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Laos' "Cave City" Brings History to Life

April 9, 2007 By: Camie Foster Travel Agent

Culture, wildlife, waterfalls also bring tourists to Viengxay

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

The area surrounding the network of caves is remote and
scenic, with mountains, waterfalls, hot
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 Hintang Archaeological Park,
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.

Discovery Laos
, Agent liaison is Quynh Nguyen; she can be reached at [email protected]
Asian Trails

In addition, agents can e-mail Tony Donovan of SNV at
[email protected]. He serves as advisor to the provincial tourism
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.
for forum details. Agents can also bookmark the following link as an ongoing

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