The Standing Stones of Hintang

SAM NEUA, Laos — While the standing stones of Hintang in northeastern Laos don’t inherently convey the kind of majesty of Stonehenge or Easter Island, their mysteries remain just as deep.

Standing Stones of Hintang near Sam Neua Laos
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No one is quite sure who put them here or why. The standing stones of Hintang (or menhirs, if you want to be technical) aren’t nearly as grand as their cousins like Stonehenge or Easter Island. And they’re even overshadowed by the nearby jars that give the plain its name.

But they’re believed to be even older than the jars, probably put there by the ancestors of the people that installed the jars. When this forgotten civilization lived–although it’s generally believed to have been thousands of years ago–or even who they were, isn’t clear.1 Like the jars, the standing stones are believed to have been involved somehow with ceremonial funerals. Beyond that, not much is known.

That they’ve attracted relatively little scholarly interest has little to do with their archeological significance and everything to do with their remoteness–at least for western archeologists–and the very real dangers of studying them.

The first–and really, only–archeological work on them was done by French archaeologist Madeleine Colani in the 1920s and 1930s. In her 1930 book, the 600-page, 2-volume, The Megaliths of Upper Laos, Colani provided the first archaeological study of the region’s ancient history.

But then the region became enveloped in civil war, with the French eventually abandoning Indochina. Then came what’s known here as The American War. While the focus of the fighting was across the border in Vietnam, American bombs rained down on the Plain of Jars. Over a period of 9 years, from 1964 to 1963, American bombers dropped something like 2 million tons of explosive ordnance on Laos in the course of about 580,000 bombing sorties. That’s an average of one bombing mission every eight minutes, all day and all night, for nine years. Most of it was over the Plain of Jars.

That any of the archeological sites survived at all is something of a miracle. Like entire villages that were wiped out by the bombing, some of the sites documented by Colani don’t seem to exist now.2 And when you see the deep craters that pockmark Laos and parts of southwest Vietnam, it’s easy to understand why.

But the bombing campaign is a horrible gift that keeps on giving. If all of the bombs that were dropped had exploded on impact, the destruction would have been immense, but it would have been in the past. But up to 30 percent of the bombs dropped did not explode, turning bombing targets into minefields. And that has created a deadly legacy for Laos of horrifying proportions. Even today, a person is killed nearly every day in Laos from unexploded ordinance. Nearly half of those killed are children.

In a more narrow sense, the unexploded ordinance (or UXO) problem has also kept archeologists away. Going poking around with shovels in the Lao wilderness isn’t the smartest idea with so much UXO lying around, hidden by nearly half a century of undergrowth and soil. As a result, little work has been done on the archaeological sites of northern and eastern Laos since the 1930s.

The standing stones at Hintang are spread across at least three sites. They feature jagged, flat stones standing vertically, each about 6 feet tall. At ground level, deep holes are covered with flat, round covers, some of which have been removed.

The sites are now quite overgrown, and any remains or artifacts that were presumably in the holes have long since disappeared, perhaps from looting. (Colani did find some artifacts in the jars nearby).2 Some of the standing stones have been knocked over or have fallen over. If there were once any markings on the stones, the elements have worn them away.

While the standing stones of Hintang don’t inherently convey the kind of majesty of Stonehenge or Easter Island, their mysteries remain just as deep.

Standing Stones of Hintang near Sam Neua Laos
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Standing Stones of Hintang near Sam Neua Laos
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Standing Stones of Hintang near Sam Neua Laos
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Standing Stones of Hintang near Sam Neua Laos
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Standing Stones of Hintang near Sam Neua Laos
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Standing Stones of Hintang near Sam Neua Laos
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Standing Stones of Hintang near Sam Neua Laos
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel
Standing Stones of Hintang near Sam Neua Laos
Photo by David Coleman / Have Camera Will Travel

What to Know Before You Go

This is not a major tourist site and is not signed. You really need a guide to show you where it is. There are no signs or a visitor center or any other facilities.

More About Standing Stones of Hintang

  • The Standing Stones of Hintang, also known as the “Hintang Archaeological Park,” are a collection of ancient megaliths in Laos.
  • These megalithic structures date back to around 1500-500 BCE, during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age.
  • The site consists of over 200 stone jars, stone slabs, and stone discs, spread across 72 different locations in the region.
  • Most of the stone jars measure between 1-3 meters in height, weighing up to several tons.
  • The stones are primarily made of limestone, sandstone, and granite.
  • The purpose of the Standing Stones of Hintang remains a mystery, though it is believed that they were used for burial and ritual purposes.
  • The site was first researched and documented by French archaeologist Madeleine Colani in the 1930s.

The Standing Stones of Hintang, an enigmatic megalithic site in Laos, remains shrouded in mystery. With over 200 stone jars, slabs, and discs scattered across 72 locations, the site offers a fascinating insight into the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods. Researchers have yet to determine the exact purpose of these megalithic structures, but it is widely believed that they were used for burial and ritual practices.

The stones themselves vary in size and weight, with most jars measuring between 1-3 meters in height and weighing up to several tons. The primary materials used in the construction of these structures include limestone, sandstone, and granite. French archaeologist Madeleine Colani was the first to document the site in the 1930s, bringing the intriguing archaeological site to the attention of scholars worldwide.

