The Plain of Jars is a 15 km stretch of rolling hills and meadows littered with ancient monolithic jars (hewn from solid pieces of rock) from The Iron Age (500 BC – 500 AD) and thought to be associated with prehistoric burial practices. There are over 90 jar sites with 1- 400 jars per site. I took the bus to Phonsavan and rented a mountain bike to visit the large mysterious stone jars.
Passing through villages with happy barefoot children running about, I climbed higher and higher into the hills until the road became a dusty track alongside grazing cattle. No jars, no people, no food stalls. I was lost. I pressed on, but didn’t stray off the beaten path on account of all the unexploded bombs.
Between 1964 and 1973 the US Air Force, operating against North Vietnamese forces, dropped 262,000,000 cluster bombs (more than they dropped in World War Two) on the Plain of Jars. 80 million of those did not explode and remain a deadly threat. Today, approximately 300 people a year are killed by exploding ordinance in Laos.
I rummaged through my bag looking for food and found my riverweed. The previous day, a street vendor had thrust a bag of interesting looking seaweed at me, and knowing my love of dulce, I bought it. Rather, it was riverweed; the long strings of algae that hang off rocks in northern Lao rivers. They are gathered, washed, rinsed, and laid out flat and thin on mesh frames, then soaked with an aromatic dressing and topped with sesame seeds, garlic, tomato slices and left to dry in the sun for a day before being flash fried in oil. The end result is a delicacy called Kaipen. I wasn’t crazy about the thought of eating Mekong River algae, but it tasted good.
And I figured it was either really good for me or really bad.
Still in search of the elusive jars, I was zooming as fast as I dared down a steep dirt track trying to maintain top speed to give myself a fighting chance on the uphill stretch. Out of nowhere, a random chicken ran right out in front of me, almost annihilating us both. Imagine! There is absolutely nothing dignified or glamorous about being taken out by a chicken! But it was a good reminder of how life can take a sharp left with no warning, and reninforced to me to take good care.
I eventually found an obscure jar site, and explored it until I hit my ‘turn around time’. When I was only about 10 km from my hostel, I also found one of the main sites that I had missed earlier. It was fascinating to see, but by that time I had been on the bike for over nine hours and all I wanted was a cool, flat place to rest my bones, where the vultures couldn’t get me and a gob of tiger balm to rub on my aching butt. And food – I was hungry enough to eat the business end of a scabby water buffalo. At the first roadside food stall I came to, I bought whatever they were selling – it turned out to be a handful of ‘sticky rice’ with a glutinous clump of ground wild boar parts steamed in banana leaves. In Lao, people eat with their hands and that suited me just fine; I was too tired to hold a fork.