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Laos Plain of Jars

Xiang Khouan

Plain of Jars and Muang Khoun 16th August

We had an excellent sleep as it was so quiet. The next day we went to find breakfast- in a building opposite and apparently only consisted of badly cooked bread rolls, bright pink savoury jelly (as horrible as it looked), weak soup and over-cooked coffee- all not good. Anyway, we met ate some and went to meet our guide. First he asked if we could go to the market (partly because he’d been asked to buy something and partly to show us). We were
sceptical (as we’d seen a lot of markets by then) but were surprised at how much new stuff we saw and learnt about.
In the early part were reams of different rice and noodles- cooked. We saw the typically Laos sticky rice (aka glutinous rice) with its opaque grains and low amylase; transparent cellophane noodles made from mung bean starch and water; rice noodles; and khao pun made from fermented rice dough which we saw being squeezed through a sieve and boiled. After this was the vegetable area- bamboo shoots, neem (a bitter vegetable), morning glory (convolvus family), garlic, mushrooms, rattan shoots and galangal (a ginger-like tuber), followed by fruit (peach, plum, passion fruit). Then the fish and meats including tiny birds and bats, sausages of something spicy, bamboo rats and all sorts of fresh water life (including some blue shelled crabs). Almost everything was presented in plastic bowls! Just after were the breakfast stalls, many with loyalty cards!
We saw the rice desserts wrapped in banana leaves and all types of crisps- even rice. Past this were the medicine stalls. The medicine was usually a liquid infused with something odd (e.g. bee, bat, snake) and a small beaker was how it was dispensed. The glass beaker would be used to measure up to 3 doses (1 for each arm, 1 for the body, 1 for the legs). The shaman/ medicine man will test the potion first on an if it doesn’t kill me (or even makes me feel better) it must be OK basis. The infusion would relate directly to the ailment e.g. a snake one will stop poison, bees with give me strength.
Around the corner were the non-food items including knock-off DVD/ CDs, household and cooking utensils. The brooms, shovels and gardening equipment were recycled materials e.g. shovels made huge tin cans cut open. There were ethnic stalls with embroidery (Hmong), war scrap utensils, umbrellas of mulberry paper and baskets everywhere. The baskets, mainly made by men, were the bamboo (or rattan) shoulder baskets we saw on our drive to Xieng Khouang.
A special drink is Mastake Whisky made from Hed Wai, a highly valued mushroom from the pine forests of Xieng Khouang.
It was only a short drive out to the first Jar site (known as Jar Site 1). The main road went through the town (which is very small), past a building site (which is going to be a swimming pool and leisure centre) on tarmac roads, then into a small car park where we parked and waited to take an electric road-train to access the site up a track. Some Laotian tourists came with us and walked up the path after we were dropped off just in front of us. This did mean that they got to the first set of large jars just in front of us and wanted to take pictures of each other. Eventually I managed to get a photo without them in it, after they insisted I took a photo of them all!! Surprisingly we suddenly saw a plane fly over and land, and realised the strip of land opposite was Phonsavan airport! We noticed the large ponds (bomb craters filled with water) and the houses dug into the land (to escape detection by American bombers during the war).
We walked on down to the main site with its hundreds of jars (mostly without their lids which had long been taken by locals). Only the largest jars remain; many of the smaller ones were taken in antiquity.
To our left we walked towards a cave. Although the cave was certainly used in antiquity; it may well have been a crematorium associated with the jars; it was still clearly revered today. It is surmised that bodies (probably of the elite) may have been dried out in the jars and subsequently burnt. It is still visited as it has a small shrine inside and was much used during the Secret war as a hiding place. In fact our guide’s parents met in the cave; the Pathet Lao tried to persuade people to move from the area when the bombs started but many didn’t want to leave the land so they hid in the caves at daytime and farmed at night.
All around the path were a variety of large and smaller bomb craters. The paths all had small concrete blocks at regular intervals inscribed MAG to signify that the path had been made safe from UXO.
plain-of-jars-site-2_48886380516_o.jpgOur guide pointed to the hill opposite where we saw two trucks parked and said they were the bomb clearance squad and were clearly dealing with something. We walked back to the main site, past a particularly attractive group under trees and to the top of a small hill (all the jar sites are on raised ground) to look at the jars up there. Then back down the other side to collect the electric train back to the car. Our guide said currently Sites 2 and 3 were inaccessible as he’d checked with the local guides who said the tracks to them were waterlogged clay (slippery and dangerous). One person had tried in a big 4x4 and had to turn back. As we’d heard that they were smaller versions of Site 1 we said not to worry about the other sites, so we drove on.
The stone jars are similar to traditional Southeast Asian Royal mortuary practices and maybe functioned as 'distilling vessels'. In contemporary funerary practices of Thai, Cambodian and Laotian royalty the corpse of the deceased during the early stages of the funeral rites is placed into an urn (while undergoing gradual transformation from the earth to spiritual world). The ritual decomposition is followed by cremation and secondary burial. The royal burials are located across watercourses from the habitation in a geographically high, prominent area. It is interesting to note that the Black Thai/Tai Dam people who have been in the region since the 11th century, cremated their elite to release their spirit to heaven, while commoners are buried, leaving their spirit to remain on earth.

