Thanks BB- look forward to catching up again in December when I'm
back to do the MHS Loop.
Appreciate all the kind compliments.
Sorry if my style irritates!
back to MY story and the main objective of our trip....
Day 3 Vieng Xai & Xam Neua
We awoke to sunshine – though our boots were still soggy from the day before.
There was no rush today.
A leisurely start, so we rode gently through town
– we were the only vehicles - over to have breakfast at the lakeside restaurant beside the Thavisay Hotel.
Again the location and the view over the lake was stunning.
But it was sobering thought to think that Vieng Xai’s numerous landscaped lakes were dug from the enforced efforts of political prisoners.
We were given a menu, but only omelette was available.
Thongkhoun had fried crickets, or “singers in the ground
” as he called them.
“What are they like?”
“What are worms like?”
We had found the height of Laos cuisine.
Nearby an army officer and local apparatchiks were quaffing Beer Lao. It was not quite 9am.
Passing by the District Office a Lao UXO demining team were checking the ground beneath the municipal windows.
A drainage pipe needed to be laid and the ground needed to be rechecked.
After breakfast we joined our guide who took us to the caves.
Vieng Xai was the cradle of Laos independence.
Having been forced from the Plain of Jars the Pathet Lao dug in at Vieng Xai and sat out years of bombing nestled in tunnels burrowed into the striking karsk formations
Here was the underground command centre of the Pathet Laos.
Whatever political view you may hold it is hard not to be impressed by the determination and the industry that went into creating such labyrinthine underground fortresses.
Each politburo member had his own cave system with outside residence.
These were for sleeping in during the night and then
underground during the day safely hidden from the B-52 Rolling Thunder
In 1973 with the ceasefire the Pathet Lao emerged like moles, from their deep dugouts and began turning
their wartime capital into a people’s paradise – even if it was for only the party’s chosen people.
The leaders’ houses were later extensively remodelled after the 1973 moratorium on bombing.
I have just finished studying the Vietnam War at college.
But Laos had hardly featured in the text books.
So it was staggering to read in my western published guidebook, that Laos was hammered by 580,000 B52 sorties – each aircraft capable of discharging one hundred 500lb bombs.
Both Vietnamese and the US signed a 1962 Geneva Accord, prohibiting military activity in Laos.
Both sides broke this agreement: the Vietnamese by building the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos and the US by trying to bomb it out of existence.
More bombs were dropped on Laos, than on Germany & Japan combined during WWII.
It is said anywhere between 300,000-800,000 died.
Some ten to twenty-five percent of the population.
These are not figures from our guide, but those I discovered myself from published sources.
Anyway our guide to the caves, a badge-wearing party member, was pleasant enough and open as he could be, with his limited English.
So after sitting through a Laos video depicting the struggle, using old contemporary newsreels in which the various action scenes were repeated on a loop, whilst Dad gave a running English voice over.
We finally stopped it, as both the film and Dad were getting rather repetitive, and headed out to the caves.
The first one we visited was President Kaysone’s cave.
The entrance was well concealed in a crack in the rock face behind extensive foliage.
You would not have known it was there until a few metres away.
A more modern but now empty, concrete two-story house has been built beside it.
This was built after the 1973 ceasefire.
Inside the cave little remained of what once must have been an austere but busy headquarters.
On the wall a wartime map showing offensives
taking place on a number of battle fronts throughout Laos.
A few pieces of furniture remain, beds, a chair, a bust of Lenin and some books by Lenin, Marx & Ho Chi Minh.
Light Reading for Cavemen!
In his bedroom was a coat-stand with a trench coat and a military blouse
that we were initially told were the president own clothes
“SO DON’T TOUCH.”
After I did, the guide quickly changed his story saying they were now replicas, as if my capitalist hands had made these threads now unworthy of the former leader.
Next to the Prez’s chambers was the emergency room complete with an intervening airlock double steel blast doors.
Inside was a hand-cranked air pump with filter in case of chemical or gas attack.
In a hollowed out chamber nearby a squat toilet took care of emergency needs during bombing raids.
At the entrance to the “Red Prince’s” cave
behind what could have been a country estate with a modern house were beautiful laid out gardens, resplendent with flame coloured foliage and pomelo trees.
Prince Souvanouvong was the son of the Queen of Luang Prabang who had joined the Pathet Lao ……..
His half-brother Prince Souvanaphouma was the Prime Minister and the war was a family affair.
At liberation he became the first president, but now his roll due to his privileged birth has seen his position diminish in favour of Kaysone.
His upbringing showed in the style and layout of his quarters with a bomb crater turned into a swimming pool
and with a special cave garage for his limousine.
A poignant shrine to his assassinated son stands within the gardens killed either by the CIA [our guide], or, by internal Pathet Lao factions [western books].
This conundrum of truth also hides the origin of the beautiful man-made lakes dotted around Vieng Xai.
Our guide was unable to offer an explanation; whilst western sources say they were made from the forced labour
of political prisoners who laboriously dug them out whilst undergoing ten years or more of political re-education.
The last cave we visited was the largest, an auditorium where fraternal Vietminh dancing troupes would entertain party cadres.
Dad asked our guide if “Hanoi Jane” made it this far west.
Prince Sihanouk is said to have had a house built for him, whilst he was cosying up to the Khmer Rouge.
Outside Thongkhoun & I helped some workers cut a tree.
Dad was bellowing words of encouragement
"Come on now comrades for the Revolution!
For the Party! ....
For a socialist paradise!"
The old boy was in fits of laughter.
He had evidently heard such nonsense before.
This only encouraged Dad further.
After a cold drink back at the Chinese owned Xailomyen GH,
we declined to eat there again after last night’s poor food.
Before leaving Vieng Xai we filled up & headed back in bright hot sunlight to Xam Neua.
Dad not very subtly tried to sneak a shot of the only photogenic person in Vieng Xai!
Though barely 30kms away it is a stunning ride Xam Neua with the karsks and paddies.
As we entered Xam Neua, we passed a large new Vietnamese complex under construction.
This road is an important trade artery for Vietnam.
Nearby a workshop looks as though it is still being run by the Vietnamese military.
Back in town we checked in to the flamingo pink soviet style Lao Hung Hotel.
On the roof the Hammer & Sickle flag was still flying upside down – such a distress call clearly came from the kitchen.
We ate BBQ Moo
[pork] fresh from the market.
Just the ticket after a long day!