Arriving in VIENG XAI (“City of Victory”), you wouldn’t know the Pathet Lao and their communist allies in Vietnam had won the Second Indochina War. Sprawled across a valley surrounded by the cave-riddled karst formations used by the Pathet Lao as their wartime headquarters, Vieng Xai was cobbled together by comrades from Russia, North Korea and Vietnam as well as labourers from Hua Phan’s notorious re-education camps. In 1973, at the end of the war, there were plans to make Vieng Xai the heart of the newly socialist nation, but in the end Laos’s socialist friends could not be convinced to foot the bill to turn a backwater into a gleaming new capital, and so the Pathet Lao leadership decamped to Vientiane. With time, Vieng Xai couldn’t even compete with nearby Sam Neua as a provincial hub. People moved out and many buildings fell into a state of crumbling decay. These days, the town has a slow, dusty charm, complemented by its stunning backdrop of limestone karsts.
Very few travellers stay in Vieng Xai, most preferring to do the caves as a day-trip from Sam Neua, which has much better food and accommodation. However, for those who can afford the time, the scenic countryside and ambience around Vieng Xai reward further exploration, evoking Guilin in China. In fact, if you want to know what Vang Vieng was like before it was overrun with trippy backpackers, Vieng Xai is the place for you.
The Pathet Lao caves
The Pathet Lao caves
When American air force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay jested that the United States would bomb the enemy “back to the Stone Age”, what he hadn’t realized was that living like cavemen would prove to be the key to the survival of the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao during the heaviest aerial bombardment in history. Like Vang Vieng in central Laos and Mahaxai in the south, the limestone karst formations in the valleys east of Sam Neua are pockmarked with caves and crevices – which proved a perfect hideout for the Pathet Lao’s parallel government. Viet Minh army units began using the caves and enlarging them in the early 1950s while fighting the French in the days before Dien Bien Phu. Soon, the Lao leftists had joined the Vietnamese underground, and by the middle of the 1960s, Vieng Xai and the surrounding area had become a troglodyte city of thousands living in the more than one hundred caves. The caves – some at the foot of hills, others high up, hidden by surrounding escarpments and accessible only by scaling steps cut into sheer rock faces – were an impregnable fortress, but even poking your head outside could prove deadly as craters near the caves attest.
The inhabitants of the caves followed a routine of sleeping by day and working at night in the fields outside (animals had to be dark-coloured in order to remain undetected by the enemy) or in the caves themselves: caverns held weaving mills, printing presses and workshops where American bombs and worn-out trucks were upgraded into farming tools and appliances. On Saturdays, adults would take a break and attend classes consisting of professional, cultural and political courses as well as lessons in algebra, geometry and geography.
The conclusion of the war didn’t bring the hardships experienced in the caves to an end: what changed were the inhabitants. After 1975, the caves became a “re-education camp” for functionaries of the Royal Lao government – from the lowliest foot soldier to the former king.
Seven caves are now open to the public, and the guided tour takes about two hours. Each of these caves, most named after the Pathet Lao leaders who lived there, had multiple exits, an office and sleeping quarters, as well as an emergency chamber for use in case of chemical-weapons attacks (these chambers were kitted out with a Soviet oxygen machine and a metal door of the sort you’d find on an old submarine). Tours often begin with the large cave of Kaysone Phomvihane, who became leader of the Lao communist movement at its formation in 1955, and remained unchallenged in his post as head of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic from its inception in 1975 until his death in 1992. Born in Savannakhet of a Lao mother and a Vietnamese father, Kaysone spent far more time in Vieng Xai than the Pathet Lao’s face man, Prince Souphanouvong. While the Red Prince was off playing Vientiane’s game of cat-and-mouse politics, Kaysone stayed in Hua Phan, attending frequent meetings in Hanoi – a risky two-day journey from Vieng Xai – with North Vietnamese leaders Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary military strategist behind the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
One of the most fascinating caves is Xanglot Cave, a huge natural cave which housed a large concert hall where rallies and meetings were held, alongside festivals and musical and dance performances. It’s fascinating to imagine the residents attempting to maintain some semblance of normal life while living in these extraordinary conditions.
The first group of prisoners to be transported to re-education camps – the Pathet Lao’s means of neutralizing its wartime enemies – arrived by invitation in full military dress months before the communist takeover in December 1975. After receiving letters signed by Prince Souvannaphouma, seventy high-ranking Royal Lao Army officers and provincial governors came to what they thought would be an important meeting and were whisked off to the Plain of Jars, where they were fêted with a banquet and a movie. Any hope of a uniquely Lao solution to the Second Indochina War ended there, as these officials were shortly thereafter flown off to Hua Phan, where they were stripped of their rank and separated into small work parties. In the following months, thousands of civil servants and army officers voluntarily entered the re-education centres in Hua Phan, Attapeu and Phongsali after being assured the “seminars” would last only a few weeks. With their opponents safely out of the way in the most remote corners of the country, or having opted already to flee to Thailand, the Pathet Lao moved ahead with the final stage of their bloodless takeover virtually unopposed.
Joined later by thousands more who arrived somewhat less willingly, the internees were turned loose in the fenceless camps, which were heavily guarded and hemmed in by the extreme geographical features of the Lao wilderness, and left to forage for food and build their own shelters out of bamboo. Each morning, a bell was rung at 5am and the prisoners were assigned a job for the day – cutting wood in the jungles, building roads, working in the fields. In the evenings, self-criticism and political indoctrination sessions were held. Although there was no physical torture, mindless rules were established in order to control the captives, who were never allowed to settle into one place. The cumulative effect of the “re-education”, according to a former Royal Lao Army officer, who spent thirteen years in a Hua Phan camp, was a sort of “brainwashing”. Life in the camps was hard – the officer is certain that he only made it because of a Green Beret survival course he attended in the United States – and many ran off or died of malaria.
Drug addicts, prostitutes and other “anti-social” elements were also rounded up and shuttled off to Ang Nam Ngum near Vang Vieng, where an estimated three thousand people were placed on “Boy Island” and “Girl Island”. In 1977, the royal family too was arrested and banished to Camp 01 at Sop Hao, in Hua Phan, where the king and crown prince reportedly died of starvation two weeks apart in May 1978. The queen is said to have died in 1981, and, like her husband and son before her, was buried in an unmarked grave outside the camp. The only government acknowledgement of their deaths came a decade later, when Party Secretary General Kaysone mentioned in an aside during a visit to Paris that the king had died of old age.
There are no official figures for the number of people who were interned in the camps, but estimates based on reports by former inmates and their families suggest that at the height of the camps, in 1978–79, the number of internees may have been as high as fifty thousand. Whatever willingness supporters of the Royalist regime had to work with the new government quickly evaporated when it became clear that those interned in the camps weren’t coming home anytime soon. Confronted with the prospect of being sent off for re-education, more than three hundred thousand people, nearly a tenth of Laos’s population, fled the country.
The first group of prisoners, low-ranking members of the former regime, was released in 1980, and despite finally being deemed fit to live in socialist Laos, many took the first chance they got to cross the Mekong. As the 1980s wore on, more and more prisoners were gradually released under pressure from Western nations and Amnesty, which reported that in 1985 seven thousand people remained in the camps, a number which had dwindled to 33 by March 1991. The camps may now be empty, but the current number of political prisoners in Laos is not known, and Amnesty International has described Laos as “a country which has a zero-tolerance policy towards dissent in any form”.