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Unexplored Corners of Indochina: Laos’ Plain of Jars

Imagine you’re planning the trip of a lifetime to visit the countries of Indochina. You’ve done plenty of important gastronomic ‘research’ at your favourite Thai restaurant in Bayswater, and now you’re scouring the web for suggestions on places to go. With a few strokes of your keyboard, you discover a variety of highly clickable lists counting down bustling markets, world-renowned museums, popular restaurants and stunning temples. 

But what if you want to step off the beaten path? Where should you travel to explore sites that are less well known, but still brimming with beauty, intrigue, history and culture? In Banana Tree’s ‘Unexplored Corners’ blog series, we’re investigating unique aspects of Indochina that might be new to you, so you can paint an even richer mental picture of this incredible region – and lengthen your must-visit list!

The Oldest Jar Collection in the World

In our first installment, we’re travelling to the vibrant plains of Laos, home to an impressive assortment of massive stone jars. These megalithic jarsare scattered across hundreds of square kilometresaround the town of Phonsavan, and their origin and purpose is unknown – though we’re fairly certain they never contained marmalade. 

The urns have been dated back to the Iron Age, between 500 BC to AD 500. In the same area, other artifacts like human bones, stone lids and discs have been found, but they haven’t shed much light on the great mystery of the Plain of Jars.

Unravelling an Ancient Mystery

These cryptic structures have spurred a number of theories among locals, tourists and archaeologists alike. Some people believe that the jars marked prehistoric burial sites. Others posit that the urns were actually part of funeral rituals in which mourners would place bodies to decompose. 

Still other theories take a more mythological approach. Rooted in Laotian legend, they propose that the urns were used to brew rice wine, which was then consumed at a luxurious feast incelebration of a war victory of a group of giants (this is our favourite theory – it involves food). The exact story behind these ancient vessels is unknown, but imagining their origins is part of what makes them so enthralling.

The Tragedy in the Plains

Unfortunately, part of the reason we’ve uncovered little information about the Plain of Jars is due to the dangerous nature of the archeological site. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped over 270 million bombs in Laos, and about 80 million remain undetonated in the plains surrounding the jars. Visitors must remain in clearly marked areas that have been determined to be safe, which makes it difficult for scientists hoping to study the many vessels dispersed across the region. Efforts are being made to clear the bombs, and we’re hopeful that these efforts will improve life for the people of Laos and allow for a fuller understanding of the enigmatic Plain of Jars.

Despite a war-torn past that is still healing, layers of myth, history, tragedy and meaning make Laosone of the most captivating unexplored corners of Indochina – and its awe-inspiring Plain of Jars contributes to this intrigue.