Notes From Underground – the River Caves of Laos’ Khammouane Province

Park life

In the dying light of the afternoon, we set up camp on the beach. Phet made us a dinner of pork with ginger by the water’s edge, as swallows skimmed overhead. The stars were hanging high in the night sky when Mr Lewnalie arrived, having trekked the few kilometres from Nong Ping village. He pitched up with a heavy jar of rice whisky, which we eagerly sucked down through bamboo straws to ease in our approaching sleep.

I awoke to find white butterflies circling above the water as sunlight spread gently over the chiselled limestone outcrop that wrapped the lagoon. I was curious about what lay beyond this natural amphitheatre and its jagged battlements, so we broke camp to plunge further into Hin Nam No National Protected Area.

An Aerial View of Hin Nam No Protected Area

The park’s 820 sq km might seem an inhospitable land, but its limestone outcrops shelter a wealth of rare primates, from the black langur and red-shanked douc to the Annamese macaque. Less than 50 years ago, though, it was less hospitable still. During the Vietnam War, the US bombed Laos incessantly to curtail north Vietnam’s communist forces from gaining further ‘red’ ground. Between 1964 and 1973, over two million tonnes of ordnance was dropped, earning Laos an unenviable record: the most bombed country on Earth.

As we drove out towards Sephan village, on the outskirts of the park, my eye was drawn first to the sharp limestone turrets and then to the ground. Peering closer at the roadside grass, I realised that on either side of the road were huge craters. And not just one or two – the area had clearly been pelted with bombs, leaving the landscape still bruised 40 years later.

When we arrived, I spoke to some of the villagers as we sheltered from the hot sun. One local said: “I never thought I’d see the village earth again, there were so many bombs. Even now, we have to be careful in our fields.” Clearance of unexploded ordnance (UXO) is ongoing here and the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), a UK charity, has been working in Laos since 1994, clearing 202,793 UXOs.

As we wandered through the village, I noticed the villagers had their own approach to dealing with old shrapnel. Cluster bombs had been converted into troughs for feeding pigs and elongated boats. One man had even clad his entire house in scrap bomb metal and built an access ladder out of discarded bomb fragments.

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