The Plain of Jars

After a twisting road trip from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, we come to the mysterious Plain of Jars.

I’ve wanted to come here for years. I first heard the phrase ‘Plain of Jars’ used in this context (I’m paraphrasing here):

‘The United States Air Force bombed the shit out of the Plain of Jars in Laos’

Plain of jars? Like, peanut-butter jars? I soon learn they are enormous stone jars, made by people about whom nothing is known.

When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar.

We hire a guide and a van and enjoy an all-day guided tour.

(If you’re wondering why we have so many clothes on, it’s because the weather is cool here in Phonsavan. For the first time in two months, socks, long pants, and fleeces are called for.)

It’s unclear what the jars are for. Different theories abound.

They come in all sizes.

Costco-size jar

This may look like a lid, but some say it’s a grave marker. Or maybe not. Nobody really knows.

During our tour, we pass through several villages. We stop in one for lunch.

Local houses

We also visit a cave, with some spirit offerings that look suspiciously like inukshuks.

‘♫ We will, we will rock you! ♫’


Sight or Insight of the Day – Plain of Jars

Besides the attraction of the jars, this part of Laos is well known as the scene of much combat during the Vietnam Era. As in Luang Prabang, there are branches of UXO-clearing organisations in the area. We drop in at the MAG visitor’s centre in Phonsavan.

Plain of Jars
Watch your step.

Our guide, Noods, is very knowledgeable about events of the war in the area, as well as being somewhat of a jar-ologist. Apparently his grandfather was a bigwig in the Pathet Lao.

In the 60’s and 70’s Laos, like much of southeast Asia, was a quagmire. Among other things, there was a nasty 3-way civil war going on in the country. Signs of violent conflict are everywhere.

Bomb crater from the Vietnam era - Plain of Jars
Bomb crater from the Vietnam era

Our guide extracts a metal detector from the back of the van, and within a few minutes, we come across:

  • several bullets of different calibres, some unfired
  • fragments of an F-105 that crashed into the side of the hill
  • the pull-pin from a hand grenade
  • the threaded fuse opening of a 250-pound bomb
Plain of Jars
Big-ass bullet

Remains of a tank. It’s stripped bare. I try to imagine how you remove the engine from a tank.

Plain of Jars
Tanks for the memories

Cluster bomb canisters hold up a structure.

Plain of Jars
Raising the roof.

Some of the hardware collected by locals.

From the USA, with Love

Not even the jars are spared.

Plain of Jars
Bullet-scarred jar

Some bullet-struck jars still have the bullet embedded in the centre.


Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang must be Lao for ‘nifty little town’.

Getting here was half the fun. Some of the niftiness includes streets that are easy to bicycle around.

Luang Prabang

Temples galore. This one is at the Royal Palace and contains the Prabang Buddha, after which the town gets its name.

It has French colonial architecture.

Luang Prabang

More French colonial architecture.

It’s on the Mekong River.

Luang Prabang

It’s also on the Nam Khan River.

Bamboo bridge on the Nam Khan

You can climb Phousi Hill in the middle of town for a panoramic view.

Luang Prabang

You can purchase little birds to liberate ( like we did in Rangoon).

Luang Prabang

Soon to be freed.

Luang Prabang
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

It has a wonderful museum of local ethnography.

This highlights the fantastic textiles that Laos produces.

Wall hangings

One of the pleasures of travel – today, we ran into a nice German couple we first met in Pagan, Burma. We arranged to meet later in the evening for a pizza across the bamboo bridge and had a delightful time.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Luang Prabang

Went to the UXO Visitors Centre here in town.

Although all sides in the Vietnam War deny any activity in Laos, North Vietnam used it as a conduit for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the Americans bombed areas of the country to smithereens trying to disrupt it.

