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

Shelter from the storm

Near to Sephan lies another cave called Tham Long, where we met guide Ky Doungluedee. Between 1966 and 1974, from the age of 9 until 18, he lived inside it alongside 19 other families, all sheltering there to escape the bombing. As Ky explained, even tradition was against them. The villagers believed the cave was holy and that the spirit it contained might eat humans, so they had to sacrifice monkeys and buffalo in order to live there.

The Cave’s Mouth Beckons

While exploring the narrow shaft inside the cave, and seeing the marks caused by lighting fires for cooking, I asked him how the shelling had sounded. “The bombs were like constant lightning,” he explained. “They shook our bodies to the core.” Then, no sooner had the words escaped his mouth a loud boom shook the ground. My blood ran cold and I felt a sensation in my upper gut, just as he had described.

“What the hell was that?” I exclaimed, as Ky calmly pulled out some tobacco rolled up in a leaf that he topped and tailed and started to smoke. Thankfully, it was MAG working in the fields nearby, safely blowing up a UXO.

Next, Ky took us to nearby Tham Nam cave, a particularly popular spot for skittish dragonflies and where some of the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) had sheltered during the war. But one day, during a dance show, a US bomb hit the roof and dislodged a huge rock at the entrance, meaning that we could only peer in from the edge to catch a glimpse of the dark auditorium-like space.

Ky had explained that there were more Viet Cong hideouts in the Hin Nam No, so we set out to find them the following morning from the remote Thongxam village. Crossing rice fields, walking past the Yoy minority spirit house, a small shrine to the local protecting spirit, and into a forest accompanied by periwinkle-hued butterflies and red dragonflies. Bridging a series of small streams, we passed thickets of sandalwood, jackfruit, wild orange and cardamom as we tramped towards our destination: the 6om-long Nok Aen (or ‘Swallow Cave’).

Our guide, Kham Leuang, told us that it’s thought up to 3,000 Viet Cong once sheltered in Nok Aen. Walking through the boulder-strewn, pockmarked cave, accompanied by rippling flights of swallows, we found bowls, a tin and a shoe – although these were more likely recent additions. Every year, I was told, the villagers trek here on the full moon in June to collect baby swallows for food – a local delicacy.

As we emerged from the hollow, I practised my spider-hunting technique and searched the cave’s crevices for a giant huntsmen until I finally found one – albeit lying dead in its resting place. Then, after fuelling up on a lunch of sticky rice, sausage and chicken at the mouth of the cave, we headed back through the forest for a chance to see some of the livelier residents of Hin Nam No.

Not far from Ban Thongxamlay Pha Koud, where ribbons of karstic fortress bulge out of the landscape. With local guide Tom, we moved off-road closer to the serrated ridge. There we waited, scanning the ridge with our binoculars. All of a sudden there was a lot of twitching in the trees, and at last we spied the local Annamite macaques, bouncing around on their giant spiky platform, eating and sun-bathing while the villagers below collected water and corralled their pigs and dogs.

It felt good to emerge from the darkness of the cave into the warm sun, to see how life continued in this once bomb-flogged land, and how its people now embraced new visitors, replacing memories of unwelcome guests who blighted their land more than 40 years ago. From exploring the region’s troubled past and unusual landscapes I learned one unmistakable truth: a cave is never simply a cave here. They represent shelter, history and tradition, and to understand all three better, you need to head underground.

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