Xaysomboun, Laos: The ex-Special Zone
As dawn broke the Khiri Travel Laos team assembled at their new office to set forth with the aim of scouting a newly opened province in the country: Xaysoumboun. In this revealing blog Christopher Gramsch, Country Manager Khiri Travel Laos, shares what they encountered
Due to hostility with the Hmong rebels, for 40 years the province of Xaysomboun has been extremely difficult to access for foreigners. Even Google Maps barely has anything listed in this area. Yet, with an intrepid spirit and a passion for discovery, turning north at the edge of the Phou Khao Khouay national park, we headed into the mountains on a narrow dirt road, unsure as to what we find.
During our 3-day journey we covered a total of 877 kilometers, and 25 hours in the car. There were some magnificent new discoveries to behold, and a re-inspection of already known sites (like the Plain of Jars) in Xieng Khouang.
Perched high in the Laotian highlands, overshadowed by the largest mountain in Laos, Phou Bia, this quiet city is no more than an extended village. It is only just starting to get access to modern technology. There is a large lake that provides fresh fish. Villagers are blessed with cool weather and occasional rain spurts as clouds stream down over the mountain. There’s only one hotel in town. Barely a 2 star – even by Lao standards, but the majestic countryside amply makes up for poor accommodation.
Chao Anouvong’s Cave
During the Siamese expansion, Chao Anouvong was taken from Vientiane as a child and held under guardianship in present-day Bangkok. As a young adult, having been friends with the Siamese Prince, he was given control of Vientiane as Siam needed to gain a tighter grip on the fringes of their territory. Leveraging his position years later, Anouvong got his son into a position of power in Champassak, under the guise of further control. However, Anouvong was not content with the mere control of his territory and invaded Siam to the detriment of his own forces. Massively defeated, he fled with a few of his family members back north. Setting an example for the rest of their empire, Siam razed Vientiane to the ground, displaced its entire population into modern day Isan, and took 30,000 men as slaves. The Siamese army tracked Chao Anouvong and his few remaining family members to this cave complex that can still be visited today.
The cave complex stretches deep into the mountain. While it takes serious guts to keep walking through the darkness, the glittering stalactites and stalagmites that lined our passage were a wonder to behold.
Once found, the Siamese army dragged Anouvong back to Bangkok, and locked him in a cage for public ridicule for the rest of his very short life.
Interestingly, in Vientiane today a giant statue of Chao Anouvong looks over the Mekong River, gesturing fervently in the direction of Thailand. Whether one chooses to view this historical character as a symbol of aspiring freedom and national pride, or as megalomaniacal conquer that saw the lives of thousands ruined, there is no denying that Anouvong played a significant role in the history of Vientiane.
Long Tieng Airbase
Hidden high up in the Hmong Mountains, the CIA built this secret airbase to aid in their war against the communist pressure from the north. It was so secret that the American congress didn’t even know about it at the time. Tragically, Laos is the most bombed country in the world, and the US fought what is known as ‘the secret war’ parallel to the Vietnam War. During its heyday, over 400 flights would take off from the airport at Long Tieng, which was only accessible by air. The US army used Long Tieng as a military training ground, through the vicious General Vong Pao. Local Hmongs were trained in modern day warfare and the art of flight. Most Hmong pilots trained here learned to fly before they even knew how to drive! Surrounded by picturesque mountains, lush scenery, and tropical jungle, this is a must see for anyone who has an interest in that tragic epoch of history.
This site still isn’t open for foreigners to visit. Khiri Laos can organize tours to Xasomboun Province but cannot guarantee that all sites can be visited.
Wat Phia Wat
Continuing on from Long Tieng Airbase, we arrived in Xieng Khouang Province. This was one of the most heavily bombed areas of the country, as the scars of war are visible on this Buddhist nation. This is perfectly epitomized by Wat Phia Wat. A temple that was bombed, and yet the Buddha statue survived, albeit with visible scarring on its arms, knee, and face.
The impressive stupas on top of a hill give travelers a fantastic overview of Phonesavanh valley. Raided by the northern Haw and Luang Prabang forces in the late 1800’s, the state that these temples are in stand as a testament to what happens when you abduct a king’s children for ‘safekeeping’.
Plain of Jars
We also travelled to the Plain of Jars, an impressive archeological site where hundreds of large stone jars are littered all over the plateau. No one really knows who carved these remarkable artifacts or how they got here. We took some time along the way to visit villagers working to improve themselves in light of the war. Using scrap metal from exploded bombs, they make spoons and bracelets to sell. We visited the Mulberries project. It works to improve sericulture and supports women by training them in creating high quality silk handicrafts to give them a steady income.
Lone Buffalo Foundation
We further visited The Lone Buffalo Foundation in Xieng Khouang. This special project offers young people free English courses taught by a native speaker. In addition to those, students are given the opportunity to develop computer skills and participate in physical activities, promoting the Lone Buffalo Foundation’s philosophy of encouraging English study through sport. The project also manages a small gym and holds weekend football coaching sessions for both boys and girls.
Meeting foreigners (with different accents!) to practice English is a special event for students and helps to overcome their shyness of speaking in public. Lone Buffalo Foundation uses a unique combination of teaching techniques, and they will be happy to put together a little program, which can include travelers into the lesson. It could be a game – in any case, no preparation is needed beforehand! Visitors will get to have fun with the kids, learn about Lao culture and hear more about the Lone Buffalo project. LBF encourages some of their students to study for careers in tourism, so this gives them the perfect chance to chat with foreigners and start to develop their tour guiding skills!
Pictures by Christa van Deth