the ultimate guide to the plain of jars

The Plain of Jars Laos – How to Take A Plain of Jars Tour

The Plain of Jars is one of South East Asia’s most important archaeological sites.   You will find the Plain of Jars in Lao’s Xieng Khouang province, at the crossroads of ancient major trade routes in the north to China, in the south to Thailand, and in the east to Vietnam.  Laos’ Plain of Jars was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in July 2019.

Located on a central Laotian plateau, the Plain of Jars gets its name from the more than 2,000 megalithic sandstone jars that date from the Iron Age.   The jars comprise large carved stone jars, discs, tombstones, and quarries dating back to 500 BC and are thought to have been used for burials.  Some jars weigh up to 14 tonnes and measure from 1 to 3 meters in height.

This article will explore the Plains of Jar sites that can be visited, the Plain of Jars location, a little of the history of the Plain of Jars, and how you can visit each site.


Travel Tips for Exploring Laos

The Plain of Jars Laos Overview

The name, Plain of Jars comes from the collections of huge stone urns found here. The Plain of Jars is located on a rolling plain.  It is 1,100 meters above sea level and is centered on the Xieng Khuang Plateau.  The Jar sites are situated around the city of Phonsavan.  There are numerous ancient “Jar” sites scattered around the edges of the plain.  The name “Plain of Jars” comes from the French who named the region “Plaine de Jars”.

Location of the Plain of Jars

The Plain of Jar sites are located around 400 kilometers to the North East of Lao’s capital city, Vientiane.  The closest city to the Plain of Jars is Phonsavan.

Map of the Plain of Jars in Laos

Map of the Plain of Jars

You can also see the Plain of Jars map here

Where to Stay to visit the Plain of Jars

Phonsavan is the main town of the Plain of Jars, you’ll want to stay here to explore the Plain of Jars.  There are a host of places to stay in Phonsavan – here’s our pick of the luxury places to stay in Phonsavan, mid-range places to stay in Phonsavan, and budget accommodation in Phonsavan.

Anoulack Khen Lao Hotel, Phonsavan: The Anoulack Khen Lao Hotel is located in central Phonsavan in Xiengkhouang. The Anoulack Khen Lao Hotel has 78 rooms that have air-conditioning, cable TV, a fridge, and a private bathroom. The hotel also has a restaurant a free pickup service from the airport to the hotel and WiFi that is accessible throughout the hotel. This top hotel is a great place to stay when visiting Phonsavan. Rooms at the Anoulack Khen Lao are popular so check the rates here and book early.

Kongkeo Guesthouse, Phonsavan:The Kingkeo Guesthouse is located only a 25-minute walk away from central Phonsavan. This guesthouse is great for traveling groups, however, bathrooms are shared but they have hot showers and fans are your only option in the rooms. The guesthouse also offers different services such as laundry service, ironing services, and a barbeque facility. The KingKeo Guesthouse also provides access to free WiFi connection and has a pleasant garden. The Kongkeo Guesthouse is an affordable accommodation when staying in Phonsavanh. Check room availability here.

Phouluang Hotel, Phonsavan: The Phouluang Hotel is located within Phonsavan. All the rooms here at the Phouluang Hotel are equipped with air-conditioning, a cable flat-screen TV, a kettle, a bathroom with a shower, a seating area, and a desk. Some rooms have a view of the river along with a private bathroom and wardrobe. The Phouluang Hotel also offers in-house breakfast and free WiFi across the entire hotel. The Phouluang Hotel is a great way to make the most of your stay at Phonsavanh without spending too much. Want to know more about Phouluang Hotel’s rooms, click here.

Plain of Jars History

The jars in the Plain of Jars sites are around 2,000 years old.   They weigh up to 14 tonnes and vary in height up to 3 meters tall.  They have been carved from sandstone.   It is believed that the jars were used as urns in burial rituals, although all the jars are now empty.  In the 1930’s beads, burned bones, and teeth were found inside some of the jars, which were most likely originally sealed with discs or lids.   Several stone lids have been discovered, but other materials such as bamboo or other wood are likely to have been used to seal the jars.

Some of the jars do look like they’re made of cement and have been molded, but they are actually calcified river sediment.

It was the French archaeologist Madeleine Colan who, in the 1930s discovered bones, pottery, beads, and human teeth in and around the Plain of Jars.  It wasn’t until 1994 that Professor Eiji Nitta was able to conduct more research.