We headed to the old Phuan capital at Muang (=Town) Khoun (previously the city was called Xieng Khouang and had its name changed by the victorious Pathet Lao), driving 28km along pretty and little populated countryside. The small villages economic structure was mainly rice grown in large fields, often with a small bamboo watch hut in the centre. I questioned the size of the field and was told it was usually an extended family or small clan that used it- each person would know which part was theirs but they would all help each other when it came to planting and harvesting. We passed a particularly pretty village (Thuang) by a tranquil lake. A drive for a further 15km and over Nam Ngiap Rv saw us arrive in Muang Khoun. We stopped outside a busy wat, filled with cars, people carrying offerings and the smell of incense. The shoes left outside were several layers deep! Around the back was a huge (ancient) Buddha statue inside the red brick columns of a long-gone temple. The statue had a pleasing lopsided smile and an unusual local Lao style. This is the ancient Wat Phiawat. This town (and temple) was the Phuan ethnic group’s capital and they remain the dominant group in the town today.
Wat PiaWat was built in 1372 in the reign of King Larn Khum Kloung (King of Muang Phoun). The sim (holy building) additions were made in 1882. King Larn Khum Kloung was a great patron of Buddhism and established religious relationships with Burma. The King put the Buddha statue on the back of an elephant and swore he would build a temple where the elephant stopped in Muang Khoun. It stopped at the spot where Wat Peer Wat (Pia Wat) stands. The temple was given the name Wat Peer Wat (Wat Pia Wat) and it was the first temple of Muang Phoun. King Larn Khum Kloung gave instructions to create a big Buddha image in the same style as the golden Buddha statue he brought back from Burma. This statue was granted the name Phra Puttharoub Oung Tuee, and is the statue, which you see today. In 1925, Muang Phoun fought the Muslim Chinese who damaged Phra Putharoub Oung Tuee by cutting the right hand off. In 1953, Wat Peer Wat (Pia Vat) was destroyed by the French. Prince Suthakumarn (Chao sai Kham) encouraged people to contribute towards the restoration of Phra Putharoub Oung Tuee and Wat Peer Wat (Phi Vat). Then in 1968 the vat was destroyed by T28 aircraft gunfire, and now only the pillars of the building and stately Buddha remains. Right by it was That Foun Buddhist stupa aka That Chomsi. It measures 30 m and was built in 1576 the same time as the original That Luang in Vientiane. The stupa was erected to cover ashes of Lord Buddha brought from India. The Lanna-inspired structure stands tall over the town and can be entered by a cavity left by the Chinese marauders a century ago after they looted the stupa and seized the Buddha images enshrined within.
That Chomphet: Built in the same period as That Foun and located nearby. That Chomphet means Jewel Pinnacle (due to a shiny diamond that king Chao Kha Khad installed at its top). That Chompeth was heavily damaged by Haw invaders in 1874 and almost completely destroyed in 1969 during the war.
We walked across the road to the old ruined French Hospital. Apparently the French governor of this province was enlightened and built a hospital for both French and Lao. It had been burnt down (there are no records as to when) but was being kept as a reminder of what was there. There were lovely tiles on the floor and balcony areas. The guide said that a local noble (from the old ruling family) had wanted to make it into a palace. Opposite was a lovely French style building. A huge pipe instrument (7 pipes of different lengths) sat on a nearby stage. Goodness knows how someone would play it-
must have had the lungs of an ox!
We continued walking up a track to the foliage covered That Foun pagoda. It is supposed to have part of Buddha’s breastbone inside, which may be the reason for the hole put right through it. We walked around and through the pagoda to the cows opposite. We noticed the second, more ruined pagoda on a higher hill close by.
Walking back down we went to a local Phuan restaurant for lunch. Outside were large bomb casings- normal for houses/ restaurants in the town. The restaurant was attractive inside with the usual huge heavy redwood chairs- our guide said his father’s house had them & he would not sell even though valuable. Our hostess came back from the temple carrying a large silver offering urn. She showed us a bombie-cup (literally a cup made of a bombie) before our lunch came.

