About Xiengkhouang - Things to See and Do

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Lone Rider

Blokes Who Can
Jan 29, 2011
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Xiengkhouang - Things to See and Do

Xieng Khouang province covers an area of 15,880 square kilometers and has a population of 251,840 (2007). The province consists of 7 Districts: Pek, Kham, Nonghed, Khoun, Morkmay, Phoukood and Phaxay. Located in the northeast of the country, the area was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.


Xiengkhouang Province (Phonsavan) and its location

The original capital city, Muong Khoun, was almost totally obliterated by US bombing and consequently, the capital was moved to nearby Phonsavanh. Of several Muang Khoun Buddhist temples built between the 16th and 19th century, only ruins remain. Wat Pia Vat, however, survived the bombing and can be visited. The main attraction of Xieng Khouang Province is the Plain of Jars. Stone jars of different sizes, apparently carved out of solid rocks, are scattered all over the plateau. The biggest one reaches a height of 3.25 meters. Researchers have advanced different theories as to the function of the stone jars, which are estimated to be 2,500 to 3,000 years old.

A bit of History

While the origin of the Plain of Jars` people is unknown, the recorded history of Xieng Khouang is interlinked with the Tai Phuan. The Tai Phuan or Phuan people are a Buddhist Tai-Lao ethnic group that migrated to Laos from southern China. By the 13th century they had formed the independent principality of Muang Phuan at the Plain of Jars with Xieng Khouang (the contemporary Muang Khoun) as the capital.

The Phuan population were able to retain a high degree of autonomy although they had to pay tax and tribute to Lan Xang. During the 16th century expressive Buddhist art and architecture flourished. The capital was dotted with temples in a distinct Xieng Khouang style, i.e. simple low roofs with a characteristic 'waist' at the foundation. In 1930 Le Boulanger described it as "a large and beautiful city protected by wide moats and forts occupying the surrounding hills and the opulence of the sixty-two pagodas and their stupas, of which the flanks concealed treasures, obtained the capital a fame that spread fear wide and far." After the Kingdom of Siam, contemporary Thailand, extended control to Lao territories east of the Mekong in the 1770s, Muang Phuan became a Siamese vassal state and also maintained tributary relations with Dai Viet (Vietnam). The Franco-Siamese treaties of the 1890s placed Xieng Khouang under colonial rule as part of French Indochina until briefly after World War II. The French used the city of Xieng Khouang (nowadays called Muang Khoun) as their provincial capital. A few ruinous colonial public buildings remain such as the governor's residence, church and the French school. The hold of the French on Laos was destabilized by the loss of territory to the Japanese and Thailand in the south during WWII. Following events led to the French protectorate of Laos becoming a constitutional monarchy, with sufficient rights to form a national parliament.

In 1954, Phatet Lao forces moved to Phongsaly and Xamneu provinces. A coalition government was formed between the Royalists, the Neutralists and the Phatet Lao, although in May 1959 internal fighting broke out. On January 1st 1961, the Phatet Lao took possession of Khoun, Paek and Kham districts, turning the Plain of Jars into a communist stronghold. The Royal Laotian Air Force backed by the Americans made its first aerial strike in January 1961, and the US supplied airpower in greater and greater amounts as the war progressed. In May 1964, the US increased the aerial bombardments and dropped bombs on the Plain of Jars at Muan Phan, Ban Khong, Tha Thom and Thavieng for the first time. President Lyndon B. Johnson provided secret economic, financial and military aid to the Lao government, hoping to prevent a victory by the communists. In July 1969, the Lao Royalist Army launched a major offensive to regain a foothold on the Plain of Jars. By October 1969 they occupied several key strongholds in Xieng Khouang. However, Phatet Lao forces recaptured the Plain again in early 1970 and despite efforts from the Royalist Army held the initiative from that point on. A cease-fire and peace agreement was signed in Vientiane on 21 February 1973, ending the US involvement in the conflict. On 2 December 1975, a cease-fire between the Royal, Neutralists and Phatet Lao troops was agreed, marking the end of Lao as a kingdom and the official establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Due to its strategic importance, Xieng Khouang experienced heavy aerial bombardment and intense ground battles. As a result of the carpet bombing thousands of inhabitants died or fled Xieng Khouang, and it is estimated that ten thousand of people were displaced or air-lifted out of the province. This conflict has left a deadly legacy of UXO which is still being cleared today.


