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Laos Opens Wartime ‘Cave City’ to Visitors

Life in Chiang Mai

Laos Opens Wartime ‘Cave City’ to Visitors

A theatre built inside the cave

Viengxay,, Laos - A collection of dramatic caves that provided shelter to 23,000 Laotians during nine years of aerial bombardment in the Indochina War, has now been opened to the public.
Between 1964 and 1973 Laos became caught up in a secret war that remains largely ignored in world history. Up to 480 caves in Viengxay district in Houaphanh province were transformed into a de facto cave city. The caves were used to house leaders and fighters of the Phathet Lao army. Many caves had specialist functions such as hospital, shop, school, printing house, government office, bakery and theatre. In the hospital cave, patients were treated by Cuban doctors.
Today, five of the caves are open to the public. More caves will open soon. The surrounding area is a remote and scenic province of Karst Mountains, tall waterfalls, hot springs and a protected forest that is home to tigers and leopards. The area is rich in ethnic villages, silk weaving and archaeological sites. In the surrounding hills villagers live in simple wooden huts. Some still hunt with crossbows. Some weave intricate textiles on elaborate looms. Many grow rice on steep hillsides or in lush green paddies.
“At the height of the bombing it was impossible to imagine that tourists would one day wish to visit this place to learn about our experience,” says Mr Phonekeo Latsachanh, who lived in one of the caves in Viengxay from 1964 to 1973. At the time he worked as an official in the cave designated as a trade office. “It’s important that Lao people can now tell foreigners their story,” he says.

The long drive to reach the cave offers beautiful vistas of the morning mist

Houaphanh province is the poorest in a country where 40% of the population survives on less than US$1 per day. Locally, tourism is now being heralded as a vital tool in the fight against poverty. The development of Viengxay has the support of the Laotian government. The Prime Minister’s office has a permanent representative on the committee set up to oversee developments at Viengxay, the physical birthplace and spiritual cornerstone of modern-day Laos.
The Lao government has asked the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the Netherlands Development Agency (SNV) and the Asian Development Bank to develop the location as a tourist destination and world peace site that focuses upon poverty reduction and the needs of local people.
Over 20 tourism and heritage trainers have been brought in by international organizations to deliver practical advice that will help villagers benefit from the expected growth in tourism. Former war heritage sites such as the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam and the Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh in Cambodia attract hundreds of international visitors daily.
The Lao government hopes to create similar interest in Viengxay where the Lao National Tourism Administration (LNTA) is recording oral histories that visitors can listen to while they walk around the network of caves. The plan is to develop Viengxay as a national heritage town to be explored on foot.
“The Lao vision is to recreate the caves and tell the people’s story,” says UNWTO’s Dr Harsh Varma who believes events at the cave system were remarkable. “Viengxay was a triumph of ingenuity and comradeship in the face of what many historians believe was the longest and most intensive aerial bombardment in world history.”
However, visitors to this remote corner of northeast Laos must not expect an easy journey. While helicopters can be hired to Viengxay’s airstrip and the airport at Xam Neua, 29 kms away, the nearest airport with scheduled flights to Vientiane is Xieng Khouang, a six-hour drive from Viengxay.
An increasing number of budget travellers have been finding their way to Viengxay from both Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang on Laos’ public bus system. Some visitors prefer to be driven in from the Vietnamese border, 55 kms away. Viengxay is a 300-km or eight-hour drive from Hanoi, and four hours from Mai Chau in Vietnam - an increasingly popular mountain destination with many hill-tribes.
Accommodation in Viengxay reflects the township’s remote frontier status. There is one simple hotel with 16 rooms and three basic guest houses with a combined total of 26 rooms. Forty-five minutes away in Xam Neua, the provincial capital, there are three hotels offering a total of 45 rooms. Xam Neua has 16 guest houses.
“For tourists who take the time to reach Viengxay and the nearby attractions throughout northeast Laos, we can promise a very enriching and educational experience,” says Mr Somphong Mongkhonvilay, Chairman of the LNTA. “Viengxay will be an increasingly important part of the Northern Laos Heritage Route,” he says.
The Heritage Route Mr Somphong is referring to links the World Heritage site of Luang Prabang to Houaphanh and the mysterious Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang.
The LNTA is due to unveil plans for Viengxay’s ‘cave city’ development to international travel agents during the Lao Ecotourism Fair, July 26-29 in Vientiane. European film and TV documentary makers have already visited Viengxay and other program makers are due to visit in the near future. In May, the UNWTO and SNV will help fund familiarization trips for travel agents and foreign media.
With an average of only 10 visitors a day to the five open caves, Mr Siphan Vangduayang, Director of the Memorial Cave Office in Viengxay says: “We need more visitors. We had over 20,000 people living here all those years ago. We have room.”
Submitted by the Lao National Tourism Administration.

