Several years ago, I read about a cave deep in Laos where a single U.S. cruise missile strike in the 1960s killed 374 men, women and children seeking refuge there. I was unaware of the historical context or geography of Laos at the time. To me then, it was merely another tragic Vietnam-war era story from Southeast Asia confirming the common “war is hell” sentiment, and I forgot about the cave for some time.
Preparing for our visit to Xiang Khouang, I came across the story of the cave again. The cave in question is near the Vietnam border, a good 60km (40mi) out of town along winding mountain roads. There isn’t a lot else to see around there if you aren’t on your way to Vietnam, and I wondered what business an outsider had visiting such a site at all.
I’m not sure what exactly changed my perspective on visiting the cave. Events and feelings of the past week were building to a crescendo that was becoming impossible to ignore — a foreigner in a foreign land bearing the weight of a terrible legacy of war crimes in that country, and preparing to bear the weight of the legacy of a new administration for which I already felt deeply ashamed. There are numerous aspects of being an American that make me immensely proud. There are some aspects, however, that are very difficult to grapple with, and it is those aspects that have made their way to the forefront in recent weeks. Even in light of all of this, it still wasn’t apparent to me then that the cave would factor into our short visit.
Then, one afternoon in Phonsavan while Noe was napping, I read that there was a memorial and Buddhist shrine at the foot of the cave in which villagers make offerings in memory of their family members who had died in the cave. For reasons I can’t adequately explain, visiting the cave suddenly became an imperative. Lori and I discussed our plans for Saturday morning and made our rounds to the various tour offices in the town center. Unsurprisingly, group tours largely focused on day trips to the Plain of Jars. However, we were able to hire a driver for the day for the three of us to make stops at Jar Sites #2 and #3, in addition to the ruins of the former provincial capital at Muang Khun, and lastly, Piu Cave. I had toyed with the idea of making the trip to the cave on my own, but ultimately felt that it was important for Noe to be a part of the trip and wanted Lori to be there as well. It would make for a long day given that Muang Khun and Piu Cave were in opposite directions from Phonsavan, but the driver was confident it was possible.
Our first stop, 30km southeast of town, took us to Muang Khun, location of the centuries-old former capital of Xiang Khuang Province (itself also once known as Xiang Khuang) and former seat of the Phuan Kingdom. The grandiose city brimming with temples and shrines was reduced to rubble by U.S. war planes in the 1960s and 1970s. Old Xiang Khuang city was abandoned in 1975, but reincarnated as the village of Muang Khun several years later. All that remains from the center of the Phuan Kingdom are a handful of conspicuous ruins scattered about town, the most well-known being Wat Phia Wat.
The most striking feature of Wat Phia Wat is the giant, seemingly pistol-whipped Buddha statue at the center of the crumbling temple ruins — a sobering testament to the devastation wrought by U.S. forces in the region.
There are two ruined stupas visible from the center of town, standing high up on a hill — That Fhun, and the jungle-reclaimed That Chom Phet.
At the ticket booth for That Fhun, the soft-spoken lady taking money seemed very concerned that Noe was too hot (Lori had the carrier’s clip-on hood up to protect him from the sun, but was getting noticeably sweaty because of this). The lady insisted that Lori instead take her parasol to use for Noe while out and about.
We’re rarely shown anything but kindness from the locals in Laos, particularly in the poorest areas. Whether or not they know we are American or whether they took the U.S. side or fought fiercely against the American forces generally makes no difference in how people treat us here. I’d like to say this makes me feel better about everything, but it doesn’t really. Most of these people, living amongst the rubble of their ruined kingdom, working in their UXO-laden fields — with their disabled neighbors, husbands, sisters, children — have no reason to treat us the way they do, and quite frankly, we don’t deserve to be treated so well. But they do. It’s karma, it’s instinctive, it’s Laos. It’s just how people are here, and the fact that I find it all so incomprehensible perhaps says far more about my own culture than theirs.
With that said, I should point out that this big ol’ hole in the stupa was not a result of the U.S. campaigns in Laos, but of earlier Chinese marauders who burrowed into the center of the stupa to pillage the sacred treasures inside. Obviously, the U.S. was not the first to leave their mark in this place, and probably won’t be the last, but the scale of what occurred here during the Vietnam War era is incomparable to very little in the history of human warfare.
Our next two stops take us to Plain of Jars Sites #2 and #3, in which we encounter a truckload of novice monks with roughly the same idea for a Saturday day trip.
One of the monks was apparently a mechanic in a former life.
Reaching Jar Site #3 involves crossing a small stream and strolling through a series of rice paddies.
This time of year, the paddies are fairly dry and yellow, which will change dramatically when the rains return in April.
This particular Jar site contrasts greatly with Site #1 just outside of town. Jars here are smaller and closer together, and most of the site sits beneath a grove of shade trees.
We have the site to ourselves…except for that group of monks over there, of course.
Up the road we visit the final Jar site of our visit, Site #2, which evokes some of the more jungly temple ruins of Angkor that we visited in 2012. The trees here are pretty incredible too.
