The next stage of my journey sees me steer a little further from the well worn backpacker track. Drawn by the lure of Vieng Xai’s caves in the far northeast of landlocked Laos, I’m headed to it’s nearest neighbour Xam Neua which is a mere fourteen hour bus trip from former royal capital Luang Prabang.
The journey is a variation on a theme which is emblematic of my time in Laos thus far. The decrepit old bus crawls along the mountain roads at a gruelling 40 mph. Hairpin bends punctuate our ascent sending me bouncing left and right sharply on my seat. It’s all too much for the locals in places, and the conductor hands out plastic bags for travel sickness which are promptly filled and thrown out of the window into the cavernous verdant woodland below us.
The landscape is utterly beautiful here, but at each turn a glance down into the ravine is rewarded with the deposited loads of garbage trucks below. There isn’t an infrastructure in place that can cope with the country’s waste due to pockets of extreme poverty in Laos. Clearly there are higher priorities for local funds. But it does make me so sad to think that education of responsible waste is so non-existent that it is ruining the country’s rugged natural beauty – the very rugged beauty that brings so many travellers and their much needed dollars here.
Another shock to the system are the toilet stops, my options are either a) don’t go to the toilet or b) use the roadside. I don’t fancy applying the ‘when in Rome’ mantra here and circumvent the issue by near dehydration. We do however stop for food; me and my travel buddy Jackie (who has joined me for this leg of the trip after our hang time in Luang Prabang) buy bags of sticky rice to keep us going on the last leg. The lowlights were plentiful but the highlight was the drive over the bridge at Nong Khiaw in the Muang Ngoi district where you have the chance to gasp at the languid Nam Ou river below.
We arrive in Xam Neua just before midnight exhausted by the trip, then negotiate the classic tuk tuk driver issues at the bus station. Y’know, they commit to take you to the guest house you’ve booked, you agree a sensible price…then you’re taken to their mate’s guest house instead. Fairly straight forward stuff. After the jiggery pokery, and two failed attempts, we finally check in to the Hotel Samneua in the town centre which is rather grand looking and ornate from the outside and rather comfortable on the inside. Needless to say that sleep comes easily…
We venture out into the town foraging for breakfast the next morning, and find a very pretty industrious town set against yet more of those eye-catching karst limestone mountains.
It feels like it is probably the laborious journey to get here that makes it Laos’s least-visited provincial capital. It’s a logical transit point for Vieng Xai, and the very reason that we have ventured here so we hop in a tuk tuk (this one complete with souped up stereo) for the 60 minute journey.
The area here is truly fascinating, but as much for what we can’t see as what we can. The mountains hold the secrets of a vast network of caves to which nationalist movement the Lao Patriotic Front, eventually known as the Pathet Lao, fled in 1964 to shelter from the bombs that were falling on Laos.
Global politics changed dramatically after the second world war, and were broadly defined by anti-colonialism and the Cold War. Both of these ideologies had their own profound effect on Laos.
It was formerly part of French Indochina, a colonial empire since 1893, along with nearby neighbours Vietnam and Cambodia. When that was formally disbanded in 1954, many political activists in the country began a movement toward independence.
The US feared that communist governments would add weight to the Soviet Union, their already formidable Cold War opponent. This was evidenced by the much publicised war they were waging in Vietnam. So, they started investing heavily in Laos and tried to write its role as that of a buffer between communist northern Vietnam and the rest of the region in South East Asia. To that end, they did everything from basing fighter planes there to undermining local elections.
At this time, Laos’s population was a meagre 1 million, predominantly farmers living in regions of the country that US money never reached. The corruption witnessed gave strength to the independence movement as they realised that they were no longer masters of their own destiny. Laos became an unfortunate victim of its own geography, and of the US’s paranoia, and a much more ‘secret war’ was fought for its control with the nationalist movement having to flee to these caves in the Vieng Xai province to protect themselves from the US bombings. For 9 years, this was the command centre for the resistance and thousands based themselves here, from where they ran their operation.
It was at this time that Laos picked up the dubious and since unmatched accolade of becoming the most bombed nation in history. I don’t think there could be a sadder or more surprising statistic.
From 1964 until 1973, over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos. That’s two tons per person and at a cost to the US of $2 million dollars per day. A full head count of the dead could never be done due to the remoteness of the area and its weakened infrastructure, however 3,500 villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes. Even now in 2014, this most unwelcome legacy continues to affect everyone in the country with unexploded ordnance (UXO) a real issue in the northern region.
Having been schooled in a western democracy, unsurprisingly I was never taught too much about the Second Indochina War, aka ‘Nam, the one that many would like to forget. So the scenes brought to life here by the wonderful Narrow Casters audio guide are news to me.
Our starting point of this network of 450 caves, which sheltered over 23,000 people, is the cave of President Kaysone Phomvihane. I have no idea what I expected, but I was stunned by the sophisticated set up. From the makeshift bathrooms and kitchens…
…to the annex of bedrooms…
…and the politburo meeting rooms where the country’s decisions were taken…
…complete with original political paraphernalia.
All are linked by passages just like the one above, with stunning views out over the forest. Whilst you might feel exposed inside the caves, the outside reveals just how invisible you are once inside.
