Northeast Laos – 4 Hintang and the Jars

Discussion in 'Laos Road Trip Reports' started by Jurgen, Sep 1, 2012.

  1. Jurgen

    Jurgen Ol'Timer

    Excerpt: During a second Sam Neua loop, I visited Suan Hintang with his mysterious standing stones and called again at a jars site near Phonsavan. This report depicts my stop-over at these two places.

    Northeast Laos – Sam Nuea loop
    Part 4 – Hintang and the Jars

    First part – Luang Prabang and mountain roads:
    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/35731-Northeast-Laos-1.-Luang-Prabang-and-Mountain-Roads

    Second part - Sam Nuea and a winding drive back:
    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/showthread.php/36105-Northeast-Laos-2-Sam-Nuea-and-a-Winding-Drive-Back?p=277117#post277117

    Third part - Epilogue
    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/showthread.php/36627-Northeast-Laos-3-Epilogue-(Sam-Nuea-Phonsavan

    My other trip reports about Laos (see note 9)

    1. The Hintang menhirs

    While climbing the dusty road toward Suan Hintang, I remembered the French archaeologist Madeleine Colani and her book “ Mégalithes du Haut Laos, Hua Pan – Tran Ninh” (The Megalith of Upper Lao), published in 1935 [1]. Her attempt to pierce the standing stones and enigmatic jars' mysteries still remains unique. Wartimes and the resulting unexploded ordnance's spreading have kept the region off limits for serious scholars, concealing the secrets and adding thrill to a visit.

    In “Huay Na Tok”, I had exchanged Route 6 pavement for this dirt road, practicable on my bike only under dry skies. It was my second attempt to reach this site, as slippery mud had hindered my visit last November.

    The access to the archaeological compound is a relatively new road, as described by Christopher Kremmer in “Stalking the Elephant Kings” [2]:

    "... Sousath turned off route Six and found traces of the Americans. The road itself, wider than Route Six, had been pushed through this remote district of Hua Muong, about 70 km from Sam Neua, only two years earlier by the US government. Poppies grew prolifically in the dark-brown earth of these hills, and the local Hmong people saw opium as an essential commodity, both as a medicine and as a trade staple. The principle of the American project was the same as at Palavek - open up the area nearby markets and provide alternative crops so the Hmongs' need to grow opium would diminish."

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    Several month after my visit, I am still puzzled about the disregard for this archaeological park. I wonder if I really called at the right place, as I had apparently reached an abandoned site. Other documents, however, also confirm Hintang's stone garden crumbling.

    “A recent survey found that approximately one-third of the archaeological site is in a state of disrepair. Natural elements, including wind and water, have eroded the stones as well as the sites surrounding them. Further, man-made threats, including looting, uncontrolled tourism, and some road development, have placed the landscape at risk. Fighting, including the Vietnam War (known locally as the Second Indochina War) during the 1960s, left the area damaged. Unexploded ordnances remain in the area and not only threaten the safety of local inhabitants and visitors, but also hinder conservation efforts.” [3]

    At the site, a decrepit “welcome panel” provides faded information, as an unfinished tourist center's ruin only accommodates local ghosts.

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    Overcoming my surprise, but saddened by these exceptional vestiges' deterioration, I sat down between the menhirs and tried to soak up the place's essence.

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    In addition to standing megaliths' rows, round disks cover underground chambers, probably used for burials. These artifacts predate Xieng Kouang province's jars and might date back a couple of centenaries before our era, to the bronze age.

    The place I had reached might only be the departure of a trail leading to many more clusters of standing stones. Nevertheless, with the quantity of UXO still punctuating the Hua Phan province, I am reluctant to follow paths without the proper MAG [4] signalization, and I failed to spot such secured tracks in the neighborhood.

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    I left Suan Hintang with a mixed feeling: the joy of an enriching visit to a mysterious site, far away from tourist trails, and the somber memory of an human history's abandoned milestone.

    Houa Phan province's remoteness, the access difficulty to this archaeological site, a lack of interest for old stones and other development priorities for Laos' tourism explain the situation.

