The Plain of Jars

One of the most pleasurable elements of travelling to new places, particularly relatively unknown places, is the discovery of astounding sites that comparatively few people have visited. This part of Laos, down in the south east corner is not heavily toured by westerners, mostly due to it being difficult to access. Although Phonsavanh does have an airport flying in is not recommended at the present time so while the Plain is a mere fifteen minutes by car from town, getting here in the first place does require time and effort. This is a lengthy journey no matter where you are coming from, which is why it tends to be as part of a wider more involved itinerary.

It has to be said that whoever named it the Plain of Jars clearly new how evocative that sounded, for it is hard to conceive of a more intriguing title or one to make the visitor more look forward to seeing it, no matter how ignorant in advance one might be.

In outline these are large iron age stone jars, probably part of a burial ritual. There are hundreds of them dotted over the landscape, in varying states of repair. Some of the damage is historic, some is rather more recent as the area was heavily bombed by the Americans as part of the wider conflict in Laos that served as an adjunct to the Vietnam War. Trenches and bomb craters surround many of the sites, a powerful reminder of the troubled recent history.   Indeed, access to many of the sites is restricted as a result of the dropping of vast numbers of anti-personnel mines, with mine clearance an ongoing process nearly half a century later. Only marked paths are safe to follow and only in some locations. A cleared mine is marked with a white post, while a red post indicates identified but yet to be cleared ordnance. It is unlikely a tourist would ever see one of the latter, but the tourist is not the one who lives here. Local people will, and worse those that haven’t been found at all.

For us, it is a brief visit. For those who live here, it is a daily danger.

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There are three main sites open to tourists, although additional ones have begun to be accessible to greater or lesser degrees. Because of the remoteness, it has the attraction of being less crowded than perhaps it deserves. As ever, this is a double edged sword. In future years the popularity will increase, potentially leading to damage (graffiti is already noticeable) but bringing in much needed revenue to the local economy as well.

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One of the local traditions is that the jars were placed there by a race of giants for whom they were cups containing alcohol. The reality may be less certain and undoubtedly more prosaic, but the tradition has an appeal that all legends do, and perhaps it is the one to pretend to believe.

Excavations have revealed that burials were made next to the jars and it seems likely that they formed part of that process. Nearby there is a cave with a hole in the roof that may have been a crematorium. Again, there is limited knowledge and as is always the case it is likely we will never know for sure.

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This is a special place to come. The effort required makes it somewhere relatively few will put on their list, but it rewards the effort wonderfully. No doubt in future as improving links and infrastructure brings more tourists it will become busier. For now it is one of those wonderful secret places that is a privilege to visit. Mass tourism brings so many wonderful benefits to an area, so it is nothing other than selfishness to rejoice in seeing somewhere away from the wider visiting public. Encouraging people to visit is part of that process, for it will become more popular in the years to come. And thus, put it on your list, and do it soon.

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The hinterland

Lao roads are not great. Travelling takes an inordinate amount of time, potholes are frequent and the average speed is rather slow. It needs to be said so that when gauging distances there is the understanding that it’s not going to be like driving along the motorway. Much of the country is mountainous so bends and corners are frequent. On the plus side those with a fear of heights needn’t generally worry about precipitous drops a few feet away, they are comfortable enough from that perspective.

It does however mean that a lot of driving is going to be on the agenda. The route round to Phonsavanh will take around 12 hours in the car and so such itineraries are usually for four or five days. It is quiet and undeveloped with outstanding opportunities for trekking, travelling along the rivers, seeing wildlife (including tigers) and perhaps most of all taking in the often stunning views.

Most of the country is mountainous, and with a low population density even in the more built up areas the unspoilt nature of the terrain is a key attraction.

In truth the first part of the journey from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiao is the least eventful of the coming days, although almost instantly you can see the hills beginning to rise up ahead, and the road takes on a distinctly upward trajectory.

There’s a definite sense of heading into the wilderness, as the number cars and bikes on the road declines and the surroundings become more natural and quieter. The Laos climate means that it’s exceptionally green of course and that also means lots of rivers too. That’s abundantly clear at the first stop, Nong Khiao. It’s only a small place, two streets in reality, but the views are spectacular as it overlooks the Nam Ou river and nestles beneath mountains. It’s a hiking paradise and there are also various river activities as well.

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Morning is a particular time to take in the surrounds, the often misty outlook providing an arresting way to start the day.

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As an added bonus I made a new friend in the hotel at breakfast time.

