Laos Opens Wartime 'Cave City' to Visitors
A collection of dramatic caves that provided shelter to 23,000 Laotians during nine years of aerial bombardment in the Indochina War, has now been opened to the public.
Between 1964 and 1973 Laos became caught up in a secret war that remains largely ignored in world history. Up to 480 caves in Viengxay district in Houaphanh province were transformed into a de facto cave city. The caves were used to house leaders and fighters of the Phathet Lao army. Many caves functioned as hospitals, shops, schools, printing houses, government offices, bakeries and theaters. In the hospital cave, patients were treated by Cuban doctors.
Today, five of the caves are opened to the public. More will soon open. The surrounding area is a remote and scenic province of karst mountains, tall waterfalls, hot springs and a protected forest that is home to tigers and leopards. The area is rich in ethnic villages, silk weaving and archaeological sites. In the surrounding hills, villagers live in simple wooden huts. Some still hunt with crossbows. Some weave intricate textiles on elaborate looms. Many grow rice on steep hillsides or in lush green paddies.
“At the height of the bombing it was impossible to imagine that tourists would one day wish to visit this place to learn about our experience,” says Phonekeo Latsachanh, who lived in one of the caves ifrom 1964 to 1973. At the time he worked as an official in the cave designated as a trade office. “It's important that Lao people can now tell their story,” he says.
Houaphanh province is the poorest in a country where 40% of the population survive on less than $1 per day. Locally, tourism is now being heralded as a vital tool in the fight against poverty.
Budget Traveler Magnet
An increasing number of budget travelers have been finding their way to Viengxay from both Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang on Laos' public bus system. There is one simple hotel with 16 rooms and three basic guest houses with a combined total of 26 rooms. Forty-five minutes away in Xam Neua, the provincial capital, there are three hotels offering a total of 45 rooms. Xam Neua has 16 guest houses.
The Lao government has asked the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the Netherlands Development Agency (SNV) and the Asian Development Bank to develop the location as a tourist destination and world peace site that focuses upon poverty reduction and the needs of local people.
Over 20 tourism and heritage trainers have been brought in by international organizations to deliver practical advice that will help villagers benefit from the expected growth in tourism. Former war heritage sites such as the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam and the Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek near Phnom Penh in Cambodia attract hundreds of international visitors daily.
The Lao National Tourism Administration (LNTA) is recording oral histories that visitors can listen to while they walk around the network of caves. The plan is to develop Viengxay as a national heritage site to be explored on foot. The LNTA will soon unveil plans for Viengxay's 'cave city' development to international travel agents during the Lao Ecotourism Fair, July 26-29 in Vientiane.