The jars were tracked back to a quarry close to Phonsavan- you can read about this later in this post.  It was this quarry that was used during the Vietnam War by the Lao Nation / Pathet Laos, who were the communist political movement.  They hid in both natural and man-made caves in the quarry.

How to Visit the Plain of Jars, Laos

There are two ways to visit the Plain of Jars, you can get to Phonsavan and then rent a motorbike and tour independently, or you can get to Phonsavan and take a tour. If you plan to self ride on a motorbike you’ll need to be a confident rider as you’re riding on the primary roads here and they’re a little busy. And when you go off to the jars sites the roads are bumpy and unfinished.

Alternatively you can take a tour in an air conditioned car. There are several options.

This is a fabulous all day tour of the Plain of Jars – note that you’ll also get to visit Laos’ old capital city and that its priced per group. Check availability of Plain of Jars full day tours here.

This tour also takes in the three main Jar sites, as well as the old capital and the pricing depends on the number of people in your group. You can see what else is included here.

The Purpose of the Laos Jars

While the consensus of archeological opinion is that these urns were used for burial purposes (and human remains have been found inside and around the jars), there are many local Laos legends as to what they were used for.  These Laos jars myths and legends include:

  • Cups for rice wine used by a race of giants
  • Storage for water during the dry season
  • Rice wine storage for royalty

How big are the Jars at the Plain of Jars in Laos?

The biggest Jar is 3 meters tall and weighs 14 tonnes, most others are a little smaller.

Where are the Plain of Jars Sites?

The Jar Sites are scattered around the plain and found in both Xieng Khuang and Hua Phuan provinces. There are many jar sites, but only 12 are open to the public. Most people visit sites 1, 2, and 3 which are close to Phonsavan.

How Many Jar Sites are there in Laos?

There are around 90 jar sites in the Phonsavan area.  However, only 8 sites are available to be visited.  The primary sites to visit are Jar site 1, Jar site 2, Jar site 3, and the Jar Quarry.  You can easily visit these sites within a day.

A total of 7 sites are possible to visit, but apart from Sites 1,2,3 and the Quarry, they’re all quite difficult to get to.

Phonsavan Map of Jar Sites

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos map of the plain of jars

Phonsavan is the main town of Xieng Khuang province and the main place from where folks visit the Plain of Jars.  The best map for visiting the Plain of Jars is this one from Hobomaps.

The Plain of Jars and the Vietnam War

Much of rural Laos was decimated during the Vietnam War, this whole area was bombed extensively, with as much as 30% of ordinance failing to explode. The sites that are open to visitors mean that they have been cleared of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and you can buy a ticket to visit. It’s simply not safe to visit sites that haven’t been officially cleared.

The area around Phonsavan was on a flight path for the US fighter jets during the war – it became an unofficial dump for unused cluster bombs – more than 270 million of them.  More than 80 million of these cluster bombs failed to detonate.  This is what makes much of the area around Phonsavan unsafe to visit.  As a visitor, you must NOT stray from the marked and cleared zones.  (there’s more on this later).

Since 1994, the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has worked to clear unexploded bombs since 1994.  This non-governmental organization has a visitor center on the main road in Phonsavan and is well worth a visit. For more on the major sites of the Vietnam War, our guide is here.

How to Visit the Plain of Jars Laos

There are 3 ways in which to visit the Plain of Jars.

  1. Join a Plain of Jars tour from Phonsavan.   You won’t be able to book this online, although you may be able to contact one of the agencies in Phonsavan before you arrive.  Your day trip to the Plain of Jars from Phonsavan might just be you and the driver and the price will depend on how many folks are on the Plain of Jars tours and how many sites you want to visit.
  2. Rent a bike and cycle to the site.  Note that a visit to Sites 1,2 and 3 will be around 40 kilometers. Site 1 is around 15 kilometers from Phonsavan.
  3. Rent a motorbike from a local agency in Phonsavan and visit the sites yourself.

How to join a tour of the Plain of Jars

You can organize a tour of the Plains of Jars, by asking your guesthouse, hotel, or hostal.  They will direct you to one of the agencies in Phonsavan, or book it for you.  The tour will likely be in a car, or small minivan and usually includes a visit to two or more of the Plain of Jars sites and a visit to a Lao Lao (Lao Whisky) “factory” and perhaps a visit to the old Russian Tank abandoned in the area.