    It is anyway worth to visit this place when traveling in the region. Additional information and a local guide's help will be useful for a hike along the trail, and people spending enough time on the compound might be grated with the stones' fabulous glittering in the late afternoon light.

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    The next days I rambled around Sam Neua before driving down to Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang province (see my other report: http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/showthread.php/36627-Northeast-Laos-3-Epilogue-(Sam-Nuea-Phonsavan).

    2. The broken jars

    “The Plaines de Jarres, as the French named it, is a beautiful plateau forty miles wide, lying at an altitude of more than three thousand feet … The great stone jars which gave the plain its name are thought to be the funeral urns of another culture, although archaeologist cannot agree which one. … And extraordinarily, despite the hail of bombs unleashed upon the plain, no jar was ever damaged throughout the war.[5]

    I had accepted this statement from the book: “The Ravens”, Lao's secret war's bible, without second thoughts; even referring to it in my former trip report covering the Plain of Jars (see: http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/showthread.php/33573-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-3-Plain-of-Jars).

    Later on, I stumbled upon other writings, less incline to confirm the miraculous preservation the the jars' historic sites.

    In “One Foot in Laos”, Dervla Murphy writes:

    “ From neolithic times to the beginning of the twentieth century Xieng Khouang's jars remained untouched; a powerful taboo, as mysterious as the jars themselves, protected them from the curious and the greedy. … with the main concentration at Ban Ang, where almost all were bombed to bits.”[6]

    Christopher Kremmer raises a similar point In “Bamboo Palace” [6]:

    "I'd read that all the jars had miraculously survived wartime carpet bombing, despite the fact that Phatet Lao guerillas had sometimes taken shelter inside them. Yet as we approached, several larg bomb craters came into view with shattered jar fragments dug into their rims like broken teeth"[7]

    Back again to Xieng Khouang province, I decided to find out by myself and to pay another visit to a jars site. My first stop was at MAG [4], the organization responsible for cleaning the unexploded ordnances in the region. They confirmed that many jars have been destroyed during the war, but precise statistics were unavailable. At Phonsavan's tourist center the answer was similar, giving me the chilling evidence that no miracle had preserved the historic places.

    My itinerary to the jars site took me through Mouang Khoune, the totally flattened Phuan's kingdom old capital; a destruction often called a “cultural vandalism”. On the road back, I spotted numerous large bomb craters used as ponds, and it became more and more obvious that the carpet bombing must also have damaged the megaliths.

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    At the “Number one Jars Site” entrance, a signboard provides information for tourists and highlights the destructions due to the wars. I had probably overseen this text during my first trip.

    After a short hike up the hill, the panorama opens toward an amazing field with hundreds of majestic stone amphoras. Even for a second visit, it is breathtaking, particularly when a dark sky and heavy clouds add drama to the scene.

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    This is also the place with the first scars, a crater lined with two fragmented jars and the indubitable confirmation of the secret war's damages.

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    Bombings and artillery rounds are not the only degradations' culprits. After two thousand years, time's erosion has taken his toll, helped by meteorology and human activities like farming, building, looting by Haw bandits and, recently, tourism.

    However, Plain of Jars' recognition as a major cultural heritage, should, in the future, have positive conservation and management effects (see UNESCO manual conservation manual [8]).

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    From the hill's top, a panoramic view shows a landscape punctuated by bomb craters. The site itself is cut by several trench lines, testimonial of fierce battles. As for the large natural limestone cave, described by Madeleine Colani as a probable crematorium, it was converted to a Pathet Lao shelter during the war, and also heavily targeted.

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    Despite the damages, particularly the avoidable ones, it is worth to visit these unique ancient cultures' testimonials. The jars keep some of their mysteries but they are also unique manifestation of otherwise long time forgotten civilization.

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    Back to Phonsavan, I called it a day and patronized my usual hangout: The „Craters Bar“!

