On a windy plateau some 1050 m above sea level in northern Laos, hundreds of one-to-three metre tall stone urns, some weighing as much as six tonnes, lie scattered across a grassy plain. The local inhabitants say that the jars were made to ferment wine to celebrate a great military victory 1,500 years ago.
The jars are at least as old as the legend claims, but if any were used for making wine, that was not their original function. In the 1930s, French archaeologist Madeline Colani documented the jars in a 600-page monograph, The Megaliths of Upper Laos, concluding that they were funerary urns carved by a vanished Bronze Age people.
Getting to Xieng Khouang Province, where the plain is located, unless you have an ox cart, is a choice between taking the nine to ten hour bus journey (60,000 kip) from either Luang Prabang or Vientiane or to fly. Internal flights from Vientiane with Laos Airways to the airport at Xieng Khouang take about 45 minutes (US$51 single US$97 return).
As you approach the airstrip you will see thousands of bomb craters pockmarking the barren plain, a grim memento of the American presence in Southeast Asia. Phonsavan has been built over the past thirty years to replace the former provincial capital (Xieng Khouang), which was destroyed during the war.
A little more than a mile southeast of Phonsavan lies the principal jar site, called Ban Ang by Colani: sixty acres of wind-swept prairie containing more than 250 urns.
A few stone lids are scattered among the jars, some incised with a design of concentric rings. All the jars may have been fitted with lids, most of which were later pilfered. Another theory, however, is that these stone lids served some other function, and that the urns originally had wooden covers. In any case, all the jars appear to have been open to the elements for centuries.
There are several places to stay in Phonsavan.
Three to have a look at are Kong Keo Guesthouse, Kou Kham Guesthouse and Meuang Phuane Guesthouse