Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rockets Over the Plain of Jars

                                                             by Jim Goodman

       The Lao province of Xieng Khouang lies northwest of Vientiane, bordering Vietnam’s Thanh Hoá province on its eastern side.  Most of it consists of an elevated plateau of 1100 meters altitude, surrounded by largely deforested hills rich in mineral deposits.  Hmong and Khamu live in the hills, while Tai Phuan, Tai Dam and Tai Daeng, along with Vietnamese and Chinese, live in the plains and towns.  Farmers grow rice and vegetables, supplement their diet with hunting, fishing and gathering, raise cattle and in many ways reflect the kind of lifestyle prevailing in the rest of the country.
the Plain of Jars
       Two physical features, however, distinguish Xieng Khouang from every other province in Laos.  One is the presence of hundreds of big stone jars on the plateau, called the Plain of Jars because of this phenomenon, relics of a mysterious vanished Iron Age civilization.  The other, a relatively recent transformation, is the existence of thousands of bomb craters all over the province, a legacy of the Vietnam War in the 60s and 70s.
       A road does connect Vientiane with Phonsavan, the provincial capital, and it has been improved in recent years, but it’s still a long, grueling ride by bus.  Twenty-one years ago, when I made my visit, the short, inexpensive airplane ride was a more attractive alternative (and still is).  By taking the flight I soon became acquainted with Xieng Khouang’s second outstanding feature—the craters.  They were everywhere, not just around the populated areas, but also on hillsides, next to creeks, in places where there was no possible target.  It was if the bombs sought to destroy the water supply and obliterate the pastures that fed the cattle.
Phonsavan girls
       Actually, there never was a campaign specifically targeting the creeks and pastures.  The objective was to disrupt the funneling of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  But often then pilots encountered thick clouds over the Trail and couldn’t see any targets.  They had to return to Vientiane, but were not allowed to land with any bombs still on board.  So they just dropped them over the last province en route, not really caring where they fell, nor even bothering to find a worthy target.  Thus the Xieng Khouang landscape is more pockmarked with craters than anywhere else in Laos. 
       Even worse, the US dropped 262 million cluster bombs on Laos, a large proportion of them on the Plain of Jars, and 80 million failed to explode—a permanent hazard to the population decades after the war ended.  Xieng Khouang, along with Phong Saly and Hua Phan provinces to the north, were longtime Pathet Lao strongholds.  And since guerrillas favored jungle bases, US planes also splattered the province with herbicides and defoliants, while opposing forces on the plain planted mines and launched rockets against each other.
young women in the market
Hmong woman selling porcupine
       There are still lots of no-go places in Xieng Khouang, where unexploded ordinance and leftover mines make passage too dangerous.  The original capital was all but demolished by the war and a new one, Phonsavan, now serves as capital and main commercial center.  A town of about 35,000, it boasts a lively, interesting market that, two decades ago, offered such unusual items as forest rodents, deer, porcupine, wild chickens, jungle roots and tubers and opium poppies.  Opium cultivation was still legal then and small patches of poppies stood in the nearest villages.  A few years later the government outlawed the plant and nowadays you won’t find it for sale in the market.  Practically everything else sold then is still available, though perhaps fewer porcupines.
stone jars scattered on the plain
       Phonsavan is a quiet and friendly town, but its only real lure is its proximity to the ancient stone jars.  The jars lie in several locations, but some are in or close to no-go zones.  Three large and safe sites are south of the town and the easiest to access.  The jars, of sandstone and other local stones, vary in height and diameter from one to three meters, placed in no particular order, some cracked or split or fallen.  None have lids, though they may have originally had lids of perishable material.
       Legends that the jars were used to make rice liquor to celebrate an ancient conqueror’s victory and theories that they were for smelting metals have been discarded in favor of a general consensus that they were burial jars.  Excavators have found fragments of teeth and human bones in them. Puzzles remain, though, about the precise use of them as burial jars.  Were the corpses interred there ad left to decay under a presumed lid?  Were they cremated inside?  Why are the jars so many different sizes, with too many smaller ones to imply a great proportion of child deaths?
       Even more nebulous is whatever happened to the people who constructed them.  The sites date to the Iron Age, about 500 BCE to 500 CE, but whoever made them left no trace of cities, temples, building foundations of any kind, artifacts or written records.  They simply disappeared and existing historical records for the area appear only from the 11th century, when Tai Phuan migrated to the area from further north.  They became Buddhists and established a state that was sometimes subjected to Luang Phabang, sometimes independent, and prospered by being on a major trade route north to Yunnan, east to the Vietnam coast, south to Cambodia and west to the Mekong.          
Site !, closest to Phonsavan
       It was also vulnerable to invasion from all directions.  Vietnamese forces sacked it during the Tây Sơn Dynasty in the late 18th century.  Siamese soldiers occupied Xieng Khouang in 1777, 1834 and 1875 and forced large portions of its inhabitants to relocate to places under more direct Siamese control.  Not long after this, Chinese Black Flag bandits, remnants of the suppressed Taiping Revolt in southern China, attacked Xieng Khouang and destroyed its temples.  Things calmed down during the Colonial Era, but after the Second World War ended, insurgency action commenced and continued after the French departure, turning the province into a major theater of hostilities until 1975.
Leftover war material serves as fenceposts.
       The war wrought incredible damage on Xieng Khouang, completely destroying its capital, littering the area with UXOs and killing off much of its vegetation.  But with its conclusion people went back to a life more like that of their grandparents’ time, before all the conflicts started.  There were places they dare not tread and maybe had to watch what they hoed, but they could carry on something resembling a normal existence.  They even made use of some of the war’s detritus by using bomb canisters and artillery shells as fence posts, flowerpots and hotel decorations. 
