Wartime caves In Laos are not easy to access and their stories are not easy to forget, writes Janie Walker.
I did not leave New Zealand for a holiday in Southeast Asia planning to cry over dropped bombs. I left to have a holiday, relax and come back renewed. But, when you travel with no plans, you end up in some extraordinary landscapes.
None were more incredible than a network of caves in Northeastern Lao where the Pathet Lao plotted their revolution. In the Hua Phan Province they lived in 800 limestone caves for nine years, from 1964 to 1973. They were the Laotian equivalent of the Viet Cong and Viet Minh in Vietnam's North.
Babies were born, people died. Electricity came from 106MW diesel generators, and some electric lights. The original telegraph radio belonged to the Tsar of Russia. Life was hard but their motto was "better to be a dead ghost than a living slave".
I can imagine the world of Anne Frank through her book and The Perfect Storm actually had me interested in weather, but to actually touch the walls where a revolution was made, felt barely believable.
Getting there is an adventure in itself. The only way to experience some of these 800 caves is to report to the cave office in central Vieng Xay at 1pm. We were met by a guide and given audio-tour equipment. It was this audio tour that slammed home the experience; we got a whole lot more out of it because we knew what we were looking at. At many other tourist attractions we were shoved out of car, given hard-to-read brochures, and waved goodbye.
We are standing in an extraordinary landscape. Extraordinary as much for what we don't see, as for what we do. The towering jagged peaks surrounding us conceal a vast network of caves. These were vitally important in the struggle for a nation free of colonial occupation and foreign domination. Audio tour commentary.
On motor bikes, we went from cave to cave and got a real sense of cave life. Our guide was very happy that we had bikes — If you go by foot you don't get to see as many caves. We walked around the Politburo meeting room where leaders such as Ho Chi Minh and Prince Souphanouvong (a member of the Lao royal family) made crucial decisions. Most of this group came from the Lao People's Party in the 1950s and after the war went on to form the government that has ruled Lao since the 1970s. Ho Chi Minh risked his life many times to make it to the caves to be part of the movement.
We visited five of the seven caves open to visitors. This included an emergency room housing a huge metal air pump; a huge theatre for performances and weddings; an artillery cave; barracks that housed 2000 solders; a cave for banking and one for fixing cars; a school dormitory; and a cave with a huge printing press.
We stopped to listen to actual interviews from survivors. We wandered in disbelief in gardens outside the caves where frangipani, the Lao national flower, had since been planted. Also planted were intense red-leafed plants to remember the bloodshed. Here the audio had me ducking for cover as aircraft flew overhead; there were cries of panic and pain.
The locals in the surrounding village of Vieng Xay are all connected to the caves. Vieng Xay means "city of victory". Our tour guide, a quietly spoken man in his 30s who trained in tourism, had lost his father. He spoke with accepted emotion and a gentleness that allows you to really listen. I asked him what it was like to take Americans on these tours and he replied, "The same as you."
Northern Laos has almost zero tourism infrastructures, which at times can be hellish, but mostly it is incredibly exciting and rewarding. The caves are bloody hard to get to. You can't really go there if you're planning to flit through Laos. We had the time to head up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang to gorgeous Nong Khiaw (about four hours) then Muang Ngoi (one hour) for some cheap hammock and stress-free tourist time. The boat trip was hilarious as we wedged ourselves between large-bottomed tourists and locals with sacks. I'll never forget the tragic look on the face of a dog that'd been left behind at the wharf (but don't get me started about the state of dogs in Asia).
We then ended up waiting for a local bus back at Nong Khiaw. We waited and we waited. The bus just didn't show up — locals had been waiting for two days. So we hired a private mini-van for a stupid US$250 for the day to take us to Sam Neua. Near the end of this scenically dramatic 10-hour trip the minivan started smoking and my partner got to relive his petrol head teens.
From Sam Neua it's about 45 minutes by motorbike to the Pathet Lao caves in Vieng Xay; the roads are okay and the traffic is less lethal than most places we'd been. Or take a tuk tuk (good luck with that).
A ceasefire between Vietnam and the United States was signed in January 1973, and in February a ceasefire was signed between the Royal Lao Government and the Pathet Lao. Peace had finally come to Vieng Xay.
For two hours we have listened to the human and national cost of American bombing. We hear that even today one person a day is affected by bombs that didn't detonate when fired or dropped. Then we hear about the International Convention on Cluster Munitions where member states help countries to clear their land and care for victims of bombs. They leave you with this line.
The United States did not sign the convention.
By this time we were back outside the cave office. I found a spot behind a tree and sobbed. I hung in anger and disbelief until I could face these lovely, smiling people who shared their story with us with such openness and generosity.
In Nong Khiaw, just up from Luang Prabang, there's a cafe owned by a German that has a bomb for a seat. Know nothing and you may laugh; visit the Pathet Lao caves and you may not know what to do.
Vieng Xay caves from Sam Neua: Motor bike hire (around NZ$25); caves guided and audio tour (around NZ$12). The tourist office in Phathy Rd, Sam Neua, is very helpful, but they don't answer their phone. Do your own research — all travel details and costs for this region are likely to change.
Audio tour excerpts provided by Narrowcasters.