Quote from another site:

‘From 1964 to 1973, as part of the Secret War operation conducted during the Vietnam War, the US military dropped 260 million cluster bombs – about 2.5 million tons of munitions – on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. This is equivalent to a planeload of bombs being unloaded every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years – nearly seven bombs for every man, woman and child living in Laos.’

‘It is more than all the bombs dropped on Europe throughout World War II, leaving Laos, a country approximately the size of Utah, with the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in history.’

About a third of these munitions failed to explode. So there  is some nasty stuff left over from the Vietnam War. A lot of nasty stuff. This organization both finds and disposes of unexploded ordinance – which will take centuries – and educates people &  their kids how to avoid contact with UXO. 

Deadly harvest - Luang Prabang
Deadly harvest

Messing about in boats

Luang Prabang, Laos

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Rat to Mole, The Wind in the Willows

Messing about in boats indeed. From Pai, we decide to head to Laos and take the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang.

First step was to get to Chiang Khong, the Thai border town across the Mekong River from Huay Xai. Caught a bus to Chiang Mai, but the last bus onward to to Chiang Khong had no seats left. Instead, we traveled to Chiang Rai and spent the night there, catching an early morning local bus to the border.

From the Thai frontier looking into Laos - messing about in boats
From the Thai frontier looking into Laos

Our first land border crossing of the trip. How exciting.

Maria checks the Thai Baht-to-Lao Kip exchange rate - messing about in boats
Maria checks the Thai Baht-to-Lao Kip exchange rate.

We apply for visas-on-arrival.

Attending to the bureaucratic niceties - messing about in boats
Attending to the bureaucratic niceties.

We finally make it to the docks in time for the 11:30 departure.

The mighty Mekong - messing about in boats
The mighty Mekong

Mostly foreign visitors take this boat. A good mix of ages, with an afterdeck for the party animals, thankfully separated by a roaring diesel engine.

Boat people - messing about in boats
Boat people

One of the most enjoyable trips we’ve had so far. The boat is open to the balmy air, the Mekong flows by scarcely a metre below the gunwales.  Comfortable, if not luxurious. Beer is available. Other drinks and snacks, too.

The scenery is really quite spectacular. Green mountains, interesting rock formations, tidy-looking villages, dunes of fine sand that look like they’ve been shipped in from Ipanema. 

The animals seem to enjoy the riverside life. We pass groups of cows, water buffalo, goats – even the odd pig – relaxing by the water, seemingly no people around, in Eden-like tranquility.

Sheep -and other beasts – may safely graze.

We overnight in Pak Beng, a single-street town that subsists mainly on providing room and board to boat passengers. Sausages are a specialty of northern Laos. I have a fatal weakness for sausages. I get my Kip out for a woman grilling up a variety of savoury snarlers on Pak Beng’s main street.

Sausage party

After a night in Pak Beng, we carry on down the river, stopping occasionally at small villages, letting people on and off.

A few more observations:

  • The hammer and sickle flag still flies beside the Lao national flag in some places. I thought communism (at least wearing it proudly like a badge) went out with mullets. Strange, because Laos doesn’t have that drab, sad shabbiness and heartbreaking scarcity of -well, just about everything – that is the signature of communist countries.

  • Signs of Chinese investment – saw Chinese companies constructing at least one large tunnel and one bridge over the Mekong. You can tell by the prominent 30-metre red banner in Chinese.
  • Speaking of Chineses presence throughout SE Asia, read recently that Thailand plans to translate traffic signs in northern Thailand into Chinese due to the number of accidents involving Chinese visitors. Maybe they’re just bad drivers.

By 4:00 PM, we arrive in Luang Prabang. Staying a guest house in the Old Town.

Sight or Insight of the Day

The morning we left Pai, we were greeted in the bathroom by this spider.

Eight legs good, two legs bad.

For scale, that’s a biggish sink stopper in the corner. This is the first creepy crawly encountered in nearly two months of travel. She was more frightened by the likes of us – at our first slight movement, she took off as if chased by all the devils in Hell.


