Published: February 14th 2009February 1st 2009
After a few days in the beautiful, but slightly expensive city of Luang Prubang, we decided to venture out east. Our destination was the town of Sam Neua (known locally as Xam Neua), close to the Vietnam border, allowing easy access to the nearby town of Vieng Xai.
Before we left the UK, we were perusing one of our many copies of 'Wanderlust' magazine, and had both been fascinated when we read about Vieng Xai. Vieng Xai is a small town, dwarfed by huge, limestone karsts, which incorporate extensive cave networks. During the Secret War, 23000 people lived inside these caves for nine years, whilst the Americans bombed the hell out of them. In the early 1960s US military chiefs reportedly threatened to bomb Laos and Vietnamese communist strongholds along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, “back to the stone-age”. In a phenomenal and sustained bombardment, over two million tonnes of ordinance was dropped on Laos over a nine year period - more bombs than were dropped on Europe during the Second World War. This equates to one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, for nine years! Today it's possible to visit the caves, many named after the leaders
that lived in them, and see the remnants of what was once a long, dark and confined existence.
We didn't really know much about Sam Neua though, just that it was a sixteen-hour winding bus journey east, up and down numerous mountainsides and past some of the Blue Hmong villages. The scenery was spectacular, only marred by our mild starvation! Eventually, twelve hours into the journey, the driver found a little cafe (probably owned by a family member), where we managed to buy some noodles. When we stopped, we realised how cold it had become in the mountains, and quickly layered up with all the clothes we had in our day packs!
Eventually, at about midnight, we arrived at Sam Neua bus station, situated on a hill about 2km above the town. A lone tuk-tuk driver wanted to rip us off, so we set off down the hill on foot, with Ian, a fellow traveller from New York. Just in case anyone reading this is contemplating this journey, the bus station is NOT in the centre of town, as per the 2007 edition of the Lonely Planet! We walked for about fifteen minutes and eventually saw what looked
like guesthouses. Unfortunately they were all boarded up, and the town was well and truly shut for the night. Luckily we managed to wake up one guy at Shuliyo Guesthouse, and get a much needed bed for the night. The room was nice, it had a duvet, a blanket, hot water, and cable TV, but even if it had been a dive, we weren't about to argue!
Due to our late arrival, we chose to have a chilled day on Thursday and check out Sam Neua itself. It's a funny little town, it's like stepping back a few decades. There's no discernible tourism, nobody speaks any English, and we got stared at much more than we'd noticed anywhere else. The town is mainly centred around it's bustling riverside market, selling all sorts of things to eat. The river is used for bathing and, while we were passing, a group of guys were also washing a freshly killed pig in it.
We wandered back to our guesthouse and stopped at a little cafe next door, where we enjoyed some green tea and a Beer Lao. We then bumped into Ian, and shortly after met another two backpackers from Sweden.
They had just made the arduous journey to the Vietnam border, only to be turned away due to a lack of pre-arranged visas. They were going to take the 24-hour bus back to Vientiane, but had just missed it, so joined us for a beer instead. The five of us (the total foreign population of Sam Neua on that particular evening!) sat around, and ate some fried rice and noodles.
By 6pm, the town was shutting down, and the temperature was dropping, so we were delighted when a group of locals, sat on the opposite side of the road, invited us to join them around their fire. We all took shots of 'Lao Lao', the local rice whisky (aka moonshine) to keep warm and enjoyed their company, even with no common language, whilst Ross tried to tune one of the guys guitars with a pair of pliers. They then invited us to a party, and took us in a pick-up truck to one of their homes, to celebrate Chinese New Year. In a small wooden shack with a mud floor, they had a lap-top set up with Laos karaoke on the go. As the 'Lao Lao' flowed, we all
had a sing song, but reading the lyrics was a bit of a challenge for us foreigners.
We said our farewells, and stumbled home, not realising until the next day the true potency of their local brew! A 6.30am trip to Vieng Xai was out of the question, so we slept for Britain, and watched a few classics on cable TV.
On Saturday morning we got up at 6am and caught a sawngthaew to yet another bus station, a 15-minute ride out of town. From there we caught another truck to Vieng Xai. On the journey we met Jenny, from Montreal, and together the three of us explored the town and it's caves. We found the Visitors Centre, and arranged a bicycle tour of the caves with local guide, Siphon. Although they offered bike tours, I don't think it was a regular option - there was some serious bike maintenance required before we set off, with Siphon insistent on tightening everyone's chain and double checking all the brakes.
First we cycled to Kaysone Phomvihane's cave, home of the General-Secretary of the Laos Communist Party. This cave was the central meeting area for the Politburo. Here the leaders
of the revolution discussed political, military and ideological planning for the future Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR). Mr Kaysone's wife and children spent some time in Vieng Xai during the war years. When the leaders lived in these caves, they were lit by oil lamps and candles, but fortunately we had the advantage of some electricity and light bulbs to guide our way.
This, and all the other caves that we visited looked like nothing from the outside, and the entrances were concealed by rocks, trees or, more often than, not huge blast walls. Inside, they had constructed rooms, corridors and even 'emergency rooms' containing Russian oxygen equipment and explosion-proof doors.
Next we visited Nouhak Phoumsavan's cave. As Minister of Finance and the Economy in the Pathet Lao government, Nouhak Phoumsavan went on to become President of the Lao PDR. A Soviet jeep is still parked in his garage, and outside you can see one of the large bomb craters.
The third cave we cycled to was Prince Souphannouvong's cave. Trained as a civil engineer, the prince designed his home, which was built outside the cave in 1973. In the tree-filled garden is a monument to his
son, who was assassinated by an anti-Pathet Lao agent in 1967, as well as a concrete-lined bomb crater which served as his swimming pool. It was also possible to spot the circular holes left by misdirected rockets in the limestone cliffs that towered above the gardens.
A short bike ride down the road took us to Phoumi Vongvichid's cave. He was the Minister of Education and Public Health in the revolutionary government. In the same lump of rock is the cave of Sithon Kommadan, representative of the Lao Theung people, who was believed to be immune to bullets!
We then visited Khamtay Siphandone's cave and military headquarters. Khamtay Siphandone was a Politburo member, responsible for the military and defence, and later became President of the Lao PDR. His cave connects to other military caves, including one of the main caves used for army administration. This large cave complex was also used as a military barracks during the bombing raids.
The penultimate cave that we visited was the artillery cave, which was a military installation. Heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns were manned by communist soldiers day and night to protect the area from the US bombing raids. There
is a 180-degree panoramic view of the surrounding countryside from the cave, which can be seen after a steep climb up steps built into the cliff side. From this vantage point it was possible to see more bomb craters and the site of a wrecked US bomber.
Finally we were taken to a huge cave, where not only did they conduct large meetings, but entertainment was put on to keep the troops' spirits up. Ross, Jenny and I were treated to a special performance from Siphon of a traditional Laos lament, including elaborate dance moves.
It was only as we were leaving this last cave, and our tour was ending, that we saw another tourist. It amazes me that this place is still so untravelled. It was an incredible experience, and well worth the journey.
We had some lunch with Jenny by a lake before heading back to Sam Neua. We were travelling back west to Phonsavan the next day, so needed to get back and pack up our belongings before the off in the morning.
There are more photos below