Monday, 7 September 2015

The World's oldest Palaeolithic Rock Art at Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park, Maros, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Hand stencils and what is probably a depiction of a babirusa or other suid at Leang Petta Kere, Maros, Sulawesi
(photo by author)
click image to enlarge
(Note: strictly speaking this is an off-topic post for this blog, as it doesn't concern megaliths. But it does concern a stone age topic, and moreover concerns a period close to my true specialization (Lower and Middle Palaeolithic). I therefore judge it a suitable-enough subject for this archaeological travel blog. In upcoming posts, I will return to megaliths, discussing the megaliths of Bada valley and the living megalith culture of Tana Toraja, both in Sulawesi)

This post is the first in a series concerning my travels in Sulawesi, one of the larger islands in Indonesia, in the summer of 2015. In this first post I will discuss some of the caves with early Upper Palaeolithic cave art which we were able to visit in the Maros region of South Sulawesi.

2014 saw spectacular new results for portable and rock art emerging from Indonesia. There was the discovery, in an old collection (the famous Dubois collection from the 1890-ies), of what looks like a very old engraving on a shell from Middle Pleistocene deposits at Trinil, Java. And very old dates were published for rock art on cave walls in the Maros region, Sulawesi. It is this latter region which I visited this summer.

The Maros region in southwest Sulawesi is an eroded limestone karst area with caves, situated not far from Makassar. Over 60 caves with cave art have been discovered in this region, mostly at the foot of these mountains where the mountain range meets the coastal plain. These rock-art caves are generally situated at elevations of 30 to 100 m above sea level, and not seldom up to several tens of meters above the alluvial plain.

The caves were first investigated in the 1950's by the Dutch archaeologist couple Van Heekeren. At that time, the rock art was considered to be quite young, perhaps a few thousand years old at best. Two styles were/are discerned:

1) hand stencils and realistic animal depictions in red pigments;
2) more abstract anthropomorph and zoomorph depictions in black sketchy outlines.

Where these two styles are superimposed, the second style always overlays the first one, indicating that the first style is the oldest. The second, younger style is usually considered to be coupled to the Austronesian migration during the Neolithic, around 3000-2000 BC.

3D reconstruction of (a part of) the Maros karst mountains, Sulawesi, as seen from the West. White dots indicate caves with cave art studied by Aubert et al. (2014). Yellow dots are the two caves visited by the author
(Landsat image draped on an ASTER DEM)
click image to enlarge

The World's oldest cave art

In 2014,  Aubert et al. surprised the archaeological world with spectacular dates which they obtained on speleothems, calcium carbonate deposits, covering the older rock art of the first style at a number of caves in the Maros region. They used a technique called Uranium-series dating. This technique measures the decay of 234U to 230Th.

The thin calcium carbonate speleothem which they dated is the result of calcium carbonate precipitation from water flowing over the cave walls some time after the paintings were made. This water contains dissolved 234U that is next incorporated in the speleothem. By dating the speleothem with the Uranium-series method, you get a minimum age for the paintings covered by this speleothem.

At Leang Timpuseng in Maros, a speleothem covering part of a hand stencil was dated to a minimum age of 39 900 BP. A speleothem covering part of a painting probably depicting a babirusa in the same cave yielded a minimum age of 35 300 BP. Similar ages were obtained in a number of other nearby caves, placing the paintings firmly in the early Upper Palaeolitic.

These are spectacular dates, as they are are among the oldest dates in the World for parietal art (parietal art = rock art). The oldest dates for a cave painting so far have come from El Castillo in Spain, where a circular dot of red ochre has been dated to a minimum age of 40 800 BP. A hand stencil from the same cave has a minimum age of 37 300 BP and was the oldest hand stencil until Leang Timpuseng yielded an older date. The oldest animal depiction, a painted rhinoceros from Chauvet cave in France, has been dated around 35 000 BP - a date similar to the babirusa painting in Timpuseng. The Chauvet dates are however not uncontested as other research suggests that the art at Chauvet is younger, perhaps even post-dating 26 000 BP (see below).

The babirusa painting at Leang Timpuseng in Sulawesi is at least as old, if not older, as the rhinoceros painting from Chauvet. The hand stencil from Leang Timpuseng is older than the hand stencil from El Castillo, and in fact currently the oldest dated hand stencil in the World.

It should be noted here that Timpuseng and Chauvet were dated by different techniques: Uranium-series on covering speleothems at Timpuseng versus 14C (radiocarbon dating) from charcoal used for the paintings at Chauvet. The latter technique is problematic when applied to cave paintings, for various reasons. One is that the paintings could have been made with 'old' charcoal picked up from the cave floor. Another problem is that it concerns ages close to the limit of applicability of the 14C method, and by necessity small, easily contaminated samples (that can be contaminated by organisms living on the cave wall, for example). While Uranium-series datings also have their problems, the method is generally seen as more reliable than 14C when applied to cave art.

Visiting the Maros caves

Leang Timpuseng itself is not open to the public and can only be visited with a special research permit. Two other nearby caves with similar paintings of hand stencils and babirusa are however accessible to the general public, and the cave art is well visible there.

Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park

At Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park, 2.5 km north of Leang Timpuseng, the caves Leang Petta Kere and Leang Pettae can be visited, accompanied by a guide. I will discuss both caves below and provide pictures and descriptions of the art in these caves.