Usefull contacts:
Phonsavanh Provincial Tourism Office for Xieng Khouang Province is located near the agricultural market and bus station
Paek & Phaxay district, +856 (0) 81 212 483

The Mystery of the Plain of Jars

The Mysterious Plain of Jars is situated about 12 kilometers from Pek/Phonsavanh. There are over 300 giant stone jars scattered across the misty plateau. However, more than 90 sites are known within the province of Xieng Khouang. Each site ranges from 1 up to 400 stone jars. The jars vary in height between 1 and 3 meter and up to 2.7 meter in diameters with the heaviest jar weighing 6 tons and are all without exception hewn out of rock. The stone jars are undecorated with the exception of a single jar at Site 1.


From the fact that most of the jars have lip rims, it is presumed that all stone jars supported lids, although few stone lids have been recorded; this may suggest that the bulk of lids were fashioned from perishable materials. Stone lids with animal representations have been noticed at few sites such as Ban Phakeo (Site 52 - now also known as Site 4). The bas-relief animals are thought to be monkeys, tigers and frogs. No in situ lid has ever been found.


Jars, Stone Lids, Stone Discs, Markers, etc.

Not to be confused with stone lids are the stone discs. The stone discs have at least one flat side and are grave markers which were placed on the surface to cover or mark a burial pit. These grave-markers appear more infrequently than stone jars, but are found in close proximity. Similar are stone grave-markers which have been placed intentionally to mark a grave. To the north of Xieng Khouang an extensive network of intentionally placed largely unworked stones probably marking elaborate burial pits and chambers are known as "standing stones of Huaphan (Suan Hin)". Following the investigations by Colani, these were dated to the Bronze Age. Material associated with the stone grave markers in Xieng Khouang however, is similar to the stone jars artefacts. The jars lie in clusters on the lower foot slopes and mountain ridges of the hills surrounding the central plateau and upland valleys. Several quarry sites have been recorded usually close to the jar sites. Five rock types are known: sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia. The majority of the jars are sandstone and have been manufactured with a degree of knowledge of what materials and techniques were suitable. It is assumed that Plain of Jars' people used iron chisels to manufacture the jars although no conclusive evidence for this exists. Regional differences in jar shape have been noted. While these differences in most cases can be attributed to choice and manipulation of rock source, form differences, such as small apertures and apertures on both ends (double holed jars) which would affect the use of the jar have been recorded in one district only.


One of the artefacts strapped to and to be moved on bamboo poles by the staff of Madame Collani.

At Site 1 (also known as Thong Hai Hin) a natural limestone cave is found with an opening to the northwest and two man-made holes at the top of the cave. These holes are interpreted as chimneys of the crematorium. French geologist and amateur archaeologist Madeleine Colani excavated inside the cave in the early 1930 and found archaeological material to support a centralized crematorium theory. Colani also recorded and excavated at twelve Plain of Jars sites and published two volumes with her findings in 1935 (Megalithes du Haut-Laos - 2 volumes in French onlu and it is almost impossible to get hold of a copy - For those interested in reading a bit more read "The Plain of Jars: Mysterios and Imperilled" by Lia Genovese (PhD Candidate, School of Oriental and African Studies London) - download it from here: http://ghn.globalheritagefund.com/uploads/documents/document_2006.pdf


The cave at Site 1

The material findings and context led her to the interpretation of the Plain of Jars as an Iron Age burial site. Inside the jars, she found embedded in black organic soil coloured glass beads, burnt teeth and bone fragments, sometimes from more than one individual. Around the stone jars, she found human bone, pottery fragments, iron and bronze objects, glass and stone beads, ceramic weights and charcoal. The bone and teeth inside the stone jars show signs of cremation, while the burials surrounding the jars yield unburnt secondary burial bones.