The costs of the tour of the Plain of Jars depend on the number of people on the tour but starts from 150,000 kip per person for a group tour with a guide.  You will pay around 600,000 kip for a private tour.

How to Visit the Plain of Jars by Bike

You can rent a bike from many of the agencies in Phonsavan, for around 20,000 kip per day.  Pick up a map from your rental agency, or use the Hobomaps we’ve mentioned below.

How to Visit the Plain of Jars by Motorbike

You can rent a motorbike from LaoFalang Tours (next to the Italian restaurant of the same name) for a day. There are several places to rent motorbikes, all along the main road, Route 7. LaoFalang is to be found along from the minivan station, very close to Route 7 (along from the White Orchid Guesthouse).

There are also two different options of motorbikes to rent. The basic 80cc ones and the larger 125cc ones. As we planned a full-on day, and there would be two of us on the bike, we went for the larger bike. It cost 120,000 kip for the day plus any fuel that we put into it.  A single, one-person 80 cc scooter will cost around 80,000 kip for a day.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos motorbike tour

The brakes worked, but the fuel gauge and the speedometer didn’t. Gear changing was manual, and mostly worked, although neutral was hard to find and the starter was more than a little dodgy.

There are several maps available of the area if you’re self-touring.

Maps to Tour the Plain of Jars

None of the maps of the Plain of Jars offered by the rental agencies are particularly good. We used a combination of a photo of the TWO (different) maps on the wall at LaoFalang (see below), Google Maps (not very useful), and the much photocopied, hand-drawn map given to us by the LaoFalang folks.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos maps of routes

The hand-drawn map is oriented South to North – and the map on the wall is oriented North to South (please pause here as we bang our heads repeatedly).

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos map
Visit the Plain of Jars Laos maps of jar sites

However, the best map that you can use to self-tour the Plain of Jars is this Hobomaps Plain of Jars map.

The Plain of Jars Site 1 -Thong Hai Hin

Jar Site one, or Thong Hai Hin (Stone Jar Plain), is one of the largest sites, containing more than 300 jars and covering around 62 acres.  It is 15 kilometers southwest of Phonsavan.   While the site itself has been cleared of unexploded bombs, it is important while walking to stay within the markers, as the edges of the site have not been cleared.

There’s a path from the gate that leads to a small hill.  It is here on Site 1 that the only decorated jar was found.  It included the figure of a human carved into the stone.  This is the only site that also included a jar with a stone lid.  There’s also a limestone cave at this site, which Madeleine Colani believes was used as a crematorium.  Colani’s research and findings were published in her book, the Megaliths of Upper Laos.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos aerial view of Jar site 1

Once we’ve left the bike at the small visitor center – which has a great museum area and explanatory notes, we’re given a ride to the site itself in a small electric cart. It seems random that the rides are available, as we end up walking back and see other folks walking up to the site.

The museum of the Plain of Jars at Jar Site 1 has a good explanation of the site in English.

Our first sighting of the Jars at Jar site one is spectacular.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos jar site 1 jars
Visit the Plain of Jars Laos jars at plain of jars site 1

The jars are located near foxholes and bomb craters left over from the Vietnam war.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos jar site 1 (2)

There seems to be no logic behind their placement. And no rationale as to why there is a grouping at the top of the hill and another grouping part way down the hill.

Everywhere we go, though, there’s a reminder of the UXO problem and that it’s important that we stay on the white side of the track. MAG (the Mine Advisory Group) has cleared this area. It’s safe for us to walk on the WHITE side of the markers. But not the red.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos MAG on walking routes

Plain of Jars Site 1 Logistics

  • Entrance fees to Plain of Jars Site 1:  15,000 kip per person
  • Motorbike Parking fee at Plain of Jars Site 1:  2,000 kip
  • Opening hours to Plain of Jars Site 1;  0900-1700

Plain of Jars Site 2 – Hai Hin Phu Salato

Jar Site 2 has 93 jars and 14 stone discs, which are slightly different from the lids and which mark burial locations.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos lid from a jar

Jar Site 2 is divided by a road that runs in the middle of the two parts.

Jar Site 2 gives you the best views – there are actually two parts to Jar site two. Firstly the ticket office is at the bottom of the hill, but don’t be tempted to leave the bike at the bottom, ride it up to a muddy open area and then you’ll see steps off up to the left and a little further on, to the right. The best views are at the site on the right.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos Jar site 2

Then we move to the other side of the road in the trees (and there are MAG safety markers alongside the steps indicating that the steps are safe.. and the shortcut up through the trees hasn’t officially been cleared..). It’s very atmospheric and in a way nicer than the site on the opposite hill with the view.