I remember reading about Pai in the travel section of the Globe a few years ago.

Pai is a hippie mecca of the old school. Best thing about it is its location in a scenic valley.

Almost everybody here rents a scooter or motorcycle to explore the nearby waterfalls and other sights. The emergency rooms of the local hospital must see some dandy accidents as a result of unskilled and inebriated foreigners motoring around – helmetless – in shorts, tank tops, and flip flops.

Festive street - Pai
Festive street

Lots of other people come here for different reasons. Some quotes from a Wikitravel article:

‘There has been a large increase in Thai people visiting after Pai was featured in a romantic Thai film, Pai in Love.’

‘Perhaps due to the popularity of the Chinese movie ‘Lost in Thailand’, which was shot in northern Thailand, Pai has seen a significant increase in the number of mainland Chinese tourists and group tours since 2014.’

Hills just outside of town - Pai
Hills just outside of town

Nice bamboo bridge leading to our accommodations.

The Bridge on the River Pai - Pai
The Bridge on the River Pai

Among all the restaurants, souvenir shops, tattoo parlours, and massage studios are some tranquil buildings.

The range of tourist activities in the area is wide but unappealing – at least to us. Ziplining, whitewater rafting, elephant riding (cruel and exploitative), trekking – meh. We stay in these bamboo huts. It feels like a tropical Hobbit village.

Chillin’ in the Shire.

You may have heard of Cat Cafés. Pai boasts a Rabbit Café, which of course we thought was great.

I need no excuse to sneak in another bunny pic.

Don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful.

Besides the endless possibilities for making puns on its name, we enjoy the laid-back vibe here. Planning our next move to Laos.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Pai

A wonderful drive – by public transit – to Pai from Chiang Mai on twisty mountain roads. Stopping for a break in a small town midway, we’re surprised by a convoy of 10 or 11 latest-model Ferraris – teenagers at the wheel – screaming through the village, passing slower traffic on a blind curve.

We’ve seen this movie before. Looks like Canada isn’t the only place where Chinese criminals gift their sons with examples of sleek Italian automotive exotica costing a quarter of a million US dollars (and up) apiece. Like here. And here. And here

Back in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai

So we leave Myanmar (I finally say ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’). We left from Chiang Mai for Rangoon a month ago on a return ticket and are now back in Thailand.

Because we enter Thailand by air, we get a new 30-day entry permit. If we enter by land, this would be 2 weeks.

I recall from an earlier era visits of 2 months and more. Governments are less generous with their permitted stays. (Our visa for Myanmar was the maximum – 28 days.)

This may affect our fantasy of finding an idyllic spot and settling in for an extended period somewhere down the line.

The gift shops at the airport include several outlets for edible bird’s nest items. Yum.

Nestlé product - Chiang Mai
A Nestlé product?

We’re staying at the Gap’s House guest house. It’s like a little rain forest in the middle of town.

Garden - Chiang Mai

The proprietor’s father is a big jazz fan, so we hear Stan Getz throughout the evening.

It’s different being back in Thailand – noticeably more developed than Myanmar.  And it’s always pleasant to return to a familiar place. Back to Thai-style temples.

We stroll Chiang Mai’s walls and moats.

Monks that wear orange rather than burgundy.

Take a knee - Chiang Mai
Take a knee.

So we’re relaxing and deciding where to go next.

Sight or insight of the day (not in Chiang Mai)

This is going back a week or so. Was reminded while looking at some older photos. Just as we were leaving our guest house, we spot a cow relaxing on the side of the road, casual as can be.

We’re heifer a good time, not a long time.

This is in the centre of a fair-sized town. Farm animals snoozing on the roadside is not something you see every day.


Ngwe Saung Beach

After an epic overland journey from Inle Lake, at last we reach Ngwe Saung Beach on the Bay of Bengal, west of Rangoon.

Thalatta! Thalatta!
Thalatta! Thalatta!

