Laos – Pathet Lao Caves, Viengxay, Houaphanh province


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When I first read about the Pathet Laos caves at Viengxay, I instantly knew I had to visit them. The statue above marks the 1973 second Indo China war victory claimed by the Pathet Lao at Viengxay, and recognised as the birthplace of current Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos.  To understand why Vinegxay was chosen and what went on here between 1964 and 1973, a basic understanding of Laos history since 1945 helps.  This was a very turbulent time in Laos history, with many twists and turns . Plus Laos was impacted by events in neighbouring Vietnam.

I have attempted to summarise the key events that eventually led to Viengxay entering the Laos history books …

  • March 1945 – Japan seizes Laos from French colonial rule.
  • August 1945 – Japan surrenders. Under the Potsdam Agreement, Laos handed back over to the French in the North and the British in the South.
  • 1946 – French re-occupy Vientiane in April (Viang Chan) and political uneasiness, division and discontent prevails.  Three main Lao political parties emerge – Vietminh (socialist), Issara (Royalist) and Neutralists. By the end of the year, the first Indochina war begins as a result of resistance from Veitminh. Prince Souphanouvong joins the Vietminh in Vietnam and establishes the Lao Patriotic Front, or Pathet Lao.  He becomes known as the Red Prince.
  • 1949  – French offered quasi independence to Lao under The Convention.  Political discord continued.
  • 1953 –  Franco-Lao Treaty creates and establishes an independent Lao, with a constitutional monarchy in Luang Prabang.  It also allowed Pathet Lao rule two Northern provinces.
  • 1954 – French are defeated at Dien Bien Phu marking the end of French colonial rule.The USA increases interest in Indo China due to cold war geo-politics. Political discord continued.
  • March 1961 – President JF Kennedy gives speech stating “we strongly and unreservedly support the goal of a neutral and independent Laos”, continuing “to all of the world, that all we want in Laos is peace, not war — a truly neutral government, not a cold war pawn”.
  • 1962 – Geneva Agreement between Pathet Lao, Lao Royalist and Lao neutralists sets out Laos neutral position to establish stability
  • 1964 – Royal Lao Government grant the USA permission to operate out of Laos.  The Pathet Lao relocates to a huge cave complex at Viengxay.  The Laos civil war, or second Indochina war begins.
  • 1964 – 1973 – The US conducted extensive ariel bombardment in parts of Laos where the Pathet Laos was active and supporting the Vietminh efforts in North Vietnam.  This was known as The Secret War
  • February 1973 – ceasefire declared in Vientiane.  Under the Vientiane Treaty,  Laos divided between the Pathet Laos and the Royalists
  • August – December 1975 – Pathet Lao seizes power. Lao monarchy abolished.

[Compiled from various sources;  BBC timeline, Wikipedia, Footprints travel guide,  “A history of Laos” by Martin Stuart-Fox.]

From the caves at Viengxay, between 1964 and 1973 the Pathet Laos politburo ran its government and military affairs. At the time, this cave complex was the nerve centre of the communist insurgency against the US backed Royal Lao Government.  At its height, around 20,000 Pathet Lao government officials, various government departments  and wider supporters lived and worked in these caves.  18 of them are now open to the public in an extremely scenic area spread out over several kilometres …

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Several hundred caves were used by the Pathet Lao in this area. The most historical caves are open to the public and can only be explored with an official guide.   Due to transportation issues getting there on time, I hired a private guide for my tour…

Kaysone Phomvihanes’  Cave

This is the most solid of the caves, and occupied by Kaysone Phomvihane, the leader of the Pathet Lao. From here he ran his politburo.  The entrance to the cave remains very well-kept with gorgeous orange blossom, which was almost in bud…

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The cave had everything, including a hospital emergency room, quarters for his family and a strong room for Kaysone Phomvihane, complete with independent air supply for prolonged emergencies.

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There was also a safe room for the politburo where they could still work and sleep during heavy raids outside.

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Many of the rooms and working areas were set right into the caves.  These were not open to the public, but the scale of the operations in this cave was clear. Kaysone Phomvihane became the first Prime Minister of Laos in 1975.

Nouhak Phoumsavanhs’ Cave

Nouhak Phoumsavan was a lifetime supporter of the Pathet Lao and trusted member of the leadership during the war years, holding a number of key roles.  His cave was much smaller, and had a huge crater right  by the steps up to the cave entrance… so near yet so far!

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Like many of the Pathet Lao leaders, he built a home outside the cave after the conflict. Nouhak Phoumsavan was President of Laos from 1992 to 1998.

(Prince) Souphanouvongs’  Cave

Of all the caves, this is the one that caught my attention the most.  The Red Prince lived here with his family and I thought his cave entrance had the nicest view …

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Inside were offices and living quarters for his family and staff.  Outside this cave, the Prince had built a stupa for his son, who was killed during the war.

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Prince Souphanouvong also built a home outside his cave after the war, and he too had a bomb crater close to his cave entrance.  It was a pure stroke of genius what he did with his crater – turned it into a swimming pool!

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And next to the swimming pool he built a tennis court …

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Prince Souphanouvong was the first President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, holding office from 1975 to 1986.