What’s Nearby to Standing Stones of Hintang

  • The Plain of Jars: Another mysterious megalithic site consisting of thousands of large stone jars, also thought to be connected with burial practices.
  • Viengxay Caves: A vast network of caves that served as the headquarters of the Pathet Lao communist movement during the Laotian Civil War.
  • Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area: A conservation area offering wildlife tours, trekking, and birdwatching opportunities.

How to Get to Standing Stones of Hintang

  • The Standing Stones of Hintang are located in Houaphanh Province in northeastern Laos.
  • The nearest major airport is Wattay International Airport (VTE) in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
  • From Vientiane, travelers can take a domestic flight to Xam Neua Airport (XNA) or travel by bus to Xam Neua, the capital of Houaphanh Province.
  • From Xam Neua, the site can be reached by hiring a private vehicle or joining a guided tour.

Dive Deeper into Laos In These Books

If you’re looking to explore Laos more deeply on the written page, here are some books worth a look.

Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, by Brett Dakin

This memoir recounts the experiences of the author as he works for the Lao government in the early 2000s, providing an insightful look at the country’s culture, people, and the challenges faced by a developing nation.

Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos
  • Dakin, Brett (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos, by Natacha Du Pont De Bie

A culinary travelogue that explores the rich and diverse cuisine of Laos, following the author as she samples various dishes and learns about the culture and traditions surrounding Laotian food.

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures Of A Food Tourist In Laos
  • Hardcover Book
  • Bie, Natacha Du Pont De (Author)

Bamboo Palace: Discovering the Lost Dynasty of Laos, by Christopher Kremmer

This historical travelogue follows the author’s journey through Laos as he uncovers the history of the lost royal dynasty and the impact of the Vietnam War on the country.

Laos: A Journey Beyond the Mekong, by Ben Davies

This beautifully illustrated travelogue explores the diverse landscapes, culture, and history of Laos, providing a comprehensive and engaging look at the country.

Laos: A Journey Beyond the Mekong
  • The Best Picture Book on Laos in its second edition
  • All color photographs, portrait 25.5 x 27 cm, 132 pages

A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle, by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

In this adventurous travelogue, the author embarks on a daring motorcycle journey along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which passes through Laos, providing insights into the country’s history and the challenges faced by modern-day Laos.

A Short Ride in the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle
  • Bolingbroke-Kent, Antonia (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War in Laos, Vietnam, by Christopher Robbins

This memoir recounts the experiences of American pilots who secretly participated in the covert war in Laos during the Vietnam War, offering a unique perspective on the conflict and its effects on the people of Laos.

Mekong: A Journey on the Mother of Waters, by Milton Osborne

In this travelogue, the author journeys along the Mekong River, which runs through Laos, exploring the history, culture, and natural beauty of the region.

  1. Valery Zeitoun, Hubert Forestier, et al., “Multi-Millenial Occupation in Northwestern Laos,” Human Palaeontology and Prehistory, 11 (2012): 305-313. []
  2. Russell Ciochon and Jamie James, “Laos Keeps Its Urns,” Natural History, vol.104, issue 9 (September 1995): 48-57. [] []

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Travel Advice for Laos

You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Laos (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.

The British and Australian governments offer their own country-specific travel information. You can find the British Government's travel advice for Laos here and the Australian Government's here.

Health & Vaccinations

The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Laoshere.

General Information on Laos

The CIA's World Factbook contains a lot of good factual information Laos and is updated frequently.

  • Official Name: Lao People's Democratic Republic
  • Population: Approximately 7.9 million (2023 est.)
  • Area: 236,800 sq km
  • Capital: Vientiane
  • Official Language: Lao
  • Government: Single-party socialist republic
  • Chief of State: President Thongloun Sisoulith (since 2021)
  • Head of Government: Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh (since 2021)
  • Legislature: Unicameral National Assembly
  • GDP (nominal): $19.57 billion (2021 est.)
  • GDP per capita (nominal): $2,643 (2021 est.)
  • Currency: Lao kip (LAK)
  • Major Ethnic Groups: Lao (53.2%), Khmou (11%), Hmong (9.2%), other (26.6%)
  • Religions: Buddhist (64.7%), Christian (1.7%), other (2.1%), none (31.4%)
  • Time Zone: Indochina Time (ICT), UTC+7

Laos originated from the ancient Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, which was founded in the 14th century under King FA NGUM. Lan Xang was influential for 300 years, extending its reach into present-day Cambodia and Thailand, and over all of modern-day Laos. After declining over centuries, Laos was ruled by Siam (Thailand) from the late 18th century to the late 19th century. Later, Laos became part of French Indochina after that. The present-day Laotian border with Thailand was defined by the Franco-Siamese Treaty of 1907. In 1975, the communist Pathet Lao took control of the government, ending a monarchy that lasted six centuries and installing a strict socialist regime that was closely aligned with Vietnam. Laos began a gradual and limited return to private enterprise and the liberalization of foreign investment laws in 1988. Laos joined ASEAN in 1997 and the WTO in 2013.

David Coleman / Photographer

David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »