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Mystery Plain – Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia

There’s little known about the origins of the stone jars strewn across the bucolic landscape of northeastern Laos—aside from the fact that they are under threat from unexploded ordnance.

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
October 2010
Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia

T+L AsiaMy introduction to the jars began in the back of an old black Russian sedan, careening across the mud-slick tracks of northeastern Laos. It was the middle of monsoon season. The rain came down, the mud came up and I couldn’t see a thing through spattered windows. After more than an hour slipping and sliding through the countryside, we parked in a gaping puddle. My guide, a young man named Bounnyot, led me up a steep path to a vista overlooking green peaks and valleys, and dozens of enormous stone vessels taller than many a local. The jars marched straight across my line of sight. Up close, I saw tadpoles swimming in the pools of rainwater collected inside. Spiders stretched their webs across the stone. My guidebook had prepared me for an amazing sight but nothing this vast, serene or sublime. Then Bounnyot told me he learned from his grandfather that the jars were gigantic tuns, built to hold lao lao, the local mind-bending hooch.

Really? Did Bounnyot believe that?

“No,” he chuckled. “Well, maybe.”

It’s a familiar tale to Julie Van Den Bergh, an archaeologist now based in Hong Kong who spent several years working for unesco and is currently preparing the Plain of Jars for status as a World Heritage Site. In fact, she hears this story
all the time: an ancient king named Khun Cheung, victorious in battle, built these jars to hold his celebratory elixir. “I don’t have a problem with lao lao,” Van Den Bergh said. But science tells her these jars had greater purpose—as the funerary urns of an unknown ancient civilization. READ MORE (PDF)