Act 1. Overnight ‘sleeper’ bus from Hanoi to Vientiane, March 2014. Amongst other fellow travelers sharing our insomnia, we get chatting to a slightly eccentric English dude with a ginger afro, who tells us he’s off to find this mythical place. A field of pot, somewhere in northeast Laos. He’s asked the driver to give him directions, but after nearly being left by the roadside in the middle of nowhere at 4am, he decides to try from Vientiane.
Act 2. April 2014. After completing a loop of Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, we overhear ginger-afro’s Scooby-doo voice on Beer Hoi corner in the old city. Vientiane was a no-go. So was Vang Vien. He had hitchhiked to some village with a snake farm high in the mountains but was forced to return after the small windy road over the pass was blocked for the third day running by a couple of overturned lorries. As so many before him, he had given up and gone tubing.
Act 3. Rumors skitted around just out of earshot in Luang Prabang as we visited this time around, November 2014. What was it, who has been, and how had they managed to get there? We felt like Richard at the beginning of The Beach, we even met a dude who looked like Robert Carlisle, but he turned out to be Dutch, excessively boring, negative and worst of all, sober.
Our imaginations stretched to their limits, 6 of our bravest decided to take the plunge into the unknown and hire a minivan to give us the best shot of actually making it to the Plain of Jars.
Within 5 minutes of meeting our driver ridiculously early in a misty morning in Luang Prabang, we were stopped dead in the road. Our driver was picking up his breakfast. 20 minutes later, we were tearing past our first turned up lorry on the windy mountain road south. This is starting well, we all thought to ourselves, and decided for the first time in 2 weeks to use our seatbelts.
As the morning got warmer, the scenery unfolded itself in the most spectacular way as we wound higher and higher into the mountains where, in fitting fashion with our adventure into the unknown and possibly paranormal, it suddenly got colder and colder.
6 hour of windy driving brought us to our third stop of the day, the tiny village of nun-chuck. Things went from curious to surreal when of the 4 ordered chicken soup lunches only 3 were served with chicken. Dr Rick and Mr. Yuen started acting strangely after conversing with a passing rooster and enquiries about plain-clothed men on mopeds carrying assault rifles were brushed off by our driver. “For security. So if anything happens, there is always someone for safety”. What happened? Safety of whom?
We arrived in Phonsavan that evening, our driver first reluctant to take us to site 1 for sunset, “it is too far”, “it is closed”, “there are daemons who invite themselves to dinner”. 150000 kip apparently shooed the daemons away. We set up time lapses between the eerie looking megalithic stone structures. The sunset bathed the fields and hundreds of jars blood red, and more than once did we get the feeling of someone nudging our shoulder, just to turn around and see there was no one there. Two other tourists and a couple of villagers with dogs shared the scene with us before the sun finally dropped below the horizon and we scampered back to our golf buggy.
We all had our theories of course. Our on board criminologist Dr Rick has it on good authority that the giant stone jars were used for keeping buffalo safe from sabre-tooth tigers. He enthusiastically pointed at foot long tooth marks at the mouths of the pots. Ms Jodie MSc PHD from the world renowned university of Maidstone presented her paper arguing her theory of pre-historic human giants leaving only LaoLao cups behind, as they became extinct along with all the dinosaurs.
Ancient Siam historian Dr Yuen brought forward his well-documented book on the iron-age giant peanut, and the locals’ need for large storage containers for their staple of peanut butter. Prof. Toto took photos and looked confused, whilst whackjob Nic wouldn’t shut up about aliens and manic Matt just stood there shouting “MEEEERica”.
We slept uneasily that night, probably due to the freezing cold, reading about theories of jar burial sites and our attempted nerve remedy of LaoLao. A deserted Stonehenge (built around the same time) hours drive from anywhere at night would give even the sturdiest shivers. Especially after watching ‘The Descent’ with no popcorn.
Site two and three proved even more intriguing, and after a good half an hour of persuading our driver that it wasn’t too far, there was a functioning road, and that the sites weren’t closed (and a little help from head office regarding payment of his fee), we were on a rocky but adequate road further west. Warning signs detailed the presence of land mines and cluster bombs that had been dropped throughout the area during The Secret War, so we kept well inside the marked ‘safe’ perimeters, that is where you could see the markings.
A friendly cow lead our way through rice paddies to site three in a hillside field, which, perched amongst some pretty trees was a lot more inviting until Dr Rick found a cluster of huge spiders in one of the jars. Site two was equally if not more impressive and the view from the hilltop setting was so wonderful that not even the jar that made everything in its immediate surroundings spontaneously levitate freaked us out.
We had made it. This ancient, mythical place had finally been conquered by our little group of 6 adventurers, henceforth to be known to the world as The Pot People. As we gazed over the serene landscape we felt a sense of accomplishment but also a slight niggle of apprehension. Were we here of our own accord, or had this magical place called us and with it, conquered us?