No further archaeological research was conducted until November 1994 when Professor Eiji Nitta of the Kagoshima University in collaboration with Lao Archaeologist Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy surveyed and mapped Site 1. Nitta claims that the surrounding burial pits are contemporary to the stone jar as they are cut into the ancient surface on which the jar was placed. Nitta claims the stone jar as a symbolic monument to mark the surrounding burials. He dates the Plain of Jars to the late first or early second millennium B.C. based on the burial urn and associated grave goods. Sayavongkhamdy undertook survey and excavation between 1994 and 1996 supported by the Australian National University. Sayavongkhamdy and Bellwood interpret the stone jars as a central single person's primary or secondary burial surrounded by secondary burials of family members. Archaeological data collected during UXO clearance operations supervised by UNESCO archaeologist Julie Van Den Bergh at the in 2004-2005 and again in 2007 provided similar archaeological material results.

The suggestion that stone jars in a similar fashion as traditional Southeast Asian Royal mortuary practices functioned as 'distilling vessels' was put forward by R. Engelhardt (UNESCO) and P. Rogers (SNV Lao PDR) in 2001. In contemporary funerary practices connected to Thai, Cambodian and Laotian royalty the corpse of the deceased during the early stages of the funeral rites is placed into an urn, while the deceased is undergoing gradual transformation from the earthly to the spiritual world. The ritual decomposition is followed by cremation and secondary burial. The royal burials are located across watercourses from the habitation areas in a geographically high, prominent area. Meanwhile, it is interesting to note that amongst the Black Thai/Tai Dam people who have been in the region at least since the 11th century, the elite are cremated releasing their spirit to heaven, while commoners are buried, leaving their spirit to remain on earth.

Colani connected the location of the jars sites to ancient trade routes and in particular with the salt trade. He assumed salt was a commodity sought after by the Plain of Jars people, bringing traders to the Xieng Khouang Plateau. The Xieng Khouang area is rich in metallic minerals, mainly due to the granite intrusions and associated hydrothermal activity. Two principal iron ore deposits exist in Lao and both are in Xieng Khouang. The presence and locations of the numerous jar sites in Xieng Khouang may relate to trading and mining activities. History has also shown that Xieng Khouang at the northern end of the Annamite Range provides relative easy passage from the north and east to the south and west. Within the geographic setting of Xieng Khouang, the jar sites may reflect a network of intercultural villages, whereby the locations of the jars are associated to long-distance overland routes which connect the Mekong basin and the Gulf of Tonkin System. The jar sites show superficial regional differences such as jar form, material and number of jars per site but share common setting characteristics such as burial practices, elevated locations and commanding views over the surrounding area.

The most investigated and visited Jar site is located close to the town of Phonsavan, and is known as Site 1 or as Thong Hai Hin. Another jar site (Site 2) is located 25 km south of Phonsavanh. The site is known locally as Hai Hin Phu Salato "table hill" as the French in the 1930's regularly used the hill for picnics. Here about 100 jars are spread across two adjacent hillsides. The most attractive site is a further 10 km south - Hai Hin Lat Khai or Site 3. The main group of some 150 jars is located on top of a small hill from which one can enjoy great views not only of the surrounding plains, but also of the prosperous farming community of Ban Xieng Dee, in the valley below.

