Thursday, November 5, 2009

The communist caves at Vieng Xai

Vieng Xai is at the end of the world or, at least, the end of the world in Laos. In the far northeast, close to the Vietnamese border, a series of bush-bound limestone clumps stud the landscape. Many of these forested mounds hid a government leader for almost 10 years. Between 1964-1973, the Pathet Lao ran its operations from these caves to escape American bombing. Some 20,000 local people also became subterranean souls. Their troglodytic existence meant that rice was grown at night in the surrounding fields, cars were parked in Flintstone-like garages and work was conducted by candlelight.

The communist caves at Vieng Xai are surreal. Leading to cave entrances are a vivid purple-veined plant called homedeng, planted to symbolise the blood of the Laos people.

Each Pathet Lao leader’s cave contains a concrete bunker fronted by a huge blue metal door. A solitary bed frame, lamp and Russian oxygen machine remain inside. The 1968 life-giving funnels were installed to be used in the event of a nuclear attack; none, of course, were ever switched on. The cave rooms are marked as bedrooms, kitchens or offices. In one cave, 2000 soldiers lived; in another, a stage for theatre and circuses was erected; and in another an emergency bedroom for important meetings. In Secretary-General Kaysone Phomvihane’s cave we were told, he had even played ping pong.

From the command look out post in the cave of Sisavath Keobounphanh, the guide explained to us that anti-aircraft artillery were positioned on hill tops to spot incoming bombers. It was easy to see how the soldiers manning the anti-aircraft machinery would have been able to see approaching American planes across the low-slung mounds in the valley.

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