Sunday, 24 June 2012
Day 91 - Plains of jars. (Laos)
With no more news of Tibet, we’ve continued on our way with our fingers and toes crossed. After our time in Vientiane, we spent a couple of days in Vang Vieng before heading North to Phonsavanh to visit the nearby site called “the plains of jars”. Set 1,100m above sea level, the drive to Phonsavanh involves a pretty intense mountain pass. We were thoroughly grateful not to be in one of the buses that kept overtaking us on blind corners, hurtling around sharp bends, and often causing us to veer to the side of the road in order to avoid a head-on collision.
After the usual wander around to find accommodation, we settled into our rooms and set off for an explore of the town. Five minutes into our explore we bumped into Andy, a photographer from Brixton who we originally met in Vientiane, then bumped into again in Vang Vieng where we ended up spending a day together driving around looking for some caves. So we decided to visit the plains of jars all together the following day. Now being a good looking group of people, we often attract attention; usually tuk-tuk drivers and guest house owners admittedly, but this time it was an English/Italian couple who wanted advice on how to do the plains of jars. Apparently there were next to no tourists in town, and it was going to cost some extortionate price like $25 each to get a tour there. So being the good Samaritans that we are we offered them the 4 Guys in a Car Tour – much cheaper, and a lot more fun.
We spent the evening together at a cheap restaurant where two Vietnamese men at the next table offered us some Lao Lao (local rice whiskey). The lady in the restaurant laughingly told them off and tried to convince us not to drink it. Our Laotion and Vietnamese isn’t crash hot, but through miming and the odd word we’re pretty sure she was telling them to stop trying to make a fool of these nice stupid tourists that have been buying stuff from her, and to us she said beer’s good – it makes you happy, whiskey’s not so good – it makes you puke and sleep. Tunkles and Denner couldn’t resist the cultural experience though and went and sat with the Vietnamese blokes. As far as I can gather the actual conversation was a bit choppy considering they didn’t seem to have any English and I don’t think Tunkles or Denner has any Vietnamese, but it turns out whiskey is the universal language.
In the morning we emptied the boot where we stored Frederica for the day; Ben, Denner, Andy and Nick cosy in the back seat. The main thing that everyone is advised before making this trip is to never leave the track as there are many unexploded bombs, so we carefully made our way up the narrow paths, marked out by coloured stones, to the top of two mounds 50m apart, each scattered with huge stone jars. Some of the jars are entirely intact; others are quite mangled, completely toppled over or marred by bullets. One seemed to have been used to plant a seed in that after several thousands of years, had grown into a huge tree and split the jar into several pieces. Most of them were considerably taller than me, and many were taller than tall people. There are also a few lids inscribed with undiscernible shapes and pictures – although nowhere near one for each jar – scattered around the ground, which themselves were at least half a meter in diameter and too heavy for three people to lift. The most interesting thing about all this though, is that nobody has any real theory as to what these objects are. They’ve been assumed to be jars because they’re vaguely jar shaped, but other than that there don’t seem to be any really viable ideas about what they were used for. One theory is that they were to store rain water, but we came up with a few more realistic ones. Perhaps the ancient Laotians were giants, and these objects were drinking cups, pots for gardening (that would explain the tree – they might have planted the wrong seed by accident), sugar bowls or some other day to day device. Maybe they were actually midgets and these were houses, schools and shopping centres. Or considering they’re pretty echoey, maybe they’re some sort of communication device, used by calling codes or signals into the jars, which are then picked up by whoever is on the other hill. Then there’s always the possibilities of aliens, and who knows what use they might have had for large stone jars. It’s pretty incredible to see these objects which are so strong and solid, preserved over thousands of years, scattered over so many kilometres in this area, and yet completely un-understood.
As well as loads of these collections of jars, there were some other interesting things in the area. We stopped to have a look at a ruined Russian tank, and a village named Spoon Village (for our benefit we presume - it also has a Laotian name which we assume is not just a translation of Spoon Village). Spoon Village is appropriately named for the three places where they make primarily spoons, but also a variety of other trinkets from old explosives. We were shown the kiln where the metal is melted down and the moulds used to shape the objects, and then we chose souvenirs from a basket of aluminium objects. We’re not hugely into buying loads of souvenirs, but between us we left with a couple of spoons (tea and dessert), bracelets, keyrings in the shape of stars and guitars and a bottle opener or two, each item costing 5,000kip (60c).
After our morning jaunt, we dropped Frederica and Nick back in Phonsavanh and set off with Andy on the 250km drive to Luang Prabang. The next six and a half hours were spent winding our way up and down, around the mountains, through tiny villages and along spectacular cliff-faces, three squeezed along the backseat of the car. This road is the main highway from Laos to China and is barely passable in places for one car, let alone two, and when a truck overloaded with tree roots or a full-sized bus comes hurtling around a hair pin bend, it is enough to remind anyone of their mortality. As the sun set behind the mountains I found myself driving at ever more excruciatingly slow speeds; squinting into oncoming headlights, unable to see the road, but sure there was probably a dog, a child or a pot hole, not to mention an inevitable blind corner in front of us. It didn’t help that almost every vehicle flashed their headlights at us. At first we were pretty irate at this, then we realised it’s because they think we’ve left our high beams on. Because our car is a right hand drive the headlights face to the left, which is usually away from oncoming traffic, as it should be. Driving on the right hand side of the road though, means that our headlights are shining directly towards the oncoming cars. There are stickers designed to divert the headlights in this situation, that we should have brought, but until now it wasn’t a thing we’d thought of. I can’t imagine finding them in a convenience store in Laos.
Usually when approaching one of the main towns in a country it’s safe to assume that the mountain pass will eventually end, allowing an increase in speed and possibly getting a bit more lit up, but this really isn’t the case with Luang Prabang. In fact as we approached the town we wondered if we’d missed a turn off somewhere, because even 5km out we still seemed to be winding our way around completely unlit mountains. Eventually though we arrived in the town, exhausted, stiff and very hungry.
We now have a few days in Luang Prabang, which will be our last stop (except for the border town) until we arrive in China on Friday 29th.