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Saturday, December 7: Day 229 – Plain of Jars

We see bomb craters as we enter the Plain of Jars in the Phonsavan area of northern Laos. There are from 56 to 100 sites in the Plain of Jars. This area was a target in the war as anti-aircraft machinery was here, and it became a hot spot for the bombings.

Only five sites have been cleared of bombs and mines, and the paths are marked as safe. However, the surrounding area is riddled with landmines, so do not stray from the path. MAG (Mines Advisory Group) has marked the cleared paths.

Everyone in Laos has a friend or relative that has been directly impacted by leftover landmines. Twice Saylom’s school friends were killed when they discovered a landmine. Four perished in the first episode and nine in the second. He remembers the authorities trying to match up the body parts. Should that be anyone’s school memory?

The Plain of Jars is an ancient mystery. In the 19th century, a French women named Madeleine Colani studied these mysterious jars. There is no written script to be deciphered. Some cremated remains, items for an afterlife, and even a completely intact skeleton exist here.

The local ethnic people say that the jars were filled with rice wine for a huge celebration of an army defeat. Another local story says that they were the drinking cups of giants.

Most likely these areas were “cemeteries” as bones have been found nearby, and also the sites are often located on a hill which is the hallmark of a cemetery. (They learned back in ancient times if people were buried in the lowlands near a water source, the whole village would get sick.)

This is Site 1, and has it 334 jars. They weigh up to ten tons and were brought from the mountains.

There are many decorations, but this one has a form of a person on the outside.

Iron tools were used to chisel on the inside. The outside is smooth. The largest and best preserved is Site 1.

There is also a nearby cave that may have been used to prepare bodies for the afterlife.

Site 2 was a drive away and is in a nearby wooded area. It felt more eerie with trees growing on and around the jars.

Site 2 has many decorative tops that appear to be lids but have been theorized as more of a grave marker.

Site 3 was another car ride and then we walked through well-marked paths to a rice and vegetable field.

This site has different shapes of jars that are rectangular and oval.

Tourists were often climbing on the jars even though the signs say Don’t!! Saylom ended up being the tourist police athough he told Rob that this one is especially used for picture taking.

In this province the people eat swallows. They catch one and put it in the middle of a net. The swallow calls out to his friends, and other swallows come. Even though it seems deceitful, the swallows aren’t endangered, and food is hard to come by.

Every village has a loud speaker. Many times we wake up at 6am to someone reading the news.

Saylom told us that people go to bed at 8pm or maybe 9pm if they want to hear the news. I think the morning reading is unnecessary!!! At 7am they play the National Anthem.

Sleeping in is not allowed here, but they do have snooze alarms! The first rooster crow occurs at 3am, and you go back to sleep. The second time the rooster crows at 4:30am, and you go back to sleep. On the third rooster crow, it is around 6am and that is when you get up!!

Sweet bamboo can only be grown in this province due to the weather. People like this bamboo for salads.

Termite poop is good for growing mushrooms. Locals collect the mushrooms after the rainy season.

On November 21, 2019, Laos felt its largest earthquake in recorded history near Luang Prabang.

People build a modern house beside their older traditional house a little at a time over 5 to 10 years. They can live in it while it is completed. The family uses the money that they get from the harvest each year to slowly finance the project.

There is no house plan. They watch and learn from the first person who builds the house. That person will even help to teach others the necessary skills.

Lao ethnic groups are not backward, just traditional. Nature is their teacher, and they are much like the African Massai. They know the use of every plant and which things are edible or poisonous. It seems to be time of year (ripeness), part of the plant (root, leaf, flower) and cooking method (raw or cooked) that stands between life and death!!

This old Buddhist temple called Bat Phiat was partially destroyed by nature but mostly by the First and Second Indochina Wars. The Vietnam war is the same as the Second Indochina War.

The Great Stupa or That Foun was the largest stupa that we have seen so far. It was built in 1576 and housed some of Buddha’s remains. This stupa was part of a larger complex that was bombed in 1966. This is the restored version.

La kone means goodbye and we are sad to say that to Saylom (R) and our driver, Song (L). Note that we are wearing lots of clothes since we are boarding an aircraft and our bags are full.

Vientiane is the capital city of Laos. Vientiane means city of the sun. It also means sandalwood. I don’t really understand how a name has two meanings. The Mekong River forms the border between Laos and Cambodia here.

Vientiane’s population is 250,000 with 80 percent working in the government. They have two mosques but only for tourists. There are no local Muslims and no call to prayer.

Vientiane is busy and hectic. It is the political and economic center of the country. There are 24 foreign embassies here yet Laos has diplomatic relations with 143 nations. Many of the other embassies are located in Bangkok. Here is their White House where the president lives. He has the most power since he is also the leader of the Laos Communist Party.

The capital was moved to Vientiane in 1560 because the nation was afraid of Burmese invasion. It happened anyway from 1562-1573.

In 1828 Siamese (Thai) conquered this area and left many buildings in ruins. In 1893 the French rebuilt but not strong enough.

Today Vientiane is quiet, peaceful and safe. Our only concerns should be lighting and construction.

Every person in Vientiane has a mode of transportation whether by car or motorbike. Total number of transportation vehicles equals the population. Laos gets its gasoline from Vietnam and Thailand.

Sisaket Museum was a temple originally built by the king. The date is denoted on this stellae by the use of zodiac symbols. Using the stars makes sense as different calendars are often adopted by different occupying cultures.