Phoumi Vongvichis’ Cave

Of all the caves, Phoumi Vongvichis was where I got a real sense of what actually happened here aside from war. Phoumi Vongvichis had responsibility for health and education and in his cave, teacher and nurse training took place. Much of this cave was blasted with dynamite to build the workspaces inside…

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There was also a hospital cave across from the main cave.  Not only were the wounded treated here, assisted by Cuba and Russian doctors, but normal health business took place, most notably, where 100’s of babies were born over the nine-year bombardment. The entrance to the hospital – with blast wall …

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Throughout the war years, Phoumi Vongvichi was also the Pathet Loas’s international statesmen and travelled to other communist countries to maintain their support.  After the war, he became Prime Minister and Minister of Education, Sport and Religious Affairs and later the Acting President.

Artillery Cave and Khamtay Siphandone Cave

About 2 KM from the other caves were the military operations caves, under the command of Khamtay Siphandone.  The main artillery cave was the biggest.  Again, a huge crater was close to the cave entrance…

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… and an even bigger blast wall at the entrance…

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Inside was a labyrinth of corridors and huge spaces.  It was of course empty, but wandering though I did get a sense of how efficient and highly organised everything must have been under such extraordinary circumstances…

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The Artillery cave obviously came under constant bombardment.  This is the observation post.

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Much of the area surrounding this cave is still contaminated with UXO’s.  In 1975 he became Deputy Prime Minister,  Minister for Defence and Commander of the Army. He was President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic  from 1998 to 2006.

Finally, last stop was Xanglot Cave.  This was more open, and used as a community centre and gathering hall for larger numbers.  Concerts, political gatherings, weddings – and it is still used today by the community…

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Visitor details

The caves website is pretty good – caves are open 8 – 5 daily, closed for lunch 12 – 1. Also basic information in this leaflet. Entrance fees are 60,000 kip including guide.  Public tours in English are at 9am and 1pm and last approx 2 hours 30 minutes.  Outside these times you can still tour the caves, paying the entrance fee plus 50,000 kip for your own guide. Bring your own water/refreshments as there are no cafes within the caves, although you do pass the odd roadside shop.

To get around you need transportation – either scooter or you can rent a bike at the Visitor centre, I hired a bike for 20,000 kip.

Getting to Viengxay

It’s a schlep! But I knew it would be when I decided to visit the Pathet Lao caves. Viengxay is very out-of-the-way in the far north-east of Laos and it takes at least a day to get there, even if you fly.  Due to its location, not many international visitors make this journey – just back packers taking the less used Nam Soi/Nameo border into Vietnam, and military history fanatics like me!

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 1st step – getting to Xam Nua – the provincial capital

By Air – regular flights from Vientiane – check with Laos Air

By Bus – Public, VIP and minivan services from Phonsavanh (8 hours, 80,000 kip) and Luang Prabang (14 hours, 140,00 kip).  The Luang Prabang bus can also drop you at Nong Khaiw (for Muang Ngoi Neua).  There are also buses to other destination from Xam Nua, including Hanoi.

 2nd step – getting to Viengxay

It’s another 25 km up an exceedingly pretty, winding mountain road to Viengxay.  Public transport is very limited – it’s the morning bus to Hanoi, which drops you off 2 km from the caves.  Best options are to hire a scooter from Viengxay (can use at caves too) or taxi – the expensive option.  I took a taxi back, and passed a horrible scooter accident and ended up taking the badly injured victim to hospital.

Where to stay

There are a number of guest houses and hotels in Xam Nua and serve their purpose;  clean and comfortable and all are central.  I spent two nights at the Bounhome Guesthouse – 80,000 kip per night. The family owners spoke no English but they were super friendly and welcoming.  Options at Viengxay are much more limited, although homestays are available.

There is a tourism office in Xam Nua open 9am – 12 noon and 1 – 4.  Also a market and museum, otherwise not much to Xam Nua really.

Overall

I spent two and a half days travelling for a two and a half hour tour of these caves, which felt a bit rushed. This was a great pity as the historical importance of the caves are worth more time exploring and absorbing.  One really got a sense of the struggle and determination of those that lived and worked here. The audio guide is excellent though, the caves were fascinating and I am glad I went.

The caves are not really geared up for international touring visitors though – it is difficult to get to the caves.  Yet according to my guide, they get around 20 foreign visitors a day and around 150-200 visitors from Lao or its neighbours, depending on the season.  So why not have a daily/on demand tour package that includes a shuttle service from Xam Nua?

I have to admit, for me the journey to the caves was tough – I really felt my age, and getting involved in assisting at traffic accident wasn’t the best end to the day!  Flying to Xam Nua is  quicker and more comfortable.  However, the scenery to and from Xam Nua and Viengxay was absolutely stunning and their were regular impromptu stops enabling me to really see the country, which was wonderful…

Phonsavanh – Xam Nua (8 hours)

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Xam Nua to Nong Khaiw (11 hours)

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5 thoughts on “Laos – Pathet Lao Caves, Viengxay, Houaphanh province

    • Many thanks! Laos is a wonderful country that offers so much to adventurous tourists. The Pathet Lao caves are very out of the way though, but worth visiting if you are into caves and/or military history of the region.

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  1. A compact and beautiful city, Xam Neua is always in my heart after a brief visit in 2013. Viengxay, a district of Samneua or the so called birth place of the Lao PDR, is also housed the historical caves. It reminds the Lao people of how hard life H.E.Prince Souphanuvong lived in such a dangerous environment during the ideological war 61 years ago.

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