Places to go – The PDJ

“Whoever controls the PDJ, controls Laos”                       


I know… I said I would talk about “The Alamo” next in the series of “Places to Go.” But, I really can’t do that without talking about the PDJ and all that went with it first. Besides, the PDJ would likely be our first stop on the “Northern Loop.” So here we go.

Most aircrews simply referred to the region as the PDJ. The initials come from the name the French gave the region during their colonial reign: the Plaine des Jarres. Hence, the abbreviation, PDJ.

“Plaine des Jarres” translates to Plain of Jars. The name comes from the massive stone “jars” that were either human burial urns… or places to store rice-wine scattered around the region. Depending on who is telling the story, the PDJ is from several hundred square miles… up to 3,000 square miles.

Plaine des Jarres
Plane of Jars

 For this discussion, the importance of the PDJ isn’t the jars. Rather, it is the years of see-saw battles for control of the PDJ. You see… there were sorta two wars raging in Laos; the war for the PDJ and the war on the HCMT.

For this discussion, the importance of the PDJ isn’t the jars. Rather, it is the years of see-saw battles for control of the PDJ. You see… there were sorta two wars raging in Laos; the war for the PDJ and the war on the HCMT.

The war over the PDJ was the civil war between the Pathet Lao, heavily supported by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Royal Laotian Government (RLG). This was essentially a ground war between the two sides. Depending on the time frame, there were even classic types of “set piece” ground battles with tanks and artillery pieces. Although the US did not send in any ground troops, it supported the Royal Laotian Army (RLA) with massive air power.

I should mention that the NVA did most of the fighting for the Pathet Lao, and Vang Pao’s Hmong fighters did most of the fighting for the RLA.

 Now… a little geography. Sorry, but it’s sorta necessary to the overall sense of things.

The Pathet Lao’s “capital” was in the very Northeast of Laos at Sam Nuea… about 40 miles from the North Vietnamese border (as the crow flies). The RLG’s “capital” was in Vientiane, about two-hundred crow flying miles South-Southeast of Sam Neua on the Mekong River border with Thailand.

The PDJ is in about the middle between the two capitals.

I should note here that neither Xam Neua nor Vientiane were the official “capitals.” The Royal capital was actually Luang Probang, but Xamnua and Vientiane were the operational centers of the respective sides.

In the last paragraphs, I spelled Sam Neua four different ways on purpose. That’s a big problem in figuring out events in Laos. Many places have multiple spellings or different names. Official US reports aren’t consistent either. Mostly it’s because Westerners have tried to spell the names phonetically. I’ll use the names and spellings most often used in the US reports.

Pewwww… all this and I’m just now getting to the point of it all.

As you’ve probably imagined by now (or looked at the map), there were Lima Sites all around the PDJ. (If you didn’t read the part about the Lima Sites, click here. Opens a new page.) In the early days, the Pathet Lao controlled little territory around Sam Neua. With heavy support from the NVA, they took over the Houaphan province in the early 1960s.

See “SideBar1: The Pathet Lao” to learn about how the Pathet Lao came into being and the mess in Laos developed. (Opens in a new page)

Lima Sites
GPS map showing most of the Lima Sites. The little blue blocks are the locations of the Lima Sites. Note how many there are in the Northern region and PDJ compared to the South in the Ho Chi Minh Trail area.

From the time the Pathet Lao gained a foothold, the war for control of the PDJ went back and forth. In the dry season, the Pathet Lao & NVA would attack to the Southeast taking as much territory as they could. In the rainy season, Vang Pao and the RLA counter attacked taking back as much as they could. As the map shows, Lima Sites were in the path of all this back and forth. The sites were lost, re-gained, lost, and re-gained again year after year.

Today, the PDJ is a tourist destination. There are a lot of things to see. Of course, there are the jar sites themselves. While there are jars all over the region, you can safely go to only three sites. The other areas still have UXO… Un-Exploded Ordinance,

PDJ Site 1
Google Earth View of Site 1 in the PDJ

Notice the 25 or 30 bomb craters all around PDJ site 1. There are also a variety of trenches in the area used as fighting positions for the Pathet Lao or for VP’s forces. Who occupied the trenches depended on the season and which direction the battles were moving. Site 1 is close to the town of Phonsavan. This is the place most tourists go to see the jars and is worthy of a visit while we are there.

Air America designated the airport at Phonsavan as L-22. (Sites designated as L instead of LS were places with paved runways.) The airport has old derelict Russian Aircraft parked/abandoned there including Mig-21s. Another Air America runway, L-21, is just north of town.

The other two sites are about twelve and sixteen miles south of Phonsavan. These are probably the most interesting areas. Besides the jars, there are several Lima Sites, an old Russian PT-76 tank, and stuff all around from the war over the PDJ that lasted nearly two decades.

Now that we have that out of the way, next up in the Places to Go is “The Alamo”… I promise.

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