The dining table used by the Laotian military leaders during the war


Life in Chiang Mai

Mark Whitman
Readers who made it to the end of my last week’s column may recall that I was discussing the lack of good commercial movies in Chiang Mai’s cinemas and briefly the more important subject of the air pollution that has crept up on us.
Neither problem - the big nor the small - will be dealt with in the short term but recent days have brought a return to the subjects, earlier than I intended. Those interested in observations about driving in Thailand and Chiang Mai in particular and the pleasures and pains of visitors will have to bear with me until next week.
As you probably know the cinemas change some movies each Thursday and adjust screening times. An echo of what we are used to worldwide. Minority films get relegated to one or two slots as happened with Babel. That interesting, though flawed movie fared less well than its ambitious makers hoped at the Academy Awards. Perhaps too pretentious, too ambitious and too anti-American? What puzzles me is why it could not have played at Kad Suan Kaew cinema for a week while the print was in town. Not everyone lives around Airport Plaza or wants to travel there so, many Thais and farangs missed a worthwhile film.
The more accessible Dreamgirls came and went without much fuss but
I think we can expect more of a flurry of interest in The Queen, especially after Helen Mirren’s Oscar in the title role. This was announced as opening on March 8th in Chiang Mai but as so often happens it proved not to be. A friend and knowledgeable film buff, Thomas, tells me that the 15th is now likely but could be one of many cases of misinformation.
Hopefully it will open in both complexes since there is surely a Thai and
farang audience for this well made drama-doc about the notorious
“Diana period’ in the British Royal Family’s life. The British Queen’s rule shares important similarities with that of the even more revered King of
Thailand. They are of a similar age, have both enjoyed impeccable and very long reigns, influencing the whole tone and quality of life in their respective countries. They have become what are known as public institutions - so that impossible to imagine them as not being with us. They have been on the throne longer than the vast majority of their subjects have been alive.
It is inconceivable that the film could have been made elsewhere than in the U.K. since it is an earthy, often critical portrait of a Royal family at bay. Stephen Frears, the director has assembled a fine cast to depict the turmoil that surrounded the entire family following Princess Diana’s death. The film does not gloss over any aspect of their inability to assess the mood of the nation and -in particular – Prince Philip’s contempt of it and his hatred of Diana.
The hero of the work is Tony Blair who was thrust early in his career as Prime Minister into a nightmare situation from which he and ultimately The Queen are those who emerge with credit. Mirren landed the role of a lifetime and creates a superb portrait. This is an excellent new arrival and along with two spirited Thai comedies that opened last Thursday should ensure busy days at the cinema. A welcome respite from the polluted air outside. Of course you will have to brave the weather to get there.
On a personal note the polluted skies has aggravated an unpleasant cough and it seems that many other people are suffering too. With help from the clean and efficient Chiang Mai Ram I should soon be ok. No doubt they and other hospitals, clinics and doctors are doing their best. Sadly, what is needed is another import from the UK, some of our hefty March winds and charming April showers. That can’t happen so it is left to long term planning in and around the City itself. There is no easy solution and given the geography and the internal structure of Chiang Mai certainly no complete solution. But as the old saying goes, where there is a will there a way.