Journey into the Heartland - Essay on the Archeology, History, and Revival of Laos
Written and photographed by Xaixana Champanakone
Part Five: Tad Noua Waterfall
and the Caves of Viengxay
It’s 26 km on route 6 to Viengxay, and less than 50 km from there to the Vietnamese border. These facts and the existence of innumerous caves inside the karsts decided the Pathet Lao leadership to select this locality as their headquarters to resist America’s secret war on the battlefields in the surrounding mountains and valleys and the open Plain of Jars beyond. The caves provided bleak but abundant shelter for the 23000 civilians and soldiers hidden from sight and bombs to keep the provisional government functioning.
Today we need no longer fear aerial bomb raids to keep us from visiting the quite spectacular Tad Noua waterfall a few kilometers before losing ourselves in the brutal, recent history of Viengxay. To reach this river thundering down a near vertical incline, do not follow the locals’ advice to climb down alongside it to the bottom to appreciate its unleashed power because you would have to climb the same way back up; it’s steep, it’s very slippery. The air feels like inside a sauna the moment you exert yourself, you become the waterfall yourself, just watch. Much better to ask your driver to take you a few kilometers in a roundabout way to the rice fields in the valley below.
From there it is only a 300 m flat hike along the dykes of the paddies and through dense bamboo forest to finally observe this mass of water crashing through the foliage down that cliff to your very feet. Nature at its untamed best. Do take this experience in during the dry season, there’s still plenty of water to deeply impress you but the trek is really easy; ours was an exercise in slogging precariously along water clogged ditches and through swirling pools.
Stark karsts covered by a film of vegetation now define the countryside we are reaching our ultimate destination, Viengxay. Everything we had experienced, visited, observed and heard over the past five days had all pointed us to this culmination of our journey; the heart beat of the Lao people’s battle for freedom and independence. Whatever gruesome modern war machinery the Americans had employed in their fury, this heart never stopped beating; and finally this hatred was subdued and conquered.
A simple, white washed war memorial; long and narrow well paved roads; low houses hidden away in lush vegetation; the market place with its rows of wooden shops; a large, placid lake beneath a towering karst; a football field with a miniature tribune to salute a passing parade; the post-revolution Victory Hotel dating back to 1973, a 1950s classic straight out of a Hollywood movie for newly visiting state dignitaries. Behind the hotel there are four embassy ‘villas’ - fronting a protective cave, just in case - to accommodate the newly appointed ambassadors from Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam. Everything is very clean, very well trimmed and, yes, lovingly kept; it’s very quiet, there’s hardly a soul to be seen.
Throughout you cannot escape this impression of ‘loving care’. The peace and quiet of this place is amazing, all encompassing. The encircling mountains offer their benevolent watchfulness and protection; you can sleep here now in peace. Who would have expected that from a scene that until fairly recent times had suffered such brutal devastation? There is a feeling of unreality about this place, surprisingly soothing and reassuring. And in these very mountains are those caves! We head for the visitors’ office in search of a guide. The office’s displays are low-key but, I am later assured, an improvement on previous nothingness. A lot of research has actually been done by various agencies; a lot of material (film footage, photographs, testimonials and documents) amassed, now gathering dust forgotten on some shelves. To package all this and make it available to the public while turning the caves into a comprehensive natural museum that brings to life the tragedy that is this place’s history, and highlights the human valour that prevails against all odds, seems to be a worthwhile and important endeavour needing attention.
A young guide takes us in hand. He turns out to be well versed in the history and all sorts of aspects about life in the caves, and interested to explore wider issues (what were the names of the American presidents at the time, etc.). He has obviously taken a personal interest in his job, beyond-the-call-of-duty or salary, to pass on history, to keep it alive; aware of the importance of what has happened, and will happen again, lest we forget. For the Americans today Iraq and Afghanistan are nothing other than disastrous repeats of Vietnam only yesterday; cases to be filed in The Hague (seat of the International Criminal Court).
