Excerpt: “Plain of Jars” is filled with secrets and mysteries. It is also a great biking place with a good access road and scenic itineraries. The archaeological sites are testimonials of the past whilst scars in the landscape are reminiscent of more recent war turmoils. Third part of a Laos trip report (1). Plain of Jars loop See also: Part 1 - Crossing the border : An Easy Road to Laos - 1 Crosing the border Part 2 – The Road to Luang-Prabang : An Easy Road to Laos - 2 The Road to Luang Prabang Part 4 - Back to Nong Khai An Easy Road to Laos - 4. Back to Nong Khai The complete photo story can be found at : http://picasaweb.google.com/campusadvis ... ainOfJars# Arrival of route 7 to Phonsavan and site jars 1 Other maps see post hereafter (5) Route 7 to the Plain of Jars A couple of books, and my interest for Laos, had put “Plain of Jars” on my mind since several years. The region of Xieng Khouang is filled with interrogations, from mysterious archaeological treasures to the modern secrets of a forgotten war. After leaving Phou Khoun intersection, I was happily climbing route 7 toward Phonsavan. The 130 kilometer journey rolls on an agreeable pavement, following the undulations of green hills adorned with dark cliffs and covered with low sized vegetation. This road is in better condition than the previous sector on route 13 and mostly less winding. At noon, joyous children stroll back from school and the village life is particularly animated. There are plenty of opportunities to stop, make contacts with locals, and take pictures. As I was not sure about the weather conditions, I kept this open for the return trip. I had already passed Muang Souy (Nong Tang) when I first became aware of a bomb crater. I was amazed by buffaloes immersed in an “airborne bathtub”. This was just a beginning, as landscapes in the region are often cluttered with holes like a Swiss cheese. Phonsavan (Xieng Khouang) In Ponsavan I checked in to “Nice Guest House” were rooms have TV (international chains), bathtubs with hot water and were motorcycles are kept in a closed parking, all for 400 Bath per night. Phonsavan is a new settlement, sometimes still called Xieng Khouang, the name of the former provincial capital. That city is located about thirty kilometers East, and now called Mouang Khoune. It has been totally erased during the war, as related in the book “The Ravens” (2): “An air campaign against Xieng Khouang followed. … In the town some fifteen hundred buildings were flattened, and as many as two thousand more all over the Plain of Jars … By the end of the year there would not be a building left standing.” My sojorn in the theater of recent enmities and ruthless destructions did not leave me indifferent. I can not stay aloof when testimonials of the disaster are everywhere. Once political interests and susceptibilities have cooled down, historians will probe the facts and try to explain. But a first step is to declassify the Second Indochina War and accept that more than two million tons of bombs were seeded on Laos. As estimated, till thirty percent might not have emptied their deadly charges. Year after year, the UXO (unexploded ordnances) still kill people. My first visit in Phonsavan was for the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) office (3). This agency has done a remarkable work in clearing UXO and they have a small exhibition in their premises. The local employee advised me to visit his home, the “shell village” where free airborne crap was imaginatively integrated into constructions. I did not drive the loop to his hometown that time, but appreciated the equanimity of people who never expressed any resentment against “Falangs”. In the late afternoon, only scattered cumulus punctuated the horizon. It was time to climb a hill and peek over the city, whilst waiting for the twilight to bid farewell to a delightful day. There are few places to hang out in Phongsavan and “Crater Bar” provided the food and drinks needed for a happy ending, before the short walk back to Nice Guesthouse. A cloudy sky and scattered rain, not heavy enough to keep the road wet, greeted the dawn. Outside the tourist season Phonsavan is a sleepy town. I strolled around empty streets waiting for “Crater Bar” to open. Then I delighted in my hamburger breakfast and studied the GTR map, whilst watching the quiet and colorful monk's procession. The Jars Sites My menu that day was a visit to the three main “Plain of Jars” sites. I recalled the description of the place in the book “The Raven”(2): “The gloves were off and a vicious no-quarter war was about to begin. And the battlefield was to be the Plain of Jars. The Plaine des Jarres, as the French named it, is a beautiful plateau forty miles wide, lying at an altitude of more than three thousand feet, covered with grass and small hills, … The great stone jars which gave the plain its name are thought to be the funeral urns of another culture ...They appear to be over thousand years old, … And extraordinarily, despite the hail of bombs unleashed upon the plain, no jar was ever damaged throughout the war.” I traveled on route 10 to “site 1”, the nearest archaeological location, about fifteen kilometers from Phonsavan. The morning was grey and fresh and eventually drops began to hit my helmet's shield. As I was not wrapped to stand a downpour, I stopped at a tiny empty shelter. I did not remain lonely for long, a cohort of kids rushed to my place, as much out of curiosity as to find a temporary refuge. Communication was limited but giggles, laugher and small talks nicely filled the waiting time. At the site's entrance, a large panel exhorts visitors to stay inside MAG white markers. I wondered how serious the menace was, in the immediate vicinity, but the warning adds spice to the place. Nobody wants to be sorry. The overview of the field, the scattered stone bottles and the bomb craters were awe-inspiring. A close up contact is even more