revolutionary hall

The soldier’s meeting hall in Khamtay Siphandone’s cave, Vieng Say, Laos

Keewphan begins with each of the cardinal points. He sings the north, the south, the east and the west. He sings of the forest with the large animals, the tigers, elephants, wild buffalo, and horned deer. He sings of the tall trees, the thick jungle that lay in this place before 1960. Then he sings of the American bombing, of destruction, loss and sorrow. His song tells of the forest destroyed and the animals disappeared: a lyrical account of loss. He then sings of the establishment of the central party headquarters, the construction of caves, roads, and strongholds. His song mentions the establishment of Vieng Say as a District in 1968. He names dates, places, and events accompanied by a single kheen.

I watched Keewphan sing at a farewell party. Other people were invited to sing their songs too, but only he sung history. Afterwards, Keewphan told me that few other people even know the history of this place. He was born in this area: almost everyone else who lives in Vieng Say now, he tells me, was born elsewhere and move here. His nephew, Bunthong, also reaffirms that few people in today’s Vieng Say can speak with authority on the history of the region.

According to these two men, the region that is now Vieng Say was originally a dense forest, and ancient literature referred to this forest as “Khang Sa-in”. Human settlement was confined to small, infrequent villages in the valleys. Within the space of today’s Vieng Say town, the two original villages were Na Kay north (with about six houses) and Na Kay south (with about four houses). Another village several kilometers south, called Sieng Su, was also founded.

But Keewphan and Bunthong emphasise that the mountains, cliffs and caves were left largely untouched, and the landscape was mostly forested. For both of them, narrating this place’s history begins with an evocation of wilderness. They list the large animals of the forest: muntjack, deer, birds, monkeys, snakes, tigers, and gibbons. The gibbons, Bunthong says, were believed to be dead human ancestors. “The animals were not afraid of humans here, it was the humans who were afraid of the animals.” People feared to approach the gibbon communities, believing them to be powerful ghosts. But those who did approach them found that the gibbons were friendly: they were said to approach visiting humans and touch them. Bunthong said that some people would try to shoot the gibbons, but it was impossible to hit them. Bunthong speculates that they were impervious to bullets because they lived on a healthy diet of fruit. One gibbon community, he recalls, lived on and around a limestone karst between Na Kay north and Na Kay south. It was a cliff populated by all kinds of animals. Scaling this cliff became somewhat of a bravery contest for the people of the villages: to venture into the gibbon’s territory was only an act for the strong of heart. It was called, accordingly, a phaa (cliff) haarn (brave). On the very top of this mountain was a stone outcropping that – from the right angle – looked like a tigress with a tiger cub.

It was this image of tigers that, according to Bunthong, caught the eye of Kaysone Phomvihane. The leader of the NLHX had heard that this particular karst was known as a “cliff of bravery”, and the tigress figure that crowned it confirmed his sense that that this would be a stronghold of courageousness.

Kaysone had been based in Sieng Khuang, but with heavy bombing he had moved closer to the Vietnamese border. The nondescript village of Sieng Su, nearby Na Kay, became the new secret headquarters for the NLHX. It was selected because it was near a road heading to Vietnam, but it held no defensive attributes: it was essentially composed of forest and fields. The base at Sieng Su did not remain secret for long: CIA sponsored assassinations began, and soon the U.S. air war made Sieng Su unsafe for the leaders of the NLHX. They sought safety in the caves of Khang Sa-in. Kaysone set up his home, office, and the NLHX headquarters in the caves under the tigress and her cub.

Some of the caves were natural formations, but they were enhanced with the significant investment by the NLHX and allies. Corridors and rooms were blasted out with dynamite. Level floors with drainage, platforms and walkways were constructed with concrete. Walls and corrugated iron roofing were installed. Bars, heavy iron doors, and blast walls regulated the various entryways. Emergency rooms with oxygen machines guarded against chemical attack. Soldiers and civil servants and politicians inhabited the caves, bringing their families. Apart from the original inhabitants of Na Kay, the area because a large military camp operating under strict regulations. Single men and women, for instance, were not permitted to speak to each other without written permission from their supervisors.

