the jars can help heal sick children. According to legend, a monk moved the jar from its original resting place to the village temple to store rain water, but those who drank from the urn started getting ill. The monk returned the jar to the forest, and the epidemic ended, but villagers now use its waters to bathe ailing kids.
After inspecting the jars, walk or drive to Ban Songhak for a cool refreshment, and then move on down the road past more jars and war relics to the hill on the other side of the village, where you’ll find an ancient stupa, of which little is known.
Location: From Phonsavanh, travel west on Route 7 for about 23 km to Phou Koud Town. Turn right at the main intersection and travel north for about 12 km, where a sign points left to Ban Songhak and the jar site.
Phu Kheng Jar Quarry & Secret Tunnel: Scale more than 1,000 steps up the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site to the hidden mountain passageway drilled through its rocky summit that played a strategic role for Lao revolutionary forces during the Indochina War. The hardy climb begins after about a 30-minute drive from Phonsavanh, and passes a scattering of unfinished, flawed, and broken jars once destined for Jar Site 1. Alongside this prehistoric workshop, craters from the 1964-1973 American bombing campaign pock the forested terrain, though singing birds have replaced explosive blasts.
The stairs get steeper towards the end of the 1,200-meter ascent, but there are plenty of places to take a break and enjoy the view of the Paxay Plain and tiered rice paddies walking up the foothills. The climb ends at a fork in the trail, and a left turn takes you an easy 200 metres to the “Secret Tunnel”. You can enter the concrete bunker, built into the mountain, from both sides, and step down to the start of the concealed cave.
The narrow 70-metre channel, chiselled through rock, with a ceiling around 1.6-meters high, winds past a few reinforced concrete ammo depots and sleeping quarters before exiting to a panorama of the mountains around Phou Koud District.
A visitor information centre and restaurant sit at the base of the mountain, and a row of refreshment stands serves soft drinks, beer, and snacks.
Location: From Phonsavanh, travel west on Route 7 for about 13 km and turn left at the sign to the Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site. From here, a compact dirt road winds 7 km to the site entrance, crossing a steel truss bridge next to a broken wooden one on the way.
Phakeo Jar Site: Uncover a rarely seen Jar Site on the 2-day Ban Phakeo trek. The adventure is centred at the Hmong village of Ban Phakeo, and reaches the concealed jar site, waterfall, and architecture employing war scrap. The trek, led by a local guide, starts at a local market to purchase food and supplies, and then embarks on an easy-to-moderate five-hour hike along an age-old trail and across several streams to the Ban Phakeo Jar Site. Here, four groups of some 400 jars, some sprouting orchids, will greet you in a forest thick with undergrowth, adding to the ancient atmosphere. Rare jar lids – stone discs with animal carvings – also dot the site.