    It will take many years before the „explosive province“ loses its image as a battlefield and before the „secret war“ becomes a „forgotten war“ for everybody. The original jars, nevertheless, are impossible to rebuild. Lets hope that the remaining ones are preserved, as testimonials, for some other thousand years.

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    [1] Madeleine Colani, was a French female archaeologist, known for her research in Vietnam and North Laos. In 1935 she published (in French) “ Mégalithes du Haut Laos, Hua Pan – Tran Ninh” (The Megalith of Upper Lao).

    [2] Stalking the Elephant Kings
    In Search of Laos
    Christopher Kremmer
    Allen & Unwin, 1997
    p.175

    [3] http://www.wmf.org/project/hintang-archaeological-landscape

    [4] http://www.maginternational.org/laopdr

    [5] The Ravens – Pilots of the Secret War of Laos
    Christopher Robbins
    Asia Books, 2000 – Batam Press 1988
    ISBN 978-974-8303-41-3
    p. 170

    [6] One foot in Laos
    Dervla Murphy
    Flamingo, London 2000

    [7]Bamboo Palace
    Christopher Kremmer
    Silkworm Books, 2003

    [8] Pdf document: Cultural Heritage Specialist Guides Training and Certification Programme
    UNESCO World Heritage Sites, UNESCO Bangkok
    Draft version ‐ May 2009 Copyright © 2009

    Comprehensive pictures location:
    https://picasaweb.google.com/111845057494533452431/LaosNortheastEpilogue#

    [9] References to my other Laos trip reports. All suitable for road bikes and “solo” driving:

    North-Central Laos:

    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/33280-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-1-Crosing-the-border
    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/33379-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-2-The-Road-to-Luang-Prabang
    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/33573-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-3-Plain-of-Jars
    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/33925-An-Easy-Road-to-Laos-4.-Back-to-Nong-Khai


    South Laos:


    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/34187-South-Laos-1-Ferry-Tales?p=264916#poststop
    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/35164-South-Laos-2-Around-the-Bolevan
    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/35381-South-Laos-3-Central-Laos

    North-West Laos:

    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/threads/35288-A-Short-Loop-to-Norwest-Laos

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    If you appreciate GT-Rider website, “like” the page on Facebook:
    http://www.facebook.com/the.gtrider

    The complete trip report: Northeast Laos – Sam Nuea loop

    Part 1 – Luang Prabang and mountain roads

    11 From Nan to Oudomxai…
    12 Royal Luang Prabang
    13 Mountain roads to Sam Nuea

    Part 2 – Sam Nuea and a winding drive back

    21 Sam Nuea and Vieng Xai
    22 Winding roads to Nong Kiew
    23 Luang Namtha and back home

    Part 3 – Epilogue

    31 Introduction – On the loop again!
    32 The northern renovated links
    33 Nong Khiew to Sam Nuea, a silvester ballade
    34 East of Sam Nuea
    35 Strategic Route 6 and Phonsavan
    36 Ruins of an old Kingdom
    37 Back to Luang Prabang

    Part 4 – Archaeological sites

    41 The Hin Tang menhirs
    42 The broken jars
     
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  3. Ticino

    Ticino Ol'Timer

    Thanks Jürgen for this beautiful report. I am adding some pictures I took during my visit in June 2010 which shows how green everything turns with a little bit water.

    The legend and the more historical facts are indeed fascinating, but read for yourself:

    .... and that's how the legend goes

    In ancient times Laos was inhabited by the Kha Yeui. Their chief, Ba Hat, was a great giant possessing amazing powers, to whom the gods also gave three magical objects: a double-headed drum - one face struck to make enemies disappear and the other face to call for help from the gods; an enormous awl which pierced the stoniest ground and made water gush out; and an axe which could cut hard rock like wood.

    Ba Hat felt himself no less strong than the Luang Prabang King, thanks to these marvelous instruments. So he decided the Kha Yeui were no longer subjects of the King, who soon declared war. But the victory went to Ba Hat. Later, believing the enemy king intended to return, Ba Hat called on the help of the gods. The chief of the gods decended in person and on seeing no enemies anywhere, he flew into a rage and seized back the magical drum.

