Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dragon Boat Races and on the trail of the Pathet Lao...

After surviving tourist-beaten Luang Prabang we were eager for some authentic action, to see the untouched Laos! I, Sam & Max decided to take the local option of public transportation to the northern village of Nong Khiaw, in a rusty old Hyundai bus.

At the Bus station in Luang Prabang we first didn't know what awaited us...

Well, the term «bus» would be a little exaggerating, the vehicle was more a tiny truck, maybe originally designed for carrying industrial goods. And even if it was for people, then maximally for 8 persons. But we were surprised to see that in fact up to 15 passengers (us included) were packed like sardines in this bus, not to mention with shitloads of bags, crates, fruit baskets and even cages with live chickens packed under the seats, on the roof and everywhere else where there's still enough space.

Adventure time (not visible: the cackling chickens under the seats)!
The cozy bus ride took us about 4 hours over a bumpy road, in a time probably twice as long as it would normally take. Inmidst the way the driver stopped for a small break, where we were able to visit a small local market in the middle of nowhere. We were again surprised what local delicacies you could find between vegetables and ginger:

Before and after... Isn't it cute?
After finally arriving in Nong Khiaw, we were more than happy to stretch our numb legs. But we were much more overwhelmed by the beauty that Nong Khiaw was, I think I haven't seen such a pretty place in Thailand before!

The locals lived more than simple...

... but surrounded by a beautiful countryside!

Some «signs» warned us about UXO in the nearby bushes

We also hiked up a local hill, where...

... the view down the valley was unbelievably scenic, almost silly.

Watching the sunset here...
... is almost surrealistic.
The three of us actually stayed way longer in Nong Khiaw than we first planned, at the end we spent 8 days in this place! But next to lazying around in hammocks we were also quite active; from more hiking, kayaking, cycling over to cave exploring we've had quite some things to do in Nong Khiaw.

... one of the remote villages near Nong Khiaw...
With a local guide we went to see...

At the end of the small trek a waterfall welcomed us

... where the kids were amazed by the passing foreigners.

The local animals were quite...
... curious about us farangs too.

After a 2 hours kayak tour on the nearby Ou River we enjoyed our (not so well-deserved) BBQ fish. Good and lazy times.

On the 10th of April the locals from Nong Khiaw also celebrated a huge dragon boat race event, which is normally also connected to the new year festivites starting on April 13th. To put it straight, the Lao New Year festivities to the locals are kinda like Christmas, New Year and Easter altogether to us westerners, so we knew that all hell would break loose while we're in Nong Khiaw! Next to the boat race the locals settled up a huge market with food stalls, souvenirs, dart throwing stalls and even gambling tables...

This was just some awesome «Laotian Roulette», wasn't it? The guys playing it (even some kids were among the crowd) were completely absorbed in this hilarious game. Even Sam decided to throw some money in, and suddenly he spent like one hour and 40'000 Kip (like $5) in this gambling hell.

The kids and adolescents would throw water at us at all time...
...  while the older ones took care of security.

That's the way the Laotians wish each other Happy New Year!

All locals were partying hard and...

... nobody was safe from the festivities!
And what has this all to do the with the so called «Pathet Lao»? Well, let's unleash my inner historian again! During the Vietnam War and the Civil War in Laos the Pathet Lao (the Laotian Communist forces supported by North Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union) occupied most of the Laotian territory in the North and the East of the country, including Nong Khiaw as well. After the French colonist forces were driven out of Indochina after their bloody defeat at Dien Bien Phu, different forces and parties within those Indochinese countries tried to seize power over those young independent nations. As for Laos, the Pathet Lao since then struggled against the Lao Royalist forces, who on the other side were supported and equipped by the west.

