Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Rice paddies and karst mountains in the remote, beautiful town of Viengxay
Viengxay in Laos, was once just a series of scattered villages, until the war put this place on the target map for US bombers. After it became the underground headquarters for the communist Pathet Lao rebels, it grew to shelter 20,000 soldiers and citizens. Now with the wartime caves emptied, Viengxay is among the larger towns of the remote northeast. 

Today the town looks like any rural Laotian community. Walking dirt streets, I pass traditional wooden Lao houses, with handmade bamboo fences. Local men play petang, a game brought here by French colonials. On the outskirts, farmers tend their rice paddies by hand, as they've done for generations. 

Meanwhile the misty and mysterious karst mountains stand sentinel around Viengxay, ancient guardians of history. I pause to watch them, as passing clouds move between the peaks. Before my eyes, the mists completely obscure entire mountains that were visible only minutes before. 

Meg, only white foreigner living here
Continuing my stroll, I find the local tourist office. Walking in, I meet a worker that I was never expecting to see in this remote place. 

A white woman!

I say hello, and chat with Meg, an Aussie. She’s short with white hair, and appears to be nearing retirement age. She tells me that she used to teach at a university in Australia, and now her kids are all grown. She decided to keep working because she enjoys it, and she heard of a position here in the tourist office. 

“Philosophically, I’m a peacenik,” she explains. I wonder if she protested against Australia’s involvement in the war in Southeast Asia, all those years ago. 

I ask Meg why she came to Viengxay, and she answers, “I liked the challenge.” There’s no mobile phone signal here, and no internet either. When she wants to check her email, Meg has to take a bus to Sam Neua, over an hour away. And there isn’t always a bus to come back either. 

I can tell she's worked in Viengxay for a while, since she walks around the office barefoot! One of her jobs here, was editing text on the historical signs that I’d seen in the caves. For once, most of the tourist signs here were written with correct English grammar, so I can thank Meg for that. 

Meg even worked in Viengxay before, and returned to work again. The warmth of the Laotian people brought her back. “I love the Lao people,” she says. “The Lao people are so optimistic. So much destroyed, and they are still optimistic.”

Men play petang by old cluster bomb casing
As it turns out, Meg was unexpectedly a firsthand witness to some recent destruction. One morning she was walking to work here in the office, just like she did every day. On the way, she heard official announcements blaring from the community loudspeakers. She can’t speak Lao, so she didn’t understand the announcement’s meaning. 

She soon found out. She was arriving in front of the tourism office when it happened. 


A massive explosion shattered the calm of the quiet morning. This deafening sound was unlike anything Meg had experienced in her life. When the bomb went off around 100 meters away, she was more than just surprised. 

“I was knocked to the ground!“ she told me.  

An explosive ordinance disposal team had just detonated a 500 pound bomb that had been recently found, left over from the war. Rather than trying to remove the dangerous old weapon, they had decided to detonate it where it had been discovered: within town limits. The community loudspeaker announcements that she hadn’t understood, were warning town residents to take shelter for the coming blast. 

“I felt violent nausea,” she said recalling those shocking moments, “and horror.”

I ponder her thoughts on the explosion. This was only from a single 500 pound bomb, and so many of these were dropped on Viengxay nearly every day during the war years. Those caves where they took shelter weren’t comfortable, but they were preferable to living out here in the open, where death rained down from above. 

Caves of Viengxay, where residents and soldiers sheltered during air raids
I bid Meg good bye, and continue on through town. 

Her job certainly is a challenge. Given Viengxay's remote location, trying to attract tourists here is an uphill battle. As I’ve walked around town, I’ve only seen two other visitors all day long. 

Although few journey this far, there are those in high places that still remember Viengxay’s importance. Recently, an impressive caravan of 120 cars rolled into town all the way from Vientiane. It was a government convoy arriving for a commemorative event for this former communist wartime headquarters. It was a grand affair, and the current Minister of Foreign Affairs gave a speech. 

Like many of the others attending the official event, back during the war the Minister had been born here in the caves.

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