nthposition online magazine

Cave of Leader

by Dave Tomory

[ places - march 06 ]

During the Vietnam War, in remote northeastern Laos, in a landscape of limestone outcrops that tower over deep caverns, the communist Pathet Lao leadership spent nine fugitive years under relentless American bombing. One vast cavern, once the haunt of wild elephants, was converted into a lecture hall; in 1971 a deputation from Cuba, bearing a large framed portrait of Che Guevara, was received there by an audience of 5,000. After their victory the seven Pathet Lao leaders, one of them a renegade prince, moved to the capital Vientiane and became the government; their caves became a 're-education' centre for defeated anticommunists - and briefly for the Lao royal family before it disappeared forever.

 

The woven rattan ceiling of this little restaurant-bar is cobwebbed; the mysterious silks of Hua Phan hang in sarong-lengths around all the walls except at the back, where a huge dusty stereo and television are shelved alongside grimy glass cases of fake Scotch - the labels are the wrong red - and family photographs, all of women. Four local men hurry in from the winter night and rain, and call for Madame to bring them over some of the local lao-lao and four shot glasses. The lao-lao comes in a recapped Pepsi bottle. One of the men pours a few drops of the fierce liquor into each glass, empties his own onto the floor, then fills all the glasses to the brim. The discarded liquor is an offering: always, in Laos, the touch of tradition.

The colours on the walls - shadowed green, red, blue, grey, gold - shift on the cloth with the movement of the eye. When you ask in the market if their cloth is really silk the women ask for your lighter, and burn a few threads: burned silk smells of burned hair and crumbles into black dust. Not every piece is for sale. As girls in the jungle villages of Hua Phan, the remotest Lao province, still tribal and animist, never fully Buddhist, the first sarong these women ever wove was for themselves, as a shroud for their eventual death. Each piece is detailed, unworldly, original; in this little bar they make a kind of sanctuary for Madame, who is upright and self-possessed amongst her raffish clientele in this frontier town. She sells imported fancy cakes and drinks and phone cards, she changes dollars, Thai baht, yuan; cars pause outside in the puddles to send in small men in shiny Chinese suits and bomber jackets and sometimes pale women in fake fur over sarongs, their low heels spattered with red mud.

A Landcruiser cruises slowly by, checking out the bar through tinted windows, then backs up and parks. Two men in dark clothes walk in, the big one protective, his boss behind him: a compact frame, a tense quick walk, a flat nose. They are here - cruising the dull provincial streets, nothing to do, trying the bar where the falang go - because I am here. The boss says he's a businessman, that he studied economics in Germany, and he may well have been there: his English is studded with German, 'my freunds', the nearby 'Vietnam grenze', the border. But his teeth are all wrong, wolfish and discoloured, not German business teeth; and his business, in this smugglers' paradise of Hua Phan, is 'helping people solve any problem they may have with their business'. He's enjoying himself, toying with a tourist he will never see again. I remember drivers doing this sometimes when I was an innocent young hitchhiker: they became confessional, or pretended to be celebrities. This time it's the former. Crime loves a vacuum: Laos had been an unwilling party to the Vietnam War, enthusiasts for the revolution were too few, and so, before any other communist state in the region, and before even their patron the USSR, the Lao government in 1986 gave up its attempt at state control of the economy and services, gave it up so completely that a few years later UN observers were reporting that 'excessive autonomy' in border provinces like Hua Phan was 'jeopardising national unity'. Into the vacuum, when the government moved out, had come the new entrepreneurs, to begin running hardwood timber and drugs to China and Vietnam in return for cash and Landcruisers. The return of capitalism, red in tooth and claw: but in poor provinces like Hua Phan the likes of my new friend were almost the only face of Business, to be cherished by what authority still remained, for their generosity… Still, it is always the walls that go up first around these businessmen's fantasy mansions - yet unfinished, most of them, still standing in gardens of mud - that everyone calls 'heroin houses'.

