The Caves of the Pathet Lao
25.11.2010 - 27.11.2010 10 °C
In the morning we were picked up from our hostel and taken to the bus station. There we found out we could have saved 60,000k ($7.50) if we’d booked there rather than through our guesthouse, but we figured the tuktuk probably would have ripped us off nearly that much getting there anyway, c’est la vie. (We swear building all the bus stations right outside the cities is a conspiracy between the tuk tuk drivers and the government town planners to shaft tourists who have to get buses!) The bus we were on was a rather rickety affair, was vey local and soon became rammed to the door, but we managed to get the back seats next to the window so it wasn’t too bad. On the way we also passed through some beautiful scenery and some minority villages where the locals still dress as they have done for hundreds of years.
9.5 hours later, the sun setting, and the bus station now being on top of a rather large hill outside town, rather than dead in the centre (see what I mean about the stations!), we arrived in Sam Neua. We opted to get a tuk tuk down to town since the tiny map we had in our book was clearly out of date. It stopped outside a few guesthouses which was helpful and the second one we tried, “Long Ma” had rooms for 40,000k ($5) so we opted for that, despite it’s rather inventive sink drainage method...
We then went for a little wander but since the sun was now down (it was 6.30pm) and we were in Laos, everything was shut except one touristy restaurant. We ordered fried noodles and fried rice, which looked the real deal, but tasted really strange. Not the most enjoyable meal we’d had. After that, since there was barely any street lighting or anything going on we went to bed.
Next day we got up nice and early and walked back up the hill to go to the bus station, firstly to get tuk tuk to the Pathet Laos caves in Vieng Xai, and secondly to see if there was even a bus from Sam Neua to Vietnam (we’d read on the internet that there was but it didn’t sound very well used or reliable). We got to the top of the hill at around 630am and couldn't find anyone who could help us. Not a soul! Feeling like this trip might be a big mistake we dejectedly headed down the hill to try and find and internet cafe (a daunting prospect since our 2007 guide told us there was only one, which operated out of a private house!) and to get more information.
As we were walking a shared bus driver pulled up to us and asked where we were going? For once we needed help from a passing taxi, told him and he told us to get onboard. The bus itself was full so we had to cling onto the back! He drove for what felt like an age and we weren’t sure if he’d take us all the way to Vieng Xai (50 minutes away) or whether there was another bus station hiding somewhere! In the end it turned out there was another bus station (ridiculous since Sam Neua was tiny, no way did it need two bus stations!) and there we were pointed towards another bigger shared bus which was due to leave in half an hour, 8am. Perfect for us since we needed to be in Vieng Xai by 9am for the caves tour!
The journey was another awe inspirer as we drove along a valley past some beautiful karsts, similar to the ones we had seen in Ban Nua Hin and before too long we arrived in Vieng Xai. After a moment of “errr where do we go now?!” we noticed some helpful, but small, green (so they helpfully blended into the scenery, unobtrusive, but failing at purposeful) signs pointing us to the Cave Tour Information Office. We got there with 10 minutes to spare, paid for our tickets, 60,000k ($7.50)each, and were told that if we wanted to see all the caves we’d have to hire bicycles, because the other people on the tour had said they wanted to already (another 15,000 grrr). We were also presented with a rather swish audioguide, which had been made in Australia, complete with aircraft sound effects and eyewitness accounts of living in the caves. Before too long our guide appeared and off we headed....
A brief interlude for some history....
As we mentioned in our Phonsavan blog, the Americans secretly bombed Laos and the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam war. The caves in Vieng Xai were where the Pathet Laos (Laos communists) ran most of the North of the country, and mounted a resistance against the USA and the Laos government between 1964 and 1975. The caves themselves and Vieng Xai were in a deep valley in the mountains, making them the ideal place to hide from aerial bombing and to avoid ground invasion.
Currently, 7 caves, which were the main ones used by the Pathet Lao, are open to the public, with up to 100 in the Vieng Xai area and we visited them all (thanks to the bikes!) The caves were an impressive network, with a hospital, kitchens, living accommodation for over 300 soldiers, printing presses and even a large theatre, tucked away in the caverns.
The area where the former Communist leader used to play table tennis with his bodyguard!
Many of the caves also had an airtight “emergency room” with an air filter donated by Russia, in case the Americans ever dropped gas on the area (fortunately they didn’t).
The Russian air filter.
At each cave, which are named after the members of the original politburo who lived in them during the war, we listened to another part of the audioguide. As I said before it contained accounts from people who had lived in the caves which were quite interesting. Not unexpectedly much of the story was fairly biased, especially since some of the members of the original leadership are still in the government today! So interesting, but to be taken with a pinch of salt. One staggering point it did make was about the cluster bombs which plague the country. America still hasn't signed an international resolution which bans them and we read today in the news that the UK has been permitting their storage on UK soil, despite it being illegal in UK law. So much for Obama's more liberal agenda.... Also at each cave was a modern house, built in 1975. These were infact the houses used by the politbureau after 1975, right outside the caves they had lived in during the war! We had to admire their tenacity to want to stay where they had fought for so long! One had even built a swimming pool out of the crater left by a rather large American bomb!
Once the 4 hour tour finished we headed back to where we had been dropped off to wait for a bus back to Sam Neua. We had been told there was one at 1:30pm, but when we arrived a local in a rather beaten up old rice truck, told us 2pm. It was 1:20, so we had a fair while to wait. With about 10 minutes to go the rice truck driver jumped up and said come with me, so along with a few other people we’d done the tour with, we jumped into his truck.
A few miles in, going up a rather steep hill the truck stalled, and wouldn’t start until he’d revved the hell out of the engine. A few km later, it did it again. And again. And again. Until nearly 2 hours later we got back to Sam Neua. Oh and this wasn’t before he’d stopped in what looked like the middle of nowhere to demand money from us. We were reluctant since we didn’t know where we were but we grudgingly paid him and fortunately it turned out we were only 1km or so from the bus station anyway.
We opted to walk back to the centre, which was further than we’d remembered in the end, and had to rush because we’d nearly run out of money and had to pay around $70 for the bus to Vietnam and our hotel the next day. We got to the main bank at 3:45 to find it shut, despite the opening hours being written large on the front...4PM! Eugh! We then walked to the next bank to find that closed at 3:30! Disaster! Fortunately (and as John well knows) looking pathetic can sometimes get you what you want and sure enough puppy dog eyes at the front door got us inside to change our money! Phew!
An uneventful evening followed. Probably for the best since Susie was predicting a 20+ hour bus ride the next day!
Next morning we woke up early again to seek out our bus, which we had been told would go from out elusive second bus station from the day before. We started off with trip to the (very local) local market to get snacks, Laos doughnuts and something spherical (because Susie liked the shape) and a world of teeny tiny mandarins, for the journey. No sooner had we left the market to look for a tuktuk to the station than a big bus with Hanoi – Thanh Hoa – Sam Neua, appeared in front of us with a driver expectedly asking, “You wanna go to Vietnam?”. “Yes!” we announced and boarded. Any more information was hard to come by and although this looked like the bus we wanted, John was uncharacteristically paranoid about it not being the right one. With 8am (the time the bus we had been told about’s leaving time) quickly approaching and little progress out of Sam Neua achieved (despite going around in circles picking up chickens, birds in cages and miscellaneous boxes of....stuff, he grew more and more worried that this would turn out to be a dud and that we’d miss the connection we really wanted.......