It’s here that we are struck again by how little rhyme or reason there appears to be as to where the Jar Sites were located and that there doesn’t appear to be any logic to their proximity, or lack of it, to each other.

Jar Site 2 completed, we head back down the hill, and onto our next stop, we rode the motorbike, but it is possible to take a short easy hike between Jar Site 2 and Jar Site 3.  This route has been cleared of unexploded bombs, but you MUST follow the red and white MAG markers.

Plain of Jars Site 2 Logistics

  • Entrance fees to Plain of Jars Site 2:  10,000 kip per person
  • Opening hours to Plain of Jars Site 2;  0900-1700

Plain of Jars Site 3 – Hai Hin Lat Khai

The site known as Hai Hin Lat Khai, or Jar Site 3 has nearly 250 jars and 45 stone discs.   It is in the middle of rice paddies and is a glorious walk from where we parked the bike at the entrance and ticket office.  As you cross a stream you’ll need to walk across a bamboo bridge.  This is very rural, the route only disturbed by the occasional MAG tile.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos jar site 3 (2)

There are no signposts, just a track through fields, and occasional MAG markers.

There are a couple of streams to cross, although there are bamboo bridges to cross them and you really do feel as though you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos jar site 3

There were a few folks at Jar Site One, at Jar Site Three we saw one small group with a tour guide, and another arrived as we were leaving. But here, we were in glorious solitude.

Jar site 2 Visit the Plain of Jars Laos

This part of the trip has been in a road loop, so we could have visited sites two and three in the other order and still been back at the same place.

Plain of Jars Site 3 Logistics

  • Entrance fees to Plain of Jars Site 3:  10,000 kip per person
  • Opening hours to Plain of Jars Site 3;  0900-1700

The Jar Quarry at the Plain of Jars – Phu Keng Jar Quarry

This is well worth a visit.  It’s around 15 kilometers from Phonsavan but in the opposite direction from the Jar sites 1, 2 & 3.  The gate here is locked at 1700 sharp, so be sure to get back down and out by then.

This is where it’s thought that much of the stone for the carved stone jars came from. We pass through Phonsavan, staying on Route 7 road until we spot a signpost on the left-hand side for the Jar Quarry. That’s the only sign that there is. Further on, the road is closed for what looks like major works, so we take to the fields and guess at where the other end of it is. This is NOT tourism central here by any stretch of the imagination.

Eventually, we find the gatehouse (just in the end, by following the road). It’s a 10,000 kip entrance fee (and another 3,000 for the bike – which again we need to ride up to the top of the road). We are the only folks here and it looks like we got the attendant out of bed as he’s still putting his shirt on as he comes to take our money and has to open the gate to let us in.

Visit the Plain of Jars Laos Quarry Site

Once we leave the bike at the top of the road, there are steps to the top.

Quarry Site Visit the Plain of Jars Laos

We make it to the top after about 30 minutes of intense Stairmaster-like exercise. And once at the top, there’s a choice – the Secret Tunnel or the Natural Cave.

Quarry site Jars Visit the Plain of Jars Laos

We take the tunnel first.   It’s basically a tunnel. It was used by the Pathet Laos (it means “the Lao Nation” – the communist political movement) during the 1963-1974 war. A torch is definitely required. And a lot of bending.

Just when you think the roof gets higher it whacks you in the forehead. I have the reddening lump to prove it! But the views up here are marvelous, we can see all across the plain.

Cave in plain of jar sites

The Natural Cave at the other end of this rocky outcrop has equally lovely views, out to the other side, away from Phonsavan.

quarry site at the plain of jars

And it has a roof that’s as low, another requirement for a torch and a lot of bending.  The steps are much easier on the way down as we race to get to the gate before it’s locked at 5 pm.

We’re racing a setting sun too, although we have the bike until 7 pm, the sun is going down quickly, and while we think the lights work, we don’t want to be riding around in the dark here, regardless of whether we have lights. It doesn’t take that long to get back, and I’m glad we’ve taken the bigger engine bike.

We’ve traveled a long way today, over a lot of bumpy roads, it’s a miracle I can still walk to the Nisha Indian Restaurant for a bottle of BeerLao and some poppadum snacks.