 

Hua Phan: the wild East; a transport black hole. Its provincial capital of Xam Nua was where the famous caves of the old revolutionaries were, but there never had been any trains, and all government bus services disappeared with the reforms of the Eighties. You could get to Xam Nua by private bus from the south, or by air, sometimes, from Vientiane, but from the west of the country public transport was a rumour. People had seen a bus, they told me at the beginning of my two-day journey from Nong Khiaw, but they had been unable to board it because it ran only when fully booked. For the first day I had to hire a taxi, a Toyota pickup; there would be sawngthaeuws - 'two rows', pickups or trucks with bench seats in the back - for the day after. Standing beside a scrap-metal dump, a hillock of 1960s' cluster-bomb casings, the Toyota driver said he'd take me to the village halfway for half a million kip, which he said was $25. In fact it was $50, but he knew that with kip you could lose count very easily. Even people who handled kip every day could be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of a currency worth 10,000 to the dollar. In the bank in Oudomxai, cascades of notes had surged out of counting machines and been bundled up and stacked on the counters like old newspapers, my own stack having been retrieved from a tin trunk so cavernous that it nearly swallowed the teller.

That evening, in a village restaurant lit by hurricane lanterns, under wild hills, I studied a menu which began with the usual noodles and soup and ended with Wild Animal Meats. The cook opened the fridge, pointed to a lump of bloody flesh in a plastic bag and then up at a calendar on the wall, which bore a portrait of Bambi. Venison, quite legal - but next to the calendar there hung a cautionary poster featuring an armed hunter cancelled by a big red X, surrounded by pictures of the five species of Lao gibbon, all of them endangered. Jovially, the cook pointed to the poster and then into the fridge where on another shelf there lay another bag of flesh: much darker flesh.

Next morning at dawn, having had coffee with condensed milk and seen a local shopper carrying off a trussed squirrel by its feet, I rode a truck into a mountain morning so cold, wet and miserable that even the locals were on the verge of tears. All of them were women, in charge of a huge sow lashed to a rack on the tailgate. She screamed like a strangled vacuum-cleaner until the truck started, but afterwards never uttered a sound, even on the road that was not a road at all but a thing of ruts, pits and wallows between fragments of old paving. Soon we arrived at a roadblock: real police, this time. Usually roadblocks were improvised affairs outside villages, manned by unsmiling boys awed by their old sporting rifles, not hitting up drivers for money, just guarding against 'bandits'. Lao bandits could be ordinary highwaymen or nostalgic royalists - though the latter would never come up here to the northeast, so far from their refuge in Thailand. The plainclothesman was still dourly scrutinising my passport when another policeman wandered past, dragging a big black, grey and white hawk by its feet; at this he brightened, pointed, and said: 'Bird!' Smilingly he gave me back my passport. 'Enjoy trip!' The courtesy of Laos; the taste for Wild Animal Meats.

The truck began to crawl uphill. Ahead of us I saw old forest lying all along the ridge top, and below that, steep hillsides stripped down to square, bare patches, some badly eroded, some with green growing back like hair on a shaved scalp. We were entering the territory of the Hmong, the despoiled hills of their traditional slash-and-burn agriculture, and until we left the hills we would keep passing their villages perched on the bends of the road. The Hmong must be the cause of the police roadblock. Originally from Yunnan in China, always reclusive, they have no love for lowlanders - 'Miao!', the passengers were saying to each other now, nervously, using their rude word for Hmong - and had held out against the Lao communist government for years after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

Coming down out of the hills, the passengers relaxed, but the first lowland Lao village was despondent, all damp wood and puddles in the grey mist. A lone woman on a balcony was operating with a foot treadle an enormous wooden pestle, which fell with a melancholy thud: no one else was visible in this medieval scene, until around the corner we came upon a parked Army truck with an armed squad crouched nearby. But it was only an exercise; the squad grinned foolishly as we passed. It got warmer, the jungle began. Family hunting parties strolled along the roadside, women with baskets, kids fidgeting, men in Chinese army surplus and huge black trousers carrying old rusty shotguns, crossbows, machetes, and once, an antique long-barrelled rifle like an Afghan jezail.

