Laos' "Cave City" Brings History to Life

Between 1964 and 1973, some 23,000 Laotians lived in as many as 480 caves in the Viengxay district of the country's Houaphanh province. Today, five of the caves that once provided shelter during the Indochina War have been opened to the public, highlighting a harrowing chapter of the country's history.  A table inside the dining room of Keysone Phomvihanes's cave in Viengxay, Laos

Plans call for an additional three or four caves to be opened to tours by the end of the year.

These caves sheltered leaders and members of the Phathet Lao army during years of aerial bombardment; some of them had specialized functions, serving, for example, as a school, a bakery and a print shop. Patients were treated by Cuban physicians in a hospital cave.

"At the height of the bombing, it was impossible to imagine that tourists would one day wish to visit this place to learn about our experience," says Phonekeo Latsachanh, who lived in one of the caves for nine years; he worked as an official in the cave that was designated as a trade office.

The area surrounding the network of caves is remote and scenic, with mountains, waterfalls, hot springs and a protected forest populated by leopards and tigers. Villagers live in simple wooden huts in the surrounding hills. Pursuits include cultivating rice and weaving intricate textiles. Some residents still hunt with crossbows.

Morning mist on the road from Xam Neua to Viengxay, Laos

Working to Attract Tourists

The government is nurturing tourism to help benefit residents, and has asked the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the Netherlands Development Agency (SNV) and the Asian Development Bank to develop the area as a tourist destination and world peace site.

The government hopes to make Viengxay a national heritage town to be explored on foot, and already the Lao National Tourism Administration (LNTA) is recording oral histories that visitors will be able to listen to while they see the caves.

It is possible to arrange transport by helicopter to Viengxay's airstrip or the airport at Xam Neua, the provincial capital, which is a 45-minute drive away.

However, a more common method of arrival is flying to Phonsavanh, then making a six-hour drive to the caves, so Green Discovery Laos advises that travelers set aside one or two full days to tour the caves and the surrounding towns.

Choices range from bicycling to watching a traditional music and dance performance. Other sites clients may wish to include are HintangArchaeologicalPark, Saleui Waterfall and the Lao-Vietnamese border crossing.

Travelers who've visited the caves speak of the contrast of the mysteriousness and hidden history of the caves themselves, contrasted with the quiet, tranquil setting surrounding them, with friendly people and few cars.

Tour Operators & Resources

The below are five key Lao operators that provide cave tours, and are ready to work with U.S.-based travel agents.

Green Discovery Laos, Agent liaison is Quynh Nguyen; she can be reached at info@greendiscoverylaos.com
Sousath Travel
Asian Trails
Exotissimo
Diethelm Travel

In addition, agents can e-mail Tony Donovan of SNV at tdonovan@snvworld.org. He serves as advisor to the provincial tourism office. Donovan will route retailer inquiries to staff there so that agents receive specific replies.

Agents looking to increase their knowledge of Laos and the variety of the country's tourism products may want to consider attending the Lao Tourism Forum, which is scheduled for July 26-29 in Vientiane. Visit www.ecotourismlaos.com/forum2007.htm for forum details. Agents can also bookmark the following link as an ongoing resource: www.ecotourismlaos.com/touroperators.htm.