I was picked up from my hostel in Luang Prabang, Laos at 8:55 am for my long journey to Phonsavan, and eventually The Plain of Jars. “You must be ready at 8:30 for pickup because the bus leaves at 9 am sharp!” the tour agent had told me. After I had found enough room for half of my left butt cheek on the metal bench, I held on tight so as not to tumble out the back if the driver were to stop suddenly.
Once we arrived at the bus station, I was ushered to an awaiting minivan where a man took my ticket. I asked him hopefully “Phonsavan?” Yes, he nodded. After I had lifted my heavy backpack to the man on the roof of the minivan the ticket man started yelling at me “Phonsavan! Phonsavan!” and pointing at another minivan while giving me dirty looks like, as if I had attempted to trick him. The new van man took my ticket, and I asked twice “Phonsavan?” “Yes, yes,” he assured me.
Soon after I got in we had a full house, and I was sure we would start off at any minute. A half an hour later the driver came back to argue in Lao with a passenger that resulted in the man getting off our van and into another one. Now I was certain we would get rolling. Another half an hour later the driver got in, started the van, and yelled at an escaped passenger that ran back with his freshly scored bag of crackers. We drove for precisely one minute, during which the back side window rattled so loudly I promptly shut it, and then we stopped for the driver to fuel up and another passenger to use the toilet. As we lingered at the gas station, I realized the smell of beer, vomit, and urine in the van was more pungent than I had first thought. Not to worry, as soon as we started driving, this time for real, that smell was greatly overpowered by the nauseating smell of exhaust fumes. I now understood the back window had been open by a previous passenger hoping to arrive at their intended destination without the carbon monoxide poisoning.
I chuckled at my previous notion of sleeping through the ride to Phonsavan because every three seconds my head bumped on the van’s interior. I had forgotten how bad the roads had been on my journey into Luang Prabang. The only one that looked close to sleep was our driver.
As we started our journey up the winding mountain roads, the two German men in the backseat with me were having a conversation peppered with one of the few German words I know. Yes, it was a swear word. Their conversation got louder with every jarring bump we went over. It was at this point I noticed my holy crap handle was missing, presumably ripped out by a terrified falang (foreigner) on their own bumpy ride through the Lao mountains.
The driver passed the “sharp curve, slow down” sign with gusto, accepting it more as a challenge than a recommendation. Our poor little dilapidated van gave it its all to get up the curvy hill. Soon after we almost collided head-on with a transport truck because our driver was determined to drive on the wrong side of the road. A Lao passenger yelled something, which I can only assume involved cursing, and the driver glared in the rear-view mirror and then shrugged.
We passed many little roadside villages, most of which were just a few buildings that clung desperately to the hillside. People had rice out on the side of the road to dry, children played in the dirt, and all sorts of animals roamed free. Even though it was hard to focus on anything other than the driver who was taking hairpin turns at nauseatingly high speeds, there were some beautiful views of the Luang Prabang mountain range. Tall grasses, bamboo, and palms colored the landscape in lush green wilderness. A fine haze sat in between the peaks and valleys which created a real misty Asian mountain feel.
We finally reached the rest stop in the mountains. I had stopped here on my way to Luang Prabang, and I was eager to get one more look at the strange jugs of homemade whiskey containing bear paws and deer feet. If that doesn’t do it for you, how about some shrimp flavored peanuts? No? Coffee flavored peanuts? I was baffled when I watched two people unload their stuff from a perfectly good air conditioned bus and saddle up their bicycles. Crazy falangs.
After we had hit the road again, I noticed the driver drove like a person used to driving a motorbike because he leaned with his whole body into the curves. We turned onto the road heading east and the driver stopped briefly to ask if anyone wanted the toilet. Nope, onwards! Out came the Germans’ map to see how far away we were from Phonsavan. It was still really far. My bladder then reminded me of the liter of water and iced coffee drink I had had at the rest stop.
“Ananas!” German #1 was excitedly pointing out the window at the crops on the hillside. Pineapple, I guess I do know some German other than swear words.
On the last leg of that bumpy minivan ride, I almost peed my pants. I saw the 41 km to Phonsavan sign and thought I could hold it. After we passed four perfectly good toilets and numerous tall bushes, I saw the road marker for another 15 km and thought “well, I’ve held it this long.” That was the slowest damn 15 km of my life. I was sure that the numbers of kilometers on the road signs went higher before they went lower again. I was sure the driver slowed down to a crawl on the flat stretches for no reason, but sped up for the big, bladder jiggling potholes and bumps. At about 3 km to town, I desperately asked, “Toilet?” however, it came out as more of a startled yelp than a question. “5 minutes,” I was told. We finally arrived at the bus depot in Phonsavan, and I had never been happier to see a free dirty shack with a squat toilet!
The other foreigners who had been in the minivan with me, the two German men and two Swiss girls, had no rooms booked and were being hounded by three different men all offering the three same hotels for the exact same prices. The two Swiss girls went their way, and I caught a ride with the two German men because their hotel tout offered me a ride to my pre-booked hotel for 5,000 kip. Of course when someone offers me a ride at the normal price, not an inflated tourist rate, there is always a catch. People come to Phonsavan to see The Plain of Jars and my new friend knew this. When we got to my hotel, I tried to give him money and he said it was free. That is always a bad sign. “Why don’t you check-in to your room and I’ll come back in 10 minutes to discuss your tour options for tomorrow?” “Sure.” Why not? I was going to book it anyway, right?
This was the fanciest hotel I had stayed at in a long time! It had an elevator, a TV in the room, hot water, windows that opened, and a front desk that wasn’t also a tour agent/bar/restaurant/bike rental/mini-mart/bookstore/bedroom/kitchen. My room had the smallest balcony I’ve ever seen. It ran the length of the windows and had a little enclosed space about 2 feet high.