 

Xam Nua when I saw it was a wide, empty boulevard lined with low-rise concrete buildings; behind them the rest of the town sprawled across a dusty bowl-shaped valley. All such towns destroyed in the war and rebuilt in the 1970s tend to look like this, but Xam Nua is special: this town, this province, was the heartland of Lao communism from the founding of the Pathet Lao in 1950 until their victory in 1975. With the opening of the Vietnam border to the east there is some hope that tourism in the future will offset gangsterish entrepreneurism, but the real claim to fame of the area remains its history: 29kms away lies the reason for my visit, the Pathet Lao holy of holies, the caves of Vieng Xai.

A frontier town: before I've been in Xam Nua five minutes, a dude in an oiled quiff with a Kalashnikov slung over the shoulder of his bomber jacket goes by on a Honda. So many men are walking around in bits of uniform - forage caps, camouflage jackets, combat pants, boots - that the place looks like a demobilisation centre, which in a way it is, 30 years after the war's end. Demilitarisation takes so much longer than militarisation. In this province, half the handicapped are the victims of UXO - unexploded ordnance, to put it blandly; there are eighty to a hundred accidents every year, a third of them fatal. Along the boulevard, rusty bombs stand at attention by the steps of the UXO LAO compound; on the other side are the buildings of a German-Lao de-mining organisation: eastern Laos saw the heaviest bombing of the war, and all the big provincial towns like Xam Nua have offices like this right on Main Street.

At the far end of the boulevard there is a small sad rebuilt Buddhist temple. Two battered stupas nearby indicate that others were once here, but today the oldest proper buildings in town are the squat municipal buildings built by the Vietnamese in the Seventies. Vietnamese influence here long predates that time, and remains powerful, though waning since the Eighties' reforms and the decline of their comrades the Pathet Lao: the modest Victory Monument on its hillock that celebrates the fraternal triumph is obviously unvisited and has a locked gate and barbed wire against bandits. The coming generation of Lao leaders will not own the allegiances of their fathers. The Pathet Lao veterans were trained in Hanoi, where all Indochinese communism began, and they began their resistance to the French in this province, and continued it against the Americans, because it was remote, jungly guerrilla country and the nearest point in Laos to Hanoi and north Vietnam. As the Vietnam War began, Laos was officially neutral; but the Americans, obliged to be the good guys, had to guiltily hide from the world the secret war they were fighting there, while their Vietnamese and Lao communist enemies, secure in anti-imperialist virtue, were able to act as if the border simply did not exist. Vietnamese fighting the French in the Fifties had been the first to use the Vieng Xai caves; Vietnamese troops in large numbers came and went from Laos throughout both wars, and the Ho Chi Minh trail that supplied the communists in south Vietnam ran for most of its length through eastern Laos.

This cavalier treatment of Laos' borders did not originate in revolutionary politics, though: it was older, the result of Laos' traditionally precarious existence as a nation, geographically and ethnically. It is a landlocked country of some forty different ethnic groups, most of whom are more closely related to kin next door in Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Burma and Thailand than they are to any sense of Lao nationality. By far the biggest group, the Lao Tai of the flatlands along the Mekong, are cousins to the Thai on the far bank. Nor does the topography help. The Annamite range that in the south is a rugged natural border between Laos and Vietnam, is in the north the easier hill-crossing that I made in the sawngthaeuw: all northeastern Laos lies on the Vietnam side. Other Lao ranges extend into south China and eastern Burma, and so do tribal allegiances. Even the Mekong river border with Thailand is less than a century old. The same UN report of 1992 that deplored the 'excessive autonomy' of Laos' border provinces said that in many ways the country still played 'the role of a buffer state'.

The French imported Vietnamese officials to run Laos - thus intensifying a long-held Vietnamese sense of superiority - and thought of Indochine not as three nations, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, but as a collection of provinces. This did nothing to bolster Lao nationalism; but it is extraordinary how deep other French values went. Every food-shop owner in the country, even out here in the sticks, knows how to spell Restaurant. I sit cradling a cup of coffee on this damp morning by the river and watching the tribal women in headscarves heading through the mist to the market. In the market there are many interesting things - giant oranges and piles of bark, bundles of twigs, healing potions in jars - but it is the Wild Animal Meats stalls that draw me like fate. It's early; nothing much yet on the stalls but a couple of pine martens and a stack of red squirrels, fur on. No bats: I've been told to look out for bats. Two Hmong women know I'm not buying, and eye me sceptically while a monk - as rare as a foreigner in Xam Nua - draws wearily on a cigarette.