Plain of Jars Quarry Site Logistics

  • Entrance fees to Plain of Jars Quarry Site:  10,000 kip per person
  • Motorbike Parking fee at Plain of Jars Quarry Site:  3,000 kip
  • Opening hours to Plain of Jars Quarry Site;  0900-1700

Plain of Jars: Other Jar Sites to Visit

Aside from the 3 main Jar sites and the Quarry, it’s also possible to visit Jar site 16, Jar site 23, Jar Site 25, and Jar Site 52.  Plain of Jars site 52 is the largest, with nearly 400 jars, but it’s only possible to visit on foot.  It is very rarely visited. Jar Site 52 is 45 kilometers from Phonsavan (it takes around an hour by car)near the village of Ban Thalin.    From Ban Thalin you need to take a village guide and hike for around a round trip of 5 hours to the Ban Phakeo (Jar Site 52) location.

How to Get to the Plain of Jars

The Laos Plain of Jars is located close to the city of Phonsavan.   You will need to stay at least one night in Phonsavan to visit the Plain of Jars.

Getting to Phonsavan from Vientiane

There are five buses a day from Vientiane to Phonsavan.  The first starts at 0630 and the last one of the day departs Vientiane for Phonsavan at 2000.  The journey to Phonsavan from Vientiane takes around 8 hours.  You can book with an agency in Vientiane, or confirm your booking online now with Easybook.  Check out your options and book here.  You can also book your journey from Phonsavan to Vientiane with Easybook.

Getting to Phonsavan from Luang Prabang

There are two buses a day from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan.  The buses to the Plain of Jars from Luang Prabang leave at 0830 and 0900.  The journey to Phonsavan from Luang Prabang takes around 8 hours.  You can book with an agency in Luang Prabang, or confirm your booking online now with Easybook.  Check out your options and book here.  It’s not possible at this time to book online to go from Luang Prabang to Plain of Jars.  If you want to take a Plain of Jars tour from Luang Prabang you will need to first get to Phonsavan.

Getting to Phonsavan from Vang Vieng

We arrived in Phonsavan from Vang Vieng in a minivan. There were 10 people in the van plus the driver for 110,000 kip each, we bought tickets from the M Mart to take the trip from Vang Vieng to Plain of Jars. We set off at 0930, picked up from the Phouna Hotel (we were supposed to be picked up at 0900).  There is currently no online booking to go from Vang Vieng to Phonsavan. Check out the best things to do in Vang Vieng here

There was a 20 minutes break at 1050 and then 30 minutes break at 1330 for very bad noodles for 15,000 kip. We arrived in Phonsavan at 1540 (20 minutes early) at the minivan station in the center of the hotel area – right along from Lao Falang and the White Orchid. Touts will meet the van and try and sell you a room.

Renting Motorbikes or a Driver to Visit the Plain of Jars Sites

There are several places on the main street each with bikes for the same price. You can also get tours and day trips to the Plain of Jars from the agency outside the White Orchid Hotel.

We would recommend the larger bike if you are comfortable with a bigger heavier bike as the roads can be rough and the distances large.

motorbike to Visit the Plain of Jars Laos

Entrance Fees to the Plain of Jars Sites

Entry Fee Jar Site 1: Entrance is 15,000 kip per person
Entry Fee Jar Site 2: Entrance is 10,000 kip per person
Entry Fee Jar Site 3: Entrance is 10,000 kip per person

Where to Eat in Phonsavan

All the places to eat are on the main drag, Route 7 near the crossroads with an unnamed road, near the White Orchid Guesthouse, and the Nice Guesthouse – close to the minivan station.

Simmaly: opposite the MAG offices on Route 7: Locals and tourists alike were here. Food was cheap, plentiful, and tasty and BeerLao was cold.

Nisha: Although Lonely Planet says this place is famous for breakfast, we only visited for poppadums (good) and BeerLao (seriously good and very cold)

Craters: A rather poor breakfast that took forever to arrive, but several locals were drinking coffee here at the time, so it can’t be all bad.

There are several bakeries on Route 7 – each of which we tried – big baguettes (nom nom) and then bought cheese from the store near the MAG offices.

How to Leave Phonsavan

We wanted to go from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang. There was one minivan a day leaving. The price was the same in each of the “agencies” that we asked at.

Did you visit the Plain of Jars?  Let us know what you thought and how your trip was!

Popular transport routes in Laos

Major Sites and Locations to Visit in Laos

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