       Like the craters viewed from the airplane window, the canisters walling off the vegetable patches were instant reminders of Xieng Khouang’s turbulent past.  Craters even marked the areas with the jars, like the one I saw at Site 1, sign-posted “US Bomb #2” (my driver was unable to find out where was US Bomb #1).  But none of that seemed to affect the local people’s attitude towards tourists, even Americans, when Laos opened the province to foreigners in the early 90s.  Like other newly opened Lao destinations, Phonsavan was a Sabai di City and travelers everywhere were greeted with smiles and welcomes.  No one expressed any resentment about the war damage.  That was already relegated to what seemed like a distant past; even more so now, two decades later.
       Phonsavan is most interesting in the morning, when villagers arrive from beyond town to buy or sell things in the open market.  Merchants wheel their products into town on wooden carts and use the latter to display their goods.  Women tend to dominate the crowd and many dress in traditional clothing, like the embroidered sarongs worn by the various Tai sub-groups.  Next to the town lies a lake at the foot of a couple of large, mostly barren hills, with fancy wooden houses near the summit and cemeteries in several locations on the slopes. 
Phonsavan Buddhist temple
       You get good, broad views of the town and the surrounding area from the top of this hill.  Distant mountains rise more than a thousand meters above the plain.  Some have caves where both guerrillas and local residents took refuge during the bombing campaigns.  The caves didn’t automatically guarantee safety, though, and in one tragic instance bombs sealed and destroyed a large cave sheltering a few hundred people, all of whom died. 
       Xieng Khouang’s Buddhist Tai Phuan are still the largest ethnic group in the area.  They did not rebuild all the grand temples destroyed by 19th and 20th century wars.  But post-war Phonsavan has its own modest temple, on stilts, as do Tai Phuan villages in the vicinity, distinguishing them from settlements of the Tai Dam and Tai Daeng, who are animist.  They are in roughly the same style as Therevada Buddhist temples elsewhere in Laos, featuring angled, sloping, tiered roofs, thick supporting posts and the typically carved shutters depicting kinarees and other celestial beings.  By the time Xieng Khouang started receiving visitors the Lao government had relaxed its former fiercely secular attitude and became more tolerant of religious expression.  Buddhism thus made a comeback, monasteries once again filled with monks and devotees resumed their religious customs, duties and the enthusiastic celebration of their festivals.
rockets on display in Ban Sawn
       My own visit to the province late in the month of May coincided with a rocket festival in the nearby Tai Phuan village of Ban Sawn.  My driver to Jars Site 1 had informed me of it, scheduled for the next day.  I arranged to get there early morning, just as the villagers were erecting the scaffolds to launch the rockets.  People from other villages participated as well, bringing their own rockets and marching to Ban Sawn behind a file of musicians playing gongs, drums and bamboo reed-pipes, dancing all the way, some of the men carrying beer bottles full of strong rice liquor and taking occasional swigs en route.  Others made the journey packed in the backs of pickup trucks.
monk conducting rituals iside the tent
       While some of the men upon arrival immediately set out to choose a site to erect the launching scaffold for their rockets, other people headed for the huge, silk saffron tent near the center of the village.  Inside the tent monks carried out rituals for devotees to witness and join.  A makeshift altar stood in the center flanked by cases with shelves full of gifts from the faithful, textiles, betel boxes, rice containers and money trees, spilling over to the sides of the officiating monk, a rather young man distinguished by his elaborate red miter, embellished with spangles and gold embroidery, with flaps down to his shoulders.
       Religious rites had been going on since the official start of the festival two days earlier.  The purpose of the festival is to bring on the rainy season and it probably predates the arrival of Buddhism in the area.  It does not mark any particularly Buddhist event, but for the Tai Phuan, like their cousins the Lao, who also stage rocket festivals both in Laos and northeast Thailand, essentially animist activities are endowed with a Buddhist veneer. 
monk adding the fuel
firing the rocket
The first two days of the festival feature processions, rituals, music and dance.  Rockets are displayed on tall bamboo stands and on this day removed to the launching scaffold, which is more like a wide ladder propped up against a tree.  The rockets are basically thin bamboo poles several meters long, wrapped in bright colored paper and shiny foil, filled with gunpowder.  Monks fill the fuel tube wound around the lower part of the rocket and then men hand it up to a comrade on the ladder, who fixes it to the top of the launching scaffold. 
And the rocket soars to Heaven.
       Right after ignition, the rocket blasts off spewing thick smoke and, barring misfire or accident, soars into the heavens, reminding the gods it’s time to bestow the annual rains.  Some of these rockets can fly right past the clouds and continue for several kilometers before falling to earth.  Observes judge them by how high and how far they reach, as well as by what kind of trail they leave across the sky.  
       The launching is not without risks.  If the rocket fails to fire it’s quite a loss of face for those who brought it.  Even worse, it could streak off in the wrong direction, maybe even into the crowd, rather than into the sky, causing casualties that rudely reminded people of those other kinds of rockets from the 60s and 70s.  And on the spiritual side, it would not be sending signals to Heaven.
       Such accidents are extremely rare, fortunately, and the festival spirit is mostly celebratory.  It has its rituals, but for the villagers there’s always a good reason to make merit.  They may not believe that their rockets really do bring on the rains, but the event is full of entertainment and a good excuse for a rousing round of revelry.  After all, when the rains do come it’s then the season of hard work and little or no leisure.  The Rocket Festival is the last opportunity before that to have fun.  It’s not surprising that it’s still as popular as ever.
revelers at the Rocket Festival

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