No rain today, and after 10 it warms up. Crowds of shoppers come, filling the air with dust, and by lunchtime the market is a nightmare for wildlife conservation. There are several rows of plucked fledglings, baby river crayfish, an unidentifiable very hairy hind leg, ranks of jungle rats, skinned, with bared teeth, two and a half pythons, a bag of mixed lizards, another rodent like a big muskrat being carried through the crowd; and finally bats, many pairs of them, bound back to back, alive. In no time the plucked fledglings, a delicacy, have all been sold.

 

Off to the Vieng Xai caves in a sawngthaeuw, with people returning from the market, villagers with friendly nutbrown faces, again with a fat sow strapped to a rack on the back. Some houses we pass have ornamental bombs, painted, standing by the doors like garden gnomes, the odd one with a nose-cone of flowers. Cluster-bomb casings, halved lengthways, on stilts too high for the pigs to get at, have spring onions growing in them. Then, in a wide valley, Vieng Xai, the sheer protuberant limestone hills rearing up like giant menhirs, part bare, part furred with trees and bushes, with bamboo at the foot.

Vieng Xai means City of Victory. My guidebook is out of date, too down in the mouth: the socialist vacancy it describes ('a wax museum of empty kerbed streets') has been filled with humanity. Some buildings put up after the end of the American bombing in 1973 are still here, blockish, yellow concrete slabs, mostly empty, but there are lots of newer houses with gardens, and groups of kids all off to school; Thai pop music sounds from bright kitchens. It’s a beautiful landscape - the dramatic hills, the fish ponds and gardens and fruit trees - on a lovely day after a chill morning, like spring in Europe. In the Memorial Caves Office by the road the only guide available is a shy man in his mid-40s, who offers me tea and a Tour Card in festive colours: History places. Home, Cave of Leader in Viengxay district Hua Phan province. Thank so much. The guide apologises for his English, which is not at all bad, and we set off for the first cave, where once the Defence Minister of the Pathet Lao defended himself. On the way we pass the government guest house supposed to be the one in which the royal family stayed in 1977 before being dispatched to some jungle gulag near Sop Hao. Sop Hao is on the same road I've just travelled on from Xam Nua but much nearer the Vietnamese border: always that Vietnamese safety-net for the Lao communists, a foreign country the guarantor of their power.

In the war the Lao were fortunate in having so much limestone country, so rich in habitable caves: most famously here, but also in Nong Khiaw - one cave sheltered the Bank of Luang Prabang - and in Vang Vieng on the road to Vientiane, and throughout Xieng Khouang province, the most heavily bombed part of Laos, and in Mahaxai, south of Vientiane. Caves sheltered a war economy and thousands of families headed by women who lived there for years, tending the fields by night to avoid the bombers, while the men were away at the war. Children were born and brought up in caves - not troglodyte holes but huge spaces that could be blasted out and joined to others by tunnels. By now I had visited them in two Lao provinces, at first only out of curiosity, expecting no more than a grim military story; I hadn't expected so many civilians, women and children and old people. I hadn't expected families. Every village in Vieng Xai district had a cave. During the bombing from 1964 to 1973, the nine years when the Pathet Lao leaders lived here, their families lived with them: in every cave, walled-off rooms marked Son's or Daughter's or Nephew's Bedroom.

