Act 3: Whiskey in the Jar(s): bombs, bugs and beautiful scenery.

Really wish I hadn’t started Laos with a play reference but am halfway now so may as well continue…

So the Jars:

From Luang Prabang we had booked a minibus to Phonsavan. We were told that the bus had three seats left- in reality that was a massive lie- there was only 6 out of a possible thirteen on the bus in the end.  Two Lao guys, us and a lovely Argentinan couple- Caro and Tomás from Buenos Aires. We were chatting away quite happily with them until we hit the mountain road, a road with more bends than the road to Pai and in worse condition (bad potholes) and due to the rainy season there were a series of landslides. The first five minutes were ok, then we all began to feel a bit delicate- luckily the first road was only for 3 hours and our driver drove as fast as the road allowed and overtook on some less than safe corners; luckily the second 3 hours across the central mountains was much less turbulent. The views were amazing but hillside villages, lush valleys, local hill tribe markets and rolling mountains were quickly obscured by the mist and rain high on the mountain. In the brief periods that the mist did clear you could barely make out the path of the road around the side of the mountain due to the trees.

So why go to Phonsavan? Well we basically went there as it is the gateway for the Plain of Jars, hotly tipped for UNESCO World Heritage inclusion in the next few years and based how how busy and expensive UNESCO sites normally become (Bagan was getting ahead of itself there) we thought we’d better tick it off now while it was still relatively un-developed.

Ok so we arrived into chilly Phonsavan (well 25°C rather than 30°C) and for the third time on our trip and the third time in Laos we rocked up with no room booked and tried to find somewhere. Luckily with it being low season there were rooms available so although still freaking out at the possibility of ending up sleeping in a bed bug infested moldy hole of a place, we managed to grab decent digs in the aptly named Nice Guesthouse with a nice price of 70,000 kip per night (£5.50/$8.55- no breakfast though so worked out the same as the hotel in Luang Prabang at 130/110,000 kip once you paid for that). It also had nice and helpful staff- one of which was trying to get us to go on a hideously overpriced tour though (200,000 kip/pax-$24.40/£15.60) but all the tours are overpriced there. We were hoping, as usual, to go out on the moped but the weather looked against us- two days of rain on Laos roads, we were not holding out hope. More on that later.

Phonsavan is the capital of Xieng Khouang province- one of the most heavily bombed areas in Laos as the Pathet Lao had their headquarters nearby and the Ho Chi Minh trail crossed into Laos from Vietnam there. Our first evening we went to the Quality of Life Association Centre which was established by a group of local people- two of which were victims of UXOs – to provide psychological support and funding for medical treatment for UXO survivors as well as training and social support for the families and survivors. You can see some of their recent work on their Facebook page. While there we watched a few short films about the work the centre does, bought a scarf and money belt made locally to support the centre and victim’s families. Afterwards we went to another charity place for dinner-Bamboozle. The whole place was covered with bamboo- this time this one was for the One Buffalo Foundation.This country is full of charities, each one will break your heart too.

Anyway the following morning after a bizarrely good nights sleep- until 5 am when a local cock decided it was time for everyone to be up- crowing every 15 mins until we eventually got up at 7.30. We had arranged to meet Tomás and Caro about 8 am for breakfast and had decided to get a tuk tuk out to the Plain of Jars as there was no way we could do it on a moped- rain was forcast and we had no idea what the roads would be like. Not long after 8, Tomás came down to tell us to grab some food and they would be over shortly as they were still getting ready. Little did we know at that time they were planning the most insane journey across to Vieng Xai, we had initially thought of going here but balked at the length of the bus ride (9 hrs+ from Phonasavan). Anyway they decided to get the night bus that evening so there was some organising there and then we hired a tuk tuk for the four of us to head to Plain of Jars site 1 (sites 2 and 3 were off limits to tuk tuks due to the road) and to the silk farm.

This was what the road looked like. We did see a lorry stuck in the mud later on which completely blocked the road just after the turn off for site 1
This was what the road looked like. We did see a lorry stuck in the mud later on which completely blocked the road just after the turn off for site 1

So we headed off in the tuk tuk arranged by the hotel (am sure they took a good cut of it) at 60,000 kip/pax (£4.70/$7.26), on turning off the main strip the road was just mud as we made our way to the tourist registration office- if we had gone by bike we would not have called here. The driver took our passports and the guy’s photocopies (they never carry their passports- very clever) and went inside for an unusually long time..however luckily for us a van of Korean students pulled up and asked us to do some questionnaires about Laos which passed the time, and we got a free keyring out of it- Gav finished first and got a face mask also-it was a terrifying sight later when I came out of the shower to find him using it- think “Cable Guy” with the ham.

Ohhh Korean Keyrings and Gav's mask
Ohhh Korean Keyrings and Gav’s mask

Eventually the driver appeared with our passports and we were off to the Plain of Jars! On arrival we were quickly hurried into a golf cart bus to be driven to the site rather than see the visitors centre first- we missed half the site as a result of this which was very annoying. However the site itself was really cool in spite of the rain and mud.

Site clearance sign.
Site clearance sign.
MAG markers- the white side signifies the area that has been cleared and is safe to walk in. The red is the area yet to be checked
MAG markers- the white side signifies the area that has been cleared and is safe to walk in. The red is the area yet to be checked

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Site 1 is the largest of the many sites dotted about the area. Most visits take in sites 1, 2 and 3 if you do it by moped or car.
Site 1 is the largest of the many sites dotted about the area. Most visits take in sites 1, 2 and 3 if you do it by moped or car.

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Loads of the jars had tadpoles
Loads of the jars had tadpoles
The Plain of Jars- thought to be a Bronze Age burial site- bodies would be put whole into the jars and left until only bones remained. Then the bones were buried elsewhere. The cave onsite was also thought to be used to cremation purposes.
The Plain of Jars- thought to be a Bronze Age burial site- bodies would be put whole into the jars and left for a while and then cremated. Then the bones were buried nearby. The cave onsite was also thought to be used to cremation purposes.

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Heavy bombing of the area resulted in many broken or displaced jars
Heavy bombing of the area resulted in many broken or displaced jars

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The King of Jars.
The King of Jars.

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A quite melancholy photo- this lady stood here for ages just looking over the valley.
A quite melancholy photo- this lady stood here for ages just looking over the valley.

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Only one here had a lid- they may or may not have all had them...
Only one here had a lid- they may or may not have all had them…

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Caro, Tomas and me scaling the mud slope- we should have continued round as we missed the top of the cave and some more jars at the back.
Caro, Tomas and me scaling the mud slope- we should have continued round as we missed the top of the cave and some more jars at the back.

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The cave
The cave

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Inside the cave...
Inside the cave…
..two man made vents
..two man made vents
and a rather interesting offering on the alter
and a rather interesting offering on the alter
Vietnamese
Vietnamese

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After the Visitor’s centre, we pilled back into the tuk tuk- had a quick lunch stop (or coffee stop for us as we are still on two meals a day) and then we were off to the Mulberries Silk Farm. Unfortunately we missed the season for the silk worms as they will be starting next month. 80% of the worms are used to make the silk-20% of the cocoons are allowed to mature to moths to continue the life cycle. Silk production take place at a number of places across Lao at people’s houses who have been trained in sericulture. The farm was really cool though and the weaving was insanely complicated-the patterns used are the most intricate we have seen at a traditional loom weavers.

Ladies preparing the mulberry bushes. The sericulture farm is run by a women's collective.
Ladies preparing the mulberry bushes. The sericulture farm is run by a women’s collective.

