14.12.2012 - 17.12.2012
Vieng Xay - literally, City of Victory - is a small quiet town of jaunty coloured bungalows and tidy flower beds, in odd contrast to the bombastic triumphalism of its name. The forests and limestone cliffs full of caves encircling the town hold the answer.
As you know, the US bombed Laos daily in from 1964 to 1973 in a grim subplot to the war on neighbouring Vietnam. Why? To prevent supplies reaching the Vietnamese guerillas. Laos was not at war with the USA, but assisted the Vietnamese communists by allowing their supply routes to pass through Laos, which evidently provided the US with all the justification it needed to drop bombs on Laos the equivalent of every eight minutes of every day, for nine years. Laos could do very little other than take cover. And Vieng Xay is where they went.
The limestone peaks that surround the town contain numerous large natural caves. During the war, these were enlarged to create living space for up to 29,000 people; the complex also had a hospital, a newspaper printing press and its own telephone network. Oh, and the government. Whilst being bombed daily by the USA, Laos was also trying to rid itself of the French colonial regime. The independence movement adopted Vieng Xay as its base, and a new government was set up there. So this sleepy picturesque little town of pastel bungalows is where independent, communist Laos was born.
We came here to try to get a sense of what life must have been like for ordinary people at this time, as well as understand the country's history a bit better. When the US began bombing Laos, many rural people had never even heard of America, let alone had any idea why this far-off country was destroying them. What was it like for them? How did they live with the daily nightmare of hearing bombers and fighter planes approaching, and the sound of explosions and gunfire coming nearer and nearer? Having to dig trenches covered with branches for children to run along to get to school. Being able to cook only at night inside the caves in case the cooking fires were visible to spotter planes. Having to do all farming work at night, planting and harvesting rice fields in total darkness. Spending long dark days and nights in the dusty airless tunnels.
What was it like? I don't know. I stood in the caves trying to imagine the thud of bombs falling outside and hundreds of frightened, traumatised people huddled in silence and darkness inside. I tried to imagine children who never knew any other childhood than this, for whom darkness and bombs were normal. And I tried to imagine how it was possible to find the will to continue even the most basic functions - getting food, cooking, eating, washing, sleeping, making a living - under conditions that were beyond impossible to live with, for so many years. But I couldn't imagine, and I don't know if it's possible.
I will refer quite a lot to this 'secret war' because of how much it has shaped our responses to Laos. The natural beauty of the country and the gentleness of these ultra-laid back people would be a joy in any case, but in the context of this horror and destruction they gain a particular poignance. As I mentioned the legacy of the war is still very real and exploding every week - an unignorable fact. And Laos doesn't want you to ignore or forget. Bomb shells are displayed everywhere, reused as planting containers, barbeques and decorations in cafes and bars. In our favourite restaurant in our favourite town, we would be sitting enjoying a meal with a six foot long cluster bomb casing hanging on the wall in front of us. It's idyllic here but it's certainly not paradise.
From Vieng Xay we moved on for a quick stopever in Sam Neua, another high-altitude town of crisp air and intense sunlight. I don't know what the occasion was but lots of young women were dressed in elaborate finery of black velvet, bright silks, spangles and headresses, looking most resplendent as they zoomed though town on their scooters. And from Sam Neau we took a magical mountaintop journey to what was probably the most beautiful place we stayed in, in a country packed with beautiful places.
Next: Ahhh... Nong Khiaw...