The menhir-hills stand in little groups of two or three, in a wide ring around the modern town; as you come up to them you find that each little group encloses a U-shaped space, with the cave or caves at the back under the hill's foot. The dive bombers and helicopters tried to run rockets into these U-shaped spaces and the mouths of the caves, or they came up and over the back of the hills to drop bombs straight down, while anti-aircraft gunners fired at them from the hilltops. Caves had to be carefully chosen; you see one of the rejects just before arriving in Vieng Xai, a vast ragged hole in the ground, too open-mouthed, too exposed. One tragic cave in Xieng Khouang to the south, high on the face of a hill and with no anti-aircraft defence, fell to a rocket fired straight in. Hundreds of people had been sheltering there; it was three days before the inferno inside cooled enough for anyone to enter.

A cave: the best kind of refuge, the worst kind of trap... I ask the guide if he remembers cave life. He does, though he was very small. Then when he was about eight, his father was out fishing in the river with some friends when an American aeroplane killed them all. His eyes cloud over suddenly, and I believe him. I remember a remark of Norman Lewis: 'what an aid to untroubled killing the bombing plane must be.' Humanity a few dots down there in the river, then gone. The boy, a bookish type in a world of war, when he grew up had to became a soldier, but 'a soldier in an office; I don't like to fight'. Afterwards he spent five million kip, $500, a huge sum then, for a year of English lessons, to get his current job. Sometimes he takes Americans round. When I ask how he feels about that, he has a practised answer ready: Americans are like anyone else, there are good and bad Americans as there are good and bad Lao.

You hear this often, and it is impossible to know if people mean it or if they are using the soft words of Lao courtesy. Really, I've been told, the people to ask are the last true believers - the old fighters left stranded by the Eighties' reforms in a world they can never have imagined. In Luang Prabang once I saw a young American couple in Gap khakis sitting outside a nice French café as a group of these old fighters came past. They wore faded fatigues and jungle-green slouch hats, the clothes in which they fought the tourists’ fathers, and defiantly still their dress code - or perhaps that's all they owned. They and the Americans stared at each other across the street, while the French at the café tables murmured witty things about opposing worlds of ideology, both learned in Paris, and how history was irony.

My guide is surprised to hear that the American war in Laos - run by the CIA, its biggest-ever operation - was kept a secret from the American Congress and people. He's a Party man for sure, he wouldn't be in the job otherwise, but a zealot would have known that and used it for point-scoring. He seems more likely to have joined the Party for his country and his father. His opinions are unsurprising but hardly radical. When I ask him why he thought the Americans fought in Laos, he says that 'in the American mind of the time' Laos was the key domino in the region, the place that had to be held for the defence of what they called the free world; that the Americans never believed in Lao neutrality because their fear of international communism was too great.

When a local woman tells him that one of the seven Party leaders who once lived here, one of the two still alive, is arriving today by helicopter to visit his old cave, my guide is much moved. He holds out two fingers, pointing to each and saying, ' There are two ways to live, two paths to take: we fought to live the right way.' He doesn't explain what he means by the right way, and there may be no easy explanation. The political right way, presumably, together with the patriotic way. But because this is Laos, I wonder if the right way might not include older Ways that are not political at all.

 

Between a house built after the war and the Defence Minister's cave stands a huge block of concrete one storey high, three metres thick, and wide enough to block rocket attacks. The cave when you enter it is like all those reserved for the seven men of the Pathet Lao leadership. A guardroom stands just inside the cave entrance. Then comes a conference room with a severely plain table and chairs, nothing else, and behind that are the living quarters, crudely walled and roofed in wood. Behind the living quarters, at the end of the tunnel, deep in the hill, we come to a single steel door, airtight like a ship's bulkhead door, marked Emergency Room: and inside the room, a windowless bunker, there is nothing but a rusting Russian oxygen machine, the air supply pipe leading up and out through the roof of the cave. The machines were brought in during the chemical bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail in the late Sixties, but no chemical attack ever happened here.

You can only imagine cave life, enclosed by stone for year after year: the functional furniture, blankets on metal beds, water in jerrycans, flickering light, stale air, all-clear sirens - and then the nocturnal forays outside to see the stars. But there were pleasures sometimes. The biggest of all the Vieng Xai caves was blasted out to make an auditorium; it still has its stage and podium 'for speaking by Central Committee'. Before that it had been full of bats and birds that the local villagers hunted, and wild elephants sheltered there from the monsoon. In 1971 the Cubans appeared onstage there with their portrait of Che, before an audience of 5,000; the circus came to town at least once, and sometimes there were plays and movies, not only political lectures, surely. No Fun is a serious offence in Laos, possibly enough to bring down a Party. Certainly it was enough to bring down the state socialist economic system that the Party's Russian 'advisers' imposed, and that only 10 years after the end of the war.

