Why you should care
Because the homes of modern-day cave dwellers evoke a dark chapter of U.S. history.
A few minutes outside of a serene river town, you pass soaring cliffs and make a right down a dirt path to a ticket taker shaded from the morning sun by a canopy. A cool $2.50 sends you over a rickety bamboo bridge, past a customer-free restaurant and through a rice paddy to a newish concrete staircase. As you climb, the Southeast Asian heat gives way to a limestone-shrouded cool. Once your eyes have adjusted to the semidarkness, the only adornment to suggest the spot’s history are small signs: police unit, communications unit, provincial governor’s office. Welcome to a Secret War hideout.
From 1964 to 1973, the United States pummeled the tiny nation of Laos with more bombs per capita than any country before or since. The Air Force and CIA’s war against the Communist Pathet Lao was officially kept hidden from the American public, but it was all too real to areas still pockmarked with bomb craters. The nationalists and their North Vietnamese patrons retreated underground, where they ran the war from beneath limestone. An underground society formed, with hospitals and schools. Subterranean villagers would emerge at night to tend their fields.
In the quiet you can feel what it was like to be hunched up here as explosions rained from above.
The Pathet Lao outlasted the U.S., and still run the country 40 years later. President Barack Obama recently visited Laos and pledged $90 million over three years to help clean up an estimated 80 million unexploded fist-size bomblets that dot the countryside. And though Laotians don’t talk much about the Secret War these days, the caves remind locals and visitors of the hard life that was. These caves can be found throughout the country, with minimal dressing up as tourist attractions.
The biggest cave system in Vieng Xai, only part of which is now open, held 20,000 people. And though Vieng Xai merits a Lonely Planet blurb, there’s no war tourism on par with neighboring Vietnam. where the Cu Chi tunnels and Khe Sanh Combat Base attract a stream of onlookers and money. The Lao-style calm is nice, but it also means the country has not valued its history. “There should be signs all over” the cave outside Nong Khiaw, says Peter Alan Lloyd, a screenwriter and novelist who has extensively researched the Secret War. “There should be someone taking the historical oral accounts of life in these places, and no one is.” Lloyd has heard tales of Cuban doctors practicing underground and of currency printers also operating underground, but official records are slim.
A Sunday-morning visit to a cave near Nong Khiaw found only a handful of fellow visitors. There’s not much to see, but in the quiet you can feel what it was like to be hunched up here as explosions rained from above. A ledge overlooks long-discarded piles of wood and stones 50 feet below. There’s no railing or warning — Laos is not big on lawsuits — and the logistical challenge of forming an underground society is evident. People ate and drank here, loved and lost here, with bombs bursting overhead. And, in the end, they won.