Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Laos - The Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jars is a somewhat puzzling site. Puzzling because of its history which is seemingly divided into two distinct periods, both of which have had a big impact on what there is to see today. The first is the Iron Age, about 500 BC, when the jars were believed to have been hewn into the rocks. The second distinctive period is between 1964 and 1973 when the US Air Force dropped 262 million cluster bombs on the site... it is believed some 80 million of those did not explode and remain a deadly reminder of what has happened here. A reminder which still takes lives today.

To put things in perspective. The US Air Force dropped more bombs on Laos than it dropped in the whole of World War II. As so many of these bombs remain unexploded, walking around the Plain of Jars can only be done on the marked pathways. Several craters of bombs which were dropped more than 40 years ago remain visible today as a grim reminder of what has happened here. 

Apart from the overshadowing effect this has on the archaeological significance of the site, as well as on the daily lives of the people living here, I found it somewhat difficult to understand why the New Zealand government had to take the lead through NZAID to help the Laotians in clearing the sites. They have after all been dropped by the US military, so one would expect them to be best placed to clean it up as well. The US government has stepped in since and steadily increased funding. So far 7 sites have been cleared from unexploded bombs, although we were still advised to stay on marked paths only. 

Coming back to the history of the Jars and it's significance, there are several versions of belief in what they were used for. The opinions vary from burial sites to storage of foods and/or water. But opinions even vary as to how the jars were used in burial practices. Some scientists believe they were used for decomposing bodies, others seem to think they were distilled in the jars while there are also scientists who believe the jars were used for cremation. As the Jars are thousands of years old, they could have been used for all of the above depending on which moment in time we look at?

Being here left me with a strange feeling. The beautifully hand hewn Jars are a sight to see. They are a reminder of a different civilisation, one which still has us puzzled today. They are seemingly scattered across the field by giants, which by the way is a local belief of what has happened. Site nr 2 is concentrated around a tree. Here the 'they have been placed here by giants' theory sort of makes sense as is easy to picture the giants sitting here under the tree having a drink... Of course that tree wasn't there when the jars were made, but lets not ruin the picture here. The jars at site number 2 are away from the noise of everyday life. It's truly quiet there resulting in an almost serene feeling, a feeling shared by the other tourists who were there too as no-one made a sound. We all enjoyed the moment and looked around in amazement. And yet, at the same time there is also the sadness, sadness of the incomprehensible things which have happened here during 1964-1973. At site number 2 a massive crater paints a bleak picture of the underlying grim reality of this otherwise magnificent site.

We've written many times that in our experience people are basically kind of good, but visiting a site like this also shows the other side of that coin. The destruction, the killing and mindless madness we do to each other when simply told to do so by our so called leaders, is impossible to comprehend. At the visitor centre is a very simple, but at the same time very graphic pie chart, showing 3 virtually equal pie sections, explains the destruction of the Jars. Nature is responsible for 1/3 while people have done the other 1/3 both over period of thousands of years. The last 1/3 was done during a war which lasted just 9 years... and still affects the lives of the people in Laos today. We end this post with a bit of a grim feeling, yet that is exactly how it felt being here. It is a beautiful site which is very much worth visiting, but at the same time the clearly visible scars of the incomprehensible destruction have a huge impact on how you would experience it. Unfortunately Laos is not the only country affected by this...