Took an overnight bus from Nyaungshwe to Rangoon that was air-conditioned to Arctic conditions (for which we came prepared with layers of clothing.) With an arrival time in Rangoon of 6:00 AM, we bought an onward ticket from Rangoon to Ngwe Saung in advance (departing from a different bus depot at 8:30), thinking we had plenty of time. Nyuh-unh. Our first bus arrived late, it took forever to get through the gridlocked Rangoon traffic, so we arrived at 9:30 for our 8:30 bus, which was long gone. Took another bus to Pathein, from Pathein shared a taxi with a German couple for the additional 1 and 1/2 hour drive to Ngwe Saung.

We shamelessly abuse our white privilege and crash a resort.

Our Lonely Planet guide describes the surrounding beaches thus:

“… palm-fringed Ngwe Saung Beach (ေငြေဆာင္ကမ္းေျခ) has emerged as a hip destination for Yangon’s new rich.”

We can see that. Most of the 13-kilometre beach taken up by exclusive 5-star resorts, 98%  empty. We found cheaper digs.

Tidal pools

To be continued…

Searching for decent WiFi. Maybe here, which someone described as having ‘the best WiFi in Ngwe Saung’?

Crap WiFi. Nice view, though.

Maybe here, at the village internet café?


Finally found a place with decent Wifi.  Actually, it’s the resort we crashed in the photo of Maria above. We went legit, paid the equivalent of two movie tickets in Canada to spend the day here as ‘Day Visitors’, enjoying the ultra-clean palm-fringed beach, free of hawkers and trash and motorbikes, plus the great internet connection.  Towels included.

Maria, can you please check the temperature in Ottawa?

You can still see traces of the fishing village this place once was.

Original Ngwe Saung house.

Fishing is still what people do here. (At least, those not employed in tourism.)

We do our bit for the local economy by devouring this grilled tuna.

Sight or Insight of the Day for Ngwe Saung Beach

Cleaning out our luggage shortly after arriving here,  I noticed that all the train tickets we buy have an amount for life insurance added to the price.

The premium is 0.87 Kyat, which in Canadian money is 0.000812003 of a dollar. Not sure how much of a payout we can expect if catastrophe ever strikes on Myanmar Railways.

Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake


Nyaungshwe isn’t on the lake itself, but is the main centre. We rent bicycles and go for a ride 11 KMs down the lake to the village of Maing Thauk.

On the way is the Red Mountain winery. Quaffable vino produced by a French winemaker. We purchase three bottles to support the local economy.

Vineyards -Nyaungshwe
‘… I’m a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord.’ – Pope Benedict XVI

Maing Thauk has a long boardwalk leading to the floatier bits of town.

Boardwalk - Nyaungshwe
Boardwalk Empire

On the left of the boardwalk above, you can see floating gardens of tomatoes. Having enough water is seldom a problem.

tomatoes - Nyaungshwe
Lake-grown tomatoes

Because there isn’t any solid ground on the shore, people live in houses on stilts.

stilt house - Nyaungshwe
When I lived on the lake I was seeing the girl next door, but eventually we drifted apart.

Next day, we hire a longboat and driver for a tour of the lake.

Inle Lake - Nyaungshwe
Inle Lake

We visit villages with more stilt houses.

Another stilt house - Nyaungshwe
Did you hear about the stilt house that collapsed? Everything but the kitchen sank!

At the Nam Hu market, we see distinctively-garbed women from the Pa’O tribe.

tea seller - Nyaungshwe
More tea, Vicar?

Also at the Nam Hu market was this extremely old woman, negotiating for some cheroots.

Elderly shopper - Nyaungshwe
Is it Senior’s Discount day today?

We stop at the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda, where there are Bhudda images so covered with gold foil, they are no longer recognizable as figures, but look like gold-plated soft ice cream. (No photos – I thought it might be disrespectful.)