Some seven jar sites have been cleared of UXO (unexploded bombs) and are open to visitors. These are currently most visited Site 1, 2 and 3 (located almost in one straight line), and Site 16 near the Old Capital Xieng Khouang (along the unpaved track which runs north from Ban Phai - approximately at N19.34205 E103.40715), Site 23, near the big hot spring - Baw Nyai - about 18 km east of Muang Kham, Site 25 near Ban Songhak (N19.62995 E103.09493) in the largely unvisited Muang Phoukoud district and Site 52 (also known as Site 4 at N19.49584 E103.43222), the largest known jar site to date with 392 jars near Ban Phakheo which is a traditional Hmong village only accessible on foot.


Some of the jar sites (by numbers only)

Other explanations and related information

Local folklore says that, in the 6th century, the warrior king, Khun Jeuam, brought his army from Southern China and defeated the evil chieftain, Chao Angka. The battle was followed by a mighty feast, at which hundreds of gigantic jars of lao-lao rice wine were consumed. Khun Jeuam was, apparently, as bad at tidying up as he was good at throwing parties, for he left behind all of the empty jars, of which nearly three hundred remain, scattered around the flat plains near Phonsavan, including his own six-ton"victory cup". There is little physical evidence to say that this fanciful legend does not hold at least a little truth. Major wars have been fought on the plains over the centuries, as both Lao, Siamese and Vietnamese armies attempted to win control of them. In the nineteenth century, Chinese bandits further pillaged the plains so that, by the time French archaeologist, Madeleine Colani, arrived in the mid-1930s, almost all that remained of the ancient civilization of the plains were the jars.

Colani claimed to have discovered beads, bronzes and other artifacts that led her to believe that the jars were funerary urns, dating back 2000 year-an opinion that is held by many reserachers today. However, Colani could not shed any light on how the huge jars, carved from non-indigenous limestone, had been transported to the plains or why so many remained, despite centuries of war. Another mystery surrounds the artifacts Colani found at the site, for they have all since vanished.

One last mystery. Though many battles have ravaged these plains, most devastating were the secret battles and air raids of the Second Indochina War. Hundreds of thousands of bombs rained down upon the plains, destroying, among many others, the beautiful town and temples of Xieng Khouang, while running battles were fought and lost among the jars. American bombers also jettisoned unused bombs over the plains as they returned from raids on Vietnam. Yet, despite all the surrounding devastation, the jars were virtually untouched. However, this "mystery" appears to be not true as in fact many jars were destroyed during the war while quite a few show evidence of damage like bullet holes, etc. In addition, quite a few jars show other and more resent damages like being used to sharpen knives on, etc. and at site 43 a lot of the jars have been converted into chicken coops by the local population by making an opening in the bottom (source: Global Heritage Network)


Bullet riddled Jar


Recent damage to the Jars - used as whetting stones and as Chicken Coops


Some jars along the new road to the Nam Mgum 5 hydropower site

While visiting the jars or basically in many areas in Laos be aware of the unexploded ordinance (UXO). The Mine disposal organizations like MAG are working very hard but there is still a very large amount of unexploded stuff lying around.



UXO removal on one of the Jar sites



Some war-scrap kept at Hotels and the Tourist Information Center in Phonsavan

Xieng Khouang attractions.

War Memorials
South of Phonsavan are two major war memorials set 1 km apart on separate hill tops. Both are set in the style of traditional Laos stupas (each containing the bones of the dead) although one is representative of the Vietnamese and the other the Laos lives lost. Inscribed on the Lao monument is the slogan 'The nation remembers your sacrifice', erected in 1998 a nearby slab of granite has the names of all the soldiers lost inscribed on its surface. The Vietnamese war memorial has the inscription 'Lao-Vietnamese solidarity and generosity forever'. Both memorials enjoy sprawling views of the countryside and are especially attractive at sunset.



The two War memorials erected on hills south of Phonsavan




Some evidence in the form of bomb craters of the bombs which rained down on the area

On nearby hillsides you will notice odd bottled-shaped excavations : villagers use these as birdtraps, to catch the famed local swifts known in Lao as "nok aen". During certain times of the year you will see them in restaurants small birds grilled whole.