Laotian zones seized by the Pathet Lao during the war

Soldiers of the Pathet Lao

At the beginning the conflict in Laos was considered a local civil war, but with the emerging War in Vietnam more and more foreign powers got involved in Laos as well. Since 1965 the U.S. Air Force (starting from Northern Thailand) flew massive air attacks against North Vietnam on a daily basis, but often the pilots were not able to finish their missions due to heavy North Vietnamese anti-aircraft defense or poor weather. While flying back over Laos to Northern Thailand, the pilots would then instead attack Pathet Lao targets in Northern Laos or simply get rid of their bombs to avoid paperwork for not dropping their ordnance over North Vietnam. It's also worth mentioning that US pilots were also quite scared of landing while being overloaded with sensitive explosives like Cluster Bombs, Napalm or White Phosphorus. The «handiest» way for the pilots was therefore to simply drop it somewhere in Laos while flying back to Thailand, even though Laos was theoretically protected by its agreed neutrality during the war.

While the above mentioned bombing cases could at best be called «unintentional», the U.S. furthermore systematically (and of course illegally) bombed Southern Laos to stop the flow on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, that the NVA and Vietcong used as hidden supply route from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. The so called «Plain of Jars» in Northern Laos was also target of massive, systematic bombings (more details in my next blog post).

The Ho Chi Minh trail, which was target...

... of massive U.S. air bombings. Here depicted a F-4 Phantom.

So what the heck am I trying to say with all this? To put it in a nutshell, Laos was bombed «back to the stone age», both in northern and southern regions. Up to today, Laos remains the most massively bombed country in military history. Some more facts: The U.S. Air Force dropped more than 2.5 million tons of bombs over Laos, more than what the U.S. dropped in World War II on Germany and Japan combined. Another sidefeffect is that about 30% of the dropped ordnance failed to explode and still remains on the ground as dangerous «souvenirs».

Let's go back to Nong Khiaw. During the war the Pathet Lao occupied the town and the surrounding area, and was therefore also targeted by U.S. bombings. Mostly in the morning and in the evening the U.S. bombers would attack the village, hoping to hit Pathet Lao military targets. But just like their North Vietnamese counterparts, the Pathet Lao adapted to those air raids and took refuge in caves near the village. Under the protection of those huge limestone mountains, the Pathet Lao continued their activites and only walked out of the caves at night.

Max and I (Sam didn't feel like going) decided to take a closer look at those caves and to learn more about their history. We therefore rented mountainbikes and rode to those former Pathet Lao fortresses.

The «Patok» cave is accessible via a high stairway

While this cave is not necessarily long...

This young lad was our guide through...

... it still left much space for the Pathet Lao and the civilians.

... this war-torn natural fortress.

Many cave lookouts offered a great view outside

This «Patok» cave was used as the Nong Khiaw outpost of the Pathet Lao and beside some briefing rooms and residence areas there even was an ammunition depot. To keep the ammunition save from any effects from the bombings, the ammunition crates were buried under a small pile of dirt, so the cartridges wouldn't detonate immediately in case a bomb would blow up a part of the cave.

Later that day I and Max discovered another Pathet Lao cave a few kilometers upstream the Ou River, while we were riding our mountainbikes. That (unnamed) cave was even much deeper and obscure than the Patok cave.

... a small passage through the jungle...

Just along a dusty road next to the Ou River and...

... we found this massive cave here.

With a decent head torch we then entered the...
... not so spacious entrance.

Deeper inside we found some remains of the Pathet Lao...
... and some natural inhabitants.

According to some simple yellow signboards we could elaborate that this cave was used as a conference hall for the local Pathet Lao forces. Furthermore we found out that during that time even a small propaganda cinema and radio equipment were installed next to this cave. But even though this cave exploration was more than fascinating, we've had no proper information and background knowledge about this caves. In my opinion the Lao tourism ministry should at least put up some decent information signboards here, otherwise the history behind those caves will get lost forever for the next generations.

The whole cave history fascinated me so much at that point, that I wanted to see more. On the internet I read about a place called Vieng Xai in the East of the country, where the Pathet Lao held its strategic headquarters during the war. This place allegedly offered some of the biggest cave and tunnel systems in the whole country, so of course I was up for it. At that point I split ways with Sam & Max, who both wanted to go back to Luang Prabang for partying (as it turned out, I would meet again those two guys later in Southern Laos...).