Phaung Daw Oo pagoda - Nyaungshwe
Phaung Daw Oo pagoda

More Pa’O women at the Nam Hu market

‘Have you heard? Orange is the new black.’

Canals run throughout the village.

Gondolas - Nyaungshwe
Route canal

Elsewhere on our boat trip, we visit a cheroot workshop. Many Burmese regularly puff on these all day long.

Rolling cheroots - Nyaungshwe
Rolling cheroots

Further down the lake, we see a weaving workshop the makes cloth from the fibres of lotus stems.

Lotus fibre - Nyaungshwe
Lotus fibre

Besides lotus fibre cloth, they also weave silk and cotton. I purchase a longi for myself.

 weaving workshop - Nyaungshwe
In the weaving workshop.

Sight or Insight of the Day

Cycling to Maing Thauk village, we passed this architecturally-interesting private school.

Frank Gehry-inspired - Nyaungshwe
Frank Gehry-inspired?

On the return trip to Nyaungshwe, school was just letting out. Down the road is a public school. Parents came for their children on foot, on bicycles, or on scooters. Meanwhile, all the kids at the private school were picked up in private cars. It was like being in Manhattan or Toronto. No walking for these snowflakes!

Journey to Inle Lake

On the way from Pyin Oo Lyin to Inle Lake, used several modes of transport, including shared taxi, train, tuk-tuk, walking, and a horse and cart.

Horse and cart - Journey to Inle Lake
To the train station – and don’t spare the horses!

First, a shared taxi to Mandalay – a downhill journey descending from the highlands. Maria captured this floral delivery person on his way to the flower market.

Put the petal to the metal - journey to Inle Lake
Put the petal to the metal.

Driven to Mandalay Station, we spent the afternoon browsing in an air-conditioned mall before returning to catch our 5:00 PM train.

Mandalay Station - journey to Inle Lake
Mandalay Station

This is the Rangoon Express, but we plan to get off in a place called Thazi, stay overnight, and take the slow train to Inle Lake next morning. We stay at the Moonlight Guest House, enjoying an end-of-the-day beer under a brilliant orange full moon.

Setting off bright and early – we took the horse and cart to Thazi station – we head over the mountains. This involves a series of switchbacks, backing up one incline, going forward on another, backing up another, and so on. The first is at this delightfully named station.

Onomatopoeia - journey to Inle Lake

The usual sights appear.

How Green Was My Valley - journey to Inle Lake
How Green Was My Valley

And some unusual ones.

Fuzzy-roofed building - journey to Inle Lake
Fuzzy-roofed building

It’s avocado season here – there are piles of avocados everywhere. We bought three from this lady for about 20 cents each.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for avocados - journey to Inle Lake
I scream, you scream, we all scream for avocados.

On the other side of the mountains are fertile foothills.

Well-tended fields - journey to Inle Lake
Well-tended fields

They don’t clear the grass from the tracks here. When you see the engine on a curve, it looks like we’re chugging along a trackless green pathway.

We make our way - journey to Inle Lake
We make our way.

Sign on Burmese Railways trains:

No smoking, no littering, no kissing - journey to Inle Lake
No smoking, no littering, no kissing

At last the train arrives in Shwenyaung. From there, it’s another 11 kilometres in a tuk-tuk  to Yaungshwe, the main town for visiting Inle Lake.

Sight or Insight of the Day

After checking in to the eminently comfortable Zawgi Inn , we found a restaurant with the cutest dog in Myanmar. (Or at least in Inle Lake.)

You look like a dog person to me - journey to Inle Lake
You look like a dog person to me.

He belongs to the proprietor. It’s rare to see cared-for animals here. I just wanted to squeeze him like a roll of Charmin.

Pyin Oo Lyin

Finally managed to extract ourselves from Hsipaw and took the train to Pyin Oo Lyin.

