On The Road: Deep underground in the footsteps of revolutionaries
Saturday 26 February 2011
Tae bumped down on the bed frame and it cracked. Startled, he leapt up and uttered a deferential apology to the room. This was no ordinary bed but one belonging to a senior cadre of the Pathet Lao, the Laos communist leadership that had operated from a series of 480 caves deep in the north-east of the country to escape US bombardment between 1964 and 1973.
Tao – a local guide – and I were in an emergency bunker along with a Russian life-saving machine. This tubes-taps-nuts-and-bolts affair, rusting and redundant, was to pump oxygen to the cowering communists in the event of nuclear war.
The splintered bed was a reminder of the threat to the Pathet Lao in its subterranean hideout. Its leadership had retreated to the caves at Vieng Xai as the Americans, who had backed the Lao Royalists, tried to halt the communist spread in Laos and Vietnam by bombing the life out of this region. The troglodytic existence of the Laos communists was relieved by occasional underground circus performances, but much time was spent manning hilltops with anti-aircraft machinery to repel the American military onslaught.
We quickly slunk out of the bunker and into the cave office of Secretary-General Kaysone Phomvihane. My guidebook stated that on display was a picture of Che Guevara donated by Fidel Castro to the Secretary-General. (Castro had sent hundreds of Cuban doctors to work in the cave hospital in the 1960s.)
"Where's the picture?" I enquired. "It's been removed as it's water damaged," the caves' guide explained. Then he asked: "Is Che Guevara still alive?"
"No," I answered, 'but Castro is still alive... although some people thought for some time that maybe he wasn't."
"Maybe? No, not maybe, he is definitely alive," he said with a curt tone as we tunnelled out of the office into daylight. The global communist club may register few numbers now, but the Cubans, it seems, will always find favour here with their Laos counterparts.
It's the capitalists that have the last laugh, though. The most important caves might be marked by large hoarding bearing the names of the Pathet Lao leaders who once hunkered down there, but their names are underscored by a large Pepsi logo.
Footprint Laos Handbook (£14.99) is available now.
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