Landsat image draped on an ASTER DEM
click map to enlarge

Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park was created in 1999. The park can be reached through a small side road leaving the main road Maros-Soppeng at about 5o.01392 S, 119o.6521 E  (more details on how to get there from Makassar at the end of this post). Follow this road for about 5.3 km.  The entrance to the park is located at 4o.9782 S, 119o.67405 E. Behind the gate is a spacious parking lot and nicely sculpted lawns. Some amazing erosion features are visible behind the parking lot. Concrete paths lead to the caves.

Leang-Leang Archaeological Park: erosion features

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Leang-Leang Archaeological Park: panoramic view from the parking-lot

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You buy a ticket (10 000 Rp per person) at the gatehouse, and of course (as the Indonesians love their bureaucracy) you fill in your name, residence, occupation, reason of visit, port of entrance and passport number in the ledger. Don't forget to ask for the information leaflet. It is in Bahasa Indonesia and features a map of the area and pictures, as well as basic information.

A park staff member will accompany you to the caves. The park staff that was present during our visit in late July 2015 spoke very little English, but they were very friendly and helpful. Between his few words of English and my few words of Bahasa, and with some translational help by Wanti (the Indonesian woman accompanying us on the trip), the park guide and I managed to have a basic conversation about the archaeology there. If the staff notices that you have a genuine archaeological interest, they will do their best to point out and explain things.

Photography is allowed, but do not use a flash as this is detrimental to the paintings. Take a torch with you to Leang Pettae (for Leang Petta Kere it is not needed).

If you want to see some of the artefacts found in the Maros caves, ask the guide to open the small museum and information center for you when coming back from the caves. Here, you will find a few stone tools, some potsherds, shells and some animal bones on display, and a few information panels. The information panels are in Bahasa Indonesia only.

A few (Neolithic) stone tools on display in the visitors center (apologies for the bad photo quality - it was dark inside)

The stone tools and pottery shown in the visitor center are much younger than the cave paintings. They are a few thousand years old, dating to the mid Holocene and were made by the first farmers in the region who used these caves too, at a much later date than the Pleistocene hunter-gatherers who made the cave paintings of the first style. Stone artefacts found in these caves include the iconic 'Maros points': bifacially worked, hollow-based triangular points, sometimes serrated, that might have functioned as arrowheads. They are distinctive for the late Taolean of south Sulawesi.

While the Holocene finds in these caves are certainly interesting, the most famous aspect of the caves, certainly after their recent spectacular re-dating, are the cave paintings. These are much older. Below I will discuss what can be seen in the two caves at Leang-Leang.

Leang Petta Kere

04o 58 43.2 S
119o 40' 34.2" E

Of the two caves, Leang Petta Kere has the best preserved paintings.

The cave is a narrow fissure situated at 85 meter above sea level, and some 35 meter above ground level. A metal stairways leads to the entrance. At the top of the stairways, a narrow rock ledge leads to a small side chamber, just big enough to accommodate a few people. The narrow fissure with the rock art is just up from the extension of the ledge. For a good view of the paintings, you have to climb a 1.5 meter high rock in front of the fissure.

In the cave, over 25 hand stencils and two  paintings of babirusa (pig-deer, an endemic Sulawesi suid species) cover several square meters of rock wall. The babirusa paintings each measure slightly over one meter by half a meter. They overlap with and cover some of the hand stencils.

stairways leading to the Leang Petta Kere cave mouth
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Cave mouth of Leang Petta Kere, seen from below
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Leang Petta Kere: Hand stencils, and a painting of (probably) a babirusa  at the bottom

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Hand stencils at Leang Petta Kere (detail of the image above)
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More hand stencils and what is another depiction of a babirusa at Leang Petta Kere, Maros, Sulawesi
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Leang Pettae

04o 58 44.6 S
119o 40' 30.5" E

The second cave, Leang Pettae, is a narrow dark fissure situated at 50 meters above sea level. Van Heekeren excavated here in 1950. The cave art in this cave looks much more weathered than in Petta Kere: in places the cave wall is literally peeling off.

Cave mouth of Leang Pettae
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The cave floor near the cave mouth is covered by a "kjökkemödding", a Danish term archaeologists use for a kitchen-midden ('sampah dapur' in Bahasa), refuse heaps consisting of large amounts of discarded shell. Some remnants of the original stratigraphy of these deposits can be seen in the form of a small profile of left-over sediment in a small corner of the cave. Where the cave floor is eroding, more shells area readily visible.

Kjökkemödding (kitchen-midden) remnants on the cave floor
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Shells eroded out of the cave floor. This is refuse from shellfish consumption by Neolithic inhabitants of the cave
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Remnant of the cave floor stratigraphy at Leang Pettae
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These shells, from species still living in the stream which flows some 100 meter in front of the cave, are left-overs from prehistoric shellfish consumption. They date to the Neolithic, about 3000-5000 years ago, and are much younger than the cave paintings in the cave. The same is true for the stone tools excavated here.

The cave art in Leang Pettae is more difficult to see than in Leang Petta Kere (also because the cave is much darker). Where the cave mouth narrows there are a few hardly visible hand stencils. On the ceiling of the narrow passage leading into the rock is a painting of an animal which Van Heekeren has interpreted as a boar.

