|Another long journey from Luang Prabang on the public bus took us to the provincial town of Phonsavan. There is no VIP or air con bus to Phonsavan so it's funny to watch the other foreigners on the rickety old bus, especially when we pull over on the side of the road for a toilet stop! A little nerving on this bus though was the soldier that was accompanying us with his MK40 slung over his shoulder. A couple of days before when I was looking through the index of the lonely planet I saw there was a bit on terrorism. I thought surely not in Laos and flicked to the chapter to have a read. Apparently there have been some problems in the area between Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Phonsavan with a tribe called the Hmong and back in 2002 two Swiss cyclists were murdered and the book mentioned that you may have an armed solider on your bus to Phonsavan. So I was glad I read that.
Phonsavan is famous for its 'Plain of Jars'. Here on a large plain are several sights with large stone jars. The biggest site containing 315 jars. There are a couple of theories about why the jars and there and what they were used for. They think either they were for fermenting wine or they were used as 'coffins' for the dead. It is suggested they are about 2000 years old, but again this cannot be confirmed.
To get around to all the sites we had to go on a tour. Site 1 is the largest site with 315 jars, all ranging in size and shape. Evidence shows they all once had lids and there were a couple of lids lying around and one jar with a lid still on. There is also a jar with a relief of a 'giant' who in another theory is said to have made the jars.
The second site is located up on a hill. There is a jar at this site that has a tree that has grown through it (kind of Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat style!). This site also contains the largest jar.
To see the third site you have to trek over a couple of rickety bridges and thru some rice fields, which was nice. There are a few jars here and a lid with a sculpture of a frog on it.
We also visited a village where they make the rice whiskey. It is actually quite easy! 10kgs of rice, 1 kg of yeast and 10 litres of water. Let it ferment for 3 weeks and then they boil it and get the alcohol. Of course we all had to have a shot of it. It wasn't that bad, I've had worse! It was funny though, in this village there were all these ducks cruising around. But there was this one duck that kept pecking at the barrel with the whiskey in it, it leaked slightly on the side. The barrel was hot and he kept burning himself but he kept doing back and doing it again. He was either already drunk or addicted!
It was good to come and see, it's something different I guess and I don't think so many people make the long bus drive out here. The land is very different here from what we have seen of Laos so far. Rolling brown hills and plains dotted with bomb craters.
Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world. During the Vietnam War (1960-1970) it is estimated that 2 million cubic tonne (2 billion kilos) of bombs were dropped on Laos. Put into perspective that is a plane full of bombs dropped on Laos every 8 minutes for 9 years! It is estimated that 30% of these bombs did not detonate therefore are UXO or Un Exploded Ordnance.
This has caused a vicious circle in Laos. The people are so poor but they cannot extend their farms and crops because of UXO. Because they cannot do this most families only have enough food to supply them for 80% of the year therefore they must seek another income. Scrap metal, often in the form of UXO's.
For US$12.00 a family can buy a metal detector, for each kg of scrap metal they find they can get US$1.50 and US$2.50 for explosives. But obviously this is a very dangerous way to earn money. Many people are injured and/or die each year.
There are now a few charity organisations working in countries such as Laos to clear the UXO. We visited the information centre of MAG which is a British organisation who has been clearing UXO in Laos since 1994. They now have specialist 'mine' detectors to locate UXO and landmines beneath the ground and employ Laos staff to locate the landmines.
Together with clearing the UXO and educating the people they are working to end this vicious circle. It was good to actually see the work they were doing around Phonsavan