Xieng Khouang, which used to be the old capital of the muang, or territory, of the Tai Phouan people was completely wiped out by the end of the Secret War in 1973. At the end of the war the town known as Xieng Khouang became today’s Muang Khoun while ‘Xieng Khouang’ is now the province. Originally famous for its 62 golden stupas, only the Buddha statue of Vat (temple) Piavat and the Taht (stupa) miraculously remain standing. Everything else is recent. Muang Phouan was once “a large and beautiful city protected by wide moats and forts occupying the surrounding hills and the opulence of the sixty-two pagodas and their stupas, of which the flanks concealed treasures, obtained the capital a fame that spread wide and far”.

Xieng Khouang was the seat of the old Tai Phouan family, which ruled for centuries over the territory of the Plain of Jars. The Tai Phouan are one of the Tai ethnic groups chronicled as descending from Khun Borom (Khun Boulom) whose offspring founded Tai principalities throughout the region- the Tai Lao, Tai Phouan, Tai Shan, Tai Siamese, Tai Lue, Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, Pou Tai. The first written evidence of Tai Phouan are inscriptions in the Buddhist cave, Tham Phra. The dates inscribed on the walls are 6th/7th century AD as is That (stupa) Foun; its shape is early ‘Phouan’ architecture. This surviving remnant of a substantial structure gives testimony to the advanced civilisation at the time. The Phouan people prospered from overland trade in salt, metals and forest products.

Muang Phuan/ Xiang Khouang 1651-1899 polity was based in modern Xiangkhouang Province. The Phuan are a Buddhist Tai-Lao ethnic group that migrated to Laos from southern China in the 13th century to form the independent principality of Muang Phuan at the Plain of Jars, with a capital at Xieng Khouang (Muang Khoun). In the mid-14th century, Muang Phuan was incorporated into the Tai-ethnic Lan Xang Kingdom under King Fa-ngum. The Phuan (Pu’on) monarchy claimed descent from Khun Borom. Muang Phouan became the second of the four (not the historically incorrect ‘three’) kingdoms of Lan Xang, with Champasak and Viangchan following in the early 1700s; all four ‘houses’ intermarried. Although they paid tax/ tribute to Lan Xang, they retained a high degree of mandala-model autonomy. During the 16th century the capital was dotted with temples in a distinct Xieng Khouang style; simple low roofs with a characteristic ‘waist’ at the foundation. To maintain independence Muang Phouan would pay off one or two stronger neighbours; at one time in the 1800s the whole family got carted off for an extended ‘visit’ to Vietnam. With the Lan Xang succession dispute, Phuan took the opportunity to reassert its independence (1707). This Golden Age ended in the 1770s when Muang Phouan was weakened by its own succession issues. It was twice devastated by Siam (1777-9, 1834–6, 1875-6) who deported large numbers to dig the famous klongs of Bangkok. As a result there are more Phouan in Thailand than Laos. Later Haw raiders from China laid waste to the countryside. With the French arrival and occupation of Indochina, Muang Phouan was restored as a principality with the ruling house appointed as governors (not princes unlike 16th/17th C when the Phouan family ruled as kings under the Vietnamese while paying tribute to Luang Prabang). The Franco- Siamese treaties of the 1890s placed Xieng Khouang under colonial rule as part of French Indochina until after WWII. 1949 it became part of the Kingdom of Laos).

