RIDING THAILAND’S PLAIN OF JARS: THE ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIMEApril 24, 2018
The Plain of Jars Loop is a 482-mile (775km) journey that takes you deep inside the Xiangkhouang Province, where archaeological sites comprising of enormous stone jars dating back to the Neolithic period bask in the sun and touring on a motorcycle is truly an adventure.
Up until recently, it was easier to crate a motorcycle and send it to Thailand, where you could then secure a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) and drive into Laos – where you’d need another TIP. However, changes in Thai law are demanding that foreign registered motorcycles are now driven with guides present. Having spent the last five years living in Thailand, it’s hard to imagine that the law is being enforced. That said, if you’re caught in a tough spot you’ll need to be prepared to grease some palms – more commonly known in the region as “giving tea money.” The other option is to bring your bike in through Cambodia and drive to Laos.
Unless you’re planning on a multi-month adventure through Southeast Asia, it’s going to be more cost-effective and relaxing to rent a bike when you land in Laos. If you do decide to rent one, your only real options are going to be 250cc dirt bikes or a Honda CRF 250L duel-sport bike. The two primary rental companies operating out of Luang Prabang – base camp for the Plain of Jars Loop – are MotoLaos and KPTD. Both companies have a reputation for being fair about damage to their well-maintained fleets. That said, take pictures of any rental vehicle before taking it off the lot and be prepared to either leave a hefty deposit or your passport. Yes, I know that nobody is technically allowed to deprive you of your passport, but welcome to Southeast Asia.
These bikes will cost between $50 and $70 a day, which will be significantly cheaper than shipping your baby all the way to Southeast Asia. The cost of renting the bike will be your most significant daily cost while exploring Laos, as accommodations can be secured for as little as $3 to $10 and local eats will only cost you a dollar or two per meal, which can often be shared with friendly locals.
Though Laos doesn’t manage the same volume of tourists as its southern neighbor Thailand, the country isn’t new to the business, which means that it’s possible to bolt together a trip after landing at the airport in Vientiane – a dump of a capital – or Luang Prabang. That said, make sure your Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Polio vaccines are up to date. Some travelers to Southeast Asia also get their jabs for Hepatitis B and Japanese Encephalitis – malaria tablets are not a bad idea, either.
If you’re relying on a rental bike, pack light for the trip, as you’re not going to have the luxury of deep saddlebags. Bring the basics for working on whatever motorcycle you’re taking out: clothes suitable for the tropics, a heavy jacket for cool nights, an electrical adapter, earplugs, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, sandals, rain gear, and a phone that you can insert a Laos SIM into, which can be purchased at the airport. Having personally taken several international flights in full motorcycle gear – and, yes, that includes a helmet with fuzzy ears – I suggest taking advantage of rental gear. MotoLaos is capable of providing a helmet, jacket, gloves, goggles, kneepads and boots.
The first day of the loop is the biggest push with 162 miles (260km) from Luang Prabang – the cultural heartland of Laos – to Phonsavan. Google Maps estimates that the drive will take six hours and twenty minutes. However, after a good cup of joe and breakfast at Saffron Coffee on the Mekong River, get an early start, as the ride could take up to eight or nine hours, especially during the rainy season (May to September) when landslides can cause long delays on the narrow mountain roads.
South out of Luang Prabang, hug Highway 12 toward Phou Khou. Further south, riders will enjoy the sharp, clear-cut lines of jungle-thick limestone ridges piling on top of one another until they cut into large cumulus clouds floating above. If you want a shorter first day, it is possible to stop at Phou Khou for the night. After catching Highway 7 in town, however, there aren’t a lot of great options for accommodations until Phonsavan.
Highway 7 scribbles east, following mountain ridges as it cuts through small communities. With chickens, cattle and children constantly threatening to dart out into the road, it’s necessary to keep your speed down and be satisfied with soaking up the surrounding beauty.
Pushing deeper into the drive, thick, warm jungles are suddenly replaced by groves of tall wispy eucalyptus trees standing near scatterings of pines as Highway 7 breaches the cool, subtropical climate that clings to the Plain of Jars.
The first night, stay in Phonsavan, a large town by Laos standards. Most of the guesthouses of interest are along, or just off, Highway 7 on the east side of town. For many, Sabaidee Guesthouse, which is cheap and clean, does the trick with secure parking at night. Plan to base yourself there for a couple days, so you have plenty of time for day trips down to Plain of Jars Sites 1, 2, and 3, as well as the Village of Spoons and Muang Khoun.
The next morning, after coffee and a solid breakfast at Crater’s Cafe, take Highway 1D out of Phonsavan south toward the sites. Unlike in the mountains, which run amok with kids, the dominant life force outside of Phonsavan consists of docile brown cows and stocky water buffalo. Further afield, rice paddies fill the lowlands. Like rivers running green with pond scum, the paddies fill the narrow valley fingers that reach out into the steep slopes of the forested mountainsides.
The Plain of Jars sites opened to the public after 2004, when Mines Advisory Group Laos cleared three archaeological sites of bombs left from American shelling during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though the area was unsafe for visitors for decades, it is now secure and drawing more and more tourists each year.