Muang Khoun
Located 30 km southeast of Phonsavan. This town was once the Royal Capital and the centre of the Phuan Kingdom. Some might describe it as a shadow of its former self and they would be quite accurate in doing so. A few French colonial buildings still remain in the town centre alongside. On the outskirts the ancient stupas tower over the city and the vistas surrounding the structures are well worth the hike. A few kilometers beyond the old capital, near the village of Ban Phai, lies a jar site; the jars are located just off an old dirt road and, unlike the jars at the three main sites, strangely enough they're built from granite.

That Foun
This Buddhist stupa is also known as That Chomsi. It measures about 30 metres and was built in 1576 the same time as the original That Luang in Vientiane. The stupa was erected to cover ashes of Lord Buddha that were brought from India, during a time when Buddhism was proliferating in Laos. The Lanna inspired structure stands tall over the town and can be entered by a cavity left by the Chinese Ho marauders, over a century ago after they looted the stupa in order to seize valuable Buddha images enshrined within. The stupa was erected to cover ashes of Lord Buddha that were brought from India, during a time when Buddhism was proliferating in Laos. There are few if any sleeping options within this area so it is advised to take a day trip from the more populated Phonsavan.


That Foun/That Chomsi

That Chomphet : Built in the same period as That Foun and located nearby, That Chomphet which means Jewel Pinnacle (due to a shiny diamond that king Chao Kha Khad installed at its top) was created to evoke Buddhist values, inspiring truth and clarity. At the core of Buddhism is the belief that only merit-making (i.e. doing good deeds, maintaining morality and respect) will bring happiness, progress and prosperity. That Chompeth was heavily damaged by Haw invaders in 1874 and almost completely destroyed in 1969 during the war.

That Chomphet

Wat Pia Wat was built in 1372 in the reign of King Larn Khum Kloung (King of Muang Phoun). The 'sim' (holy building) additions were made in 1882. King Larn Khum Kloung was a great patron of Buddhism and established religious relationships with Burma. Consequently, Burma gave a golden Buddha statue to King Larn Khum Kloung to worship. King Larn Khum Kloung raised the Buddha statue on the back of an elephant and swore that he would build a temple at the place where the elephant stopped in Muang Khoun. When the elephant stopped at the spot where Wat Peer Wat (Pia Wat) stands today, it would not move any further. Thus, King Larn Khum Kloung built his temple here. The temple was given the name Wat Peer Wat (Wat Pia Wat) once construction was finished and it was the first temple of Muang Phoun. King Larn Khum Kloung also gave instructions to create a big Buddha image in the same style as the golden Buddha statue that he brought back from Burma. This statue was granted the name Phra Puttharoub Oung Tuee, and is the statue which you see today.

In 1925, Muang Phoun had a war with Muslim Chinese who damaged Phra Putharoub Oung Tuee by cutting the right hand off.
In 1953, Wat Peer Wat (Pia Vat) was destroyed once more by the French colonial power in Indo-China.
In 1954, Prince Suthakumarn (Chao sai Kham) encouraged the Lao people to contribute towards the restoration of Phra Putharoub Oung Tuee and Wat Peer Wat (Phi Vat) to make them once again as beautiful as they used to be.
In 1968 the vat was destroyed by T28 aircraft gunfire, and now, only the pillars of the building and stately Buddha remains.


Wat Pia Vat

Muang Sui
Muang Sui (on many maps called Ban Nong Tang): Once a city of antique Buddhist temples and quaint provincial architecture, Muang Sui became the headquarters of the Neutralist faction in the 1960's and "Lima site 108" (a landing site used by US aircraft). Much like neighboring Muang Khoun the town has endured a gradual rebuilding process since its obliteration during the war, and is now part of the Muang Phoukoot district. Once a quaint town housing antique Buddhist temples and provincial architecture, visitors can still bear witness to some of the temple remains, in particular Wat Ban Phong where monks still reside.


