Secrets of the Stones

After more than three hours trudging along steep forest paths, the surreal mausoleums that we find hidden at the mountaintop are worth every arduous step of the way. Hundreds of massive stone jars, large enough for a man to crouch into, are strewn about in hush closed forest – the remnants of a vanished prehistoric civilization at least 2,000 years old. But these megalithic urns carved from boulders weren’t always so remote and so hidden: the 416 jars constitute the largest cluster ever found at the larger Plain of Jars, indicating that these mountains were prosperously settled at the time; perhaps the ridge was a former trade route. Now the forest has taken over, and the present scattering of tribal villages – including the nearest Hmong village where we would spend the night – are charming in their squalor: an allegoric reminder about the rise and fall of civilizations, and the ensuing landscape transformations.  


And it’s time for ascendancy: discovery of the site in 2003 has brought archeologists to conduct research, UNESCO consultants to design and implement tourism schemes, and money to pay the Hmong, even payment to keep the vegetation around the mortuary vessels cut back. It’s one of the most spectacular new tourist sights in Asia, and it’s set on a trajectory of fame. The entire Plain of Jars, a vast plateau stretching to the south where there are hundreds more jars, is already on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites, a designation expected to become official in two years time.   


“It might have taken thirty days to carve a jar using hammer and chisel,” says Khamman Phimmasan, a government official in charge of archeological heritage at the Plain of Jars in Laos’ Xieng Khoung province.  


Khamman has been here several times and now leads our party, which also includes Long Vang, a guide and interpreter. We contemplate the design of the stone monuments: the enigmatic and voluptuous spherical shape (most jars are between two and three meters high); the sunken ledge on the neck on which the lid, with an opposite-matching ledge, snugly fits; the mysterious carvings of humans and monkeys that straddle the few capstones that survive.     


Then we sit in pensive reverie. It could be my imagination, but I feel a sense of spiritual awareness and peacefulness, something like an ethereal presence. The Hmongs too must feel the same sensation as they have been burying their dead in mounds among the jars. It’s certainly an idyllic resting place for the spirits of the dead, a place where someone could take flight; the lofty vista reveals mountains straggling all the way to the horizon in every direction.  


Visiting the jar site in the mountain, which officially opened for tourism at the beginning of 2006, entails an overnight stay at Ban Phakeo, the Hmong village two miles down-slope. The village is an attraction in itself, and intrepid trekkers can go further into the hinterland to tour other villages, caves, and waterfalls. We limit ourselves to Ban Phakeo, which has 180 inhabitants in 28 households – rice growers who have denuded much of the slopes bordering the paths in their destructive slash-and-burn shift farming. The village itself is a picturesque collection of large wooden houses set in stockades. Dogs, pigs, chicken, and cows shuffle around the open areas, and a trail of sniggering children follow us to the chief’s house, and then afterwards to the spirit doctor’s house.  


The spirit doctor, Tangchai Yang, a wiry gaunt man of 70, discovered his vocation after he cured himself from a long crippling sickness. His house is like the others, a large dark smoky windowless room, a fire glowing in the middle, a mattress-less bed tucked in a corner, a shelf cluttered with blacked pots – and the spirit adobe, another shelf. The spirit’s sanctum is outlandish: offerings on a shelf, and two rectangular paper shrines behind, consisting of a white border interspersed with red diamond-shape cutouts, hedging a yellow centre and three tufted knots of dried grass. “I make ceremonial offerings to the spirits every month,” he tells me. His main chore is to keep the peace between the bewildering array of spirits that inhabit the mountains and the people. “Many children become sick from spirit curses,” he says. “Then I have to mediate with the spirit curser. I would offer the spirit things to appease him. I offer him a pig, and if he’s not happy with a pig I offer him a cow. Then I kill the animal, leave the head to the spirit, and distribute the meat among our people.”  


There are no wrathful spirits to appease tonight – no pork or beef – and we eat chicken fried in ginger and rice. Then it’s time for bed. My bed is a wooden frame covered with a duvet that smells of dogs. I sleep fitfully, and think about the stone vases. Discovery of the jars up-slope, as well as many other recent discoveries in the Plain of Jars, has spurred UNESCO to pour funds into the province – for surveys and research, clearance of American bombs, heritage conservation, and tourism development. Ban Phakeo is the best of five tourist routes instituted by UNESCO.  


“At present we are concentrating on getting more research in order to prepare a statement of significance,” told me Rik Ponne of UNESCO when I went to see him in Bangkok before my trip. “Then it has to be ensured that the jars, once listed as a World Heritage Site, are preserved.”  


Degradation of the jars is steady; tourists climb on them, cows sleep against them, trees take root in the peat that accumulates inside them, villagers break them to reuse the stone. At Ban Phakeo the villagers sharpen their machetes on the jars and have broken almost all the lids to cover their mound graves. Research is also at its infancy, and the survey is ongoing. Yet the tally is already impressive: in the larger Plain of Jars 1,900 jars have been recorded in 52 clusters, as well as fifteen jar-making sites.   


The jars are thought to have been used as mortuary vessels. The dead were placed inside until decomposition reduced the body to its essence, then the body would be cremated, and the remains buried with personal and symbolic possessions. It’s a ritual that is still practiced in a lesser form among some important people and royalty in the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. This rite of passage, perhaps a cultural precursor to the idea of reincarnation in Buddhism, could have flourished at the Plain of Jars as, at the time, the plain is thought to have been one of the trading hubs along a trade route that extended from India to China. The strategic importance of the plain is obvious enough: it’s a vast plateau surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of contorted high mountains on all sides, making it an ideal base capable of supporting relatively dense habitation. A prosperous populace, the logic goes, could then indulge in elaborate celestial rituals, leaving behind these bizarre megalithic monuments on the crests of hills and mountains.   