The principal caves, those of the leaders and open to the public, are Kaysone Phoumvihane’s, Soupanouvong’s (the Red Prince), Nouhak Phoumsavanh’s, Phoumi Vongvichid’s, Sithon Kommadan’s and Khamtay Siphandone’s, the artillery cave, and Xanglot cave which was used for large assemblies and performances to entertain the caved population. We follow our guide and visit at random. Two caves later, an hour and a half later, we exit; I am caved-out, I have goose bumps, I am exhausted; enough for one very short afternoon, enough for a lifetime.
Inpome’s father lived here, courted and got married here. He telephones his father; we follow his directions and visit the inhospitable ‘hospital’ cave in which his older brother Inthy was born, as his mother recalls, to the accompaniment of exploding bombs: welcome to this world! Friend Toh experiences the nerve center from where directives were sent to his mother fighting in the south, in Pakse. Questions are pouring out, our guide is able to answer, to satisfy curiosity, to shine light onto the grey past which now comes alive; it only takes little imagination. Answers and more questions, how had this been, how could it have been, how had it been possible: the will to destroy on one side, the will not only to survive but to triumph on the other.
We have dinner on the pleasant lake beneath the towering karst. Solitude, the minds are racing, memories are awakened, discussion, more questions, partial answers, sorry I do not know. I do not know to explain insanity, human cruelty. Having witnessed them this afternoon proves the very real horror of it all, learn and remember. ‘Tomorrow’ will only be a repeat of ‘Yesterday’, yes – why?
In our neat guesthouse bungalow I take a hot shower in the morning, I shower as long as I like. Yesterday afternoon I was free to leave the caves at will, and to have a delicious dinner accompanied by lively discussion. I’m luxuriating under this hot shower; how come I am free and safe to be here to enjoy friendship and good food.
Nine interminable years in the caves - wet, dripping, seeping walls and ceilings on the inside, bombs shaking the earth on the outside; the sky asunder, fields blown to shreds, not a step to be taken at daytime - that’s what it took. Hunger, cold, fear and misery, never ending in father Chanty’s words ‘We were always cold, always hungry’.
Spying from behind one of the steel reinforced concrete protected cave entrances he recalls the perverse beauty of these cataclysmic spectacles of curtains of bombs exploding, the earth quaking under his feet; the Bang that gave birth to the universe, the Bang that will annihilate it in turn.
Death and rebirth intensely lived and suffered for nine years, every day, all day. What did the enemy call this undertaking, surely with a smirk on their faces: let’s bomb’em back into the Stone Age. Ha!
Visiting the caves, entering and walking through them is a fascinating, shocking and yet humanly endearing experience. How did they manage not only to stay sane but win a war and independence … and finally, in 1975, peacefully take over the capital, Viangchan, and form a government? Nothing short in magnitude and heroism of a Mao Tsetung-like Long March, suffered and endured here inside these caves, right where I am now walking. I’ll step out soon enough, leave the claustrophobia of these dripping walls and ceilings, the clammy air behind; I’ll safely confine all that to memories, the march is over.
Khamtay Siphandone’s, the military commander’s cave was shelter and home to 2000 soldiers and civilians. I wonder whether it was this massed humanity, where each individual had to immediately rely on the other to share minimal breathing and comfort space, that actually provided the bodily strength and mental solace which made victory over themselves and the enemy possible.
Kaysone Poumvihane’s cave has a skylight for a window, the bombs’ explosions blasting his ears, shaking the pen in his hand. Like tending the fields, theoretical work must continue, meetings were held in the quiet of night.
Deeper inside the caves, where the ‘bedrooms’ were located, permanent darkness reigned, the flip of an electric light switch decided whether it was day or night. If worst had come to worst in the event of a gas attack, specially sealed chambers were ready for the leaders. The heavy, manually operated steel air pumps would have probably filtered just about the amount of clean air that was needed to turn them by hand.
