A quite extraordinary day. We started with breakfast of bread, banana and Loun had sent someone away for fried eggs, which came back in a polystyrene box. Rather yummy. Our guest house was not geared up for visitors, which is rather a shame as it’s a guest house. The room was basic, the shower worked with intermittent hot water, no drainage and no wifi, sadly. Even worse, no beer, but a shop just over the road. Phew.
Then a trip around a cave complex, the Vieng Xai caves. Sounded Ok on paper, but the reality was so different. It totally blew us away. The caves had an audio guide which lasted about 3 hours. We learnt that Laos had had more bombs dropped on it per person than any other country on the planet. Ever. We also spent some time talking to our guide about the reasons for the war, and the fact that the Laos battles were almost invisible to the wider global community. The war is now called “The secret war”. Very, very shocking. The Laos people have been to hell and back, but have shown the most remarkable resilience. The caves were the headquarters of the Pathet Lao (Communist movement). They had to go there for obvious reasons. At the height of the war over 20,000 people lived in the area, farming at night so that spotter planes could not see them. All the white ducks and the red chickens were slaughtered as they were too visible from the air. At the time of relocating into the caves, there was only one very small village in the area. Wildlife was abundant, with leopards and “tigers so prevalent you had to be careful not to step on one”. There were deer, large and small. All were hunted to feed the military and politburo who ended up in the protection of the caves.
We toured around four of the largest caves. There are hundreds. One was the hospital, servicing the wounded and delivering new babies. Against their tradition of cremation, the dead could only be removed at night and buried. No-one knew how long the war would last and so some of the dead waited 10 years for a proper cremation service. War is awful for all sides.
Tourism has only started to be promoted since 2000. In the early years, the older generation of Laos people were not excited to see western visitors – all too soon and too painful. Now, the younger generation is welcoming to most tourists, even Americans. It did feel uncomfortable tipping our guide in US dollars.
For anyone planning a visit to Laos, the caves and the story of the people is profoundly affecting. We would encourage all to see and experience it.
On a brighter note, we are so enjoying the blue skies and the sunshine. The first for two weeks. Noodle soup lunch and back on the bikes for a roller coaster ride into Xam Neua. Some tough climbs, but the scenery is so stunning it makes it all worthwhile (the downhills are jolly nice too). We can finally see and enjoy the beauty of the towering karst limestone landscape. Temp up to 31C – the chill of northern Vietnam is leaving our bones.