I met with Mr. Yang and booked my trip to The Plain of Jars and a bus ticket to Vientiane for the following day. He assured me it went through a short cut and only took seven hours. He then told me the road would not be so winding, just two turns, left and right. He laughed and seemed very pleased with his own joke. After Mr. Yang had cleaned me out of most of my kip I found a busy little restaurant and had a delicious plate of chicken fried rice for 10,000 kip. The portion was huge. There was no way I could eat it all, so I gave the second half of my plate to a couple of street kids who had been standing on the sidewalk watching everyone eat with hungry eyes.
I was so excited to have a hot shower because it was cold in Phonsavan. Unfortunately, my hot-water heater did not work. I let it run for about 10 minutes before I gave up hope and had a cold shower. The hot side of the tap was only slightly less arctic in temperature than the cold side, and by no stretch of the imagination was it hot or even warm. I headed downstairs for my free breakfast, but the man in the restaurant insisted I must give him a napkin first. No napkin, no breakfast. After speaking with the man at the front desk, I discovered a napkin is a written note from them saying I am allowed breakfast. I handed my “napkin” to the man in the restaurant and asked for an omelet and toast with butter. He brought me over easy fried eggs and plate of sweet bread with jam.
My tour guide arrived on time and told me his name was Year, “like the year 2014”. Our first stop was at the tourist info office that had a display of some of the cleared unexploded ordinances (UXO) from the surrounding area. I giggled as a man rode by on his motorbike wearing pink fuzzy slippers. Back in the van we turned off the main road onto a very bumpy, dusty dirt road. It reminded me of the rough red dirt roads in Cambodia that have potholes big enough to swallow a transport truck whole.
We finally arrived at Site 3 of The Plain of Jars. I was so excited I could barely contain myself. We had a nice walk through a field of grazing cows and up a hill. Then I saw my first giant stone jar! I might have even “Oohed and ahhed” aloud.
Our guide Year told us that Site 3 contained about 150 of what are considered to be the smaller of the jars. According to Year, it is believed that this site would have been the burial and cremation place of the poor or lower class, Site 2 would have been the middle class, and Site 1 was for the rich or Royals. He said the large flat stones were lids, and I could see some of the jars did have a lip that would support this theory. Year said the jars are grouped by family, so a family of four would have had four jars. There are a few different theories, and local legends, as to what these megaliths were used for, but the most accepted theory is that they were used for burial rituals. Most likely, the body was left to decompose in the jar and then later taken out to be cremated and buried. It is assumed the jars were carved with iron tools, but no tools have ever been found.
We then moved to Site 2 which had the tallest and longest jars. The hill at Site 2 had a spectacular view of the mountains and plains. I started chatting with Year, and when I told him I was from Canada, he asked me if that was a country or state. I explained it was a country, but he was still unsure. “Canada’s not a state of America?” No, no it’s not. I remembered having a conversation with a taxi driver in Thailand that was convinced Canada was very near Norway, and I just smiled.
We had our lunch at a little ramshackle place near Site 2, and it was a delicious, large bowl of noodles. While I was looking at some of the souvenir items made from the UXOs, (bracelets, spoons, bottle openers) a man commented to me that he felt bad being here as an American. This comment went right over my head, and I thought I reassured him when I said not to feel bad, not everyone hates Americans; I don’t. My feet didn’t taste as good as the soup. A second later I realized he meant because of all the bombs the US had dropped on Laos during the secret war. I thought he meant in general because sometimes people seem to be unfriendly to American tourists. I am so smooth it should be illegal.
I managed not to offend anyone else for the rest of the lunch. I spoke mostly to an Aussie couple and older Hungarian man. I always find it fascinating to hear other travelers’ opinions of places I’ve been to, or I am going to. Opinions vary so greatly depending on whom you ask that it’s always best to take travel advice with a grain of salt and just go ahead and do what you planned on in the first place. For example, I said I was planning to go back to Bangkok soon, and their general feeling was that was a horrible place to visit. I shrugged; it’s one of my favorite places. I was sad to hear that the Aussie couple had avoided visiting Cambodia altogether on the advice of a friend who had told them it was no good. Cambodia is an amazing country with beautiful, warm people and I tried to convince them to reconsider.
After lunch, we stopped at what is known as Whiskey Village. Any excursion that involves a free shot of alcohol is all good in my books. The old woman who ran the place looked like she had been taste-testing since 7 in the morning. She was a very happy person. She shoved her fingers into the fermenting rice, took a big chunk, and ate it. She encouraged everyone else to do the same. 1L for only $1 was a good deal, but I knew I was leaving the country in two days, and I thought taking a water bottle full of homemade alcohol across an international border would be frowned upon. I did briefly consider trying to consume 1L of whiskey by myself in two days, but that seemed like an even worse idea. It was very tasty though, once the burning inside my chest had subsided.
Site 1 was the largest, and I thought the most impressive of the sites, with about 250 jars, all weighing over 600 kg. The view down on the plain from the first little hill really had that wow factor.
As we walked by the last of the jars my guide and I saw something very odd inside one of the jars. It was a big, black, fluffy mass of something. The guide asked me what I thought it was. Jokingly, I said, “I don’t know, poke it.” He did. It was a cluster of a hundred or so skinny, long-legged, black spiders. When he poked it, a bunch went running from the group. Shudder.
We finally arrived back in town after a long, dusty day. My journey to The Plain of Jars may have been a little bumpy, but it was definitely worth it. The stone megaliths are some of the most interesting things I’ve seen in Asia and perhaps my life. Back in my room I decided to wash the dirt off my feet because I had been wearing flip-flops all day, and wouldn’t you know it, there was absolutely no cold water, and I scalded my feet.