Laos Opens Wartime ‘Cave City’ to Visitors
A theatre built inside the
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
“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,”
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
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
Submitted by the Lao National Tourism Administration.
The dining table used by the
Laotian military leaders during the war
Life in Chiang Mai
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.