In 1828 this temple was the only one that was not destroyed by the Thai. It was built in the Siamese style so it was spared. All other temples were conquered and sacked by Siam.

In 1887 the local authorities gathered up 10,136 statues from across Vientiane that had been destroyed by the Siamese army and placed inside here.

There are 48 different positions of Buddha statues. The pose of submission was the Buddhist symbol of Vientiane.

Maybe they should have picked a different one!

Many of the statues are in poor condition as the destroyers were looking for treasure. Local people gave valuable items to place inside the special box inside the top of Buddha’s head. The Siamese knew about these hidden treasures since they were Buddhist as well. This act broke the hearts of local people.

The Thailand king Rama III loved the Lao king who had been educated in Bangkok. He loved him over his sons. Rama allowed him to go home where the Lao king saw his people being treated as animals like slaves. The Lao king trained a Lao secret army.

In 1826 the Thai king passed away. In 1828 the Lao king was arrested, taken to Thailand where he was put in a cage, and tortured in public.

This former royal temple built in the 16th century was destroyed in (you guessed it) 1828 by the Siamese. It was rebuilt in 1936-1942. Now it is a Buddhist art museum. Today there is a bronze Buddha. The emerald Buddha that was here was taken by the Thai. I asked our guide if there was any chance that the Thai would give this national treasure back. No, he said with a laugh. There is a lot of history associated with this Emerald Buddha. I plan to see it when we are in Thailand.

Only the royal family and guests for religious ceremony were allowed inside.

Rainy season is Buddhist lent. It lasts for three months and starts in the eighth month of the lunar calendar.

No one gets married during the rainy season. It will not be well attended so you won’t get many gifts. If you do marry, you will divorce…probably because you didn’t get many gifts!!!

The Lao people have a 13 billion dollar debt with the Asian Development Bank.

Laos is a sweet cake. Everyone wants a piece. Vietnam supports the current government. Vietnamese can come to Laos if they have work permits or own businesses.

If one speaks against the communist government, that person is likely to be jailed or go missing.

Parliament members choose the Prime Minister. The current Prime Minister has suspended, fired, and disciplined hundreds of government employees for corruption. He has blocked illegal timber trading to other countries. The Prime Minister has sold expensive cars and replaced them with Toyotas. He is popular with the people. However, corruption is endemic in Laos, and the improvement is slow.

You don’t vote here if you are over 65 because you are nearing the age of life expectancy. You won’t be around to see the result of your vote. Now that is a sobering thought.

My 95-year-old father votes every year. He even got called to sit on a grand jury trial and was looking forward to it. I told him that he could not serve faithfully as he can only hear 75% of the spoken words. He agreed!

On Election Day in Laos the picture of each candidate is posted. Education does not matter; only if they are a party member. The results are announced one month later.

Located in the northeast of Vientiane, the sacred That Luang Stupa contains the collar bone of Buddha. It was brought here in the 3rd century BC before the country practiced Buddhism. The stupa was built in the 14th century. It is a landmark with a lotus flower on top. This stupa was constructed around the original stupa to protect it from looters.

The monks chant twice a day, once at 4am and the other time at sunset.

Here is a couple posing for wedding pictures in traditional outfits. Aren’t they beautiful?

Animists come to pray to a spirit or ancestor and ask for something. If the wish or request is granted, the wisher is to bring an offering of thanks. This statue of the king that established the Vientiane capitol is an animist shrine. It seems odd that it is right in front of the Buddhist stupa.

Sometime in November based on the lunar calendar is the festival of
That Luang. It is like the Buddhist Mecca and lasts three days. All monks from Vientiane participate, but monks from elsewhere come at least once in their lifetime. There is a candlelight procession on the last day.

Over 6,000 Buddhist monks come here for the celebration with 100,000 people joining them to celebrate and give donations. It is good karma. The donors wear white robes and meditate all day.

There is also a big game of field hockey between the farmers and the government officials. The farmers always win. It is an honor to play…but nobody wants a game handed to them. I guess it’s politics.

The sacred stupa was open to all until 2005 when backpackers were seen kissing in holy places. Now admittance is banned. Backpackers are not highly regarded. All tourists must remember that we are guests in a country.

This is a cool sculpture made entirely of teacups and was a gift from China to support tourism between the two countries.

Vientiane has an Arc de Triomphe like Paris, but it is called the Victory Gate and was designed by a Lao student that was studying in Paris. Construction started in 1962. The CIA came to support the royal family and was here extending the Vientiane airport runway nearby. They helped until 1969. The Victory Gate is also referred to as The Vertical Runway because the CIA helped build it and used some of the airport concrete.

Here is the view from the top. They call this street the Laos Champs-Èlysèes…with not as much traffic!

Our guide was reading an English book called Gray Mountain by John Grisham. I am always interested in what other cultures learn or experience from our American culture.

We were needing a taste of the West so we went to a thriving pizza place called Tyson Kitchen. We met the owner Tyson who had a very interesting background. His parents were Chinese and fled communism to Laos and then fled Laos and ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand where he was born. His family was allowed refugee status and headed to Canada (because they need people). He remembers shoveling lots of snow!!

Tyson has returned to Laos where he and his father, who has a unique story of his own, are thriving in the booming real estate market.

Tyson is an aspiring standup comedian who admires Jay Leno. He has 15 motorcycles. When I asked why, he asked how many shoes do I have in my closet? Good point. Different shoes for different occasions.

He liked my sense of humor, and I told him that he could use any of my material!!

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