Tuesday, March 25, 2014


This pool for the Red Prince lacks water
I’m standing outside a cave in Viengxay, the communist's underground city,  and I’m looking at a strange sight. It’s a small swimming pool, and there isn’t even any water in it. It's an odd place for the only swimming pool around; outside an uninhabited cavern. 

An odd fact about this pool, is that the construction team that built it years ago, didn’t do much digging. That’s because the original hole here was from a bomb crater, from an American 500 pound bomb! If that isn’t strange enough, the pool’s edges form an unusual shape. 

My guide Kale explains. “Souphanouvoung say they make the pool in the shape of a heart, because Lao people have strong heart.”

This dry pool fronts the entrance to former Prince Souphanouvoung's cave. The infamous 'Red Prince' had turned from his life of royalty, and joined the communists. The prince had gone from living in Luang Prabang's royal court, to living in a damp cave here in Viengxay. 

To be precise, this was the Red Prince’s second cave. Prior to that he had lived in another cave 10 km away, and he relocated here in 1967. By moving to Viengxay, the future 'President of Laos' was able to stay more connected with the politburo and the rebellion. 

Walking past his strange pool, I head to his cave’s entrance, where several large, dark boulders are piled about. 

Aerial bomb attacks knocked these boulders from the cliff sides overhead
“These from the bombs,” Kale tells me. “The rock fall. See there?” I look where he’s pointing, at the high rock walls overhead. Some notches were blown into the sides of the mountain from the devastating explosions of aerial attacks, and the boulders fell below, piling up around the cave entrance. 

The wreckage of these rocks truly showed the limits of air power. When the attacks came, the prince and the communists were sheltered deep inside these underground caves, beneath towering limestone mountains. Even if a perfectly targeted bomb managed to cave in one entrance, there were always other exits they could use to get out. 

Forget what you see in the movies. These mountains could have been bombed for decades, and their deep, solid rock interiors would have remained intact. 

Also outside the cave’s entrance, is a grapefruit tree. “This tree present from General Giap,” Kale tells me. Apparently the hero of Dien Bien Phu and general of the North Vietnamese Army had traveled all the way here to Viengxay during the war, and met with Central Committee members. Having fought both the French and the Americans, Giap knew a few things about tunnel warfare. 

Entrance to the Red Prince's cave
An airtight interior door in case of chemical attack

Walking through another wooden doorway, I enter the underground home of the ex-prince. His caves are much like those where Kaysone slept nearby. Wooden walls were installed inside the cavern, to create basic bedrooms for him and his children. There is less to look at though, since the interiors have been stripped, (or looted,) and there’s no furniture left. There’s an office area, and a 'squatty potty' toilet. There's also another airtight emergency room, with an air pump in case of chemical attack.
Stupa for prince's son, killed in 1967

An informational sign tells about the prince's life. Here's an excerpt: 

As a student in Hanoi, Prince Souphannouvong developed a great interest in literature, design and foreign languages that continued throughout his life. He continued his education in France, graduated in 1937 as a civil engineer and returned to Nha Trang in Vietnam to work as a road and railway engineer. In Nha Trang, Souphannouvang met his Vietnamese wife, who was actively involved in politics – she may have introduced him to Viet Minh campaigners. 

The Souphannouvang family had 10 children, and some of them lived in these caves during the war years. Children in many of the families based in Viengxay, including those of the leaders, were sent out of the area for safety. They spent many years growing up far away from their parents.”

I imagine that his children were probably holed up in China or Russia, or in untargeted areas of North Vietnam. Just like Kaysone, the Prince spent some of his time in North Vietnam as well, where life was more comfortable than this caveland.

Regarding his family, the sign neglects to mention that one of the prince’s sons was killed in this region in 1967. Assassinated at the age of 28, a photo of the young man wearing a suit and tie is outside the cave, next to a red memorial stupa erected for him. It seems that even the children of the Red Prince were not immune from the war's violence. 

Road to Prince's hideout. With the war over, Viengxay is now a scenic place to visit.

After the war's end, the old prince died in 1995. 

A few years later in 2000, another of his sons, Khamsai Souphannouvang, fled Laos. At the time, Khamsai had been the Minister of State Enterprises. Some Laotians believe that once his powerful father was gone, the son had no one left to protect him and his corrupt dealings. Although he left behind a house and other property, many Laotians say the son of the Red Prince fled the country with millions of dollars in state funds. 

He was eventually granted asylum in New Zealand. 

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