In 1973 the bombing finally ended and people began to leave their caves, in the daytime. Houses were built for the seven leaders in front of their caves; right in front of the caves, in case the Paris Accords didn't work out. The Souphanouvong cave is as spartan as those of the other six leaders, but the house in front of it, in the landscape restored once the bombers had gone, is quite elegant, with its avenue of pomelo trees leading up to the door, the fruit like giant grapefruit fallen and lying on the path. Souphanouvong was after all a prince of the royal house of Luang Prabang, a Red Prince, and his house is French, with shutters, a concrete tennis court and a swimming pool fashioned from a bomb crater in front of it, a garage tunneled into the menhir-hill below the cave, and a garden with borders and trees. Along the path a red stupa - that multifarious Way again - commemorates one of his 10 children, 'murdered four kilometres from here by the American CIA and Lao CIA'.

It seems the seven leaders became fond of Vieng Xai, if not the caves. Confined here in exile they had been together with their own, the loyal ones, had held out for their cause, had outfought the enemy and prevailed; and as the bombing ended they seem to have thought of building the scene of their triumph into a sort of socialist Brasilia. A return to the far-off capital - even so modest a one as Vientiane - may have seemed to the seven exiles potentially corrupting of revolutionary purity. Better perhaps to begin the socialist millennium right here, safely near Vietnam. But then they decided against it. Vieng Xai was simply too remote.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, in that same year, 1973, their contemporaries the Khmer Rouge, who had developed in a similar exile their romantic fanatical hatred of all cities, were planning their emptying of Phnom Penh. The Lao were never so extreme. The bourgeoisie certainly feared the revenge of the communists, and before Pathet Lao forces reached Vientiane two years later, the city's middle classes had fled across the Mekong into Thailand. In the aftermath the Lao royal family disappeared and thousands were 're-educated' - but in the madness of the time, this was moderation. Compare the Khmer Rouge 'auto-genocide', the flight of a quarter of a million boat people from Vietnam. The Lao communists never tried to destroy their country's past as the Cambodian and Vietnamese did, in their different ways. They arrived in Vientiane feeling, a resident told me, that caves 'were not for humans', were undignified, and that the people who had made them live there were now going to pay for it. Far-off Hua Phan province, heartland of the Party, would now deal with the Party's enemies, the most dangerous of whom were sent off to die in the jungle gulags of inanition, exhaustion, malaria - the way the royals went.

But it was more the fear of revenge than revenge itself that really did the damage: the flight of the middle classes across the Mekong left the Party to decide everything, which was what it wanted - until it found that the country no longer had any teachers, engineers or managers, and was now dependent on foreign aid and more vulnerable than ever to its neighbours... As we leave the cave of the Red Prince, we hear a distant helicopter, perhaps that elderly leader revisiting his old cave - and perhaps privately wondering whether, like political parties elsewhere, the Pathet Lao might have had its best years there, in opposition.

 

Right next to the conference room of the last cave I will see today is an alcove marked Resting Place. Wooden-slat beds are drawn up side by side on the rough limestone floor like chaise-longues by a swimming pool: six beds only. The bed at the far end belonged to the Red Prince. He was the 'face man', the leader the foreigners got to see, and was usually off doing diplomatic work, but when he was here he had to recline on a slat bed with the others. The seventh man, whose cave this is, had a whole resting place to himself: from the beginning the real power lay with him, the Party General Secretary, Kaysone Phomvihane. He remained literally incognito, except to the other six leaders, for seventeen years, until the victory was achieved. Then he became visible - you can see him on every banknote, on a plinth in every town - but fourteen years after his death is still unknowable, hidden behind the official myth.

