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Buses, Bombs and Really Big Jars

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From Vang Vieng we’d head backwards to Phonsavan in Northern Lao PDR. A visit to the Plain of Jars was a must… if we could only get there. We’d travelled all over Europe, Turkey and Thailand with transportation luck on our side, but Lao would put a sudden end to our green light coasting. Our bus ride out of Vang Vieng to Phonsavan was late due to technical problems. Three hours late. By dusk we’d be en route in our VIP air conditioned bus. An hour into our journey the bus broke down. The driving crew of four broke out their kitchen utensils to try and fix the problem. We’d be waiting in the dark of night for five hours before the engine was fixed. Finally we’d make it to Phonsavan bus station in the wee hours of the night. It was probably the most remote station we’d ever seen. Not a foreigner in sight let alone transportation. Not one lurking tuk tuk either. Walking around looking completely lost, one of the locals working the eating spot must have called one for us because a lone tuk tuk would eventually roll up. We had some mammoth jars to visit in the morning.

Over 500 jars, thought to be c.1,500 to 2,000 years old, dates that are still unclear, are scattered across a pin-cushione landscape known as the Plain of Jars. Averaging 272 lbs (600 kg), the jars are behemoth ranging from 3 to 10 ft (1-3 m) in height. The largest jar weighing 14 tonnes. Their origin and function remain a mystery, but Lao legend tells of giants that once lived there and an ancient king named Khun Cheung who built the jars to brew his own batch of lao lao rice wine. No scientific explanation as to how these jars found their way onto the plain, nor what purpose they served, exists. Archaeologists have come up with some inspirational theories, among them a claim declaring them brewery cauldrons. There is speculation that the plain was at the connection point of old Caravan Routes coming from India and the jars were simply unloaded here, but forgotten in time. Archaeologists and Historians are still baffled regarding their origin. No one knows for sure their precise age, who built them, or why and why they are all left at this plateau and nowhere else.

From the mid-1960s through the early 70s, the Plain of Jars was the scene of heavy fighting between the Pathet Lao and U.S.-backed troops. During the US forces’ nine year bombing campaign of Lao, thousands of mines were dropped by plane in a vain attempt to close the Ho Chi Min Trail. What is less known is that the US systematically bombed northern Lao in a failed attempt the disrupt a Communist government takeover in Lao (achieved in 1975). Lao is the most bombed country in the world. Making light years of destruction, the Lao people have learned to embrace their balmy history. Old bomb shells now make decorative planter boxes.

It has been estimated that over 2 million dollars’ worth of bombs were dropped each day during those nine years. Each day over 70 people are killed or injured by anti-personnel mines. That’s around one person every 15 minutes.

Before taking to the plains of Phase I, a very big warning sign welcomes you from MAG (Mines Advisory Group) warning you to stay within the marked areas. Small red and white stepping stones mark the sub-surfaces that have been cleared of all Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) and are safe to walk (white), and areas where only the surface has been cleared (red).  MAG’s clearance of unexploded ordnance in Lao PDR means previously contaminated land can be used for agriculture, schools, access roads, bridges, irrigation canals, toilets and water supply. 127 UXO have been cleared from Phase I so far.

You know when you see an unattractive person and someone makes a comment about how they look like 10 miles of bad road.Well, we found that road in Phonsavan, Lao. We’d spend something like two hours in search of an abandoned Russian tanker motoring back and forth along the brutal terrain. When we complain about western bumpy street roads and pot holes, this was straight gravel, fractures and pot holes for miles.

The Limey

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