BootsnAll Travel Network

Vieng Xai: Hidden Disco

After a quiet night in Sam Neua, where we relished having a proper toilet, a proper shower, with hot water, and a proper bed that didn’t have leeches in it, we caught an early morning tuk-tuk an hour further towards the Vietnamese border to the town of Vieng Xai.

Vieng Xai is tucked away in an almost hidden valley, where it is surrounded by limestone karst mountains. And it was amongst the hundreds of caves that diappear into the depths of these limestone mountains that Laos’ communist party, the Pathet Laos, hid during the nine years of constant American bombing in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Laos, that most beautiful and serene of countries, has the unenviable distinction of being the most bombed country on the planet. During America’s war against communism in the region, fought mostly in Vietnam but also spilling over into Laos and Cambodia, America’s government records show that they dropped on the Laos countryside the equivalent of a plane load of bombs, every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for nine years.

Holy crap balls!

During this time, the Pathet Laos escaped to this remote corner of the country where Bec and I now were, and established an entire community hidden amongst the caves. They lived in the caves. They worked in the caves. There was a bank cave, a bakery cave, a circus cave for performances, a hospital cave, a visitor’s cave; foreign diplomats from other communist countries, Cuba for example, secretly visited the Pathet Laos leaders on numerous occasions. The land around the caves is scarred by huge bomb craters, where the Americans attempted, but ultimately failed, to wipe out the Laos communist party.

The town of Vieng Xai itself didn’t exist back then. There was nothing here but the limestone mountains and a few small villages. It wasn’t until the Americans left the region that the Pathet Laos was able to move out of the caves, and the town of Vieng Xai was established. If my memory serves me right, I’m pretty sure the name Vieng Xai means something like ‘town of victory’.

A few of the main caves used at the time are now open to the public, and Bec and I spent a fascinating afternoon walking from cave to cave and seeing how these people lived. Lived in caves, for nine years! Slept, ate, worked, did everything in bloody caves for nine years! If they left, they’d be bombed. Sort of blows the mind to think about it.

Each of the leaders of the party had their own cave, and once the Americans ceased trying to kill them, each had a large house built out the front of their cave. The Pathet Laos kept their base here for a further two years before moving to the new Laos capital of Vientiane. One of the leaders also went so far as to have a huge bomb crater in front of his cave concreted and turned into a swimming pool.

Our fascinating day continued that evening, as we found a lovely little restaurant on the edge of a small lake surrounded by more limestone mountains. We were joined by Dave, a laid-back forty-three year old former Australian wind surfing champion and now kite-surfing enthusiast, who was on a six week kite surfing trip around Thialand and Vietnam. Lack of wind (which, lets face it, its pretty crucial to the whole kite surfing thing) had led him inland to Laos, the only country in the region he hadn’t visited. The three of us chatted away about travelling, Dave talked about going through Pakistan and Iran years ago and we reminisced about Nepal, whilst we all knocked back some Beerlao and delicious fried fish.

The festivities were broken up at around 5.30pm so Bec could go to work. Yeah, work. The guide who had led us around the caves that afternoon was teaching an English class for some of the local kids that same evening, and had asked Bec if she could come and help out for the night. We met him around 5pm at the restaurant, and he handed us a sketchy map with vague directions to head a few hundred metres down a dusty road, then turn left.

Once we finished our Beerlao, we tentatively started walking down the road. We were heading out of the town now, and, not seeing any turns to the left, ended up amongst a little suburb of thatched huts in the dirt, with kids naked from the waist down running around chasing chickens. The English class was nowhere in sight. We spotted a football field, and a group of about twenty-five shirtless guys playing as though their lives depended on it. We approached hesitantly, watching the game for a bit before one of the young guys came over. He spoke excellent English, and we told him we were looking for an English class. “Ah, yes,” he replied, “it is just over here. Follow this path until you come to the big tree, then turn right.”

Following his directions took us further in amongst the huts, down a narrow path with dusty little fields on each side. We came to some trees.

“Is this the big tree?”
“I dunno. Can we turn right?”

Up to our right, about 50 metres away across some dust and grass strewn with tree branches, resting at the foot of a huge limestone cliff, was a run-down old abondoned concrete building. Dusk had settled now, and there wasn’t much light left, but there were no lights on in the building.

“Surely that can’t be it?”
“Must be, I guess. Should we go check it out.”

Disbelievingly, we headed up to the house, and sure enough, inside we found our guide in front of a cracked old black board with the English alphabet written on it, but barely visible in the dark, and about fifteen kids crammed into three desks. There was no ceiling, just some exposed rotting wood trusses. The windows were smashed, and the floor was bare concrete. The kids greeted us enthusiastically, and I sat to the side whilst Bec ran them through the alphabet and days of the week.

Afterwards, with our hearts warmed and smiles on our faces, we returned to the restaurant and met back up with Dave. Being the only customers (this was definately the low season), as the evening progressed we chatted more and more with the young guy who ran the place. Eventually, after we’d eaten our dinner, we were invited to join him and his family as they ate. Despite having bulging stomachs, we shared their food, not wanting to insult them by refusing. More Beerlao was drunk, although now it was being done in the traditional Laos manner. This involves a single bottle of Beerlao shared between all six of us, and just a single glass to also be shared. You pour yourself a couple of mouthfuls into the glass, and drink it all in one go, before passing it onto the next person who does the same.

Soon, the three of us were drunk enough to accept an invitation to join the owner and his mate at a local disco. Before we really knew what we were doing, Bec and I had jumped on the back of a motorbike, and were cruising through the cool night air. A kilometre or two down the road, past rows of dusty old houses, we pulled into the front yard of a concrete house. The front wall of the building was solid concrete, with no windows and just a single door to one side. It looked like a bomb shelter. Walking in the front door was like being ushered into another world. The lounge room had indeed been transformed into a disco. Through the thick thick smoke, I could just make out a DJ at the end of the room, spinning Laos pop tunes and blinding us with an over-the-top green laser display. At the other end of the room was a small bar, with a couple of tables and bar stools scattered about. There were about five guys in there, none of them dancing. Well, it was a Sunday night.

The five of us; Bec, me, Dave, and the two Laos guys, sat at a table and ordered some beers. Out came a bucket of ice, a few warm beers and a couple of glasses. I’m pretty sure that we only had one beer, before the guys dropped us back at our guesthouse. A surreal end to an unexpectedly enjoyable night.

The disco cave, my favourite of all the caves in Vieng Xai.

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