Boar painting on the ceiling of Leang Pettae
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Below is a comparison of a photograph which Van Heekeren made when he discovered the boar painting in 1950, and one of my photographs taken in 2015, 65 years later. There is evident deterioration of the painting visible, notably in the head and front feet area. I strongly suspect this damage is from touching by visitors, as it closely follows the most prominent outlines of the painting. This shows how vulnerable the cave art is, and why you should never touch it.

Painting of a boar at Leang Pettae, photographed upon discovery by Van Heekeren in 1950 (left), and in 2015 by the author (right). Deterioration is evident.
click image to enlarge

Van Heekeren mentions what he believed could be an arrow drawn in "the cardiac region" of this painting, which I however can not really discern.

The hand stencils on the ceiling are much more difficult to see, and are badly damaged by deterioration of the cave wall. They are indicated by a circle in the photograph below (apologies for the slightly blurred picture: it is dark in Leang Pettae and I could not use a flash).

Hand stencils at Leang Pettae (in circle)
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What does it mean?

As an archeologist, I often get asked the question: "what does it mean?". Why did prehistoric people paint on these cave walls?

Basically, your guess is as good as mine. Theories abound about the meaning of Pleistocene cave art, ranging from ideas that it are adolescent graffiti scriblings (Dale Guthrie's hypothesis), art-for-art's-sake, to ideas about hunting magic (the most popular explanation, certainly when animals are depicted), to ideas that it is coded information for the purpose of initiation rites, messages to other groups, to theories (inspired by historic '!Kung San rock art from southern Africa) that it documents hallucinogenic-mushroom induced shamanic trance visions.

Important to realize in assessing all these different hypothesis, is that there almost certainly is not one single explanation covering all rock art. The meaning and reasons will have highly varied with time and place and culture, or even person.

While ethnographic analogues can be informative, it is dangerous to transfer ethnographic examples one-on-one to prehistoric rock art. Some of the hand stencils at Maros (as is the case for some prehistoric hand stencils in Europe and Australia) are missing fingers. With regard to Maros, I have seen this explained, with rather definite undertones, as "ritual mutilations" to mourn the deceased. This is an explanation that is inspired by an ethnographic example of the Dani in the highlands of New Guinea: until recently the Dani cut off fingers to mourn their dead family members. However, the prehistoric inhabitants of Maros are not modern Dani. Missing fingers in the Maros hand stencils can have completely different meanings, from fingers folded to code messages or symbols, to fingers missing because of injuries. We simply do not know.

Hand stencils together with dots interestingly enough appear to constitute the oldest form of cave art. Leaving a hand print is a very tactile, direct way of connecting your person to a place, while a dot is a simple but efficient way of leaving your permanent mark on a place too. Making this connection between you and your surrounding environment, marking your place in your surrounding world (and later depicting elements of this world, such as animals, that you need to make sense of), might have been one of the initial purposes of early cave art.

In a recent paper (open access) discussing the cognition of modern humans and Neandertals in a neurological context, I stated (in a much broader context than cave art) that:

"Homo sapiens apparently needs these physical, visualized anchors to cognitively relate itself to its surroundings. Similar to yellow post-it notes on an office wall, they act as cognitive anchors when mentally structuring the surrounding physical, spatio-temporal and social environment and the place of the self in all of this" (Langbroek 2014:287)

In that same paper, I argue that this characteristic need of H. sapiens to create visual anchors to grasp their surrounding world, actually points to a developing neurological and cognitive 'weakness', compared to other hominins such as Neandertals, and that the roots of symbolic behaviour in H. sapiens appearing during the late Upper Pleistocene might be in this neurological weakness. Early cave art such as the art at Maros, might be a symptom of this.

Getting there

The caves can be reached as a day-trip from Makassar or the small town of Maros. Makassar is some 33 km southwest of the caves, Maros is about 12 km to the northwest. Our trip started in Makassar.

If you can afford it, it is probably best to rent a car with driver in Makassar (or drive it yourself, if you are brave enough to deal with Sulawesi's chaotic traffic and the left driving). Alternatively, you can travel there by Kijang (shared taxi) or taking a series of pète-pète's (very small vans, usually painted light blue, with benches mounted to the sides. They travel more or less fixed routes).

The park can be reached through a small side road leaving the main road Maros-Soppeng at about 5o.01392 S, 119o.6521 E. Follow the side road northwards for about 5.3 km. Along the road you will have scenic views of the rice paddies and rock walls, and in July-August (harvest time) plaids with drying rice and cloves line the side of the road.  The entrance to the park is located at 4o.9782 S, 119o.67405 E. There is a parking lot directly behind the gate.

The caves are not on the normal Damri (bus) or pète-pète routes, so if you take a (series of) pète-pète's, as we did, you have to ask the driver if he is willing to take the 5.5 km detour off the Maros-Soppeng main road (best is to get out on the junction and there charter a pète-pète to the caves). You'll probably also want to arrange a time with the driver for a pickup on the way back (I suggest about one hour after you have been dropped-off), unless you want to walk back the 5.5 km to the main road junction.

From Makassar, take a taxi or pète-pète to Terminal Daya, the bus station on the eastern outskirts of Makassar. There you have to find another pète-pète that brings you in the direction of Maros (just flag them down at the main road and ask whether they go towards Maros). Somewhere along the route (the driver will indicate where) you have to get out and get into yet another pète-pète, and maybe even another one some time after that. It takes about 3 hours to get to the caves this way.

