|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|
“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|
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|
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)|
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)|
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.