23000 people lived inside the caves at any given time; their bodies had to be fed, cleaned and evacuated; a logistical nightmare. For food, it was mostly canned, shipped in from abroad via Vietnam. A whole town was stashed away in there with everything that makes a town function; administration, factories, hospitals and schools! IMAGINE ! And a town needs to socialize and to reproduce itself, this mass of human bodies. And people deserve a break from their daily grind; shows and entertainment were brought in from China, Russian and Cuba, gala events in the theatre cave large enough to host a few thousand spectators. Father Chanty pointed out that the Chinese and Russian performers, like the advisors, had kept a frosty distance; Mao was going mad, their relationship had gone cold.
What a relief it is to be able to leave the caves at will, at any given moment. Imagine being imprisoned in them, though you have done no wrong, day after day, year-in-year-out for nine years. Only under the cover of darkness you regain a momentum of freedom, for a few hours; and where you had safely stepped only yesterday today, tonight, you have your leg blown off, bombies!
For interminable years each and every day’s tranquility was pierced again and again by the terrifying wailing sound of the alarm sirens warning of another flight of bombers about to drop their deadly loads. There was little time to rush to the safety of the caves before the B52 flying fortresses or screaming Phantom jets made their appearance in the sky, which was then immediately followed by the ear blasting, nerve shattering explosions of their bombs (up to 500 or even 1000 tons each) accompanied by an inferno straight from hell. The bomber pilots returning from their missions over Vietnam had to ditch any and all bombs not previously dropped to ensure a safe landing at their home base. To the Pentagon’s way of thinking there was obviously no place better suited to do so than Viengxay. Upon the pilots’ return chilled ‘Budweisers’ awaited them to celebrate another mission accomplished.
When they were finally able to move out of the caves in 1973 they filled the moonscapes in front of their entrances and built houses, real houses with rooms and windows that could be opened to let the fresh air flow through, that let the light of day shine in. The huge rocks that the missiles had made to tumble down from above became part of the landscape. The Red Prince turned his biggest bomb crater into a ready made pond, he gave it the shape of a heart. And they planted, as a plaque explains, the leaders themselves lent a hand, to touch the earth, to make bushes and trees grow, to cover the destruction of the past, to plan and plant for the future taking delight in nature’s unconquerable energy, its boundless beauty. Look, how everything sprouts and grows, earth, rain and sunshine working their magic. All the gardens in front of the caves are beautifully laid out, the trees now tall, the bushes mature. The discretion and understatement of their appearance only underline the drama that once was played out here. You cannot help noticing that the people who planted them then, and the people who look after them today, do this with loving care; theses gardens reach out to you, speak to you.
It’s an atmosphere that prevails throughout the entire valley. Here is a feeling of peace so complete that it is palpable, it radiates; you feel that you only have to reach out and it is there to touch, it is so real, so present. It baffles, it overwhelms here where hatred and destruction had been dropped from the sky for nine endless years. This sensation of peace is persuasive; it envelops and absorbs you.
I salute the people who lived in these caves and, having vanquished Fate, walked out of them to shape their destiny. They all are Heroes to me. Many are still alive and active in today’s society and government. Viengxay, City of Victory, survival of humanity against all inhumanity.
My writing of this essay, and in particular this last part, is very much the outcome of visiting the caves in the company of my friends, the new young generation of Lao (my friends are in their mid-thirties, both have children). Observing their reaction, answering their questions to my best knowledge, discussing questions and issues as they raised them in wonderment and consternation at hardly knowing anything, has widened my horizon. At the same time it has left me with a newfound perception of Lao youth’s bafflement when confronted with their immediate past, and their eagerness to learn and to understand.