A few kilometer east of Leang-Leang Park is a waterfall called Bantimurung, that is another popular destination. When you say you are going to Maros, people will initially assume that the waterfall  is where you want to go.

Friendly people

Travelling outside Makassar in a pète-pète is somewhat unusual for tourists, and will generate smiles and hilarious surprise with the Indonesians boarding the pète-pète. Even when they do not speak English, other people on board usually will try to strike up a simple conversation with you, asking you where you are from and your destination.

The people of Sulawesi are generally very friendly and helpful, something which we experienced in a wonderful way on this trip. In one of the pète-pètes, we got into a conversation with a young woman, called Wati, who spoke English and turned out to have family in the Netherlands. Wati was a bit worried that we wouldn't reach our intended destination: so she spontaneously decided to accompany us on our trip to the caves!

As we had not arranged a pick-up when going back, we initially walked back part of the road towards the junction, until miraculously an off-duty pète-pète came by which we chartered to the junction.

It was a rather hot, cloudless day. As we walked, young Indonesians on motorbikes passing by invariably greeted us with a cheerfully yelled "Hello Mister!", the universal mantra greeting tourists everywhere you go in Sulawesi. Wati used the walk to distribute folders for her employer to the people living alongside the road.

Karst cave along the road from Leang-Leang Park to the main route junction.

A family living along the road spontaneously invited us to come in and sit with them in the shade on their veranda, offering us some refreshments and snacks. This is not uncommon while you are travelling in rural Sulawesi: the people usually are very hospitable to strangers.

It can cause you some dilemma: you don't want to offend your friendly host, but is the lemonade they offer you safe to drink? "Live Dangerously!"as Sukarno said, but do use your common sense when making such decisions.


Aubert M. et al., 2014: Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature 514, 223-227.

Combier J., Jouve G., 2014: Nouvelles recherches sur l’identité culturelle et stylistique de la grotte Chauvet et sur sa datation par la méthode du 14C. L'Anthropologie 118, 115-151.

García-Diez M. et al., 2015: The chronology of hand stencils in European Palaeolithic rock art: implications of new U-series results from El Castillo Cave (Cantabria, Spain). Journal of Anthropological Sciences 93, 135-152.

Glover I.C., 1976: Ulu Leang Cave, Maros : A Preliminary Sequence of post-Pleistocene Cultural Development in South Sulawesi. Archipel 11, 113-154.

Guthrie R.D., 2005: The Nature of Paleolithic Art. Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Langbroek M., 2014: Ice age mentalists: debating neurological and behavioural perspectives on the Neandertal and modern mind. Journal of Anthropological Sciences 92, 285-298.

Lewis-Williams J.D., Dowson T.A., 1988: The Signs of All Times. Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Art. Current Anthropology 29, 201-245.

Mulvaney D.J., Soejono R.P., 1972: The Australian-Indonesian Archaeological Expedition to Sulawesi. Asian Perspectives 13, 163-177. 

Van Heekeren H.R., 1957: The Stone Age of Indonesia (1st edition). Brill, Leiden.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Standing Stones of the Hintang Archaeological Park, Houaphan, Northeast Laos (near Sam Neua)

San Khong Phan standing stones, also known as the Hintang 'main site'
(click image to enlarge)


Some 110 km (70 miles) northeast of the famous Plain of Jars in Laos is a less well known but equally mysterious series of archaeological sites: the standing stones of the Hintang Archaeological Park in Houaphan Province, not far from the border with Vietnam.

These megalithic sites are located in the mountains about 35 km southwest of the sleepy provincial capital of Sam Neua. The two most important sites are San Khong Phan and Keohintang.

Both sites feature over 100 standing stones arranged in small linear grouplets. The largest of these standing stones, made of long narrow slabs of schist, are 2.5 to 3.4 meters tall, but many are much smaller. Scattered between the standing stones are large flat-lying round slabs of stone. These are cover stones of burial cysts dug into the bedrock.

How old these standing stones exactly are is still largely a guess. Based on the pottery and bronze artefacts found at the sites, they are probably at least 2000 years old, if not older, and similar in age or even somewhat older than the famous jar sites on the Plain of Jars. Their meaning is likewise a matter of conjecture, although the presence of burial cysts amidst the megaliths suggests a connection to burial ritual. To my knowledge, no excavations have been conducted here since Madeleine Colani's excavations in 1933.

Panoramic image of San Khong Phan standing stones site
(click image to enlarge)

San Khong Phan (above) is the most accessible and hence most visited of these megalithic sites, as it is right next to a dirt-road branching off Route 6. It is one of the larger, impressive sites.

Another large site, Keohintang (below), is less often visited and can only be reached by foot, over a jungle trail. It is located on a beautiful tranquil half-open spot in the forest. Keohintang actually is the largest of all the sites and features the tallest standing stone of all, an impressive slab of schist measuring 3.4 meters high.

Keohintang, in the forest along the Hintang trail
(click image to enlarge)

I have seen on-line travel diaries that suggest to only visit San Khong Phan, claiming it is not worth to walk the Hintang forest trail to the other sites. I disagree and suspect most of these travel writers actually never walked the trail. The two hour hike along the forest trail to Ban Tao Hin village brings you along the large impressive Keohintang site and along several other, (much) smaller sites in the forest. It is absolutely worthwhile, and the trail itself is actually quite easy to walk.