Some of the remains of Wat Ban Phong

In addition there are some caves which hid hundreds of small Buddha figures from the Haw invasion a few centuries ago. Dimly lit with the help of the rigged electrical lights (switched on by the locals for a small donation) making the passageways that link one cave to another accessible. Near Tham Pha is a second large cave, Tham That, which contains an old ruined stupa. The caves persist deep into the hill side and are pretty amazing (Coordinates N19.50148 E102.87214).


Buddha Cave


Hospital and Medical Depot Cave

Towards the eastern end of the district, a large picturesque natural lake called Nong Tang, flanked by high limestone cliffs, is a favourite local site for picnics. Directions to the fine caves in the cliffs to the north-east of the lake have been signposted, or you may be able to hire a local guide from one of the noodle stalls near the lake . Also near the lake is a semi-ruined 15th century Xieng Khouang style stupa called That Banmang (N19.51444 E102.90357).


Ancient temple and stupa near Muang Sui (Ban Nong Tang)

On the way to Muang Sui you will find a new road to the south which leads to the newly opened jar site called Phou Keng (Keng Mountain). The site is located 14km from the provincial capital and has 43 stone jars. At the same site you will find the quarry and some half finished jar. All the jars you will see at Site 1 were made here and then transported to the site. At the same place you can visit the secret tunnel. The narrow 70-meter tunnel has been chiseled through rock and is around 1.6-meters high, and winds past a few reinforced concrete bunkers and sleeping quarters before exiting to a panorama of the Phoukood Valley. You will have to climb more than 1,000 steps to reach the passageway that played a strategic role during the Indochina War as it was used to transfer supplies and soldiers through the steep hillsides to avoid enemy bombing raids.


The Secret Tunnel at N19.48018 E103.08678

The road north from Phonsavan to Muang Kham leads to Than Xang, the jar site 52, several waterfalls as well as Tham Piew. Tham Piew served as a safe place for villagers during the war but one day it was bombed and at least 1 of the 4 bombs entered the cave killing all (473 people) inside the cave. While generally the information indicates that the dead were all villagers, other sources indicate that the cave was also used as a scholl and hospital for both Lao and Vietnames people. This source (everything about lao, laoworld.net) indicates that 374 Lao people and 99 Vietnamese people lost their lives.


Tham Piew (Coordinates N19.67518 E103.56861)


Tham Xang (N19.59405 E103.40938) which has also been used as a hospital cave for the Vietnamese army in the late sixties.

From Muang Kham travelling east to Nong Het (Head) and the border with Vietnam you can visit the hot springs called Baw Noi (N19.60973 E103.59284 or at N19.60600 E103.56603 - not sure which one is Baw Noi) and Baw Nyai (N19.55873 E103.68946). Baw Nyai is the larger of the two and lies about 18 km from Meuang Kham, 52 km from Phonsavanh. It has been developed as a resort with bungalows and bathing facilities. The source of the spring is in a heavily wooded area where several bamboo pipes have been set up so that you can bathe nearby. Baw Noi feeds into a stream just a few hundred meters off Route 7, a couple of kilometers before Baw Nyai on the way from Meuang Kham. At the entrance to the stream where locals peddle their weaving and other locally made handicrafts, a few heavily eroded stone jars can be visited.

Further on along the same road the "Thad Kha Waterfall" can be visited. This waterfall is said to abundant all year round water flowing. The turnof is at Ban Kangphaniang (N19.51547 E103.84803) but you will have to ask around for the exact location of the waterfall (about 1 km. from the road?)


The Tad Kha waterfall

In addition there seem to be more waterfalls in the same general area but at present there is insufficient information on these falls. Near Jar site 2 you can also visit the Tad Lang Waterfall at N19.30415 E103.17812.


Tad Lang Waterfall
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