    Ba Hat still had the two other tools given to him by the gods. With the magical axe, he set his people out to cut blocks of stone along the river Peun, and bear them to the top of San Ang ridge to build the new city of Kong Phanh. This aroused the King of Luang Prabang's fear and he decided upon a ruse to keep that city from ever being founded. He succeeded in marrying his son to Ba Hat's daughter. Misplacing their confidence in the Prince, the Kha Yeui were induced to lay the magical awl and axe onto a white-hot brazier. The two instruments immediately lost all magic power.

    So the Kha Yeui had to abandon their project and they just left the stones where they had been raised up along the crest. These lateron became the menhir fields of San Kong Panh and the neighbouring countryside.

    The Huaphanh Menhirs

    At least 1'500 years ago, people of whose origin and fate we know almost nothing, erected hundreds of menhirs along ten kilometres of summit trails atop forested mountains in the present Huaphan province of Lao PDR. Three lower saddles were favoured for the main menhir fields, linked one to the next by isolated menhir clusters.

    The menhirs themselves - in the form of long and narrow blades - are plaques of cut schist then erected upright, on behind the other, with the tallest often in the middle. Interspersed among the groups of menhirs, in no discernable order, burial chambers were excavated deep into the bedrock. Access to the opening below was often through a narrow vertical chimney equipped with steps. Each of these was covered by an enormous stone disk, up to severla metres in diametre.

    In 1931, the sides around San Kong Phanh were surveyed and partially excavated by a team from France, led by archaeologist Madeleine Colani. By the time she got there, the chambers contained, for the most part, nothing but alluvial clay which had gradually washed into the cavities. It appears that they had been originally occupied by several individual burials separated by low walls of schist plaques. Very few artifacts were recovered by the Colani expedition, apart from rather rough funerary urns; certain objects in stone, evidently ceremonial; hanging pendants in crude ceramic, and several very simple bronze bracelets.

    Until the present time these menhirs and round-lidded tombs have held onto their secrets. Perhaps those may be revealed by coming generations.

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  4. Ticino

    Ticino Ol'Timer

    This little sign is posted at KM 55 (GPS: N20.15886 E103.89122) from Sam Neua towards Phonsavan on Route 6; don't miss it. The six kilometres upto the menhirs though took me 30 minutes in a 4x4 vehicle as the road is in less than desolate condition. In the rainy season it might become impassable for bikes.
    The Aonkam guesthouse in nearby Huamoung, phone +856-64-314509 features five guest rooms, shared bath - no food available for LAK 25'000/person/night. And for those who need to know more talk to noone less than Mr. Phonta, phone +856-20-9996-6021 or +856-64-312008; he heads the "Houaphanh Cultural Centre" and is more than happy to share his wealth of information and knowledge.

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  5. SilverhawkUSA

    SilverhawkUSA Ol'Timer

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    It doesn't appear to have changed much since 2005, when I took these photos.

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    It looks as though they were receiving some support from the U.S. State Department (bottom right of plaque).

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    It is truly an eerie and astonishing place.

    Great report Jurgen.
     
  6. Jurgen

    Jurgen Ol'Timer

    Thank you Ticino for you interesting contribution with nice illustrations. Yes, I was there during the (dry) winter season (my attempt to reach the place at the end of the rainy season failed, on my road bike). Then, of course, the vegetation was as grey as the sky, on that particular day. This did not help to drape the garden in a festive mood. Anyway, it is worth to visit this archaeological place when passing through the region.

    Thank you also SilverhawkUSA for your pictures ... the information panel is now dilapidated and faded out!

    Another thank you to Auke for pointing out a misinterpretation in one of my pictures. The province of Xieng Khouang was so heavily bombed that every “irregularity” in the landscape might be taken as a crater, as in my picture:

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    This is the comment from Auke :

    ... a guy who lives in Bangkok and who worked and lived in Laos from about
    1965 till the end of the war informed me that what you call bomb craters [in the picture] are in fact structures used to catch birds. I can confirm that as I also
    thought that they were bomb craters and one day I climbed up one of these
    hills and noticed nets to catch birds so my assumption was wrong. In the
    Xiengkhuang area there seems to be one particular type of bird which is
    being eaten (deep fried).