  • Kham Sanh 1651–88, father to Ken Chan the Pearl of Tran Ninh
  • Kam Lan 1688–1700, son of Kham Sanh
  • Kham Sattha 1723–51, grandson Kam Lan, tributary to Vietnam, Luang Prabang, Vientiane
  • Ong Lo 1751–79
  • Somphou 1779–1803
  • Noi (Southaka Souvanna Koumar) 1803–31, nephew of Somphou, executed by Emperor Minh Mạng
  • Vietnamese control Xiang Khuoang annexed as Tran Ninh province in Vietnam 1832
  • Po 1848–65, son of Noi, vassal to Siam and Vietnam
  • Ung 1866–76, son of Noi, Haw pirates invade Xiang Khouang in 1874
  • Khanti 1876–80, son of Ung, vassal to Siam
  • Kham Ngon 1880–99, French protectorate ends autonomy


The Puan State
The Lao, originating from Dai-speaking peoples in modern Yunnan, emigrated south, along the Mekong, and settled the river valleys, where they practiced wet rice cultivation, pushing the Austro-Asiatic indigenous people towards the mountains. In the early centuries AD, tiny kingdoms emerged, consisting of small communities in river valleys and the mountains. City-states were formed, called muangs, with larger ones dominating weaker ones as vassals. The Phuan Principality of Xiang Khuang on the Plain of Jars was a contested area, which at various times paid tribute to several powerful muangs, especially Muang Sua (Luang Prabang), which became Lan Xang. Much of the history of Puan state is characterised by external power struggles to control the area, and internal rivalries, with various contenders for the throne seeking support from larger neighbours; Lan Xang, Siam and Annam. In the 15th century, Muang Phuan enjoyed semi-independent status as a result of having been annexed by Vietnam. The Puan kingdom on the Plain of Jars was reaching its apex, due to the trade route, which flourished, and the abundance of paddy land for rice cultivation. The capital, Xieng Khouang or Siang Khuang (now Muang Koon) was resplendent with golden jewel encrusted pagodas and ornate temples. At the end of the 18th century, there were competing candidates for the Phuan throne, with various factions seeking support from outside. A Vietnamese force intervened on behalf of one candidate, while the Vientiane prince supported another. To complicate things, the Siamese had captured Vientiane 1778/9, and it was now a vassal of Siam. In 1799, the Vientiane/ Siamese army raided and took prisoners, including the Phuan king, Chao Somphou, to Vientiane. One year later, the King of Vientiane tried to directly administer Siang Khuang, but the Vietnamese intervened. Vientiane was persuaded to release Chao Somphou, who later died back in the Plain of Jars. Chao Noi came to the throne at the age of 14. He imposed heavy taxes, used to build a huge palace based on that of Vientiane. Chao Anou, the next King of Vientiane, was more successful at dismantling the royal government of Siang Khuang. He dethroned Chao Noi, the legitimate heir, and reduced Siang Khuang from kingdom to province of Vientiane. Chao Noi took refuge in Vietnam, where he requested assistance. In 1828, Chao Anou rebelled against Siam and was defeated by them. He fled to safety in the Puan Kingdom of Siang Khuang. The arrival of Chao Anou on their doorstep with a Siamese army in pursuit presented the leaders of Siang Khuang with a dilemma. When the Siamese commander issued an ultimatum to surrender Chao Anou the Puan leaders quickly accepted. By the mid 1800s Vietnam ruled directly, appointing local officials as administrators. Siam still held influence in the area, as Siang Khuang was also a vassal of Luang Prabang (Lan Xang), itself a vassal of Siam. The Haw, marauding bandits from China, also known as the Black Flag overran the Plain of Jars, looted and destroyed the beautiful temples and pagodas, stripped the gold and jewels inlaid on walls and roofs, and burnt them to the ground. Siam sent an army up the Ou River to attack the Haw and drive them out. The King of Siam blamed the Puan for having brought trouble on themselves by giving rice, silver, and horses to the Haw. The Siamese army took Puan prisoners and brought them to Bangkok as slaves, including Prince Kamti, the last ruler.
We had a nice lunch and came back along the same road, stopping for a few photos. We stopped at Thuang village to watch the monks and nuns parade. Many of the women were carrying photos of recently deceased family members as is common in their style of Buddhism. They would be saying prayers for them at the nearby temple.
By the time we got back we wanted a nice drink, so we stopped at a cafe for an iced coffee (delic as usual), then found the MAG office. We made a donation and picked up two T-shirts, but the show had been suspended due to lack of numbers.
After a stroll around town we found Nisha’s curry house for a vegetarian curry (our guide turned up too, much to our surprise), then next door to Bamboozle for a pudding. Then we retired to our hotel, the Anoulackkhen Lao Hotel.

