Tuesday, March 18, 2014


This ought to be a jail cell. There are iron bars on the doors, and just above eye level there are more iron bars running along the top of the white wooden walls. Furniture is sparse; there's only a pair of simple beds with a coat rack. Yet this isn’t a jail cell, it’s a bedroom. And during the war, this happened to have been the bedroom of the most powerful communist in all of Laos. 
Secure bedrooms for the leader's family
Central Committee Chairman Kaysone's bedroom

Kaysone Phomvihane slept here, and this iron-barred bedroom is inside what was once a secret underground complex of caves, deep under the towering stone mountains of Viengxay. These caves were the Pathet Lao’s main headquarters during the long war in Laos; the most closely guarded place in the country. Kaysone was not a prisoner here, but at times he certainly lived like one. He spent many days and nights in this cave, hiding from the aerial bombing that rained down from the US and Royal Laotian air forces. 

It was way back in the 1950’s, that the Pathet Lao first gathered their forces in this region. Since it was so remote, and so close to Vietnam, it was out of reach of the Royal Laotian Government. And it stayed quiet here until 1964, when US led aerial bombing began. When the massive American bombing campaign commenced that year over northern Laos, it was dubbed, ‘Operation Barrel Roll’. At the time nobody could have imagined that Laos would be bombed for eight more long and devastating years, making Laos the most heavily bombed country on earth! 

Viengxay - once littered with bomb craters, it's now a beautiful town
With American aircraft ruling the skies, the Pathet Lao leadership quickly moved into these caves that same year. The continued bombing forced most of Viengxay’s residents to live underground, like troglodytes. So Viengxay became a city of caves. In these tunnels deep within the mountains, there were sleeping quarters, offices, workshops, a hospital, even an underground market. One thing not kept below ground, were the anti-aircraft guns used to shoot at attacking aircraft. An informational sign outside explains those difficult and dangerous years. 

“On Watch Night and Day - On 17 May 1964, the first US plane, a T28, attacked the Viengxay area. During the years of bombardment until 1973, this area was hardly ever quiet in the daytime. Warning sirens were set off at the sight of approaching planes, and explosions would echo around the hills and valleys. There was a complete blackout at night and during raids all cooking had to be done inside the caves. The area was defended by anti-aircraft guns placed on top of many of the mountains that you can see from here. Because of the danger of bomb damage and rocks falling from the mountains, it was said to be safer to be on top of the mountains if you could not shelter in caves. A gun emplacement at what is now the post office was hit by a bomb, causing several deaths.”
Door to chemical attack shelter

The sign fails to mention that the T28’s were not flown by Americans. Although donated by the US, these slower propeller planes were flown by Laotian pilots of the Royal Government. 

Steps away from Kaysone’s bedroom, I approach another secret hideout. The sign overhead reads, ‘THE EMERGENCY ROOM’, and the door and its frame are made of thick steel. Four large corner handles enabled Kaysone to lock the door airtight from the inside. I enter, and suddenly, I feel very much like I'm back in the days of the cold war. A lone bulb above illuminates this inner room, carved completely out of bedrock. This was Kaysone’s last bunker refuge. Besides another bed and a pair of wooden chairs, a blue pump in the corner reveals the real reason for this room. This hand operated pump, connected to the cave wall wasn’t for water. It was to pump filtered air, in case of chemical attack.

With the long war raging in Southeast Asia, Kaysone was worried that the US Air Force would drop chemical weapons on Viengxay. Although aerial bombings went on for years, the caves were never attacked with chemical weapons. 

I ask my local guide Kale how long Kaysone lived in this cave hideout. 

“Nine years,” he answers.
An air pump is inside this shelter in case of chemical weapon attack

That’s the stock party answer, but it’s an exaggeration. This may have been Kaysone’s 'official' wartime home, but the old party boss also spent much of his time across the border with his patrons in North Vietnam. As the crow flies, it’s only 10 miles to the Vietnamese border, source of the aid that kept his rebellion going. Although bombings were a constant threat, Viengxay was never seriously threatened on the ground. If Kaysone and his cronies ever had been threatened by advancing government troops, (and they weren’t) they would have easily fled across the border to North Vietnam in minutes. 

