Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Sound Must Have Been Deafening: Nine Years in the Vieng Xai Caves

Our next stop in chilly northern Laos was the small lakeside town of Vieng Xai, a historically decisive place for the future of Laos during the Vietnam War. Definitely one of my very favorite places from our time in the country. It’s something about the tall mist-shrouded cliffs jutting up around the town, the silence, the gray sky, the two small lakes, and the earnest people we met.

First of all, we caught a morning ride on a totally sardine-packed bus going from Sam Neua to another destination, and just got off partway at Vieng Xai. Both of us stood in the aisle. In the space between our jolly driver and the front door alone, at least ten people stood, crouched, and perched, and there was probably at least one chicken, somewhere. As we peeled out of the station, said jolly driver clicked on some sweet Lao jams, thumping his hand against the wheel and singing along. It was great. When it was our stop, the entire bus group collectively yelled for the driver to stop and let us out. We walked with our packs the kilometer or so from where the bus dropped us into town.

What we looked like, in the bus. Note the Step-sized bag of chilies.

That afternoon we toured a network of caves in the surrounding cliffs. For nine years (1964-1973), while the US carpet bombed the country, hundreds (eventually) of Lao civilians not only lived inside these caves alongside the leaders of the Pathet Lao—the Lao Party or Lao Nation—but in fact fought off the planes with antiaircraft guns and founded the current communist government. Nine years.

We started at the tour center, where a really well-versed staff member explained how the tour would work. (He had actually just returned to this job five days earlier, he said, after spending months away to finish his bachelor’s degree in Vietnam.) The physical tour of the sites is accompanied by an eighteen-point recorded audio tour: they issue you a little machine the size of a walkie-talkie and a pair of headphones, and you listen to the appropriate installment at the corresponding numbered sign. Since the sites are too far apart to walk to all of them in a reasonable amount of time—it would take all day—we took the center up on their offer to rent bicycles. Unfortunately, because they happened to be short-staffed that week, that staff member had to play receptionist, so we were accompanied by one of his coworkers (leading us by motor-scooter), who was very polite but spoke no English.

This should be in the promotional materials for the tour.

The garage.

Movie screening time.

Secret entrance.

Water basins.

In the tunnels.
During the time of the caves, some spaces were designated infirmaries, some meeting rooms, some kitchens. In many caves, they built walls and doors to serve as offices and bedrooms for specific leaders. Most caves included reinforced, bomb shelter-like rooms that the tour called “emergency rooms”—not for medical care, but for last-minute security. In the cabinet meeting room, they’ve set up a long table set with seven chairs, and at each one, your friendly disembodied British voice tells you a short biography of who sat there. One massive cave was used for the various weddings that took place in that time, and for other large gatherings. The tour also includes one of the high-up, eastward-facing caves where they stationed the antiaircraft guns.“The sound,” says the disembodied tour guide, “must have been deafening.” In other caves, and outside, they held primary education. While learning math and history, little Lao kids also learned to distinguish between those airplanes that were just looking around and those that meant you had to go inside right away. They had to farm at night, sometimes only with moonlight.

In case this hasn’t come across: Vieng Xai was a very cold place. I’d guess the warmest it got was the mid-50s Fahrenheit, the coldest probably around 40 [Step interjects: It was below freezing, I swear]. After the sobering, somewhat overwhelming tour, we asked our English-speaking friend back at the visitors’ center where we could get some local Lao food. He pointed us to a restaurant that calls itself “Indian” but in fact serves no Indian food, only Lao food. We tried it out, even though he said that all the foreigners go there. Like many establishments in Laos (and Thailand, and Myanmar) this restaurant had no fourth wall at all, just one face of the building that was fully open to the street. We ordered a lot of hot tea (…) and ran into the German guidebook researcher we'd met two days before; he’s been to Laos ten times and had a lot to say.

Breakfast most days.

Puffy coats for sale.
Our second big delight here came the next day, when, out for a walk, we saw across the lake a large crowd gathered on the field of the local secondary school. As we got closer, we passed more and more teenagers on scooter, bicycle, and foot who were all heading in the same direction we were. It turned out to be a lunch-hour soccer game, refereed by the P.E. teacher and watched by what seemed to be practically the entire student body. The Lao students watched us, elbowing their friends and pointing us out. No sooner had we come to a stop than two teenage students approached us and began to converse with us in halting English. They just wanted to practice speaking. One of them was hoping to go into information technology; one of them was hoping to become an English teacher himself. We discussed their ages, our background and travels, and the school schedule, and then it was time to go to class.

The ground was the most colorful thing around.

Lenin getting lonely.
And then—okay, so then, we totally lucked out on a ride back to Sam Neua. That second afternoon, our second of only two days in Vieng Xai, we walked with all our stuff out to the main road, hoping to flag down a bus coming from somewhere else. We had a giant window of time within which to potentially expect the bus, so we were prepared to make many attempts. We finally were picked up by a very friendly, talkative, English-speaking man in an enormous Soviet-style coat and fur hat, who runs a furniture dealership in town. When we explained our bus plan, he basically laughed and was like, “...yeah, no. You’re not going to get a bus. I’ll take you.” And he did! Along the way, he gave us his own take on the UXO problem, and also complained with interesting contempt about the many Vietnamese cargo trucks taking up the Lao roads. He took us right to the Sam Neua bus station and refused any money; he just wanted us to take his business card.

Love you a ton, Vieng Xai.

1 comment:

  1. It only took 5 months but we can say its warmer here than where you are - almost 70 (f) today, little overcast but no complaints. The travels continue to be of great interest and I am still deeply envious. Wonderful photos!!