Prehistory of Xieng Khoung and the Stone Jars- The original inhabitants were hunter-gatherer Austro- Asiatic people. They traded using water routes through the mountains, including the Mekong and its many tributaries, the chief northern one being Nam (River) Ngum. These allowed them to penetrate deep into the hinterland, from where they bought products such as cardamom, gum, and foods. Because sites of funeral urns similar to those on the Plain of Jars are found in India, and Sa Huynh, it is probable that prehistoric salt traders followed a caravan route from Vietnam to India, through Xieng Khouang with its salt deposits. The Laotian upland is still an important local resource for making fermented fish paste (pla ra), a dietary staple of the region. The Plain of Jars people imported items such as cowry shells and glass beads. The Plain of Jars is an important site in late prehistoric Southeast Asia, when advances in agriculture, metal production, and long-distance trade were transforming local society. The local inhabitants say the jars were made for brewing alcohol to be consumed at a great feast to celebrate a military victory thousands of years ago. A wicked king, Chao Angka, oppressed his people so terribly they appealed to good king Khun Jeuam to liberate them. He fought a battle on the plain and defeated Chao Angka. Perhaps 2,000 years old, the relics are an archaeological wonder. In the 1930s Madeline Colani discovered some jars contained bronze and iron tools, bracelets, cowry shells and glass beads, while the rest had been looted. She concluded they were funeral urns of a vanished Bronze Age people. This theory is strengthened by the recent discovery of underground burial chambers. A little more than a mile northeast of Phonsavan the principal jar site, Ban Ang, known as Site 1, contains over 250 urns. There also is a cave, which may have served as a crematorium, as ashes and bones are found inside. A recent excavation exposed a carving of a human figure on the side of the jar, the first anthropomorphic image discovered at the site. 12 inches below the soil, flat stones covering 7 pits were discovered- 6 contained human bones and the last, a 2ft burial jar, had pieces of bone and teeth inside. These pits may be sites of secondary burials, in which the corpse is left to decompose or 'distil' into its essence, a practice common in Laos (to dry out the body and rot the soft tissue before cremation). Maybe the corpses of poor people were placed in pits, while those of the nobility were placed in the urns, which would explain their large size. Once cremated in the cave, the ashes of the elite were returned to the urns, or buried in a sacred place, freeing the jars for re-use. More than 60 jar fields have been identified on promontories and strategically high places. The tallest jars are more than 3m and weigh several tons. A few have carved symbols still visible. Circular stone discs found near the jars, presumed to be lids, are sometimes carved (one has a monkey). A distinctive figure on several urns, known as 'frogman', may link to cultures in Yunnan. There are thousands of tons of unexploded bombs, making the Plain of Jars the most dangerous and contaminated archaeological site in the world. Undetonated bombs, land mines and unexploded military ordnance contaminate +35% of the province and threaten the 200,000 people in Xieng Khouang.
Paris Peacock, Yellow Pansy

