See images here.
The Second World War was the catalyst for a long period of turbulence for the nations of Southeast Asia. Japanese intervention had fatally weakened the dominance of the European colonial powers and within Indochina, when the French attempted to reoccupy it from 1946, national independent movements fought hard to resist their colonial masters and establish independent nations.
In Lao, the dominant nationalist organisation became known as the Pathet Lao (Land of the Lao), a communist movement closely associated with Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh in Vietnam.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam brought an end to French colonial rule over Indochina. At the 1954 Geneva conference convened to settle the war, the Pathet Lao gained two north-eastern provinces, Phongsali and Houaphan. These became the base area of the revolutionary forces.
During the 1960s, political developments in Lao were influential in the future of the whole region. The United States believed controlling the country was crucial in preventing the spread of communism throughout Indochina and in an attempt to exert influence over the Royal Lao Government (RLG) who controlled the majority of the country, the US began to offer large amounts of aid, fanning the flames of existing political instability. The Pathet Lao had alternated between participation in the national political process but during the period of pro-US right wing control of the RLG they adopted the path of armed struggle.
And so Lao became caught up in the conflict between the US and North Vietnamese in what is often referred to as the Second Indochinese War. In 1964, the US began intensive bombing of the Pathet Lao base in Xieng Khouang causing them to move east to Viengxay and until 1975 the spectacular limestone karst cave network became the command centre of the revolutionary forces during their struggle with the American backed RLG.
The area was chosen for its remarkable landscape of limestone karsts honeycombed with caves surrounding a small plateau, which provided an impenetrable stronghold. Around two hundred caves were occupied. Houses, ministries and other facilities were constructed inside to create a ‘hidden city’. Printing presses, a fuel depot and light industry caves were established to support the war effort and essential services such as schools, hospitals and markets were set up, and an underground theatre constructed to entertain the population. Anti-aircraft guns were sited on the tops of the karsts, in caves and in open areas of the Viengxay basin.
What is now central Viengxay was occupied by the Pathet Lao leadership, ministry staff, soldiers and their families, but the hidden city extended far beyond this and the famous caves where the leader’s lived tell only a part of the Viengxay story. About 20,000 soldiers, staff, farmers, workers and local families lived and worked in Viengxay during this period. Under almost constant bombardment, they found shelter in the surrounding jungle and nearby smaller caves and carried out much of their daily lives, including farming, under cover of darkness.
In 1973 a ceasefire stopped the bombing and the town of Viengxay was established as the capital of the liberated country. On the 2nd December 1975 the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was declared, and the capital city transferred to Vientiane.
The images presented here were taken in and around what remains of the accessible cave network of Viengxay. Their stillness is a long way from the atmosphere that must have existed when they thronged with thousands of people who were under almost constant bombardment from the US air force. In fact it is little known that during the war, more bombs were dropped on Lao than on Europe during the whole of World War 2, making it the most bombed country in history.
The limestone peaks of this area form a beautiful tranquil landscape, but hidden within the rocky crags are a network of caves which were at the centre of a vital period of Lao and world history. These photographs are intended as a reminder of that.