The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

The Plain of Jars is 160 sites in North Laos containing huge, ancient limestone jars, the origins and purpose of which are still unknown. It’s an interesting place to visit with other activities nearby even better but the enduring legacy of the “Secret War” looms large.

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

Playful children in Northern Laos


Our base for touring the Jars was the dreary town of Phonsavanh – a non-descript medium-sized town slowly awakening to tourism. Our Lonely Planet book pointed us towards Kong Keo Guesthouse – “a new place with minty-fresh rooms“. Err…….holes in the thin carpet exposing concrete, basic rooms and stupidly tiny bathrooms (shower while sitting on the toilet?!). We later discovered Mr Kong (the proprietor) himself works for Lonely Planet. Dodgy. We stayed elsewhere. To be fair to Mr Kong he was helpful and interesting, talking to us for hours and educating us about the Secret War; we signed up to one of his tours.

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

Fresh meat!

The Secret War

We visited a group of huge bomb craters from the Secret War, a sober introduction to the topic. During the 1964-73 campaign, 2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos by the US, but 30% failed to explode. They indiscriminately dropped cluster bombs – a huge bomb casing that opens as it falls through the air to release a spread of dozens of baseball-sized “bombies” – each one full of hundreds of ball bearings. These unexploded bombies are a major problem – they are everywhere and have ruined the lives of thousands of children who find them, pick them up and play with them, despite the local schools educating the children about the dangers. Farmers turning the earth in rice paddies are still finding them with devastating consequences. We saw one bombie lying half-buried in the field, marked by small rock.

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

An elderly women carefully crosses a river

In these regions of Laos affected by this (basically a route the North Vietnamese Army took as they cut towards Ho Chi Ming in southern Vietnam, plus areas on the Vietnam-Thailand flightpath where the US planes would dump their unused ordnance to make their landing safer) it is only safe to stick to well trodden paths. It’s known as the Secret War as not even the US congress knew about it – it was illegal and a mind-boggling crime, with clear human cost that endures today. The US didn’t admit it’s involvement until 22 years after it pulled out of Laos.

To help clear the bombs and enable communities to live normally again many international aid agencies work on the ground here – apparently the US contributes only a tiny fraction to the effort (but the information presented by Laos is not the most objective). One bomb fell every 8 minutes throughout the 9 year campaign.

Hmong village

We visited a traditional Hmong village where the locals recycle the top grade metal bomb casings. We saw some ironmongers shaping a plough for the fields. They use the empty bombs as supports for their homes, as troughs to make fires in, as troughs to grow herbs in. The children were particularly welcoming, saying Sabaidee with a smile, whilst milling about and playing with the plethora of animals – pigs, monkeys, cows, chickens, dogs, cats. It was fascinating, a tiny village of wooden huts, a community working together, producing the bare necessities of life. A bit like going back in time.

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

Old US cluster bomb casings ready to be made use of at the Hmong village

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

Smiley children at the Hmong village

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

Pensive children at the Hmong village

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

Posing girl at the Hmong village

Memorial cave

We then visited a massive cave, which recedes a few kilometres into the rock, in which entire communities sheltered during the war. Almost 300 people died when a jet fired a rocket directly into it. The US fighter planes made many attempts to get a shot on target through the 6m x 6m entrance and sadly one guy made it. Every single person in the cave perished, even those at the extreme back. It was a strange and moving experience to know we were standing at the spot where so many innocent people lost their lives.

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

The cave that a rocket was fired into killing hundreds of Lao innocents

Plain of Jars

Then it was on to the Plain of Jars. We visited site 1 (there are 3 tourist sites out of the 160 sites) which consisted of 250 jars, of varying sizes and weights, spread over about a square kilometre or two. The largest jar is 6 tonnes. We were able to roam freely in amongst the jars, always checking we were within the marked safe area. It took 3 months for the anti-mine team to clear the bombies here – they found 127 items of unexploded ordnance during the clearance in this one small area. As with England’s Stone Henge, it was a wonder how the jars ever came to be sitting in the field, as some are so large they look impossible to move. They are crafted with smooth openings, are perfectly rounded and were obviously highly important to the people of that time, whatever their purpose.

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

Plain of Jars (site 1)

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

The jars are individually as well as collectively impressive

Assault course through the jungle

We embarked on another tour, which included trekking up a waterfall, or rather a whole series of waterfalls (around 10). We were literally climbing up the rocks as water cascaded down under our feet. We waded the river several times, across stepping stones, along tree trunks, up and through a tree(!). A really unique ‘trek’ – more like an assault course laid on for us by Mother Nature. Carly’s flip-flops expired and a couple of people slipped over whilst trying to keep all their valuables dry! Utterly awesome.

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

One of the pretty falls we encountered

 The Plain of Jars and the Secret War

Carefully making another crossing

That night Ben sampled some dried buffalo skin – a bit like pork scratching, but stinky and leathery. It made him sick for a few days. Carly also managed to eat something dodgy and was sick. We left Phonsavanh happy to move on. It was a worthwhile visit though – fascinating, harrowing and educational.

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