President Phomvihane was born in 1920 to a civil servant father and a farmer mother. He studied at the University of Hanoi in Vietnam, which became a meeting place for like minded political activists. He was a very well educated man, speaking many languages including English, Vietnamese, French and Russian, and he brought his political ideals for an independent state back to Laos founding the Lao People’s Party in 1955, who would later come to be known as the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. They were to be at the core of the movement for over 20 years.
After a brief rest in the sun…
…we tuk tuk onwards to the cave of Prince Souphanouvong, one of the founding fathers of the Pathet Lao. He was known as the ‘Red Prince’, born into royalty in Luang Prabang but turned visionary by the education he received at the University of Hanoi. Having spent a great deal of time in the company of Ho Chi Minh, he met Kaysone Phomhivane in 1950 and the building blocks of their movement were in place.
Here we are struck by the peacefulness and the beauty of the gardens that the Prince personally tended during their captivity. There is also a stupa dedicated to the life of his son which was taken by enemy agents. You can almost feel the swell of power that this anger must have given them.
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Vivid descriptions from eye witnesses on the audio tour talk of US spotter planes flown by a group of pilots known as the Ravens, who were employed by a private company called Air America that ran a transport service throughout Southeast Asia. They delivered aid and ammunition to the US effort, carried spies and refugees and flew reconnaissance missions to identify air strike targets. If caught, they would not be publicly acknowledged by the forces that gave them their orders. It later turned out that those orders were given by the CIA who owned and operated Air America.
Throughout the region, the resourceful nature of the Laos people is on display with many bomb craters since being transformed into water troughs, swimming pools and cultural landmarks.
Finally, we end up at the cave of Khamtay Siphandone which also doubled as the headquarters of the movement, from which all communications were run. And by communications, I mean the daily newspaper and radio station they produced broadcasting to the network of 450 caves and throughout the country. I’m wonderfully mind-boggled by this…and by the impressive array of caves within here.
From the Xanglot cave, which was used for rallies, weddings, concerts and movie screenings…
…complete with dressing room yo!
It has, as does every cave in the network, an emergency room to make sure its occupants would be protected from chemical or nuclear attack…
…with handpump installed to ensure that uncontaminated oxygen could be drawn into the room to keep them alive.
The final stop on the tour is at the artillery cave, from which, after a climb, you can look out over the landscape from the spot the Pathet Lao used to scan the skies for enemy aircraft. It was one of the safest areas because it was situated at the top of the mountain (therefore no falling rocks or rubble could harm you) plus the area was loaded with anti-artillery guns that shot down US bombers.
The rock formations are particularly beautiful up here…
…and the still and rolling hills below set the unlikeliest of scenes for the pictures being described.
A ceasefire came to pass in January 1973 at which point the Pathet Lao could leave the caves and move back into their desecrated villages to rebuild what was left of the country. It took nearly another three years for the complete independence of Laos and the abdication of the King. At this time, Phomvihane and Souphanouvong took lead roles in the government which continues to rule present day Laos.
This conflict, albeit secret at the time, has unmistakably shaped this nation. In 2008, a convention was signed in Oslo by 94 governments banning the use of cluster munitions and committing to help those nations contaminated by them. Notably, the US did not sign this convention.
There is plenty to think about on the way back to Xam Neua where we delve into our first Lao fondue experience! Having been recommended a restaurant called Mrs On’s BBQ, we settle down to the Lao speciality.
A wrought iron bowl is placed in the hole in the middle of your table with coals burning. On it a spherical dome is placed with a ‘moat’ surrounding it.
It is very much a DIY approach.You’re given a plate of raw meats, a selection of glass noodles and vegetables and huge kettle full of stock. You place the meat in the middle to cook whilst filling the ‘moat’ with stock and your selection of veg. It’s really rather brilliant.
It’s also only 50,000 KIP (which in real money works out at about 3.60 GBP.)
I really despise the phrase ‘not to be missed’ having seen it in too many press releases in my time…but that phrase was invented for this meal (along with a Beerlao of course.)
And because we’re a game couple of travellers, we decide to take on yet another bus journey the next day…this time an easy peasy ten hours from Xam Neua to Phonsavan. The former doesn’t have enough to pique our interest for another day, so we’re on the move again.
Back to the bus station we go, this time in daylight.
This was an incredibly unique journey, in that the battered bus had rusted holes in the floor so we can see the road moving at breakneck speed below us. We can also add spitting to the soundtrack of vomiting we have become accustomed to. Only the music and the view out the window makeup for what is absolutely the worst bus journey I have endured in any country.
We arrive, remarkably, in one piece at Phonsavan, negotiate our way to the Chittavanh Guest house and promptly fall ill. All in a day’s work for the adventurer…
And the soundtrack was:
Editors ‘The Back Room’
The Delgadoes ‘Peloton”
Maximo Park ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’
Midlake ‘The Courage of Others’
Oxford Collapse ‘Remember the Night Parties’
Youth Lagoon ‘Wondrous Bughouse’
Two Gallants ‘What the Toll Tells’
PINS ‘Gils Like Us’