Sunday, 27 April 2014

Phonsavan & Plain of Jars

Well, I made it! 

Better than made it.

A minivan turned up at the hotel at 8:40 to take me to the bus station for the 9am to Phonsavan, only when we got there and I tried to get out, the driver told me to sit back down again. Turns out 'hotel pick-up' meant 'pick-up and drive to Phonsavan'! 

Over the course of about thirty minutes I was joined by a handful of locals, and one French backpacker called Remy.

We soon got chatting, and it made the six hour journey that little bit more bearable. Martine had warned me that the road was a bit twisty, but it was fairly hectic. Not quite the level of Cyangugu in Rwanda, where you have to put your bags on the seats to avoid the vomit sloshing in the aisles, but not far shy. Vang Vieng is to Laos what Butare is to Rwanda, in that once you pass that point, the only way is up. The bus climbs steeply for a couple of hours, hugging hairpin bends along the side of huge mountains. It's an incredible view, but there isn't the slightest hope of reading or sleeping. Most of the time you're holding on to the seat in front, or the handle above, to avoid landing on the person sitting next to you. 

On the up-side, you do get to know someone fairly intimately when your face is in their armpit for the best part of 150 miles, and when we finally pulled in to Phonsavan we both needed to find a place to stay. 

Given that the tour guides had quoted me £600 to see the Plain of Jars, and so far I'd only spent about £60, including a tour of the caves at Vang Vieng, I sort of envisioned blowing my extra budget on a comfy hotel and an air conditioned 4x4. Yet, when Remy suggested a budget guest house, I didn't hesitate to follow. I hadn't really expected to meet anyone along the way and we'd had a good laugh. Plus, he was planning to hire a scooter the next day to go to the Plain, and I jumped at the chance! I hadn't been on a moto since Africa, and the thought of riding pillion again was too much fun to pass up.

We stayed at the Sabaidee guesthouse which shared a space with a dubious tourist information office, where nobody had any information, or spoke any English. However, there was an extremely helpful poster on the wall.

Mental note to self: do not pick up unexploded bombs.

This became a running theme, as we headed out for a beer round the corner. 

'Bombie' is the oddly diminutive word for little yellow balls that explode out of cluster bombs. A large proportion never go off, and remain littered around the country, very attractive to young children who often pick them up thinking they are toys.

Our view from Craters, another bar with a bomb theme.

Over the road from the bar was the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) information centre, who specialise in clearing up unexploded ordnance (UXO). We had a look around that and another information centre selling handcrafts for a local NGO working with MAG and mine victims. There was a video about how they clear the mines, and at the rate it's progressing, it's likely to take a thousand years or more. Meanwhile, people are still being killed and having limbs blown off whilst farming their land. It was a fairly sobering display.

After we'd eaten, we took a wander along the high street looking for moto hires. I particularly liked this one: submachine gun with your rental?

Fairly knackered, we turned in early. I had to do a room swap as I had some fairly imposing bedfellows, and the sheets hadn't been washed from the last inhabitant, but the room they swapped it for was really nice, clean, and devoid of scuttlers. Which I can usually deal with, if there's mosquito netting, but that has been strangely lacking everywhere so far.

Original Room
Room mates - about the size of my thumb.

New, improved room, with clean sheets and no roaches!

We started out today at the market, which is vast and fantastic. I am learning the ways of the backpacker, and street food is the cheapest option. Remy budgets $25 a day, and he's been on the road for about six months! Very impressive. 

We found a lovely noodle lady who jumped on us as we were passing and served up a large plate of rice and curry for breakfast, and noodles and curry for lunch when we returned after the Plain of Jars. It was delicious food, but I feel so embarrassed because my digestive system has completely shut down. I can only eat small amounts at a time in this heat, and the portions they serve are so big. 

Lovely Noodle Lady
Phonsavan Market
Then it was on to the hire shop to rent our trusty steed, which we named Nokia... after the phone (don't ask).

So, with transport, and a very rough idea of where we were going, we set out. I can't even describe how much I love motorbikes. I used to take one to work every day in Africa, they were the main form of transport, and it instantly took me back there. I equate them with freedom and good times, so to be back on one again, and especially on such an adventure, was a very welcome surprise.

Part of the fun of travelling is getting lost - and we did! We overshot the turning and instead ended up not at the Plain of Jars, but at the mountain where they apparently quarried the stone for the jars. Unsure quite what we'd come across, we decided to drive up and have a gander.

Please take a good look at this picture. It is me, following Remy up a flight of steps. Bear this in mind, we will come back to it over the next few blog posts.

Spurred on by the sight of this jar at the bottom, we kept going. The further we went, the harder it seemed to give up and turn back, but the steps just kept going up and up and up. We were climbing to the top of the mountain I faded out on in the video above. But the steps twisted and turned as they rose, so every time you thought you were at the top, you turned to see another flight of steps.

4,000 steps later and we finally made it to the top, to find...

Two grasshoppers having sex.
Well, that was worth it.

There were signs for a secret cave (not so secret, as Remy pointed out, what with there being a big sign to it and all), but it was little more than a short tunnel, on the other side of which was was a fairly spectacular view. I say 'fairly'. The physical exertion required, and my early onset sunburn (P20 single application spray does not do what it says on the tin!), meant that the effort to reward ratio was somewhat out of balance.

We were not at the Plain of Jars, but we could see it from there, and we had plenty of time left to make it. Thankfully, going down was quicker than getting up, but my legs were shaking by the time I threw them over the moto. It was quite a climb for a girl who had trouble peddling a bicycle only a week ago. I'm rather proud of myself.

We quickly figured out where we'd gone wrong and high-tailed it back across town. The actual Plain of Jars was about half the distance we had originally travelled, but I bet not many tourists can say they've seen the top of the quarry. 

We headed to site #1, which I think is the largest. My photos are very snap-happy. Hopefully I can pinch some from my friends when they finally get to a decent internet connection. Or try Google Image searching Plain of Jars.

I'm a huge fan of standing stones, as regular readers will know, so the chance to set eyes on this unique site was too good to pass up. The Plain of Jars is described as:

...thousands of megalithic jars. These stone jars appear in clusters, ranging from a single or a few to several hundred jars at lower foothills surrounding the central plain and upland valleys... The Plain of Jars is dated to the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500) and is one of the most important sites for studying Southeast Asian prehistory... More than 90 sites are known within the province of Xieng Khouang. Each site ranges from 1 up to 400 stone jars. 

It is thought that they were used to house the remains of the dead, as an aspect of death rites. They are unlike anything else I've ever seen. Though the area was extremely heavily bombed during the war with the Americans, and many of the jars are damaged. There's even a bomb crater in the middle of the site, and Martine explained that when you visit some areas you have to walk between white guide ropes as the land around the jars hasn't been cleared of UXO yet.

Only one I saw with a cap stone still on.

Damaged Jars

Looking Inside

Bomb Crater
(click to enlarge)

'Bomb crater in war 1964-73'

Shortly after we arrived, an almighty storm rolled in, and everyone ran for cover in a large cave. Well, everyone except me. I carried on walking. Being British and at one with the rain, I continued up to look at some more jars on a hill. FYI, monsoon rain is not as soft as they say in the poems and the songs - I suffered lacerations and had to pull my shawl around myself for protection. Eventually I admitted defeat and ran for the cave with everyone else, by which time I was completely soaked to the bone!

Storm Rolling In


Cave, Centre
(click to enlarge)

Rain Inside the Cave

Everything happens for a reason. Whilst sheltering in the cave, we met a young German backpacker called Jonas. From Berlin, he left home at 18 and has been travelling around Australia and Asia for a year and a half! 

New Friendships Formed whilst Waiting for the Rain to Stop
Remy & Jonas

We shared the cave with a monk smoking a cigarette, and several Asian tourists. The rain stopped after about forty minutes and we all headed out again to take a few more photos.

Remy, roped into photographing a family outing.

Just to get a bit geeky about the rocks, there were some interesting textures. Both at the quarry and the main site, I noticed the ripple effect that was really prominent at Dundurn.

Quarry Site

Main Site
There was also pockmarking, though some of this may have been caused by shells rather than weathering?

Random Panoramic
(click to enlarge)

Random Panoramic
(click to enlarge)

Jonas was cycling back to town, and Remy and I decided to try for the other Plain of Jars sites, but we had to take shelter under petrol station canopies a couple of times as the rain got in our eyes. As we turned onto the dirt road to the next site, we found ourselves riding headlong into a massive lightning storm and decided to head back home for a shower and something to eat.

We met up with Jonas for dinner at Bamboozle, a really nice bar with traditional seating, where the booths are platforms with a table in the middle and cushions around the sides where you can sit on the floor and relax. It's been a fantastic end to another incredible day.

Tomorrow Remy was planning to head East, but after the gruelling bus journey the other day he's decided not to go all the way there to come all the way back again, so both he and Jonas are joining me on the bus north to Luang Prabang. Martine and Ruairí told me that I should definitely go if I had the chance, as it's supposed to be extremely beautiful. No time like the present.

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