I catched up a local bus going from Nong Khiaw over Sam Neua to Vieng Xai, an estimated 170km over a linear distance. I first thought this would be a far more comfortable ride than the last one...

Doesn't look that far, right?
And the bus doesn't look that scary, right?

But the reality was far different, because northern Laos is just full of mountain passes and absolutely untouched wilderness. Due of those unbelievably winding pass roads and rural road conditions the ride would take more than 11 hours over an actual distance of 340km! What's more? The bus driver was either completely reckless, absolutely self-confident or just plain crazy, because the way he drove (all along with loud party music) was far beyond comprehension. This guy thundered with an estimated 80km/h into sharp curves, not giving a shit about oncoming traffic or random animals on the rural road. Yeah, we encountered countless cows, chickens, water buffalos and goats over those pass roads.

The result? 10 out of 30 passengers were constantly puking, we rode over 3 chickens and were constantly scared that the driver would land us into a deep ditch while rushing during pitch black night on some godforsaken mountain roads in the middle of nowhere...

The Speed Boat on the Mekong was kindergarten stuff compared to this.

But to be fair, the mountains along the road were beautiful. It's even said that there are still many wild tigers in this region of South East Asia.

Good thing that most parts of the road were asphalted

The locals next to the road lived even more remotely

I'd say about 90% of  Northern Laos looks just like this, really.

Ideal place to go hiding without ever being found
Watch out for the cows, dude!
Then finally after 12 hours I arrived exhausted in Vieng Xai, a place so remote that there were no backpackers like me at all. I even dare to say that I was one of the only foreigners there at this low season! The tiny town was surrounded by wonderful limestone mountains and at that point you were pretty sure that you're in South East Asia and not somewhere else.

The peaceful landscape of Vieng Xai is only disturbed...
... by its dark past.

Anyway, the only way to explore the Pathet Lao headquarters caves was to take a guided tour provided by the government. I was already expecting some cheesy communist propaganda, but after all I was positively surprised that this audio tour (in perfectly spoken English) was really worth its time and money.

A guided audio tour organized by the Vieng Xai Visitor Center...

... was the only way to explore the caves.

The tunnel entrance to the most important cave, ...

... the Kaysone Phomvihane cave.

... Laotian revolutionary leader. Here together with Ho Chi Minh.
Phomvihane, here on a 50000 Kip bill, was the..

He lived in this cave and lead from here the Pathet Lao movement.
Communist kitsch was omnipresent.

In the same cave the former politburo also held meetings
Tunnels connected the major caves to each other

If the natural caves weren't spacious enough, labourers chiseled or detonated new tunnels
This staircase connected the leaders' cave with...

... the main barracks cave where allegedly...

... over 2000 Pathet Lao soldiers were quartered!

This here used to be the assembly hall, where the Pathet Lao held speeches or (political) performances

From this position here the Anti-Aircraft cannons would shoot at incoming U.S. planes

The view from the AA-cannon platform. Over this green plain the cannons allegedly once shot down a U.S. plane. It is said that the pilot could save himself with a parachute and that the Pathet Lao soldiers were close to capture him. But it turned out that shortly after crashing he was evacuated by a mysterious helicopter (Air America?).
Huge rocks cracked down from the limestone cliffs...

... as the bombs hit those mountains.

Some rusty APCs still give evidence about the...

... turbulent times back then.

As if it wasn't bizarre enough, some turkeys were glugging...
... next to all these war memorials.

Once more this was a fascinating trip and I learned a big deal about Laotian history (even if not everything told at the guided tour may have been 100% true...). And if the bus ride hadn't been so annoying, I would have liked Vieng Xai even more. But hey, what am I complaining about?

Next time I tell ya guys more about the fateful place of Phonsavan, the nearby Plain of Jars, the backpacker-ridden Vang Vieng and maybe a bit about Vientiane. I'm again late with writing this stuff, as I just arrived in Cambodia today.

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