Walking the Hintang jungle trail adds an element of mystery and adventure that you'll miss out on when you only visit San Khong Phan. With the mesmerizing sound of cicada's filling the air you walk a small footpath through the tropical forest, occasionally scaling a fallen tree, encountering standing stones emerging from the dark forest every 10 to 20 minutes. It truely gives you a sense of exploring and discovering.

Map and GPS coordinates

While preparing for our visit in the summer of 2014, I could find frustratingly little information on these sites on the internet (or indeed, in the literature). I found no useful maps and very little GPS data. On-line descriptions on how to reach the sites are sometimes confusing and mostly cover San Khong Phan only, and not the Hintang jungle trail.

In this post, which describes our July 2014 visit to the sites, I will provide a map (below) and GPS tracks and coordinates. I will also provide brief descriptions on how to reach the sites and descriptions, photographs and video of the sites themselves.

(click map to enlarge)
Map created by the author based on his own GPS measurements. 
Background is an ASTER Digital Elevation Model

Site situation in the landscape

The standing stone sites, known as Hintang, are distributed along the crest of a prominent NW-SE running mountain ridge (see map above and 3D models below) near the villages of Ban Phao and Ban Tao Hin. The sites, strewn along a line several kilometers long, are located at elevations between 1400 and 1500 meter above sea level.

3D view from the East    (ASTER DEM draped with Landsat image)

3D view from the Southwest    (ASTER DEM draped with Landsat image)

With the exception of San Khong Phan, most of them are located in thick forest. This makes many of them easy to miss. The map above shows those sites which we encountered during our hike (descriptions and GPS coordinates will be given below): there are however many more, hidden in the forest. It is very easy to walk by a site without noting it (and we probably did on occasion), as it can be dark under the tree cover and the undergrowth at places is quite thick. Mossy growth on the stones and their narrow tall profile means they are easily mistaken for tree trunks.

The Hintang forest trail covers only a part of the known site distribution. Many more sites (not visited by us) are known to be located further along the ridge to the SE of San Khong Phan, as well as on the extension of the ridge to the NW of where the trail bends off and ascends the ridge to Ban Tao Hin village.

Getting from Vientiane to Sam Neua (and then to Hintang)

The best place to start your visit of the Hintang Archaeological Park is from the province capitol of Sam Neua, 35 km from the sites. Sam Neua can be reached by a two-day bus ride from the Laotian capitol of Vientiane, or by a 1.5 hour flight with a small aircraft from Vientiane Domestic Airport (which is right next to Vientiane International Airport). In our case, we took the aircraft.

This route is flown by a company that unfortunately changes name every few years: when we were there in the summer of 2014 the name was Lao Skyway. Booking (or contacting the company) over the internet previous to our visit appeared not possible (we simply did not get an answer). After arriving at Vientiane airport from Bangkok, we therefore went to the departure hall of the domestic airport (which is at your left when you exit the international airport), where the company has a small office hidden in the back. We managed to book a flight for the next day.

The aircraft was a small one-engine Cessna Caravan EX, accommodating 11 passengers. We were the only non-Laotians on board, probably because most tourists simply don't know the air-route to Sam Neua exists. The 1.5 hours flight, at lower altitude than a normal airliner, is over a beautiful landscape of forested mountains and green valleys filled with rice paddies. Aware of the region's history, flying over this kind of landscape evoked the sounds of Huey helicopters, 'Paint it Black', and Billy Joel...

Lao Skyway Cessna Caravan EX at the Nathong airstrip near Sam Neua

Inside the Cessna during flight
Laotian landscape with rice paddies as seen from the Cessna

After 1.5 hours spent suspended between white clouds and green rice paddies, we landed on the small and simple airstrip of Nathong, just a few kilometers east of Sam Neua.  A man in a suit approached us, surprised but enthusiastic to see tourists arrive with the aircraft. He turned out to be the Vice-Governor of the province. Someone from the small airport office called a taxi for us.

Sam Neua presents itself as the "Birthplace of the Lao PDR". During the Laos Civil War, Sam Neua was in the heart of Pathet Lao territory and an important strategic target. Not far from Sam Neua are the caves of Vieng Xay, where the Pathet Lao went underground to escape the incessant US and Royal Lao bombing. The area saw fierce fights between the Pathet Lao plus their North Vietnamese overlords on one side, and on the other side the CIA trained and equiped Hmong guerilla army of general Vang Pao, plus the Royal Lao Army and Thai troops.

Sam Neua: main street

There are a number of guesthouses in Sam Neua, which is a very small, sleepy town. We stayed in the KhemXam Guesthouse. We had a good spaceous room (make sure to take one of the two expensive ones, as the cheaper ones did not look good), with a large, good bed, a bathroom and a balcony overlooking the river.

Most people here (including guest house staff) have at best a limited and often no mastery of English.
There is one restaurant in town (Dan Nao Muang Xam, just around the corner from our guesthouse) with staff that speaks English and which has an English menu. In the evening, this small eating place is the meeting place for the handful of tourists and expats in town. The food is decent here. This is a good place to have breakfast too: it opens at 7 am. The owners can also help you arrange a tuktuk or taxi to the airport or to the bus station.

