Plain of Jars: Secrets of Death

plain of jars secrets of death laos

              The Plain of Jars is a mysterious ancient site that has hidden its secrets with time, but also bears the scars of a more recent ‘secret.’  Shrouded in mystery and myth, this bizarre collection of ancient megalithic stone jars is scattered in the hundreds across a war-scarred countryside in northern Laos's Xieng Khuang province.

many jars site 1 plain of jars laos
One of the groups of stone jars and grave markers at Site 1.

              Little is known about the civilization that created these giant jars, but archeologist estimate that they date from the Southeast Asian iron age (500 BC – 200 AD).  It’s believed the jar sites lie on what may have been an ancient trade route that linked the iron ore in the area to the salt supplies in the northeast.

man standing jar plain of jars laos

              The unusual area known as the Plain of Jars includes around 2,500 giant stone jars, all clustered into 90 known sites.  The stones are mostly carved from sandstone, but others are also made from much harder granite and limestone.  Some of the stones measure up to three meters tall and weigh up to ten tons.  All of the stones where dragged, most likely by elephants, from quarries 10 km away.

broken jar plain of jars laos
Jars broken from the blast of bombs exploding nearby.

              Unfortunately, the original purpose of the jars is still an unsolved archaeological mystery.  Today they litter the hillsides around Phonsavan, collecting rainwater and cobwebs, and refuse to give up their secrets.  There are of course a few theories trying to explain their puzzling purpose.

largest jar plain of jars laos
Largest cup found (center), known as the kings cup, is 3 meters tall.

              According to local legend, the jars were created by a race of giants, whose king, Khun Jeuam, needed somewhere to ferment and store his rice wine. The wine was then consumed at a great feast to celebrate a military victory thousands of years ago.

jar lid plain of jar slaos

              The prominent archeological theory though has nothing to do with fermenting wine, but with distilling bodies.  It is thought that the bodies of some deceased were put in the vessels to distill, or decompose, before being cremated and buried.  A practice still used in recent times by the royalty of Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.  It is thought that in doing so, the souls of the dead would have a chance to make the transition from the body to the spiritual world.

scattered jars plain of jars laos

              This theory becomes more complex with the finding of marked graves around the jar sites that contained pottery, iron and bronze objects, and glass beads, and noncremated bodies.  Adding further to the complexity is the finding that some of the remains inside the jars belonged to more than one person, showed signs of cremation, and mostly belonged to adolescents. 

cremetorium cave plain of jars laos
Evidence shows that this cave was once used as a cremetorium.

              The evidence would suggest that not everybody was cremated, but those that were ended up back inside the jars.  The use of the jars may also have changed over time.  Archeologist still don’t have enough information to fully explain the different findings and acquiring more information is hard due to evidence of another secret that the area still shows.

cluster bomb site 1 museum plain of jars laos
Cluster bomb. One of the 127 undetonated bombs found at Site 1 alone.

              Dotted over the countryside are thousands of bomb craters and what is even more unnerving is the thousands of tons of unexploded bombs, land mines, and other military ordnance that liter the area unseen.  A tour of the jars sites shows proof of the so-called ‘Secret War,’ which was launched by the US in the 1960s and '70s and turned Laos into the most bombed country in history. 

bomb craters across landscape plain of jars laos
A few of the many bomb craters that dot the landscape of eastern Loas.

              From 1964 to 1973 the U.S. was supporting the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao communist forces and trying to also prohibit traffic along the Ho Chi Minh trail.  Due to this, over 2 million tons of ordinance was dropped on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions (a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years); more than all the bombs dropped on Europe during World War II.  In result of this, about 30 per cent of the bombs dumped on Laos failed to explode, leaving countless unexploded ordnance (UXO) scattered throughout the country.  These UXO’s have killed around 50,000 civilians since the end of the war and continue to kill about 50 more annually today. 

mag trail marker plain of jars laos
Stay safe!  The white indicates the safe side, whereas the red indicates an area that has not yet been fully cleared. 

