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Lifting the lid on the Plain of Jars

MSN Travel 2010

 

The world’s most heavily bombed country, Laos, has a secret. Beneath a limestone plateau, littered with hundreds of neolithic stone jars, is a hidden underground city. For nine years Pathet Lao guerrillas hid in this complex of 480 caves from a rain of American bombs, and emerged to take control of the country. In a secret war in the 1960s, the U.S. dropped two million tons of munitions – more per head of population than any country has ever endured – trying to stop a wily army of 20,000 sandal-clad guerrillas supplying Communist allies in Vietnam.

Forty years later, and despite the unexploded bombs still littering the countryside, it is possible to visit the caves where this ghost army sheltered. Though it is a long and arduous trip on winding mountain roads from the main tourist centres to the west, Vieng Xie already attracts a handful of foreign visitors. With the opening up of new hotels and plans for an airport this is bound to grow. The attraction is not just the caves. The area boasts an astonishingly beautiful landscape of jagged limestone peaks, verdant bamboo forest and picturesque rice paddy.

Colonel Lae Saengkhamphet of the Pathet Lao is a veteran of the conflict, still proudly sporting medals as well as numerous scars from the 1964-73 conflict. The colonel, who now acts as an attendant at a nearby cave complex, recalls the time that a one-tonne bomb fell near the cave he was sheltering in. “I couldn’t hear anything for three days after that,” he told me.

The underground city, whose entrances were protected by 1.5m thick blast walls, had almost everything that a community could need, except natural light. There was a bakery, a hospital, a print shop, a bank, a women’s union and a repair workshop for vehicles. There was even a telephone exchange, plus a radio transmitter which was so old it had originally belonged to the Tsar of Russia.

At that time the surrounding forests had tigers, squirrels, small deer and wild pigs. Though little wildlife or even birdlife is now in evidence, there is plenty to see nearby. The neolithic stone jars are the main draw, though only three of the 60 jar sites known are accessible because of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Archaeologists believe there are dozens more sites yet to be found in the UXO littered forests nearby. The money is just not there – yet – to clear them.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing is that so many of the jars have survived the bombing at all. Most are between one and three metres high and made of either limestone or volcanic rock. Though most have been dated to between 500BC and 800AD little is known about their purpose or the people who built them. Yet considering they were fashioned before iron tools were locally available, the workmanship is astonishing. The jars have lips, bevelled edges and some have lids lying nearby.

To get to the jars, you pass through numerous Hmong villages, wooden huts built on stilts but almost all of which sport a satellite TV dish. A tough and independent-minded tribe, descended from Genghis Khan’s Mongols, the Hmong are the largest of the 48 Lao minority tribes. Like the early Mongols, the Hmong are largely animist with a scattering of Buddhism and Confucian-style ancestor worship. In Vietnamese slang, the Hmong are the Meo or cat people, for their incredible climbing skills.

For those who cannot face the winding, bumpy road to the Plain of Jars nor the terrifying overtaking habits of Lao drivers, there is a more relaxing haven in Luang Prabang.This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a beautiful example of what in Europe would be called a spa town. Draped over hills at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, Luang Prabang is a town of 24,000 surrounded by tree-clad limestone peaks, many dotted with golden pagodas. The  meandering river frontage, part colonial French, part homegrown Lao, has dozens of open-air restaurants and bars dappled by the shade of bougainvillea and jasmine, from which you can drink glasses of tasty black Beer Lao while soaking up the view. The dry season climate is sublime. Hot and clear by day, but distinctly cool in morning and evening. Yet the evidence of the monsoon carries through in a verdance in every garden, back yard, and allotment, with pandanus palms shading every chair and an epiphyte hanging from every bough. There are tourists, of course, but the place has a reflective almost laid-back charm which neither nearby tourist centres of Siem Riep in Cambodia nor Hanoi in Vietnam can quite match. The tuk-tuk drivers doze languidly in the back of their cabs, instead of touting for fares, and the waiters are happy to let you peruse the outside menu in peace, rather than try to drag you in off the street. Even the massage girls, who look all of twelve years old, give a diffident smile rather than drum up custom for their foot pleasing half hour service.

Our hotel in Luang Prabang, the Villa Maydou, was an elegant hardwood chalet reached on a narrow path behind a temple. It has just 15 rooms, each one of which is a extravaganza of endangered hardwoods. Teak panelled bath, six foot wide mahogany bed, but most aptly enough, Lao maydou. Even the soap dish and fence posts are fashioned of the kind of lacquered timber that would more normally grace a Georgian dining room. One by-product of all this wood is that the place creaks like a galleon at night, squealing to each footstep, punctuated by the solid thunk of closing doors.

The food in Laos is yet another reason to make the trip. Not so highly spiced as Thai cuisine, but more so than Vietnamese, Lao cooking is typified by its soups, which use subtle chicken or fish stocks to make irresistable and filling meals for a dollar or less.

 

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