Giant rock barrels or pots are strewn in clusters around Phonsavan, Laos. How did they get there? Who or what put them there? How did they put them there from kilometers away and put them on top of hills? Researchers have only begun to research these enigmatic vessels because the Vietnam War and other wars kept the area isolated until the 1990s when researchers started to arrive. But only recently have many new clusters been identified, and the culture that made them is still unknown.
Here we cover what is there to see, which open cluster megalithic sites you can go see around Phonsavon, and how to do it safely and comfortably since landmines and bombs lie all over the plain and hills so going off a path is dangerous.
Travel Highlights of the Plain of Jars
- Recommended time: not rushing plus a wonderful local lunch, a full day or staying overnight. We can arrange overnight accommodations.
- Suitable for: history, strange places, and nature lovers
- Popular activities: exploring the jar sites, enjoying the nature and countryside, and trying the local food.
- The best months to visit: Monsoons and heavy rains happen about May to November. The best times to visit is from December to April.
The mysterious giant-sized stone jar megaliths have grown in prominence as a tourist site recently. In 2019, UNESCO put them on their World Heritage List and says that they are important and unusual. However, until recently, they were relatively inaccessible.
They are in an out of the way area of northeastern Laos along the Vietnam border. This is where Laos and Vietnam's highest mountain range is. But what makes the area especially inaccessible for tourists is that thousands of deadly unexploded bombs lie scattered all around, and they have posed a hazard to travelers since the US dropped them during the Vietnam War.
The stone barrels range up to 3 meters wide and over 6,000 kilograms or 6.6 tons. How could anyone drag those things to their locations from a quarry? Why would they do this? The speculations range from that these were used for burial to that they were used for food or beverage storage. Maybe they were used for various purposes.
Some stone lids that seem to have been made at the time of the giant barrels were made have been found. This shows that at least some of the barrels were used to store something. But there is no evidence of remains of anything inside that would evidence their purpose. That too, the lack of evidence, is quite strange. Though archeologists generally date them from about 500 BC to 500 AD, that too is only a guess since there is little evidence to work with.
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Mystery of the Stone Jars
Why would big stone jars be carved out of rocks and lie strewn across a big area? Over the years, archeologists have decided on a dating: the Iron Age (500 BC to 500 AD). They don’t have a consensus about who made them and why. So it is still a mystery. Since the 1930s, many archeologists have said that these were burial sites since human remains, burial goods, and ceramics have been found around the jars.
It is known that some jars once had lids because they have a lip for where a lid or cover would be positioned, and a few stone covers have been found. It is thought that maybe most lids were not made of stone since few lids have been found.
Another idea is that perhaps they were used to collect rainwater since the area is along a land trade route where water is scarce. If the pots were laid at places of human settlement, we would expect to find the evidence of dwellings. But most sites contain little evidence of a settlement.
Maybe the biggest mystery: How did they get transported? The biggest weigh up to 10 tons. At some places, they are spread out over kilometers. They know where one quarry is, and tourists go there as well. But how did they they transport them uphill kilometers away?
Three Jar Cluster Sites Are Open
Of the 90 or so stone barrel cluster sites that have been discovered, three giant stone barrel clusters are open to tourists. Tourism is just beginning in the area, so tourist facilities such as bathrooms, shops, or places to eat are minimal or don't exist. It is recommended that you only visit at the tourist sites because most are on private land, and don't wonder off the paths because of the bombs.
Jar Site 1
The closest of the three cluster sites is conveniently the largest and the most convenient for families and older travelers. It is the most popular. Site 1 has a free visitors’ center where you can pick up more information about the jars or chat with a local.
- One of the largest stone jar clusters
- Shops and small restaurants are near the visitor center.
Jar Site 2
It is is a bit further down the road. But this will be no issue if you are in a private tour with us. It is considerably smaller than Site 1.
- One of the highlights is the scenic view.
- A few noodle restaurants and snack stands are available.
- Some are among and under trees that add to the beauty of the area.
For elderly or disabled, people reaching the top of the rise on the stone steps might be difficult, but we'll try to assist you.