puzzling. Who were the people who trailed these huge recipients from remote quarries and for what purpose did they do it? At that moment I was the only tourist in this impressive site so that loneliness and quietude added to the mystery feelings exuded from the place. This is how Mervyn Brown, a former British Deputy Ambassador, summarizes his visit to the PDJ in his book “War in Shangri_La” (4): “ … There were about a hundred, scattered in a small area in front of a cave in a bluff overhung with trees. Shaped like beer barrels they were hewn out of single blocks of what looked like granite, and varied in size from less than one meter to over two meters in height. It is assumed that they were used as burial urns, but nothing is known of the civilization that produced them. Their bases were buried in the ground and they were somewhat reminiscent of the huge stone heads of Easter Island – much smaller, less striking but equally mysterious.” Bomb craters and trench lines, surrounded by the reassuring MAG delimitation stones, add another perspective to the tour. A visit to a small cave gives an example of a shelter used by the Phatet Lao. This one is a tiny dwelling, compared to the huge dens of Xam Nuea, but it is worth a peek The link between the first and second jars site is on a dirt road, sometimes improved with no less treacherous gravels. As the region lies at an altitude above one thousand meters, the temperature is moderate and enjoyable. My trip became even cooler, as dark clouds favored me with a shower that I hurried to escape again. A providential noodle shop offered a convenient haven with food and drinks. The menu was actually limited to “foer” (Lao rice noodle soup) and drinking water. By the time I had savored the local potion and chatted with amazed people, the rain had stopped. I continued to the second jars site, were another shelter would be available if needed. Climbing to the entrance, on a red clay trail, soaked by the rain, was no feast for my road bike. I was on a slippery slope and, after a third of the way, had to throw in the towel and slide back. My friend wore heavy mud soles and my own shoes were loaded with sticky earth. I dragged my feet up to the summit, trying to clear the mess in the small grass border. The second site is smaller and less accessible than the previous one. It is also darker as most jars are under the cover of trees. The way to the next important site is also on a dirt road. It meanders through tender green hills exposing unhealed bomb scars. The bike has to be parked at the entrance, near to a restaurant. From there, I walked for quite a while, on a narrow causeway, passing small bridges an animal barriers, to the hilltop and toward the jars. Although I had now contemplated many of these mysterious bottles, my admiration was still intact. All are different in shapes, settings and backdrops. Seen only through the eyes, they are just broken stones littering a landscape and hardly worth a visit. To fully appreciate the jars one has to sense the spirit of the site, feel the emotion of the history, let the imagination digress into the past and return to the peace of the moment, with the fallacious hope that all ordnances remain mute for ever. In this site also, bomb craters and trench lines are part of the visit. I was again the sole tourist, ambling on marked footpaths, happy to greet a local woman and to cross amazed buffaloes. Solemnity, a pleasant silence and the feeling of peace, emanate from this crossroad of prehistoric testimonials with modern memories of human craze. Additional steps, required to access the third jars site, are rewarded by a scenic landscape of hills, forests and paddy fields. I bid farewell to the jars and drove back to Ponsavan. The dirt road leads through villages an a countryside with pastoral activities. The former rain kept the dust sticked to the trail, and the ride was enjoyable. As I had conducted my friend through muddy and dusty roads, I felt obliged to offer her a full shower, before I stalled her for the night. The late afternoon sun casted long shadows on Phonasavan. As the light began to dim, I installed myself comfortably in the “Crater Bar”, for some drinks and food treats, whilst observing the slow pace life on the main street. The return journey on route 7 The magic of lingering mist, enveloping the morning scenery, made me forget that I had traveled the same road just two days earlier. It was not a trip back, but the encounter with a new landscape, softly toned with light shades of grey. People appeared and vanished in the haze at the slow rhythm of a reduced driving speed. Children, walking to school, are willing models for a couple of pictures. They might seem much the same everywhere, as they often wear similar dresses, are timorous but cheering and greet foreigners with enthusiasm, amazement and curiosity. In fact they are so unique, so filled with personality, that every encounter is a bliss, an opportunity to fill memories with smiles, giggles and laughers. The landscape, on route 7, reminds me of the Swiss Jura hills, covered with pine trees. The trail is a biker's promenade winding and undulating enough to make it interesting, but smooth enough to enjoy the scenery, observe village life and watch amazing activities. Toward the West, in direction of Phou Khoun and after the plateau around Phonsavan, route 7 is mostly cut through hills and mountains. It is a narrow link and dwellings are encroached on the pavement, the road also being the village place. It is not a sector for speed but it affords great opportunity to greet people and exchange smiles. Phou Vieng, a couple of meanders, and I was already driving down the last curves toward Phou Khoun. In this city, I filled my bike's tank, eat some breakfast and gave a last glance at route 7, pledging to come back for a longer visit to the Xieng Khouang region. Route 13 waited at the intersection, leading me down to Vang Vieng.