There is a Tourist Office in town with a very friendly, English speaking staff. It is not where the maps they provide you in the guesthouses (or in our guesthouse at least) and in the Lonely Planet locates it: it has been moved further down the road. While friendly and of good intent, the office staff does not really seem up to the task. The trip to the Hintang Archaeological Park which we initially tried to organize through the office largely fell through (see end of this post). The staff appears eager to learn from its mistakes though.

Suan Keo Lak Meung monument, Sam Neua. Road in background leads to bus station, and eventually Hintang

Sam Neua is not a very vibrant place. One of the few sights of note to visit in Sam Neua (apart from the odd and ugly Suan Keo Lak Meung monument) is the food market, at the other side of the river. It is your typical Laotian market with amongst others (live) frogs, fish, fruit, meat and all kinds of other food. Close to it is a regular market with some handicrafts, snacks, drinks etcetera.

Apart from the Hintang Archaeological Park, Sam Neua is a well suited homebase for trips to the Vieng Xay caves that served as the Pathet Lao hideout during the Secret War. Other tourist spots in the area suitable for a daytrip include a waterfall and hot springs.

Visiting the sites starting from Sam Neua

Sam Neua was your homebase for our Hintang trip. Starting in the early morning, visiting San Khong Phan, walking the Hintang trail to Keohintang and Ban Tao Hin and next travelling back to Sam Neua was done as one (long) daytrip.

Sam Neua is located some 35 km to the northeast of the sites. Instead of hiring a car, taxi, tuktuk or motorcycle, I advise you to take a public bus: several of them leave between 7:30 and 8 am from the bus station of Sam Neua, which is located about one kilometer out of the town center. Be there early, as you have to buy a ticket first. Busses leave as soon as there are enough passengers, which can be both early or late. As most busses do not by definition stop in small villages, make clear to the driver that you want to get out at Ban Phao village. Keep an eye open for the village after about 2 hours driving, in case your driver has forgotten that you want to get out there.

Typical valley along Route 6

From Sam Neua you first travel by bus along Route 6, a scenic drive along a winding two-lane mountain road with many hairpin bends, alternating forested mountain ridges and wide vista's over the mountainscape with passages through small green valleys occupied by small villages and rice paddies. Early on in the trip, as you cross over the mountain ridges south of Sam Neua, you have a chance to see the "sea of clouds", a blanket of clouds filling the valleys below you, with the mountain tops sticking out above it.

Sea of Clouds
Livestock and people lumber about at the edge of the road, and sometimes lie down in the middle of it. Be not surprised if the bus-driver stops along the road to buy some food, or because (as happened to us) the brakes are overheating and need to be cooled down and cleaned with some water.

It takes some two to two-and-a-half hours driving to reach the small village of Ban Phao (located at 20o.1589 N, 103o.8913 E), where a dirt-road branches off route 6 towards the south. This dirt-road leads to the big San Khong Phan site and the start of the Hintang forest trail.

Just before reaching this point, while still on Route 6, you will pass a large red sign with white lettering saying "Hintang Archaeological Park" at the right-hand side of the road. About 1.5 minutes and a few bends in the road later, you enter the start of the village, just before the road crosses a small bridge. The start of the dirt-road is at the left-hand side of the road and marked by a small knoll with three miniature standing stones and a small red sign "Hintang Archaeological Park (Standing Stones)". This is the place where you have to get off the bus.

The dirt-road from Ban Phao to the San Khong Phan site

From the start of the dirt-road where it splits off from Route 6 at Ban Phao (located at 20o.1589 N, 103o.8913 E), it is a 5.5 kilometer (3.4 mile) walk over the dirt-road to reach San Khong Phan, the Hintang 'main site'. Over these 5.5 kilometers, you will climb about 350 meters (1150 feet) in altitude, from 1200 to 1550 meters above sea-level. The walk will take you about 1.5 hours. However, if you are lucky you might get a motorbike lift from a passer by (as we did for the last two km).

Elevation profile of the dirtroad from Ban Phao to the San Khong Phan ('Main')  site

I found this dirt-road to be the most challenging part of the hike. There is very little shadow on the road and not much wind, and it gets very, very warm in the sun. Take a lot of water with you, 2 liters per person at least. The road is almost continuously ascending (see elevation profile above), with slope percentages sometimes reaching 20-30%. The views along the road are frankly not that exciting.

Along the way, about 2 km before you reach San Khong Phan, you will pass the start of the Hintang forest trail, on your right-hand side. I however advise you to first continue along the dirtroad to San Khong Phan, spend some time there and maybe have a romantic picknick amidst the stones, and then walk back to the start of the trail.

Lunch amidst the stones at San Khong Phan

San Khong Phan ('main site')
20o 07' 23.3" N    103o 53' 44.7" E  
(20o.12314 N, 103o.89575 E, 1450 meter elevation)

The San Khong Phan or 'main' site is right next to the dirt-road and the most well known and easily accessible of the Hintang sites. Approaching it over the dirt-road branching off from Route 6 at Ban Phao village, you will see it on a half-open spot amidst the trees on the right side of the dirt-road, after crossing over a prominent ridge-crest a few hundred meters back.

