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Laos: the mystery of the Plain of Jars

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

What are the bizarre stone jars that litter the landscape of northern Laos?

High on the Xieng Khouang Plateau in northern Laos lies a landscape that needs to be seen to be believed. It is not the beauty of the area’s rugged green mountains that beggars belief, though. Dotted across this puzzling landscape are all that’s left of the ancient civilisation that once made the area its home: megalithic stone jars, in their thousands, lie grouped together in clusters over an area covering hundreds of square kilometres. The mystery of these jars is intensified by the fact that nobody really knows who put them there, or why. They’re the tantalising remains of a civilisation that has otherwise completely vanished, and it’s little wonder that they’ve captured the imagination of so many visitors to Laos.

The mystery of jarsThe mystery of these jars is intensified by the fact that nobody really knows who put them there, or why.

Around 2,500 of the stone jars remain in situ, either alone or in groups of up to 400 vessels. There are 90 recorded sites on the Plain of Jars, among the most intriguing of which are located on hills, despite the name “Plain”. All but one of the vessels are undecorated, and most are fashioned from sandstone. Most appear to have had lids, though few survive - perhaps because many were crafted from materials that have long since perished. Of the lids that do survive, which are made from stone and no longer in situ, decorations appear to feature animals such as tigers, monkeys and frogs.

Archaeologists believe that the jars date to the Southeast Asian Iron Age, between 500 BC and AD 500. Research from the 1930s and subsequent examinations of the site concluded that the jars formed part of the burial practice of this lost civilisation, as they’ve found human bones, pottery fragments and other burial goods in and around the jars, including glass beads. Stone discs are also found on some of the sites, which appear to have been grave markers. There’s even a limestone cave on one site that archaeologists surmise was a crematorium, as two man-made holes in the ceiling are thought to have been chimneys; this forms part of a more complex picture of burial practices on the Plain that sheds light on an otherwise entirely vanished population.

The Plain of Jars, LaosArchaeologists believe that the jars date to the Southeast Asian Iron Age, between 500 BC and AD 500.

Local tour guides offer more colourful explanations for the jars’ origins to the tourists who flock to the Plain to witness this extraordinary sight first-hand. Some say that the jars came about because a local king defeated a race of giants who inhabited the area; the jars were, according to this tale, used for making rice wine with which to give thanks for the victory. Some of those who believe this story also reckon that the aforementioned crematorium cave was in fact a kiln in which the jars were fired from a mixture of clay and other materials. Others say that the jars were put there to collect rainwater to quench the thirst of passing salt traders and travellers.

The Plain of Jars, LaosIn the mysterious prehistoric site stakes, the Plain of Jars is up there with Peru’s Nazca Lines and Easter Island’s Moai.

Today, the jars are not the only objects that litter the landscape. The area was heavily bombed by US forces in the 1960s and 70s, and many unexploded bombs now prevent tourists from moving freely throughout the site. However, many areas have been made safe and are clearly marked for the safety of those intrepid enough to make the journey to this fascinating site. In the mysterious prehistoric site stakes, the Plain of Jars is up there with Peru’s Nazca Lines and Easter Island’s Moai. It’s not to be missed on a trip to Laos - and best of all, admission to each of the jar sites costs just 10,000 Kip - the princely sum of around 75p or US$1.2.

How to see the Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars can be seen on our Inside Laos small group tour or may be built in to any customised holiday to Laos.