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A pot of red dye- all the dyes are from natural sources
A pot of red dye- all the dyes are from natural sources

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The dyes.
The dyes.
The green plant there is indigo- blues and greens from this.
The green plant there is indigo- blues and greens can be produced from this.
This lady was chopping up food for the ducks- holding the plant with her foot and cutting it with the cleaver- the guys thought it was some dye- I was busy looking at...
This lady was chopping up food for the ducks- holding the plant with her foot and cutting it with the cleaver- the guys thought it was some dye- I was busy looking at…
...this bettle
…this bettle
This plant had seed pods for orange dye..
This plant had seed pods for orange dye..
....It was also used as a lip stain by Lao women
….It was also used as a lip stain by Lao women
The looms- this was the most complicated weaving we have ever seen- the stuff is gorgeous- and actually quite reasonably priced.
The looms- this was the most complicated weaving we have ever seen- the stuff is gorgeous- and actually quite reasonably priced.

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Lady preparing lime as fertilizer.
Lady preparing lime as fertilizer.
Pulling the silk from the cocoons,
Pulling the silk from the cocoons,

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The cocoons- containing dead worms.
The cocoons- containing dead worms.

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Cocoons from different areas in Laos
Cocoons from different areas in Laos
Raw silk
Raw silk

P1080716 We still had a few hours before the guys had to get the bus so we decided to go to the local market. It was the most interesting market we had been to- other than the usual stuff that was at every other market it some more unusual items….

First look at this- unusual honeycomb...
First look at this- unusual honeycomb…
Only it wasn't! Larvae- loads and loads of larvae!
Only it wasn’t! Larvae- loads and loads of larvae! Wriggling and eating their way out….
from this wasp- I asked the girl, or tried to ask, if the larvae was from that wasp. She responded by picking up the wasp, pushing its abdomen grabbing the sting and ripping the whole thing out and handing it to me. I couldn't believe what I had just seen! I declined the offer to hold it, my track record with wasps isn't great.
…They are the larvae from this wasp- I asked the girl, or tried to ask, if the larvae was from that wasp. She responded by picking up the wasp, pushing its abdomen grabbing the sting and ripping the whole thing out and handing it to me. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen! I declined the offer to hold it, my track record with wasps isn’t great. She did later confirm that they were the same (SEA phrase “same ,same” with pointing).
They seemed to drown the wasps anyway.
They seemed to drown the wasps anyway or maybe make a wine who knows!
some pickled spathcocked chicks
Some pickled spathcocked chicks
Bit of what we assume is dried rat
Bit of what we assume is dried rat
A dead porcupine- there were other living things I was not allowed to take photos of.
A dead porcupine- there were other living things I was not allowed to take photos of.
massive mushrooms
massive mushrooms
The most artistic display of chicken carcasses I've ever seen...
The most artistic display of chicken carcasses I’ve ever seen…
including a black chicken
…including a black chicken

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Eels or snakes? I think snakes, Gav says eels.
Eels or snakes? I think snakes, Gav says eels.

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Plucked porcupine
Plucked porcupine
Dried frogs on skerwers (hard to see but that is what it was)
Dried frogs on skerwers (hard to see but that is what it was)
And a grub salad
And a grub salad
Also worth mentioning is that bomb casings are used all over Laos (in the worst bombed areas) as house supports, cooking equipment or re-purposed into knives or farming equipment.....
Also worth mentioning is that bomb casings are used all over Laos (in the worst bombed areas) as house supports, cooking equipment or re-purposed into knives or farming equipment…..
...these were outside the Crater's restaurant in Phonsavan
…these were outside the Crater’s restaurant in Phonsavan

Then we nipped into MAG (Mines Advisory Group) and watched some films (such as this) and checked out their exhibition and both got a t-shirt.

Initially when we had arrived here into a wet, miserable and what appeared to be a one horse town with our only lure being the Jars we were actually pleasantly surprised and had a great time here and most of it was without leaving the town! Definitely one to come back to as there are loads of caves and villages to see in the area as well as the trip to Vieng Xai which I still want to see- even though it does look like the hospital cave in Cat Ba.

The following morning, after a surprisingly enjoyable flying visit to Phonsavan we grabbed the bus to Vang Vieng…

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