The conference room has seven name cards at the respective places, Kaysone at the head, the Prince first on his left: the face man at the faceless man's elbow. Further inside the cave is Kaysone's personal room - which perhaps really was as it appears today, simple and uncluttered, a monastic cell, a retreat. The revolutionary surname he chose, Phomvihane, has a Buddhist meaning, 'Having the Attributes of a Great Leader', and the regime he led was always careful to employ tradition: his ubiquitous statues are surmounted by the many-layered parasol of Buddhist distinction. In the centre of his room stands a glass coffee table with three books displayed: Lenin on Marx and Engels, in French; a title by Ho Chi Minh in Vietnamese which, surprisingly to me, the guide can't read; and a little white book in Lao, the Party General Secretary's manual. And behind Kaysone's chair on a shelf is that big wood-framed portrait of Che Guevara, a good likeness, in profile. It survived unscathed the journey the doughty Cubans made to Vieng Xai, overland from Hanoi - a dangerous journey perhaps relieved by the anticolonialist pleasure of calling in at Dien Bien Phu, scene of the debacle that ended the history of French Indochina.

After two hours in the caves we emerge blinking into hard midday light to find a Thai tourist family wandering around outside. Without a guide; my guide mutters that this is not good. The old security reflex of Hua Phan: many caves here are still closed 'for security reasons', and some may still be used as detention centres, as they were after the war. It has taken the Vietnam border, 60kms away, a long time to open because of the presence of the Sop Hao military zone on the road.

Back at the Memorial Caves Office the guide shows me the portraits of the old leaders, in frames above the counter. A perfect Party mix: middle class, peasant, prince. All were born early in the last century, and it seems amazing that two of them still survive, though the Red Prince died long ago and Kaysone himself, Prime Minister of Laos since the war, died in 1992. I have to be told which one is Kaysone - he's at the far left, with shrewd eyes and a broad, almost Slav face - but not which one is the Red Prince. Only one of the seven has that royal sheen and is groomed like a Frenchman, with a neat moustache, plump cheeks and a white suit. What turned the Prince Red? 'Love of Justice', the guide replies, in capital letters. He reaches for the thermos - in Laos there's always a thermos handy - and pours a little tea into his glass, pours that into mine and then turns and throws the contents out into the garden. That offering again.

Outside, a crowd of school children passes me on the road on the way home for lunch; when they see me, several at once begin rehearsing their English. Lao Baby Boomers. The Lao birthrate has been high since the war, and under-15s are 45% of the population. Their world will be a very different one from their parents; it may well be more like the Thais'. The history of Indochina since the wars began in the last century is a story of destiny interrupted. The Lao affiliation with Vietnam came from the French empire and the wars, and in time she was bound to return to the orbit of the country whose culture, language and religion was closest to her own: Thailand. Which nevertheless remains another neighbour for Laos to be afraid of. With uncertain borders and ambiguous identity, landlocked Laos remains surrounded by neighbours it cannot do without and is afraid of. I crossed the Mekong once on a flatbed ferry made from two American military boat hulls - so well-built then, so useful now. Thailand was only a few kilometres off, but Somchit my driver had never been there, only up to the border. He’d seen Thailand on television, and it looked too violent for him and too glossy. Laos, he thought, was still itself: quiet. 'Thailand was never an imperial possession', another Lao, an elegant old lady, told me in Vientiane, 'until the war. Then she got the Americans, and now Bangkok has Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, eight lanes of traffic in the middle of town, huge airconditioned malls… While Vientiane, which was an imperial possession and then got the communists, is stuck to this day with cafes, baguettes, wine, and pain au chocolat.'

The children will see what happens. Near the sawngthaeuw stand in Vieng Xai is a war memorial, a statue coated in cheap gold, of a triumphant trio: a soldier with a Kalashnikov and grenades at his belt, arm outstretched towards the glorious future; a worker with a hammer; a woman with a sickle. Each figure has one foot firmly on a bomb inscribed with the letters USA. No child in this inanimate family: but in the road ahead of me two little girls in white dresses are walking along, each carrying a big yellow sunflower.