Sam Neua

Looking out from the main anti-aircraft position in the caves, you can see a typical morning in this part of Laos - "No American aircraft today"

Sam Neua is hardly a town that the tourist would normally choose to visit. Although it boasts fine and glitzy public buildings, there is no infrastructure. Our hotel, the best in town, did not serve dinner or breakfast - apparently not worth their while. And restaurants in town were limited to one ramshackle open air place in a converted garage. It served only noodle soup. No, the tourist comes here to see the Pathet Lao caves

At the beginning of the American bombing campaign on Laos in 1964, Kaysone Phomvihane, head of the Laos communist movement, led his politburo to shelter in what became known as the 'City of Victory’, hidden in craggy mountains near the Vietnam border. Today, it is hard to imagine sleepy Viengxay, with its lakes, ladies who lunch and manicured floral borders, under constant bombardment. But in these limestone caves the Pathet Lao established bedrooms, offices, a theatre, elephant enclosure, bakery, hospitals, a printing press and a bank. They lived, worked, survived, and attended Friday movie nights for 10 years while the Americans (in alliance with the Royal Lao government) conducted its clandestine bombing campaign. Locals say that farmers had to farm at night to avoid bombing raids.

The caves are now a museum and the town’s remoteness, a two-day drive from Luang Prabang, part of its appeal. A local guide will take you through the subterranean chambers of each politburo member’s troglodyte home. “More than 20,000 people lived here while two million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos,”. They had gas proof strong rooms with air filtration equipment in case the US tried to use poison gas - never needed in fact. An original thermos and teacups used in politburo meetings sit on a tray, books on Lenin are displayed and, bizarrely, the imprint of a tennis court – built after the 1973 cease fire – remains on the ground next to the home of royal-prince-turned-communist Prince Souphanouvong, aka the Red Prince.

In 1973 a cease fire stopped the bombing and the new town of ViengXay was established as the capital of the liberated zone. When the Lao People's Democratic Republic was declared on 2 December 1975, the capital city was transferred to Vientiane.

We left Thakek and headed north. There was the odd detritus from the American bombing, with assorted ordnance on display here and there. Then past a number of tribal villages, to a stop at an unfenced collection of standing stones, thought to be at least 1500 years old. This ancient necropolis is believed to pre-date those of the famous Plain of Jars. Instead of jars, this site comprises groups of menhirs or standing stones erected over large burial chambers covered by stone disks of up to 2m in diameter. We were underwhelmed by the site, it is more Avebury stone circle than Stonehenge, but the 'families' of stones do have a certain magic and it is now a Unesco World Heritage site.

Then a stop for the loo and a waterfall, before reaching Sam Neua

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Xayphasouk Hotel

Strange hotel. Elaborate "nouveau Chinese" reception and restaurant area, which looks quite elegant from a distance. But in spite of the exterior sign saying "hotel and restaurant" there is no restaurant. They were unable to serve us either dinner or breakfast (and there is not much else in town)

Our room was quite acceptable and its big plus point on a really cold night was that the heating worked. As far as I can gather from other travellers to the town, few of the guest houses offer heating. Take it from me, in this town, in February, you really want heating. The bathroom had a strange shower arrangement that delivered water only sufficient for one brief shower, then you had to wait another to get another dose of hot water.The shower had no cubicle nor screen, so when you showered the whole bathroom/loo area filled with water There was only one towel, and when we tried to get another, we found the whole hotel had been abandoned by staff and they only returned an hour later

You are in remote Laos here, undoubtedly to see the Pathet Lao caves, there are few tourists, and this may well be the best option in town. At least you have been warned

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I liked the Lonely Planet's description of Sam Neua ." Behind a shallow disguise of well-spaced concrete modernity, Sam Neua offers eye-widening produce markets and a colourful ethnic diversity" Some grandiose statues and buildings, but little else. A colourful market, but few shops in the town. And the Rough Guide chips in with " If you want to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, Sam Neua fits the bill, sitting in a bowl surrounded by low, pleasant hills with the narrow river rushing through its centre.

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In the 1960s, more attempts at neutrality agreements and coalition government were attempted but as North Vietnam had no intention of withdrawing from Laos, these agreements all failed. By the middle 1960s, the country had fallen into proxy warfare between pro-US and pro-Vietnamese irregular military groups.At this point the Pathet Lao withdrew to these caves.

In 1968, the Army of North Vietnam launched a multi-division invasion of Laos. The Pathet Lao were pushed to the side in the conflict and reduced to the role of an auxiliary force to the North Vietnamese army. The communist forces battled the Royal Lao Army, U.S. irregular forces (including Air America and other contract employees and Hmong soldiers), and Thai "volunteer" forces in Laos winning effective control in the north and east.

The government itself was effectively powerless. In 1973, shortly after the Paris Peace Accords ended US involvement in the Vietnam War, the Pathet Lao and the government of Laos signed a cease-fire agreement, the Vientiane Treaty, February 1973.

The coalition government envisaged by the treaty lasted only two years. The Pathet Lao refused to disarm and the North Vietnamese Army did not leave the country. In late May 1975, the Pathet Lao, with the direct assistance of the North Vietnamese Army, began attacking government strongholds. With the fall of the South Vietnamese government to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975 and the fall of the Cambodian government to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, the non-communist elements of the national government decided that allowing the Pathet Lao to enter power would be better than to have them take it by force. On August 23, 1975, Pathet Lao forces quietly entered the Lao capital city of Vientiane.

On December 2, 1975, the Pathet Lao firmly took over the government, abolishing the monarchy and establishing the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Shortly thereafter, the Pathet Lao signed an agreement with Vietnam that allowed Vietnam to station part of its army in the country and to send political and economic advisors into Laos. Vietnam afterward forced Laos to cut any remaining economic ties to its other neighbours, including Thailand and Cambodia.

After the Pathet Lao took over the country in 1975, the conflict continued in isolated pockets. With the demise of the Soviet Union, control of Laos by Vietnam waned at the end of the 1980s. Today, 'Pathet Lao' is often invoked as a general term signifying Lao Nationalism.

The caves are impressive. When you think that for nearly 10 years, around 20,000 people lived in these caves which were the command centre for the Pathet Lao forces.

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