Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Ledge for anti-aircraft guns
I continue exploring this communist caveland of Viengxay, and now I'm climbing many, many steps up the stone mountain. The steep climb is enough to make my long legs sore. 

Finally, we reach a large ledge that has been cut right into the limestone of the mountainside. It’s a steep drop below me, with a commanding view beyond. In the distance are more mountains, with feathery clouds dotting their peaks. Beautiful rolling farmers fields are swathed in many shades of green. 

My guide Kale tells me his family is from Viengxay; his parents were farmers here during those fearful times of war. He says that when they were out working the fields then, and enemy aircraft came, they ran into the jungle or into the caves to hide. When day time air attacks became frequent, they could hardly get any work done at all. So they began working fields at night. 

The commanding view from this ledge is no accident, because this vantage point was once the site of a Pathet Lao anti-aircraft emplacement. The old guns are gone, but a sign here describes what days were like back then. 

“Defending Viengxay

Anti-aircraft guns were fixed inside this cave and on the plain below. The Anti-aircraft gunnery commander was situated high in this cave, where there was a good view across the plain to the west. From here field telephones were used to command the gun emplacements on the plain and to direct fire at the incoming enemy aircraft. Warning sirens on top of the peaks were set off when incoming planes were spotted. 
Anti-aircraft gunner's view of plains and mountains surrounding Viengxay
Anti-aircraft gunners sat here for hours on end surveying the skies to the west. They were waiting for American bombers to arrive from their bases in northern Thailand, mainly from a specially constructed base in Udon Thani, or Royal Lao Government aircraft from Vientiane. When the bombers were seen, the noise from the guns firing from inside the confined space of the cave must have been deafening. For the gunners on the open plains below, the risks were even higher than for their comrades in the caves, as they were directly exposed to attacking aircraft. You can see bomb craters just below this cliff, at the base of the stairs to the Artillery Cave.”

I peer down at the ground to look for the craters, but they're difficult to see with the thick brush below. It may not be entirely safe down there either. Even though there have been three decades for erosion to fill in many of the old craters, there are still many unexploded bombs in the ground all around Viengxay. 

Farmers still find these old bombs when they're out plowing fields in the region. Being a farmer can be a hazardous profession in Laos. 

'Elephant Cave', the largest cave in the underground communist city

Continuing on, I finally reach the biggest cave in all of Viengxay, and it’s an impressive sight. I’m gawking at the cave of Xanglot, which translates as ‘Elephant Pass Cave’. The jagged and uneven limestone ceiling curves from 20 feet high at the sides, up to more than 30 feet near the middle. The cave is well named; a full grown Asian elephant could walk in through one end of this cave, and straight out the other. 

In the underground world that made up wartime Viengxay, this was an important political center. There were official functions in this huge cave; communist party rallys and propaganda meetings.  For the Pathet Lao, this was kind of like Moscow’s Red Square, only in a bomb shelter. It was also used as a lecture hall for military training. 

Thanks to it’s larger entrances, I have plenty of light to see. At the far end is a curious sight, a theatrical stage. That reveals this place's other name: 'Theater Cave'. 
Photo display of old wartime performances and rallies

The cave stage is complete with an orchestra pit, and a room in the wings for costume changes. The stage floor isn’t made of wood though, it’s smoothened bedrock. I imagine there wasn’t much tap dancing here. 

Out in front, the audience section had room for 2,000 comrades, where they sat out on the bare rock floor to enjoy the show. 

In the sheltered, underground life that everyone in wartime Viengxay endured, this was one of the few places where the soldiers and locals could enjoy themselves and forget about the bombings for a while. 

There were cultural shows, circus acts, and singing with live music for the party faithful. There were even special appearances by female performers doing traditional dances, brought all the way in from Vietnam. These were the communist versions of USO shows. It wasn’t Bob Hope, but it did a lot to lift their spirits and boost morale. 

Visitor walks across the old empty stage

The Theater Cave still gets some use nowadays; the local community uses it as a venue for the Laotian New Year’s celebration. But for the most part, the old stage is quiet and bare; even the old curtain has been removed. 

The days when Pathet Lao troops here, enjoyed the communist version of vaudeville underneath a mountain, are now only distant memories. 

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