              Since 1994, the British Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been conducting campaigns to clear the countryside of the UXOs and educate locals about the dangers of tampering with suspicious medal objects.  Of the 90 known jar sites, only seven have been partially cleared and are safe to visit.  These sites have their access paths marked by very small red and white MAG marker stones.  The white indicates the safe side, whereas the red indicates an area that has not yet been fully cleared. 

pin point plain of jars site maps laos
Locations of the 7 safe Plain of Jars sites and quarry.

              The three jar sites that are closest to Phonsavan are Sites 1, 2, and 3, while there are four more (16, 23, 25, and 52) that are further afoot.  The cost to visit the site is 15,000 LAK/1.65 USD, with a 3000 LAK/0.33 USD parking fee. 

plain of jars site 1 map laos
Site map for Site 1.

              Of the three that are close, Site 1 is the closest, largest, most studied, and most visited.  Just outside of the gate there is also a visitor center and museum, that is free to enter, with information about the Plain of Jars sites.  This site has multiple groups of jars and grave markers, including the largest jar known.  There is also a cave that, although now serves as a Buddhist shrine, is believed to have once served as a crematorium.  Throughout the site you will also see multiple craters and trenches from the war.

plain of jars site 2 3 map laos
Site map for Sites 2 and 3.

              Site 2 and 3 are a little further south of Site 1, but can be included as a day trip.  These two sites are much smaller in size and have fewer jars, but are in a much more scenic area.  For all three sites there is a bit of walking and the trails could possibly be slightly slippery if it rains, so be prepared. 

Getting to Phonsavan, Loas


Phonsavan has a domestic airport (Code: XKH), located about 5km south of town.  Lao airlines operate several flights each week between Vientiane/Luang Prabang and Phonsavan.


There are daily buses and minivans to Phonsavan from Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane.  It should be noted that the roads are very windy on the way to Phonsavan, so if you are susceptible to car sickness make sure you take motion sickness meds. 

From Vientiane: You can take a local or VIP bus from the northern bus terminal. The trip takes about 10-12 hours and costs 130,000 LAK/14.34 USD.

From Luang Prabang: Local buses leave from the southern bus terminal in Luang Prabang.  The journey takes about 8 hours and costs 95,000 LAK/10.48 USD.

From Vang Vieng: Local buses leave from the main bus terminal Vang Vieng.  The journey takes about 7-8 hours and costs 100,000 LAK/11.03 USD.

              Leaving Phonsavan can be a little confusing as there are five bus stations.  Some destinations may only be served by one station, while others could be served by multiple.  The best option to circumvent this is to speak with your hotel about which station to use or to book a ticket through them.  If you book a ticket through your hotel you will pay a small commission, but the price will include a tuk tuk ride to your bus station. You can also use 12Go to purchase your tickets online. 

Powered by 12Go system

Getting Around

              The main strip of Phonsavan is easy to get around on foot, but there are also tuk tuks around to be hired.  There are three ways to see the Plain of Jars: group tour, individual tour, or do it yourself.  There are many tour agencies in town that do group tours of the sites, but they will only go if they have enough people.  Individual tours are a bit more expensive, but you will have the guide to yourself and you know it won’t get cancelled.  Both of these options usually include one to three of the jar sites and one of the other minor attractions or villages in the area. 

walk plain of jars laos

              If you are a long-time reader of my blog then you know the third option, do it yourself, is my preferred choice.  Not only is this the cheapest option, but it also allows you to spend as much time as you want at each place and stop along the way if you see something you like. 

              If you are only going to Site 1 you can walk if you are up to it.  It is only about 4 km through the countryside, about a 45-minute walk.  But if you plan to see more that that you should rent a bike or motorcycle in town.  A bike will cost around 20,000 LAK/2.22 USD and a motorcycle around 80,000 LAK/8.90 USD

Where to Stay

              There are a number of hotels and guesthouses throughout Phonsavan that accommodate any budget.  When booking my hotels, I always use Agoda to find the best hotel in my location and price range.   

 pin point map phonsavan laos

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