A Not-So-Plain Sight: Visiting Phonsavan’s Plain of Jars

While most backpackers head due south from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, a picturesque spot popular for river tubing and excessive partying (not our thing), we headed east to Phonsaven. Phonsavan is a town in the Xieng Khouang province, known for a very strange attraction: the plain of jars. The jars are everywhere in plain sight, although they are not particularly…jarring to look at.

Getting There: 4 Hour Roadblocks, Child Pees on Leg

Before leaving, a rogue child at our hostel came to say hello, and casually rifle through my purse repeatedly to steal candy. At the station, another small child became my new BFF, waving and beaming at me across the benches. It wasn’t long before he came running over, smiling brightly and thrusting greasy seaweed potato chips at me and into his own mouth. Turns out, this child was on our bus.

After our previous bus rides in Laos, we knew our minibus would be intense. And it was. “6-8 hours” quickly (well, actually slowly) turned to 12. Things started badly, as we hit a closed road an hour in. We piled out of the van and sat in some shaded dirt mounds roadside waiting for 2+ hours, as they knocked rocks of the mountain and onto the road below. Smart vendors set up tents with food and drinks. Unfortunately, this was only the first of many similar blocks.

I was waiting by the bus at one such stop, when I suddenly felt some splashing on my leg. Thinking it was water, I looked up to see the child who was obsessed with me standing on the top step, pants down, peeing freely out the bus door — beaming of course. Good. I rode the rest of the way with pee on my leg. Of course, the luxury minivan was anything but, which we expected. We bumped along horrific roads often with the door wide open (I was sitting next to the door). Dust from the dirt roads flew in, and at one point a man’s water flew out. We saw a lot of villages, a lot of children, and a lot of chickens. On the bright side, we made friends with the other travelers on our bus and wound up hanging out with them a lot which was fun!

The Plain of Jars

So what is the Plain of Jars, exactly? It is literally that – a plain of jars – but as for their purpose and origin, noone really knows! They jars are prehistoric and megalithic (this is how the pamphlet describes them) – the largest is 2.5 by 25.7 meters – and scattered over a large geographic area in Laos. Left by some ancient civilization, there are few clues to their purpose but lots of speculation. Theories include they were used for storage of human remains; they stored spices and salt along an old trade route; they stored alcohol fermenting. An archaeologist named Madeleine Colani studied them in depth. Only one of them at Site 2 has a carving on it, and the round disks next to the jars are headstones rather than lids. There are over 90 jar sites throughout the area, but only a few have been cleared of explosives and open for safe visiting. Nearby to the jars are many bomb craters from the war, some weirdly close to the jars, causing you to wonder, as a man from our hostel pointed out, how they possibly survived without damage. My theory: aliens.

Determined to avoid a pricey tour we figured we could tuk tuk to the jars, so we hit the street with our new bus friend and negotiated a ride to site 1 planning to move forward from there. Unfortunately, our driver adamantly refused to take us further (we later found out tuk tuks are prohibited). Site 1 was cool, slightly “manicured,” well, as manicured as an ancient ruin site can be. A path wound around it, including bricks inscribed with MAG, Mines Advisory Group, indicating the area had been cleared and it was safe to walk but to the side of the white marker only. Site 1 is closest to town, so more people go to it. As we couldn’t get to site 2, we returned to town and wound up booking the pricey tour we tried to avoid. Our guide took us to sites 2 and 3, much more remote! Site two was up a hill shaded by trees, while site 3 required a 10-minute walk on wood planks through rice paddies. There were a lot of jars. Unfortunately, our guide was feeling unwell from food poisoning so he stopped to vomit many times and also stated “maybe I cannot be your guide today.” Then later, “maybe I cannot drive the car. Does anyone know how to drive?” Luckily, we all made it in one piece (unlike the jars!).

💲Budget Tip | If you can drive a motorbike, do. It’s way cheaper and more flexible than other options. If not, just nook the pricey tour as it’s the easiest way to see the jars.

Around the Town: Phonsavan

We saw a few other sights in the small town, including the massive market which is pretty standard, aside from the locally-made aluminum spoons from the nearby Napia Spoon Village. We spent a good deal of time rifling around in some weird bootleg clothing bins, where we made this amazing t-shirt discovery. There is a very modest night market which has some good looking snacks and games, and some friendly people!

We also went to both the UXO Survivor’s Center and the MAG Center to learn as much as we could about the secret war and unexploded ordnance in Laos (more info in my post on Luang Prabang). There are a few other things to do outside Phonsavan, including buddhas and limestone karsts, hot springs and the town of Khoun, an ancient partially-destroyed kingdom. An aggressive rooster woke us at 5am each day. Also, I ran 5 miles to/from the bus station to procure not-marked-up tickets. We also encountered a strange incident regarding opium (to be clear we did not do opium), but probably I will not write about that here.

Eating in Phonsavan

There aren’t many great choices in town. We ate at Sammaly restaurant twice, which seemed to be the popular spot. It was cheap (15,000 for a meal, 10,000 or a beer) with fast service. We also tried Crater’s that is decorated with discarded bombs, as I was weirdly obsessed with it. At 7, they even play a historical movie! We drank at Bombies, where the man gave us a huge free glass of “local whiskey” he made, which was slightly clouded with some small debris. About halfway through the glass, Sarah noticed the whiskey jar contained a massive dead snake fully submerged in the liquor. So we drank the snake whiskey. And debris. Not ideal.

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