“We found artifacts such as bracelets and necklaces, earthenware pots, and pipes for smoking,” Khamman told me when I asked him about the excavations in the late nineties in which he assisted the Lao archeologist Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy. They also found bones in burial urns that were carbon-dated at 3,000BC, much earlier than the time the jars are thought to have been made, between 500BC and 500AD (dates extrapolated from historical parallels elsewhere in the region). Another sample of charcoal unearthed by the Belgian archeologist Julie Van Den Bergh, a UNESCO consultant, was also dated at 3,000BC.  


“We need more dateable material before we can come up with answers,” Julie told me in an email from her base in Hong Kong. “When we know at which time in history then we can compare with neighbors where archeological investigations have been conducted over a longer period. There are so many unknowns. What was this civilization doing? For how long? And why did it come to an end? You see, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.”  


Meanwhile, scratching the surface of the earth for archeological excavations has been hindered by the explosive detritus of the American war. The same strategic importance that sprung the fantastic jar-making culture also brought the heaviest bombing siege in the history of warfare. The Plain of Jars was a stronghold of the revolutionary Pathet Lao guerillas, and also a staging base for the Vietcong, and the American assault of aerial bombardment – some 13,000 sorties every month – was so intense that the 1,500 buildings in the then capital of the province were razed in a single day. Now there are two organizations – the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and UXO Lao, the national bomb-clearance organization – working full-time to clear the bombs. MAG have already cleared the main jar clusters – Site 1, 2, and 3, which together comprise more than 500 jars, and constitute one of Laos’ major tourist sights – and now they are clearing an additional four sites that feature on UNESCO’s tourist plans (excluding Ban Phakeo, which is free of bombs).  


Bomb craters still pepper the landscape, and people are regularly maimed or killed – farmers, children, and scavengers looking for bombs as a source of scrap metal. But for tourists the bombs and war notoriety are part of the package of attractions in Xieng Khoung. War ruins – a blackened stupa and a temple whose roof and walls were blown off – are firmly on the tourist trail, and the package of attractions is steadily getting bigger (the complex of caves used as war-time headquarters by the Pathet Lao in nearby Huaphan Province opened for visitors in September 2005). In Phonsovan, the provincial capital, arrays of bombs are the most pervasive design motif in restaurants and guesthouses.  


“The growth has been amazing in the past ten years,” says Sanya Vincent, owner of the Auberge de la Plain de Jars, the hotel were I am staying in Phonsovan. We’re on the terrace of the hotel, set on a hill, surveying the new outgrowths of Phonsovan, swathes of handsome brick homes with lurid red-tiled roofs – “None of that existed 10 years ago.” The growth in tourism – 24,000 visitors in 2005, up from 15,000 in 2004 – is fuelling the building boom. The hotel, built in 1990, is Phonsovan’s oldest and still the best; Sanya, holder of a French degree in hotel management, is the only professional hotelier in the province. “Tourism is booming, but the infrastructure is still weak, and the tourism officials don’t always have the right priorities. Now they want to upgrade the golf course, yet there are still no street signs to lead visitors to the jars – I have to draw my guests a map.”  


Of the soon-to-be-opened tourist sights, as soon as the bombs are cleared, the most spectacular site is at the mountains in Phukeng, where the largest jar-making site was discovered by Thongsa and Khamman in 1998. It takes us 30 minutes drive to get there from Phonsovan, cutting across cattle farmland and streams on a rutted road only manageable by four-wheel vehicles – we’re riding in a reconditioned American army jeep. On the mountainside, dozens of jars are scattered in various stages of completion. Jars made at Phukeng were hauled to Site 1, 8km away, an incredible feat given the weight of the jars – the largest jar at Site 1 weighs six tons.  


If you can ignore the bombs – as a hideout of the Pathet Lao the mountain was heavily mined and bombed, and never extensively cleared – Phukeng is a scenic spot graced by a breeze that carries the sweet-aromatic fragrance of pine trees. Spread in front of us is the Plain of Jars: a grassy landscape, studded by pine trees, undulating towards the faint mountains on the opposite horizon. We sit in the grass and unpack our picnic – sticky rice, deep fried pork, pork stew, som tam – and I imagine imagine the ringing echo of jar-creators gouging out the boulders with hammer and chisel thousands of years ago. It was slow, complicated work, hollowing out the jars chip by chip. And the many jars that are cracked and visibly abandoned in Phukeng suggest that one blow too hard with the hammer would have ruined weeks’ worth of work, and the creator would have to find another boulder and start again. Weeks of careful toiling, in rain or shine, and then there was still the tortuous task of carrying the jars so far away – and how that was accomplished while avoiding breakage is still a matter of wild conjecture. “Did they carry them by elephants?” Khamman muses. “Did they mount them on wooden rafts trundled on round stones or logs? It’s one of the greatest mysteries.” 


© Victor Paul Borg. This article first appeared in Destinasian, which is perhaps Asia's premier travel magazine. 


Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.


 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor's creative nonfiction is varied: essays & memoirs, geography & travel, tourism & environment, columns & features 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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