Jar Site 3
This is the furthest away. It is the least visited. Getting there requires an 11 minute walk (about 600 meters) across a field that is sometimes very muddy.
Travel Tips for the Plain of Jars
To get to these sites from the towns of Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang, you can hire a private car, and it would make for a good day trip leaving in the morning and returning in the afternoon or evening. If you opt to take a public bus, expect at least 7 hours of crowded and non-hygienic conditions, and lots of bumps and stops along the way.
We could also arrange nice and comfortable accommodations and great authentic local dining. The local cuisine is like Thai food, but with a heavy reliance on a heavy and sticky white rice and less chili pepper.
Travel Routes to Phonsavan and around the Plain of Jars
By air: Flying is more difficult in Laos. Including Vientiane's Wattay International Airport (VTE), there are three international airports in Laos. They are small and only serve flights to cities in East Asian countries and Southeast Asia. Phonsavan does have a small airport called Xieng Khouang Airport (XKH), but going there isn't convenient by air. It is easier and more comfortable to go by land from many places in Laos or to go there from Vietnam.
If you go with us, you'll have ready transportation for going to the sites and traveling around in the region comfortably. So from the two popular tourist cities, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, you can have an enjoyable half-day or one-day tour with a personal driver and tour guide if you go with us.
Laos has a comparatively underdeveloped, crowded, and bumpy transportation system, so going with a private driver directly is safest and most comfortable. Traveling in a private vehicle is the fastest way to get around since public transportation is much slower. It is the most enjoyable and hygienic way to travel overall. See moree on Laos Transportation.
Road Travel to/from Phonsavan
- From Phonsavan to/from Luang Prabang: Travel takes 8 hours by bus for 17 USD, and flying would take about an hour and up to about 300 USD. But we can drive you there direct in about 4 hours, and by stopping for authentic local cuisine and seeing highlights along the way with us, you can have a good day trip. We'll arrange the accommodations you'll prefer, and better still, we'll help you get directly and comfortably to each megalithic site you want to go to.
- To/from Phonsavan and Vang Vieng: There are no flights. Travel is an uncomfortable 16 hours by bus for about 35 USD, but a direct drive is less than 4 hours. We can take you there directly or make stops in a wonderful tour along the way.
- To/from Phonsavan and Hanoi, Vietnam: Driving direct takes about 9 hours. A flight might take even more time since you have to transfer at Vientiane to go to Phonsavan Airport (XKH). Most people wouldn't want to deal with a long circuitous 33-hour or more bus journey that first goes to Vientiane.
Go with Us to the Plain of Jars
We'll facilitate a more enjoyable and safer visit to the Plain of Jars.
If you are going to visit there, it is best to go with a private driver and tour guide. In some places you might need to cross private land, and we can arrange that. We can get you there much quicker than in public transportation, take you around in safety and comfort, and allow you to do the tour you want to do. If you need any special equipment or aids, we can help with that too.
Air-conditioned car: You'll appreciate our air-conditioning too. The climate is very hot and humid. Temperatures often rise above 35°C or 100°F. We'll provide comfortable and cool transport.
With us, you will do the tour you like and can set the agenda, not the tour that others would want for you to do. We will facilitate the accommodations, the authentic local meals, any side trips you'd like to do, and facilitate you getting to the sites. We can also handle getting visas if you need one. Laos Visas.
Seeing the Highlights of Phonsavan
Cambodia is famous for the giant stone buildings and carvings at Angkor Wat, and Britain is famous for Stonehenge, but now in Laos you can go see a megalithic site that few people have ever seen.
You might see that our drivers can take you to the highlights much faster than even flights because we go directly to the places you want to go.
Many other travel agents and tour companies offer tours to the Plain of Jars, but most of these would only give limited time at an attraction or you'd have to go in a tour group. With us, it is you who decides the agenda.
Visit Laos with Us
If you wish to travel Laos after reading this article, why not contact us for a hassle-free tour? We will help you manage your itinerary and confirm all your bookings. You only need to enjoy your time with a professional English-speaking guide.