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Uncovering Ancient Mysteries of Laos' Plain of Jars (In Lao)

Today’s The World Around Us will be presented in Laos, with subtitles in Arabic, Aulacese (Vietnamese), Chinese, English, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Mongolian, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Thai.

Greetings, loving viewers, and welcome to The World Around Us. Today we travel to the beautiful Southeast Asian land of Laos, where we will explore the fascinating archaeological landscape called the Plain of Jars.

One of the most ancient archaeological wonders of Southeast Asia, the Plain of Jars is located on the Xiangkhouang Plateau in Xiangkhouang Province. The plateau rises more than 3,000 meters above sea level. Made of limestone, it was formed out of the harder rocks around it by ages of rain. Legend has it that giants once inhabited the plateau.

In fact, little is known about the prehistoric residents of the Xiangkhouang Plateau. But they leave a visible mark for us to appreciate many millennia later, in the form of thousands of large stone jars which we have come to know as the Plain of Jars.

Mr. Boon Kham Sokhamphouvanh is a guard at the Plain of Jars. As an expert of its history and folklore, he greets visitors to the site.

About the region of Xiangkhouang, this is called the Xiangkhouang Plateau. The Xiangkhouang Plateau, has the most beautiful vegetation. When you come to see the situation of the environment of Xiangkhouang Province, a majority of it is protected, as you can see already.

In the years 1999 and 2000, the organization UNESCO and Lao archeologists came to research the archaeology of the jars and our region Xiangkhouang as part of a UNESCO project. It is believed that before 500 BC, Xiangkhouang Province was part of the kingdom of King Khun Cheung. At that time, Khun Cheung had camps set up. Altogether, there were 85 camps, And these 85 camps became the province of Xiangkhouang.

They all have stone jars. We already registered 58 camps. Then, Site 1, we have the area altogether and there are 25 hectares. This area has 334 jars, And the one which has the tallest jars is in this area. It’s measured at 2.57 meters. They had a population of more than 270,000 people.

Some jars stand alone, while others appear in clusters ranging from a few to several hundred. They are everywhere From the lower foothills around the central plain to the upland valleys. More than 60 sites of these jars Have been discovered in the Plain of Jars, tactically on elevated grounds. The principal site, which is also the largest with more than 250 jars, is known as Ban Ang, or Site 1.

These jars weigh up to 13 tons each and are between 1 to 3 meters high with diameter up to 2.5 meters. Although no jar has been found with a lid in place, most do have lip rims, which may indicate that most supported a cover made from perishable materials. Several stone lids have been found with carvings of figures thought to be monkeys, tigers, and frogs.

But what was the purpose of the jars? The Plain of Jars is dated to the early Iron Age from approximately 500 BCE to 800 CE. The majority of the jars are made from sandstone. It is clear that the people made these structures with excellent knowledge of the material and suitable technique.

According to the research of foreigner archeologists and some parts of Lao research, they have the same conclusion supporting that they used a kind of drilling directly. It is not molded because theses stones in that period were soft stones, and they had been drilling for many years.

As you see just now, they sculpted them similarly to house poles, which are bigger than jars. Some of them had been cut, some of them had not finished being drilled. Some of them were not drilled yet and lie scattered around there.

And they proved that these jars were drilled in directly, they were not molded. Archaeologists consider the site to be one of the most important to gain more insight into the late prehistory of Southeast Asia. From the initial research by French geologist and archaeologist Madeleine Colani in the early 1930s, it is suggested that the jars were associated with prehistoric burial practices.

Later excavation by Lao and Japanese archaeologists have supported this assumption with the discovery of remains, funerary items, and ceramics around the stone jars. A distinctive carving of a human has been found on an urn in Site 1. Known as the “frogman,” it bears resemblance to similar depictions that could indicate a connection between the civilization represented by the jars and cultures in China and Indonesia. Also at Site 1, a natural limestone cave may be found with two human-made holes at the top which are thought to be chimneys.

While some believe this cave was used as a crematorium, local tradition tells a different theory. According to local beliefs, the jars were not originally created from stone, but were molded using a stone-like mixture consisting of various natural materials. From this standpoint, the caves were therefore not crematoriums, but kilns in which the massive jars were fired. The location of the jars sites are also related to ancient trade routes, especially those of the salt trade.

Ms. Colani assumed that salt was sought after by the people who lived on the plateau of the landlocked country. In addition, there are two principal ore deposits located in Xiangkhouang. Thus, the numerous jar sites may be linked to mining. Furthermore, a part of the Xiangkhouang Province through the mountains also provides an easy passage for travel.

In fact, there are similar-looking funeral urns in northern India and in Âu Lạc (Vietnam). This suggests that there may have been a pre-historic trade route from Âu Lạc all the way to India. Besides the theory of a funeral purpose, another explanation for the jars’ function is the collecting of monsoon rainwater for the caravan travelers.

In Eastern Eurasia, it has been known for a long time that rainwater could be boiled to be drinkable. Perhaps the travelers camped near the jars. They might have placed beads in them, as an offering, a part of a prayer for rain, or some other reason. Lao legend tells of an ancient king named Khun Cheung who won over an evil king who oppressed his people. The jars were believed to be used for storing food and water for the king’s soldiers.

In 1998, the Lao Government and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Educational Organization (UNESCO) began a collaborative project to identify areas of priority protection for research and tourism development. The project also worked to rehabilitate the agricultural land of the plateau and to remove the unexploded devices still left from tragic days of conflict.

The Mines Advisory Group, a non-governmental organization, in collaboration with UNESCO and funded by the New Zealand Government (NZAID), conducted mine clearing activities at the seven most visited sites in recent years. Today, the Plain of Jars is a tourist site.

The Lao National Tourism Authority stated in its plan for 2005-2010 as follows: “Laos will become a world renowned destination specializing in forms of sustainable tourism that, through partnership and cooperation, benefit natural and cultural heritage conservation, local socio-economic development and spread knowledge of Lao's unique cultural heritage around the world.”

In addition to international tourists from all corners of the world, the Plain of Jars welcomes visitors from other parts of the country who come to explore this part of Lao heritage.

The tourism helps the guests from locals and from others countries come to visit. In my province, Xiengkhouang the majority of estimated tourists come between the beginning of October to May. And more local and foreign tourists seemed to come at the beginning of this May.

Tourism in Laos has grown since 1990 and is now a major part of the country’s economic activities. Some of the main tourism activities in the province include the exploration of the jar sites and visits to the local ethnic minority villages.

The next step in the UNESCO – Lao multiyear plan for protecting the Plain of Jars is to obtain nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This effort will ensure the increased visitation and investment in the local tourism sector. Thus, community participation in managing and maintaining of the site will also strengthen. Meanwhile, the world will appreciate more and more the rich heritage of this beautiful country.

Despite past years of wars, the Laotians remain pure and peace loving people. The villagers found practical and inventive ways to rebuild their lives. For example, they used old bomb shells to make everything, from spoons to building materials and decorations for houses.

Thus, out of something unconstructive, the beauty and strength and integrity of the Lao people emerged. We wish Laos and her kind-hearted people a peaceful and prosperous life. We appreciate all involved in making the Plain of Jars more safe and welcoming for all visitors.

It was a pleasure having your company today on the World Around Us. Please stay tuned to Supreme Master Television for Words of Wisdom, up next after Noteworthy News. May your life be filled with Divine light and love.

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