Like many of Laos's treasured sites, the Plain of Jars is little known outside the country. If you are in Laos, however, it is definitely worth the trip.
The Plain of Jars is simply, a collection of huge limestone jars, carved out of solid rock and dating back over 2,500 years.
They are way older than the ruins of Wat Phu in southern Laos and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Just who could have created these immense stone jars, and for what purpose, is a mystery that has stumped archaeologists for decades.
When you get up close to the jars themselves, the mystery deepens. While many of the jars are weather worn after centuries of rain, wind, humidity and the more recent bombings of the Vietnam war, others are wonderfully preserved.
You can see that their sides are perfectly curved; an incredible feat of skill and dedication with what must have been quite primitive tools.
The Plain of Jars is not actually a singular 'plain'. Rather, the thousands of stone jars are clustered in seemingly random groups, across 60 sites around the province. Only 7, however, are open to the public. Sites 1, 2 and 3 are the most accessible to the nearby town of Phonsavan, the capital of Xieng Khouang.
Some sites are out in the open, others hidden away on hills. It makes you think how amazing it would have been for people to discover them in the first place.
Research puts the origin of the Jars in the late Iron Age, around 500BC. There have been various theories around their creation and purpose. In 2016, however, a group of Australian archaeologists visited the Plain of Jars to conduct its first major excavation.
They discovered ancient human remains at one of the Jar sites. It indicates that the jars were originally used as tombs or for burial rites. Which may explain the care taken in their creation. They may also have been made elsewhere and brought to these sites, incredibly, as some of them weigh over a tonne.
One of the reasons that the Jars have remained a mystery for so long is that Xieng Khouang was very heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. The province borders Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail, and UXO (unexploded ordnance) has littered this area for decades.
Thanks to the efforts of MAG (Mines Advisory Group) and the work of Lao bomb removal experts, the Plain of Jars is now relatively safe to visit, though signs remain warning people to stay on the designated paths.
Sites 2 and 3 were our favourites, with the latter involving a good 10 minute walk (15 with small legs) through some farming fields and up a hill.
One thing I found surprising, however, was the complete lack of information at the sites. There were no boards or even signs to show you where to go. I imagine that will change in the coming times but for now, I suggest reading up before you visit the Jars.
We stayed at the Auberge de la Plain des Jarres, a small hotel of chalets on a misty, forested mountain overlooking the town. It got quite cold of an evening so we enjoyed the open fireplaces in each chalet. Also rambling around the woods and the hotel's unusually large number of friendly dogs; 7 black Labradors in total.
All the Phonsavan hotels are set up to run a fairly standardised full day tour of places of interest, culminating in the Plain of Jars. We found the full day a little tiring with young kids and insisted on cutting it a bit short to spend more time at the Jars.
In the morning, we went to Mulberries, a local Fair Trade textile farm. It was particularly fun for the kids, who loved the silk worms (me, not so much) and weaving on the looms.
We also visited a village to learn more about UXO and how the locals repurpose old metal bomb casings.
And stopped at QAL (Quality of Life Association) in Phonsavan. QAL is a local organisation that supports UXO victims through advocacy, and help to access education, medical and rehabilitation services, and sustainable livelihood development. It's a great cause. They have a handicraft shop on the main road.
Finally, we popped into the Cranky-T Cafe, also on the main street, for tasty coffee, cheesecake brownies, and other much appreciated treats.
The Plain of Jars sites are best accessed with a car and driver. You can wander about at will and take your time. There are 3 flights a day from Vientiane.