    Nice additional information Auke … of course, not for the birds!
     
  7. Rod Page

    Rod Page Ol'Timer

    Great post Jurgen.
    Auke really is a fountain of knowledge.
    Cheers
     
  8. ronwebb

    ronwebb Ol'Timer

    Terrific post there Jurgen. Loads of good helpful info and top photos as always. Many thanks for posting.
     
  9. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator Staff Member

    Thanks both Jurgen & Ticino. There's yet another reason to spend more time in Laos "pottering around" slowly, taking it all in & learning something.
     
  10. Ticino

    Ticino Ol'Timer

    An excellent deviation from running my restaurant in crazy Pattaya. Would spend more time once I'm retired (soon) as Laos is not standing still either. See how Vientiane, how it disinegrately runs away from the rest of the country - in all respects. Trying to convince the Australian National Library to sell me a copy of Madeleine Colani's work on Suan Sau Hin Tang from 1935. More to it once I know more.
     
  11. Ticino

    Ticino Ol'Timer

    Well, David/Silverhawk, some things have - regretfully changed. The panels with pictures/drawings, and particularly the panel to the right have suffered badly by the weather impact and might not be decipherable by now. Another concern is the garbage (plastic bottles, chip- and other plastic bags); no litter cans anywhere. We collected what we found and took it to Sam Neua in my car but that's fighting symtoms and not the root of the problem.
    The "Visitors Centre" made the impression of having been abandoned for months hence nobody to talk to. Any idea if the US Embassy's cultural section would finance a "freshening-up" job on the panels?
    Just thinking out loud here...... A pitty to see this unique site going down the path of (Laotian) ignorance. Cheers Peter/Ticino
     
  12. Ticino

    Ticino Ol'Timer

    Well, David, some things have - regretfully changed. The panels with pictures/drawings, and particularly the panel to the right have suffered badly by the weather impact and might not be decipherable by now. Another concern is the garbage (plastic bottles, chip- and other plastic bags); no litter cans anywhere. We collected what we found and took it to Sam Neua in my car but that's fighting symtoms and not the root of the problem.
    The "Visitors Centre" made the impression of having been abandoned for months hence nobody to talk to. Any idea if the US Embassy's cultural section would finance a "freshening-up" job on the panels?
    Just thinking out loud here...... A pitty to see this unique site going down the path of (Laotian) ignorance. Cheers Peter/Ticino
     
  13. SilverhawkUSA

    SilverhawkUSA Ol'Timer

    Actually I worded my post incorrectly when I said "it looks about the same". What I should have said is; it doesn't look as if it has improved since 2005. Even then it appeared to be deserted, and there was little effort given to maintenance or care. It was also a somewhat difficult ride in and definitely 4x4 only if wet. I agree it is a shame to see a unique historical location so neglected.
     
  14. Moto-Rex

    Moto-Rex Ol'Timer

    Great photos and information Jurgen.

    I was at the Hintang archaeological park about three months ago, where I meet a young Japanese guy that had come all the way from Tokyo just to see the park. He had hired a local to take him to the site, but on the dirt road with 4 kms to go, the pick-up they were in, got bogged, so it was a long walk in the rain for the guy. I think he was a little disappointed in the site, because he looked at me and said, “is this it?”

    Thanks for the great report Jurgen.

    Moto-Rex
     
  15. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator Staff Member

    Indeed, & I had crispy fried swallows for breakfast & dinner in Phonsavan in November 2013.

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    & damn tasty they were!
    Trip report here
    http://www.gt-rider.com/thailand-motorcycle-forum/showthread.php/39273-Chiang-Mai-Muang-Sing-Phonsavan-Vientiane-Chiang-Mai
     

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