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It’s typical to spend a couple of days here, it’s very much a retreat from the normal busy world. However, in my case it was already time to move on…

A few more words on Luang Prabang

This isn’t one of the more regular stops on the bucket list of places to visit, and that in itself makes it appealing to a certain kind of traveller. It’s off the beaten track almost by definition with only Luang Prabang being a regular stop on itineraries through south east Asia. However there is far more to the country than that and it deserves greater attention. It’s not over developed, just the opposite and therefore both eco tourism and simple exploration can provide its own joys.

Beginning in Luang Prabang itself one of the sights many visitors choose to make a highlight is the giving of alms to the monks. It does require getting up early and having previously written about the resemblance to paparazzi of the tourists scrambling for photographs, on this occasion it was more low key. Having said that, it was low season, during the peak it will likely be very different. This leaves me uncomfortable; a tradition reduced to being a spectator sport. Nevertheless, for the western visitor unused to such sites it is unquestionably an experience. The collision of tourism and real life always causes such questions.

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In the town itself there and so many temples to visit it can leave the visitor bewildered but the detail and elegance of them still takes the breath away. The best rule is to limit the number you take in and then appreciate them properly. Temple fatigue can ruin the experience and lead to boredom – that is to be avoided at all costs. Still, it’s unquestionably a major part of the experience and provides the lifelong memories of a very special place.

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The national museum is also a must visit – the former palace of the king, it has been kept in much the original condition, as well as having artifacts from centuries of history dotted throughout. It provides a fascinating insight into Lao history, up to the modern age. But be aware that photography isn’t permitted inside so the only things to take are the memories.

If all that gets too much, the Mekong flows next to the town, and provides a dramatic backdrop. Many of the hotels in the key heritage zone back on to the rivers so taking time over a coffee there is a key part of the experience. For the westerner, this evocative idea does tend to come up against the reality of searing heat and humidity though. Something true of so much of the region.

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If Luang Prabang is a tourist trap, heading out to the east of the country is anything but. And that’s where we go next.

Luang Prabang

After a brief stopover in Bangkok, the first port of call in Laos is the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang. It’s notable especially for the number of monasteries and the architecture transpiring from that.

It’s probably the number one Laos destination for the tourist, indeed all too often it’s a case of arriving here for a couple of days and then flying out again. Over the next week or so I’ll be explaining more of what the country has to offer as I go through more of it.

Luang Prabang isn’t a big place by any means, only around 60,000 people, but those numbers swell massively during the peak season and therein lies on of the issues. It’s a sensitive place in that excessive tourism can damage what has made it so popular in the first place, which is why coming here out of season is not a bad idea at all. Getting into the restaurants, walking through the night market, seeing the surrounding sights – it’s all easier and more rewarding slightly out of season. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come in the peak of course, but it’s worth considering outside of those times because this isn’t a destination to lounge around the pool anyway. It’s somewhere to explore.

Indeed managing the growth in tourism has been one of the challenges faced by the town and fortunately its World Heritage status limits development, especially in the centre. The hotel growth is mostly out of town.

Tomorrow will be about exploring properly, and more will be posted then.

Off again

The odd thing with this occasional blog is that true travel blogs tend to involve people jetting off seemingly on a weekly basis, always somewhere new, always somewhere exotic. It puts me to shame but then I’m slightly reluctant to expound on the joys of visiting Manchester, much as I like the city.

So therefore I tend to confine it to the bigger trips, especially the ones where I am going somewhere new. This is a work trip not a holiday, and wifi permitting I shall even try and upload some photos as I go. No selfies though. I know what I look like and I see that horror every morning. Equally I’m no photographer of any merit; my chosen technique is to take loads on the off chance one turns out alright.

This time I’m back in Asia but visiting some new places. Thailand is the first port of call but to Bangkok, which is anything but new for me. From there however it’s a 10 night trip through Laos, having previously only been to Luang Prabang. Then it’s down to Indonesia – Bali specifically, before heading back to Thailand for a flying visit to Chiang Mai before Bangkok again and home.

If this seems a curious itinerary that’s because it is. Work not holiday remember.

It all begins tomorrow, a BA flight in World Traveller Plus. In my younger airline days I routinely travelled in business class. There’s little more depressing about airline travel in Economy than knowing exactly what the pointy end is like and resenting every moment in the cramped seat you actually have to pay for. So I’ve paid for the modest upgrade. There is the possibility I may be mildly less grumpy at the other end.

Updates will follow as the trip unfolds.