Written by Administrator
Wednesday, 30 April 2008 20:45
Hidden deep inside the jungle-covered carst mountains of northern Laos lies a secret cave city where revolutionary leaders survived nearly a decade of US bombing during the Vietnam war.
Now, over 30 years since the conflict ended, the communist country has opened up the remote wartime hideaway to tourism, hoping to bring development to this explosives-littered and dirt-poor part of the country.
The network of almost 500 caves was home to 23,000 people and boasted all the facilities of a city, including not just bomb shelters but also shops, schools, a printing press and a hospital cave staffed by Cuban doctors.
Hundreds of troops and villagers could shelter in the cathedral-sized Elephant Cave, where propaganda movies were screened and visiting theatre troops from socialist countries performed to bolster battlefield morale.
Smaller caves connected by tunnels were the homes of Communist Party chief Kaysone Phomvihane and his politburo, set near an emergency shelter with a Russian oxygen generating machine in case of a gas attack, which never came.
"This is the birthplace of modern Laos," said Siphanh Vandouayang, who spent much of his childhood here and now runs the local visitors' centre.
"Most of the members of the revolutionary leadership lived and studied here."
The picturesque landscape of limestone peaks and rice fields between 1964 and 1973 became the most heavily bombed place on earth as US jets targeted Pathet Lao fighters and North Vietnamese supply lines, he recalled.
"Every eight to 10 minutes the American aircraft bombed, between 6am and 5pm," he said. "At 7pm they came back to fire rockets and for surveillance for the next day's bombing... People farmed only between 4am and 6am."
For decades after the war, which ended in communist victories in 1975 in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the area remained off limits to foreigners and the site of political re-education camps that are still shrouded in mystery.
As Laos has opened up since the 1990s, the occasional backpacker has strayed to Viengxay, two days' drive from the capital Vientiane, in northeastern Houapanh province, and 55 kilometres (34 miles) from the Vietnamese border.
Laos is hoping to change this and, with the help of foreign development groups, turn the historic site into a war-theme tourist stop, similar to the Cu Chi tunnels of southern Vietnam and Cambodia's horrific Killing Fields.
Laos has so far opened only seven caves, most of them the former homes of communist leaders, where busts of Lenin, kerosene lamps and weathered communist tracts are among the few historical artefacts on display.
But the mountains hide more secrets to be opened and ...