As I make my way through the damp caves, I’m impressed at the height and width of many of the spacious rooms. This is a much more comfortable underground experience, than when I had to crawl through the pitch black tunnels of Cu Chi in Vietnam. In most places here I can walk fully erect, as I explore the darkened passageways of these historical caves. 

Connecting cave in the labyrinth
Beneath a nearby overhanging rock ledge, is an elevated platform. Two cement blocks the size of feet give away how this spot was used. This was an Asian style squatty potty; Communist Party Chairman Kaysone’s toilet! Since this subterranean world lacked plumbing, there were no sitdown toilets down here. With caves carved out of solid rock, it was impossible to create a pit latrine without stinking up the limestone labyrinth. It seems that Kaysone, and anyone else who sheltered in here during air raids, had to relieve themselves into buckets. These waste filled containers were later carried away by hand, and emptied outside the caves. That had to be one of the least glorious of jobs; disposing of the Great Leader’s excrement. 

My guide Kale leads me down another damp, dimly lit tunnel. Passing through a doorway, it opens up into a large room. Like most communist meeting rooms, it’s austere and basic, although a small opening at the end gives this room better ventilation and lighting. Simple cloth covered tables are surrounded by seven wooden chairs. Old maps hang from the walls. 

A blue sign gives the rooms significance: “MEETING ROOM OF THE CENTRAL COMMITTEE POLITBUREAU OF THE ” Strangely, the sign ends there. Of the what? The Communist Party? It appears that whoever painted the sign, ran out of space to complete the leadership’s full title. 

This well protected cavern, was a nerve center for the Pathet Lao. Here politburo members plotted their revolution, discussing victories and defeats during their long war of rebellion. 

For an added historical touch, standing on the table in front of each seat, is a framed photo of each of the politburo’s members. Unlike certain members of the Vietnamese Politburo that gained international fame and notoriety, most of these men remained practically anonymous to the western world. I wonder if any of them are still alive today. 

The 'politburo' for the Laotian communist party held their meetings here
In an adjoining room, six simple bedframes are lined up in a row. This was the ‘resting room’, for the communist leaders. This was also needed due to the air raids. When the politburo would meet, apparently there were occasional attacks that prevented them from leaving the cavern when the meetings adjourned. 

I’m disappointed that there aren’t many artifacts to see here. Most of the furnishings, weapons, and everything else that the Pathet Lao stored in these caves are long gone. Since the war ended, this hidden sanctuary has remained quiet. 

I leave Kaysone’s lair, and outside the entrance there are plenty of trees and greenery. There is no grand entrance to the cave, no massive steel door either. Sandbags used to protect the entrances are gone too. The entrance now is a natural stone arch, partly blocked by boulders and brush. Except for a nearby cement stairway, you would never guess that this was once the headquarters of communism in Laos. 

A hidden cave's entrance (at left)
After the war in Laos, as the Cold War continued, these caves remained officially secret. They were closed and guarded for years. The Pathet Lao wanted to keep their caveland refuge safe, just in case they were ever needed again. But they weren't needed. In recent years when Laos opened it’s borders to tourists, soon after they opened these caves as well. As I explore the caverns today, there are no guards anywhere. Not one. Even the entrance gate to Kaysone’s cave was left unmanned. That may be due to lack of tourists, since there are no other visitors here either. It is only my guide and I, exploring this obsolete, subterranean world.  

Close to Kaysone’s cave entrance, is what looks like a strange Swiss chalet. Built after the bombing stopped, Kaysone moved in here after the peace was signed in 1973. Along with other nearby government buildings, it now sits empty. The Pathet Lao built his home near the cave entrances for safety. They wanted to be able to run back into the caves, if the bombings had started all over again. They never did. 

F-111s over Southeast Asia. An F-111 was the last US aircraft to bomb Laos.(Source:USAF)
The last USAF bombing mission over Laos was from an F-111, which dropped its bombs on February 22, 1973. The massive American bombing campaign over Laos was finally over. The US military had learned that victory through air power alone, didn’t work. Much of the Laotian countryside had been destroyed, and many were killed. Yet the communists, like these caves, were still here. 

In the end, the winning side in Laos was decided by the extent of continuing military support. The Royal Laotian government was able to survive, as long as they received massive amounts of military aid, and air support from the US. But without American help, they couldn’t survive for long against the North Vietnamese Army. The support of the nearby North Vietnamese, had outlasted the support of the distant Americans. 

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