People get ready, there's a train a-comin'...train to Pyin Oo Lyin
“♫ People get ready, there’s a train a-comin! … ♫”

A fine day to be on the move. The fields are full of something yellow in bloom. It looks like canola.

Something yellow -train to Pyin Oo Lwin
Something yellow

Had to go Ordinary Class, as the Upper Class was sold out. About the only difference: ordinary class has rigid seats as opposed to the  upholstered luxury of Upper Class.

In the cheap seats - train to Pyin Oo Lying
In the cheap seats

Oh, also it’s more crowded, because tickets are half the price of Upper Class. Both classes travel at the same glacial pace.

Pyin Oo Lyin is known for its colonial-era architecture. We didn’t see much of that, but our hotel was one good example.

Hotel Nan Myaing - Pyin Oo Lwin
Hotel Nan Myaing

It was built in 1918-1922. All it needs is a brace of greyhounds gambolling in the foreground to look like something straight out of the Home Counties.

The years have not been kind, however. Now descended into a hotel that is within our budget, it still has a few traces of opulence, such as enormous rooms.

Maria tested out the Burmese beauty treatment: thanaka paste.

Trying out a new app - Pyin Oo Lwin
Trying out a new app

The hotel provides free bicycles, probably because it’s some distance from the centre. We biked to the National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens, a few kilometres from town.

National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens - Pyin Oo Lwin
National Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens

A wildly popular place on the weekend. Families, young couples, overseas visitors – something for everyone.

You can get away from the crowds in the farther reaches of the park, like the Bamboo Forest.

Bamboo curtain - Pyin Oo Lwin
Bamboo curtain

I had to take a picture of this kiosk on the way back.

Betel kiosk - Pyin Oo Lwin
Gentlemen prefer betel

Chewing betel is very popular in Burma, as in a few other Asian countries. You can usually tell by the splats of red gob everywhere. When I saw this betel outlet, I envisioned someone in a top hat and tails – maybe a walking stick, too – casually jettisoning a stream of scarlet goo onto the sidewalk with a satisfied air.

In Hsipaw

We’re enjoying our time here in Hsipaw, a very laid-back little town.

Main Street, Hsipaw

It’s so relaxing here at the Mr. Charles Guest House, we can barely pry ourselves out of our comfy seats in the common area. Tonight will be our fourth (!) night here. It’s quiet and calm, after the pandemonium of Mandalay. Our guest house is scrupulously clean. The big thing to do here is go trekking: every day, we watch groups of eager 20-somethings set out for 1, 2, or 3-night treks to overnight in the local hill tribe villages. We, meanwhile are happy to stay near home base, soaking up the tranquil vibes, renting a bike now and then to see the local sights.

Hsipaw has a nice little market.

The market is up today.

It’s pleasantly situated on the Dokhtawady River.

A river runs through it.

It has nifty backstreets to explore.

Suburban Hsipaw

For such a Duckburg, there’s always something interesting going on. Such as a troop of young nuns on the move.

Sister act

I’m not sure if this is a Pwe. In my imperfect understanding, a Pwe is a sort of impromptu celebratory spirit dance that can last for a few moments (we used to do this in our kitchen all the time, when we had a kitchen) or go on all night .

Burmese Zumba?

And as always when travelling,  you come across the unexpected. On the map provided by our guest house is something mysteriously marked as the ‘Shan Palace’ on the outskirts of town. We found this vaguely English-looking stately home. It was built by one of the last Shan princes, who studied at Oxford, came home and moved out of the traditional palace nearby (destroyed in WWII) and into these gentrified digs.

Burmese posh

On entry, we’re met by a gracious older Burmese woman, a relative of this royal family, who narrates the story of the prince and his Austrian bride in excellent English. When the military take over, the prince disappears at the hands of the regime. Princess moves to America and eventually writes memoirs.

If this sounds like the makings of a movie, it’s been done. Unfortunately, only the living room of the house is open, but the ripping yarn about Sao Kya Seng makes the trip worthwhile.