First Indochina And The Secret War
The Hmong tell of a warrior, Sin Sai, who defended the first people of earth against evil giants. He left in a flash of lightning, telling his people to stay on top of the mountains to be safe. He promised that if giants returned, he would come from the sky with an army to lead them to a kingdom of their own. This promise led to an armed movement during the French occupation. The French, finding nothing in Laos, chose to produce opium for export to China. Since the Hmong already grew opium for medicinal use, the French exacted a tax of 2 kg of opium for every person, to be collected by lowland Lao officials working for the colonial government. An acre of poppies produces only 1k of opium, so a family would need acres of poppies in addition to food crops- slave labour. There was also forced conscription to build roads. In 1917, a man called Baa Chai claimed he was in contact with Sin Sai, and called himself Chao Fa, Prince of the Sky. He led a revolt against the French until crushed in 1920. Craters from saturation bombing echo the horrors of the past- 450,000 civilians in Laos lost their lives. Refugees exceed a million. Widespread use of toxic chemical defoliants created a massive health crisis, which still persists.1954-The French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam fell to the Viet Minh. The Geneva Convention called for a cease-fire between the French and Pathet Lao. The attendees, including America, China and USSR, agreed to the formation of a coalition government, and prohibited foreign military presence in Laos.
1955 America paid the salaries of the Royal Lao Army, and created a secret Project 404 in which military officers resigned to be reassigned as civilian military advisors. Elections were held but excluded the Pathet Lao. Vietnam started moving troops. Prince Souvanna as Prime Minister tried to integrate the Pathet Lao into the Royal Lao Army. He visited Hanoi and Beijing, which annoyed America. When Pathet Lao dominated the election, Eisenhower said the communists had to be stopped.
1960 The CIA rigged the election so their choice, Poumi Nosovan, came to power. The State Department supported Souvanna, but the Department of Defence/ CIA were behind Poumi. A disgruntled army captain, Kong Le, took Vientiane and drove out Poumi (who fled to south to Savannakhet). Kong Le asked Souvanna to come back as Prime Minister. America gave aid to Poumi who drove Souvanna/ Kong Le out of Vientiane. They joined Pathet Lao and took the Plain of Jars (with Vietnamese help). Britain, France and America accepted Souvanna as the legal government of Laos, but America continued its clandestine support of Poumi. The CIA established a secret guerrilla army of Hmong, led by Vang Pao. The Hmong believed they could make a piece of Laos their own kingdom. The Soviets began supplying arms to Kong Le and the neutralists. The CIA as Air America (Sky Men) sent secret missions to carry food, arms, spies and radar to allies and drop napalm on enemy positions. The State Department switched to Poumi, while the CIA continued with Vang Pao. The Soviets supported Kong Le. North Vietnam and China aided the Pathet Lao, and Britain was on Souvanna's side.
During the 1965-73 civil war in northern Laos, 3 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos. The war in northern Laos was led by the Hmong Maj. Gen. Vang Pao. His tactics resulted in heavy casualties, so eventually only children and men over 45 remained to serve as soldiers. He would withhold rice from communities that shielded their young. The Hmong fought bravely, but WWII carbines given by the CIA were no match for the Pathet Lao carrying AK-47’s, and Soviet tanks. Towards the end, children under 15 constituted the bulk of the Hmong force. In 1973 peace was signed in Vientiane. A coalition government was formed. The Pathet Lao sent troops to secure Sala Pu Koun, so the Hmong took up arms to help the Royalists defend the Plain of Jars. Vang Pao's forces were routed and Long Chieng was about to be overrun. The US offered to airlift Vang Pao to Thailand, and he requested help in airlifting 5000 of his people to safety. The CIA sent 4 planes. They mobbed the planes with people thrown out as they flew off. The thousands left tried to flee to Thailand, but were met by communist troops at Hin Heup Bridge and dispersed. Many hid in the jungles and formed the Chao Fa resistance at Pu Bia.

Posted by PetersF 16:48 Archived in Laos Tagged laos plain_of_jars archaeology phonsavan field_of_jars xiang_khouan

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