Yes, they had heard about this in school, but learning by rod made them memorize only long enough to pass the exams. Now they have their own children to educate. On this trip they embraced the unexpected opportunity to learn about their parents and the lives they endured with all the far ranging influence that has on society today. The elders had wanted to spare their children the memories of all their suffering and sorrow. They had won one of the most stunning victories in history, and all they wanted to do was to forget. They wanted to forget themselves, blissful oblivion. Forget the past, make a surgical clean cut and cast it away never to be relived again, and begin a new life. But this very understandable desire not to burden their children with the horrors they themselves had to endure to now being able to raise their children in freedom and peace left a long stretch of time in recent Lao history curtained off. This most unfortunately deprives today’s generation of understanding, respect and sympathy for the enormous sacrifices made by their parents; the shrouded secrets of the secret caves of Viengxay. Nightmare, hardship, denial; face up to them, come face to face with them.
Father Chanty and I visited the same caves ten years ago - there was the tourist office selling tickets even then, open for a short two or three hours a day only. But it now seems to me that it had been more like being ‘shown around the premises’, with its localities, facilities and functions soberly explained, and highlighted by the odd personal recollection told in a detached way. It had been his first visit since 1975. A friend of mine visited with a group of cave veterans in 2009; he recalls the tearful, heart breaking scenes when they recognized specific spots which brought alive long forgotten memories of events, encounters and experiences of all the shared hardships. Why did it take 34 years for them to be able to venture back into their past, to dare to relive their past, to be confronted by their past, this immensely heroic past. A past they could be and should be immensely proud of, tell their children about, tell the world; show it to the world with pride in their eyes and souls. It’s the denial in all of us, this overwhelming desire to firmly shut out, to draw the curtain on a nightmare barely survived. The human instinct for survival says forget and go on living; the nightmare is over, at long last, let oblivion heal and give you strength.
Growing older this new generation is trying to profile themselves against their parents’ little discussed life experiences. Visiting the caves for themselves, my friends are spurred on by an enthusiasm for knowledge. Fascinated they tell seemingly unconnected stories only to discover common ground, exchange snatches of reminiscences they have heard about their parents’ lives. They talk about their early post war upbringing, the things they could then not understand which now all of a sudden take on form and shape, explain themselves, make sense and give substance. They themselves are lifting the shroud, the mist over their history in the very discovery of these caves. All this is leading to a growing, amazed awareness who they parents were, what they had fought for and the incredible hardships endured for a common ideal personified by one person, Mr Kaysone Phoumvihane.
Over dinner it turned out that Toh’s father, a pilot with the Aviation Royale Laotienne (AVRL), had been bombing Inpome’s father publishing the Pathet Lao newspaper inside the cave while Toh’s mother worked for the communists in the south. It is all about education, edification, history and understanding for Toh and Inpome, a real awakening. ‘These are my parents, these are the government leaders still today shown in the newspapers and pictured on the party posters, this is where they came from, why didn’t they tell me, I am proud of them.’ In these caves Modern Laos, this confident and prospering Laos we enjoy and appreciate to live in today, was forged in red hot fire, by their parents. ‘Let us know, we would like to know, we should know, we need to know in our quest for identity why we are proud today to be Lao.’ There is no more talk of emigrating to seek greener pastures overseas, the illusion of ‘better’; we are best here.
In Vietnam it is custom for people of all walks of life and all ages to have visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi, a truly solemn and inspiring occasion; the memorial to modern Vietnam. Viengxay deserves to be shown and to be heard for the betterment of humanity, this triumph of humanity, of good over evil.
The government’s new administration college is under construction on the outskirts of Viengxay, a very large compound comprising several double storey buildings with even three tennis courts. The choice of location seems perfect to me: learning the tools for the administration of modern Laos in the presence of such powerful recent history; building on the past to chart new ways into the future.
For those who wish to retrace the steps of our memorable eight day journey into archeology and history to witness the revival of a country, rent a car from Europcar and ask for Chai to drive and guide you, which he will do with great care.
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