My visit to Vieng Xai was short and brief but gave me an extremely fascinating insight into the Secret War and lives of everyday Lao people during these hard times. The journey took 13 hours from Nong Khiaw. Hungover and hating the invention of laolao, I managed to befriend some new backpacker buddies. On arrival we decided to share rooms to save money. The boys room had a huge hairy spider in it. Nice.
Vieng Xai has minimal interest apart from the caves. It’s a sleepy little place re-constructed after it was flattened in the Secret War from 1964 to 1973. The town is surrounded by beautiful karsts, which provided adequate protection from the mindless bombing of the Americans. As an international foursome of backpackers, we were out of bed and set out on a headset tour of the caves by 9am. A history lesson was on the agenda. We were the only tourists that day so had the tour guide to ourselves. The next three hours shocked and educated me. The Secret War was awful. More than 2 million tons of ordanance was dropped on Laos, some of that was on Vieng Xai. America were backing the Royal Lao Government against the communist Pathet Lao as well as trying to eradicate the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by the Vietnamese. I’d heard about the struggles in Vietnam but the reason and reality of the Secret War was new to me, one I knew little about. I felt uneasy..
No body are allowed access to the caves without a guide. Our friendly guide was particularly happy and smiled every second of the tour. It was hard for me to be like that. The life of innocent Lao locals during the bombing campaign visually and orally replicated by the tour put me in a somber mood. I felt sad for them. Especially the rural Lao people, who lived simple lives without technology. They had no idea why they were being bombed or who was doing it.
The Lao people were strong, brave and resilient. The cave networks providing an entire city for its people and it’s army. We walked to the three caves that were currently open to tourists. Vieng Xai was completely flattened by the bombs so the town we walked through had been completely rebuilt since 1973. It was modern-ish yet remained just like the rest of Lao, very quiet and peaceful.
We were shown the immaculately preserved caves of the prime minister and his head politicians. After the war ended the prime minister had new buildings built beside his cave and a garden commemorating the lost Lao lives. Red flowers symbolising the blood spilt.
During the war, locals would work at night and hide in the caves during the day when the bombing raids took place. There were lots caves in and around Vieng Xai, all covered by thick sub tropical jungle. Some were open to the public, others were being restored.
Meeting rooms, panic rooms, sleeping areas and living quarters with the original furniture were still set up for visitors with adequate explanations in various different languages. This panic room had an oxygen machine built in, just in case chemical bombs were used.
Huge craters filled the landscape. A variety of bomb blasts still evident today.
One of the most memorable quotes from the audio tour: After capturing a pilot, the locals interrogated him for information. They found out that the US trained pilots were to look out for brightly coloured animals, eg, chickens and to deliberately bomb these areas where innocent civilians lived. The locals killed all colourful animals and grew only green plants. A sacrifice that would eventually save their lives.
After nine years of US bombing Laos was labelled the most bombed country per person in world. There is still UXO (unexploded ordinance) everywhere. It will take 100 years to make all of Lao safe. The jungle provides excellent protection for the UXO thus making it very difficult to sort out. One person dies everyday in Laos due to UXO blasts. Some are accidental discoveries, others seek the metal from bombs to sell as scrap. Either way, America have left a legacy of destruction that is still a part of everyday life in the quiet and peaceful lands of Laos.
Check out the toilet in the Prime Ministers quarters. They must have had excellent aim back in the 70’s.
These facts are the ones that stuck with me. Facts I feel you should know. My knowledge of the Secret War was increasing daily. I was to head to Phonosaven next to get a deeper insight.
We waited for a bus that never came. The market was the only other sign of life. Rat for dinner anyone? I ordered pork noodles but got blood noodles instead. It tasted OK. The locals said there is only one bus a day that leaves in the morning. We weren’t too sure what to believe. English speaking locals didn’t exist, neither did a timetable. The bus station office was closed and empty. We didn’t rate our chances so we decided to attempt to hitch a lift. We walked to the main road and somehow picked up a bus. Thank you backpacker gods.
Vieng Xai was fascinating and so was the history lesson I wanted it to be, but it left me feeling sad. Sad for the Lao people who suffered and sad that any body could be so cruel to such a lovely race of people. Reality, sometimes, is not nice. Greed makes people do silly things.