San Khong Phan standing stones site ( 'main site') visible to the right of the dirt-road, about center of the image
(click image to enlarge)

The site consists of over 100 standing stones, distributed over an area of about 60 by 35 meters. Most of the stones are part of small subgroups that form discrete semi-lines of which the majority appear to be oriented perpendicular to the mountain ridge, with a smaller number parallel to the ridge at a 90 degree angle to the others (this arrangement is generally true of the other sites as well).

The stones are made of a metamorphic rock called Schist, the same stone type as the local bedrock hidden under the red muddy laterite soil. Many of the standing stones are broken, leaning, or have toppled over. Yet quite a number are still standing. The largest ones are about 2.5 meters tall. These large ones are usually located in the middle of the line-ups.

The image below compares a photograph I made of one of the more prominent stone lines at the North-east end of the site, with a photograph of the same group from almost the same viewpoint made in 1933 by Madeleine Colani, the French archaeologist who was the first (and only) to conduct excavations at the site:

Situation in 2014 (left) compared with the situation 81 years earlier, in 1933 (right)
(click image to enlarge)

Scattered between the lines of standing stones are flat-lying large semi-circular stones embedded in the soil. These are stones capping the entrances to underground caverns dug into the bedrock, believed to be burial cysts. Like the standing stones they are made of local Schist.

Where the capping stones have been lost (to looting, probably, or as the result of war damage), holes can sometimes be seen in the ground. The holes are the remnants of chimney-like access shafts to the burial cysts. The cysts dug out in the bedrock beneath have largely filled up with sediment. The drawings below (from Colani, 1935) give you an idea what is/was below the slabs:

A few more images of the site:

San Khong Phan standing stones, also known as the Hintang 'main site'
(click image to enlarge)

Walking the Hintang forest trail

Trail start on dirt-road, 2 km north of San Khong Phan
20o 08' 01.3" N    103o 52' 57.9" E  
(20o.13369 N, 103o.882756 E, 1495 meter elevation)

Walking back for two kilometers along the dirt-road in the direction from which you came, you will reach the start of the Hintang forest trail.  You already passed it on your way up. Coming from the San Khong Phan site, it is at your left hand side at 20.13369 N, 103.88275 E, recognizable by a large dilapidated roofed blue signboard and a smaller orange sign with white standing stones on it in the vegetation on the road embankment. A side-road splits off from the dirt-road here.

This side-road is NOT the Hintang trail (it is merely a dirt-road leading to a nearby village). The trail starts on the embankment, where the smaller orange sign is. Look for a narrow footpath on the raised road embankment, disappearing into the foliage. Initially it runs somewhat parallel to the dirt-road, but then bends off to your left, and you start to climb a short steep slope.

The Hintang forest trail starts in the dark gap in the foliage just to the right of the orange sign

After you have climbed the short steep slope, the path becomes more or less level and actually very easy to walk. It is also much more pleasant to walk than the dirt-road because the tree canopy protects you from the sun.

Less pleasant are the insects swarming around you: apply copious DEET deterrent before starting the trail hike! Also, be advised that there are leeches on the trail, notably after rain (one of us was bitten).

The total length of the trail from where it starts at the dirt-road to where it connects to Route 6 at Ban Tao Hin village, is 4.4 km (2.75 mile). Add to that the 2 km you already walked from San Khong Phan to the trail start, and the 5.5 km you walked coming up the dirt-road from Ban Phao: a 12 km (7.5 mile) walk in total.

Elevation profile of the Hintang forest trail

The Hintang trail starts at an elevation of 1495 meter and follows the crest of the mountain ridge. It slowly descends until (about two thirds along the trail length) it veers off the ridge crest and steeply descends the slope to Ban Tao Hin at 1305 meter elevation. The trail is narrow but well-recognizable: it is very unlikely that you will get lost (but take a compass with you, just in case). Our walking time, including time spent at Keohintang and other sites along the trail, was two hours. The area should be free of UXO (Unexploded Ordnance): nevertheless, as everywhere in Laos it is probably wise not to stray too far from the actual path.

video of the Hintang Jungle trail (with English subtitles)
(enable sounds, as at 1m 50s the sounds are amazing!)

The forest varies between very dense and dark with a lot of undergrowth, and more open forest. As you are actually walking along the narrow crest of a ridge, you will frequently see light shimmer through the trees at one side of the path (usually the left side), and sometimes a slope on the other side. Every now and then, you will have to scale over a fallen tree. Cicada's make a deafening noise. Shortly after the start of the trail, you will encounter the first standing stones.

Standing stones along the Hintang forest trail

(click map to enlarge)
Map created by the author based on his own GPS measurements. 
Background is an ASTER Digital Elevation Model

3D view from the Southwest.    (ASTER DEM draped with Landsat image)

We encountered the following standing stone sites during our trail hike (letters refer to the letters on the map above, which is a site designation of my own private making: named sites are names from Colani, 1935). Be advised that we might have missed some. It is very easy to walk by a site without noting it (and we probably did on occasion), as it can be dark under the tree cover and the undergrowth at places is quite thick. Mossy growth on the stones and their narrow tall profile means they are easily mistaken for trees.