In 1966, the area was renamed Samphan (meaning cooperation) and in 1969 the name was changed again to Vieng Say. This name can be interpreted to mean, “city of victory”, but Bunthong recalls that this name was chosen because it was the code name of Kaysone Phomvihane. If Kaysone was the center of the central committee, Vieng Say was the center of the revolutionary landscape. This wilderness had become headquarters, or in more local idiom, paa had become muang. And the central element in this transformation was a natural feature: the limestone karsts and their caves. Bunthong claimed that the US bombers targeted Kaysone’s cave, but the tigress and her cub were impervious to all of their attacks.

The sheer investment evident in this stronghold is striking. The caves burrowed into the limestone like heels burrowed into the soil. They seem to say, “Here we will stand. We will not budge. We will endure and prevail.” The caves give the impression that the NLHX were serious, well organized, well funded, and prepared to weather the US bombardment indefinitely. For any utopian (and I admit that I am one) it can’t help but make your skin tingle. It is easy to fill these empty caves with scenes from your own imagination. In the large meeting hall formerly used by the troops, I imagined hundreds of men and women ready to fight, and the leaders on the sunlit stage, calling for a revolution. Keewphan’s memories are not so romantic. Keewphan impressed upon me one very important point: “I hold no positive memory of the war. I don’t want to see war ever return here again.” It is clear that fear, hunger, and the injury or death of loved ones form part of the sorrow of war. But the image of loss that Keewphan speaks most readily of, and that sets the stage in his songs of history, is environmental loss. The metaphor of a lost Eden feeds his lyrical evocation of destruction.

His songs of history tell of how the bombing destroyed all of the big trees. Those that were not hit directly by ordnance had their leaves and branches sheared off by fragments. Those that remained standing were burnt by napalm. The big animals were killed or fled in fear. Asked if it was the bombs, and not the fact of human settlement that caused the devastation, both history-tellers were adamant that loss was caused by the bombs. True, the soldiers would kill and eat big animals if they saw them, they said, but they didn’t see them: the animals were already gone. Now that the bombs have ceased, Bunthong asserted that the animals would “definitely” return. “Just the other day I saw the tracks of a phaan (muntjack) in the gardens here.”

The gardens that are carefully tended around the caves are saturated with meaning. A red bushy ground cover that represents, it is said, the blood that was spilt in sacrifice flows in streams around the gardens and paths. Outside Khamtay Siphandone’s cave, Bunthong points out a tree planted by a Princess of Thailand during her visit in 2002. Kamtay Siphandone was the leader of the LPR army, and Thailand committed ground troops as well as support for the air war against Kahmtay’s army. Phuan said “this tree will grow large, and people will see it, and know that she planted it, and even after she is dead, people will know that she came here.” We eat a grapefruit that has grown in the garden, from a tree said to be planted by Kaysone Phomvihan himself. I was told that Kaysone established gardens around his cave as soon as the bombing ceased. Kept so meticulously, the caves and their gardens feel somehow empty, only hinting at that lives and liveliness that occurred in them not so long ago.

Cave door

A blast wall built at the mouth of a cave that served as the Hua Phan provincial administration hall

But these caves, gardens, and memories tell of a thoroughly peopled landscape. This is not a place of peace, or a wilderness, but a place of struggle, and the story of this struggle is told repeatedly through metaphors of nature. Most striking, perhaps, is the way that the horror and loss of war is told through particular landscapes, real and imagined. The image of wilderness sets the baseline for measuring the impact and devastation of violence. The horror of war is remembered significantly as a horror against this wilderness: as a loss of the true forest and the wondrous animals. Rather than attempting to efface the evidence of violence, the urge has been rather to memorialize and symbolize war through certain cultivations: through trees planted by leaders and former enemies, through significant plants, through a careful tending of the natural symbols of devastation and bravery. In this way, nature is confirmed as a metaphor for very human stories.