Democracy over Laos
“There’s a cave 2 kilometers down this dirt road,” Erik says, ” 2 kilometers. Should we go?”
Sometimes, even 2 kilometers seems too far to go out of our way for sightseeing.
“Yes. Let’s go,” I hear myself say. We’d cycled out of the endless green mountains today, down into strange, wide open plains near Muang Kham.
We arrive at a large, dusty parking lot with a few scooters, surrounded by a few low wooden buildings with open restaurants, ‘restaurant’ being a strong word for what is actually a tin roof covering a bare spot of earth with plastic tables and chairs with a woodfire in the corner to boil broth for noodle soup.
We pay our 10,000 kip ($1.15) each for entrance to the grounds. I have enough foresight to bring a headlamp. There are no information boards, no leaflets, no guides– just cement pathways leading up into a forest at the base of a towering cliff.
The first thing we see is a statue of what looks to me like a brave, broad chested warrior, gun slung over one shoulder, carrying a woman who has fainted.
‘How macho,’ I think to myself. As I get closer, I do a double take. It’s not a woman the stony faced man is carrying, it’s a young boy, who is clearly dead, arms hanging at an awkward angle from his shoulders.
Further up the path, a large golden buddha is in meditation near the cave entrance. A raised canal is carrying clear, bright water down to the valley below, from a small river that I assume must be coming out of the cliffside. In the open mouthed entrance to the cave are hundreds of stone cairns, each with a few sticks of incence or a small candle.
Something has happened here, clearly. But there are no custodians of the place to explain. In fact, no one else is here at all. We are alone.
As we walk further back into the cave, we can see that the wide entrance continues into a wide tunnel, like some two-story earthworm gnawed a pathway deep into the earth. My headlamp goes on, Erik’s flashlight doesn’t work. Out comes the cellphone flashlight.
There is no real path, and we scramble up and down large piles of rocks, the cave carved by water some millenia ago. The air clings to us, moist, but not cool enough. My headlamp barely illuminates the massive arched ceilings, and cannot reach to the back of the never ending cave. The only sound is our breathing and scrabblings up and down smooth, dusty rock.
I can feel fear blooming in my core. Something doesn’t feel right in this cave.
Back out in the daylight, we follow other cement pathways, looking for the source of the clear water coming out of the cliffs. The pathway ends in the cliff wall, but where is the river? Erik discovers a small hole with steps going down under the ground.
We kick off our shoes, walking ankle deep in the water, moving upstream in the dark, the only sound the water flowing over rock and sand.
I have no idea how far back someone can walk along that river. I wonder if anyone has walked up it until you can’t walk anymore. It was clear that we were not going to be the ones to do this.
Outside the caves, we wandered to a small building near the parking lot.
That’s where we got our explanation for the cairns.
The US discovered that Lao people were living in caves to save themselves from all the bombs being dropped on their land, houses and villages. They would come out at night to work their farms and gather whatever food they could. Piew Cave was one of these places, with 374 people living in the cave.
US pilots napalmed the heavy jungle growth covering the entrance, and with one well aimed rocket into the mouth of the cave, killed every last man, woman and child. Their bones still lie in the rubble of the cave.
Tell me, why did the US bomb Laos?
Information from Mines Advisory Group, or MAG
“Between 1964 and 1973, during the war with the US, the North Vietnamese used a network of supply lines, known as the Ho chi Minh Trail, running from North Vietnam through the jungles and mountains of neighboring Laos and Cambodia. In an effort to staunch the flow of troops and weapons the US dropped more than 2,000,000 tons of bombs on Laos. The US war effort in Laos was kept secret from Congress and the American people. Full details of the scale of the bombing sorties only becoming declassified in the 1990s.
By the time the aerial campagin ended in 1973, more bombs had been dropped on Laos than the Allies dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II. Many of these bombs failed to explode when they hit the ground, leaving the landscape littered with hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of unexploded bombs, as lethal today as when they fell from the sky many decades ago.”
“More than three decades since the bombing ended, UXO continues to kill and injure innocent people. There were at least 50,000 UXO casualties from 1964 until now. 20,000 casualties occurred post war 1974. Almost half of all accidents over recent years involved children.”
In the areas of Laos that were heavily bombed, a whole generation has grown up in the long shadow of war. To these children, UXO and war scrap are as much a part of their daily lives as trees and rivers.” —–Dr Thongloun Sisoulith, Deputy Prime Minister of Laos
Now, MAG, Mines Advisory Group, works in Laos to remove UXO from villages, roads, school yards, farms and historical sites.
People still cannot farm their land for fear of bombs. Many of Laos’s farmers are subsistence farmers. That means, whatever they grow, they eat. Whatever they don’t grow, they can’t eat. It can mean hunger every year when the rice runs out. Because there are bombs still waiting in their fields, and they are too afraid to plow it.
To the ‘communist’ Lao people, their view of democracy looks likes this: Bombs. Big Bombs. Little bombs. Cluster bombs. Things that go ‘BOOM’.