Trail site b
20o 08' 01.7" N    103o 52' 53.6" E  
(20o.13381 N, 103o.88156 E)

This is a not very impressive site only 125 meter after the start of the trail, just as you have scaled the slope. It is easy to miss. It consists of a flat lying (toppled) standing stone on the left side of the path. There is also the entrance opening of a burial cyst, without cover stone, slightly further down the slope on your left.

site b

Trail site c
20o 08' 04.2" N    103o 52' 51.4" E  
(20o.13450 N, 103o.88094 E)

About 100 meter after the previous site, you encounter a more impressive small group of four large standing stones next to the path, on your right.

site c

Trail site d  and e  (Dong Mut?)
20o 08' 25.2" N    103o 52' 22.1" E  
(20o.14033 N, 103o.87281 E)

About one kilometer distant from the previous site. Two round burial cyst cover stones (one of them on the path) plus an uncovered burial cyst entrance are the first signs, and then you will encounter several standing stones on your right. After 20 meter, the stumps of yet more stones plus a toppled one at your right. I suspect that this is the site designated "Dong Mut" by Colani (1935), in which case there should be more standing stones hidden in the foliage on both sides of the path.

First encounter with site d: round burial cyst cover stone on trail

site d: one of the standing stones

Trail site f
20o 08' 25.6" N    103o 52' 20.4" E  
(20o.14044 N, 103o.87233 E)

In a rather dark stretch of forest 50 meters from site e. Multiple small standing stones crossing the path on both sides: a recently uprooted tree has broken some of them.

Site f: author photographing damage by uprooted tree
site f: damage by tree-fall

site f: standing stone snapped off by fallen tree

Trail site g
20o 08' 32.8" N    103o 52' 11.9" E  
(20o.14244 N, 103o.86997 E)

Some 0.3 km after the previous site. First some barely visible stumps of standing stones, followed after 10 meters by a group of standing stones left of the path. This is 40 meters before you reach the very large Keohintang site, and in fact can be seen as the first standing stone grouplet making up the site.

Keohintang (trail site h)
20o 08' 25.6" N    103o 52' 20.4" E  
(20o.14044 N, 103o.87233 E)

A very large and impressive site, featuring a large number (100+) of standing stones, some huge, covering an approximately 80 meter area. The core of the site with a couple of very large stones is located on a small open spot in the forest next to the trail on your right, creating a scenic tranquil atmosphere. The biggest standing stone, close to a tree, is 3.5 meters tall. Another large but toppled one (at least as large or possibly larger as the one still standing) is lying flat in front of it.
This site is at least as impressive as San Khong Phan and its hidden nature adds something extra.


Keohintang seen from trail


Keohintang: 3.5 meter tall standing stone

Author amidst stones indicating size of largest standing stone

Trail site k
20o 08' 48.2" N    103o 52' 02.3" E  
(20o.14672 N, 103o.86731 E)

Just short of 1 km from Keohintang, this site was the last site we encountered on the trail, just before the latter leaves the ridge crest and starts to descend the slope of the ridge towards Ban Tao Hin village. On the right side of the path is a half-toppled stone plus several fragments of others.

Shortly after site k,  the trail leaves the ridge for a steep descend towards Ban Tao Hin village. This part of the trail is muddy, steep and can be slippery. It offers a few vista's over the valley towards remote ridges.

View from the ridge towards the Northwest, close to site K

Ban Tao Hin village on route 6 (trail end)
20o 09' 31.0" N    103o 52' 06.1" E  
(20o.15961 N, 103o.86837 E, 1305 meter elevation)

The trail ends in Ban Tao Hin village on route 6. Flag down a (mini-) bus to Sam Neua here. They are probably full, so be prepared for an uncomfortable two-hour ride back. I did it propped up between 4 Lao men, sitting halfway between two chairs. The metal rims of the chairs weren't nice to my bum and the road is very bumpy...the Laotians found every groan I made hilarious (and frankly, it was).

Word of advise: travel by public bus from Sam Neua to the Hintang sites

Rather than hiring a car, I strongly advise you to travel by public bus from Sam Neua to Ban Phao and the Hintang sites. Travelling by public bus not only is a great travel experience, it gives you the freedom to explore the sites the way you want.

We initially had arranged a car with driver to bring us to the sites through the Sam Neua Tourist Office, but that turned out to be a  big mistake. Through a combination of misunderstandings, language barriers, and perhaps over-concern for our welfare by the driver and Tourist Office employee, we ended up only visiting the San Khong Phan site and were not able to walk the Hintang trail that day. The man from the small tour agency connected to the tourist office did not seem to understand why we would want to see the other sites if we already had seen San Khong Phan. He also seemed to be concerned that we would get lost, which was nonsense. The trail is very clear and it is really not likely that you will get lost. Moreover we had a compass, GPS, food, water and even emergency blankets with us.

The day after our bad experience with trying a tailored trip with a hired car, we therefore did the journey again: but this time on our own, by public bus. Not only is it much cheaper, but we were finally able to visit both San Khong Phan and walk the Hintang forest trail along the other sites that day.


GPS tracks by the author


Colani M., 1935: Mégalithes du Haut- Laos : Hua Pan, Tran Ninh (2 vols.). Publications de l'Ecole Francaise d'Extrême Orient vol. XXV-XXVI. Les editions d'art et d'histoire, Paris.

Colani M., 1934: Note sur les Mégalithes du Haut-Laos (Montagnes du Tran-Ninh et des Hua Pan). Bulletin de la Société préhistorique de France, tome 31, N. 7-8. pp. 335-352.