At Site 2, the jars, most of which are large enough to hide a grown man within, stand off-kilter. A few stand upright, while many more are on their sides. On a nearby hill, a banyan tree grasps onto one of the jars, splitting it in half. Though it’s not technically allowed, don’t be surprised to find locals grilling fish as part of a picnic among the ancient artifacts.
The sites are layers of culture, with the earliest archaeological evidence dating back to the Neolithic period, but more modern uses of the jars and area can be found all the way up to the 19th century.
One colorful local legend claims that the jars are cups left by giants. It’s not hard to imagine super-sized humans lumbering through the plains and settling down around a grassy knoll for some shots of Laos-Laos rice whiskey, occasionally breaking their cups and then wandering off again. However, archaeological evidence mostly points toward the jars’ original use as part of burial ceremonies.
The drives from one site to the next are approximately 30 minutes and can easily be found by plugging the site name into your GPS or phone. However, after visiting the first two, you’re not missing anything if you skip Site 3 and head farther south on 1D to check out the temple ruins in Muang Khoun.
Military enthusiasts and history buffs can visit the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Visitor Center and UXO [unexploded ordinances] Survivor Visitor Center, which is run and developed by the Quality of Life Association (QLO). Both centers are across the road from Crater Cafe on Highway 7.
Depending on how much time you spend there, you might want to grab lunch in town before pushing south through Cha Ho to the Spoon Village, an entrepreneurial community that melts down wartime scrap metal and turns it into spoons and other souvenirs.
Baan Naphia reaches out to the world with the slogan: Make Spoons, Not War. Though there are dozens of metal smiths in the village, Mr. SomeMy and his wife are particularly friendly. Their home can be spotted through a sign that reads “Mr. SomeMy. Make Spoon,” which hangs haphazardly from an enormous rusted bomb buried in the ground next to a bamboo fence.
Behind the fence is a flat yard with a tall wooden house on stilts and four posts holding a high roof over a homemade brick kiln.
Squatting on a seat cushion ripped off of a scooter, Mrs. SomeMy can more often than not be found ladling molten aluminum from the kiln and pouring it into the tiny hole of a spoon mold. On one corner of the kiln is a pile of disarmed bombs. Ask politely and Mr. or Mrs. SomeMy will most likely give you a chance to pour your own spoon, which you can buy, along with other souvenirs, for about .50¢ a piece.
By day four, it’s time to get back on the loop with a 128- mile (205km) jaunt to Ban That Hium, which should take about five or six hours.
In Muang Kham, part ways with Highway 7 and take a left onto Highway 1C.
Ban That Hium is a dusty town big enough to have a couple hotels, such as Dork Khoun Guesthouse, but still not big enough to offer much in the way of exciting dining options. There is the River View Restaurant and Coffee, which has the best coffee in town, but that’s about it. If you want to play, there are some dirt tracks in the area, otherwise push on the following day to Nong Khiaw, a pleasant 104-mile (225km) ride away.
Working with a tight budget in Nong Khiaw, it’s possible to book a cheap room at Joy Restaurant and Sunrise Bungalows, which still have private balconies overlooking the Ou River. With more money, you can splurge and spend the night at the much classier Mandala Ou Resort.
However, the rooms at Sunrise Bungalows boast the views for which Nong Khiaw is famous: beyond the bridge, where a few tourists can be found with their cameras, are limestone mountain faces draped with jungle vines and a smattering of massive, gray-barked trees. Additionally, the bungalow owner is willing to lock up your motorcycle with her scooters come nightfall.
Tours to the 100 Waterfalls hike leave from Nong Khiaw. However, the rice fields in the valleys you hike through are more impressive than the waterfalls themselves. The town is also the jump-off point for the backpacker haven of Muang Ngoi.
There’s a small road that leads to Muang Ngoi, though most backpackers in the area claim that the traveler’s oasis can only be reached by an hour-long boat ride. If you do take the boat, the owner at Sunrise Bungalows is more than willing to store extra motorcycle gear and lock up your bike while you’re upriver.
The main drag of Muang Ngoi, a sleepy town touted as the friendliest place in Laos, is a dirt/gravel road. Along the street are hand-painted wooden signs advertising bungalows, bars, restaurants, cafes and WiFi.
The final day of the loop is 88 miles (141km) of easy cruising through golden hills thick with tall grass and corn. About a quarter of the way through the drive, 1C smacks into Highway 13, which whisks you straight back into Luang Prabang.
Most likely you’ll be surviving on Laos-style pho and fried rice, so once you’re showered in Luang Prabang treat yourself to the Tamarind Restaurant and Cooking School’s Lao specialties tasting platters.
From there, the best place for a few celebratory drinks and some beach volleyball is Utopia Bar. Then, it’s off to the bowling alley – the most popular after-hours establishment in Luang Prabang.
The jarringly generic look of the bowling alley, equipped with Brunswick chairs and tables, is actually hard to get your head around after everything else you’ve experienced so far. However, after 10 p.m., when most other bars close, the place is hopping. Afterwards, if you left your bike locked up at the hotel, you can grab a ride back in a bizarre little three-wheeled taxi known as a tuk-tuk to top off the weeklong journey before heading home.
The author recently moved back to the United States after spending more than five years living in and touring Southeast Asia by motorcycle. Not content to stop there, he spent about six months in East Africa exploring Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar on two wheels. His latest adventure has found him in Alaska.