We run into the same group of monks as before and have a fun little conversation with them (in English) about how we got here. Our driver had parked in a different spot than where their driver parked. As a result, they initially thought we had walked between sites, which would have been quite the feat given that about 6km separate the two sites and not more than 20 minutes had passed since we last saw the monks. Nonetheless, we all had a good chuckle over it.
We bid adieu to the monks and jars, stopped for a brief lunch and began the long trek north, back through Phonsavan and up into the mountains. The drive was mountainous and stunning. About 90 minutes later, we arrived at our destination — Tham Piu (Piu Cave).
At first, it was not at all what we expected. The field that doubled as a parking area was completely packed with vendor tents, and there was a lot of activity just on the periphery of the grounds. We had heard there was a small interpretive center before ascending the steps to the cave, but it was locked when we arrived. There were a number of caretakers about and our driver was able to find the one with the keys who promptly let us in. All of a sudden, a half dozen or so caretakers dropped what they were doing and streamed in to see what was inside. It was apparent that most had never been.
The walls of the small room were covered with the story of the cave from the Laotian perspective, complete with graphic photos documenting the aftermath of the missile strike. Needless to say, the Lao government held no punches in putting together the exhibit, and to be honest, I think the decision was appropriate for what happened here.
We left the center still a bit confused as to what all the activity was about. Then, on our way to the path up the mountain we passed the memorial and shrine and things began to come into focus.
The 24th of November 1968. Today was the 19th of November. All the activity around us was the local village community gearing up for commemorating the 48th anniversary of that fateful day.
The path to the cave slowly ascended the mountainside via a series of stairs cutting through lush jungle.
Some dilapidated sections required extra care to negotiate.
After a short while, we reached the gaping mouth of Piu Cave.
To say it is like no cave I’ve ever encountered would be an understatement. Upon arrival it immediately felt like something very unholy had occurred here, and not that long ago. The ceiling and sides of the cave still bore blackened scars from the attack, and the floor of the cave was carpeted in rubble, though some of the remnants had been made into cairns.
On the morning of November 24th, 1968, daily life began much as it had for some time. Villagers now accustomed to falling bombs and rocket attacks in the region had long sought refuge deep in the extensive limestone cave systems of eastern Laos. Along with hundreds of men, women and children from neighboring villages, rebel Pathet Lao fighters occasional sought refuge amongst the hundred or so caves as they made their way through rural Laos. Most of the caves proved to provide safe haven for these individuals, but Tham Piu was ultimately an exception.
From where we were standing now, the cave extends another mile into darkness. In the black abyss falling away from the sunlit chamber is where most of the 374 perished, scorched from the missiles, buried alive from the cave walls collapsing around them, or over many days, entombed alive in the cave depths. Complete and total devastation. No survivors.
This point is as far as Lori and I felt we needed to go. It doesn’t take long to get a sense of what happened here.
Back at the mouth of the cave, it’s easy to imagine how the cave’s elevated position might have left it vulnerable to a direct hit from jet fighters. It was common knowledge at the time that these caves were refuge for hundreds of civilians, and Tham Piu was no exception. One quickly realizes here that the contents of the cave was likely inconsequential to U.S. forces. It was an easy target.
On the way back down, we took an alternate route that hugged the lush hillside. Along the path we noticed something we hadn’t on the way up — numbered graves of the victims of Tham Piu.
Looking back from the start of the trail, you can see the mouth of the cave high above in relation to its surroundings.
When we arrived back at the bottom of the hill, we began about the business of finding an offering to place at the shrine, which was no easy task. We approached a couple of monks, but they only had the papers used to write wishes and blessings on. A young man nearby seemed to understand what we were looking for and disappeared for a few minutes before returning victoriously with three sets of incense sticks. The next item of business was to round up a lighter, which our driver was able to provide. The wind was blowing making the primer candles difficult to light. Our driver knelt next to us and sat patiently for several minutes as the three of us fumbled around trying to light the offering.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we succeeded — the textbook definition of a team effort. It bears mentioning that not a single person helping us during this time spoke a lick of English, including our driver. But the objective was clear. Some things in life transcend words.
We sat there in silence for a good long while. I wasn’t sure what else I should do, or if there was a particular Buddhist prayer to be said for this particular place at this particular time, so I clumsily cobbled together what I could and stood there in silence. What do you say at a time like this? All I could think about was how incredibly messed up it all was and how nothing I could do or say could change that.
A part of me wanted to believe that being here said something, meant something, demonstrated something to the people around us — or to myself — but if so, then what? It’s not as if I or anyone I know personally pulled the trigger and it’s unlikely that our driver or these monks suffered a personal loss here.
But perhaps we were all here today for something greater than memorializing and atoning for the sins of the past. I have to believe that there was more to this encounter than mere curiosity or national guilt. I’ve come to terms with the realization that I may never truly know what brought us here. But it did, and that feels like enough for now.
We were starting back to the van when our driver made a motion to go see the elder monk around the corner. He pulled out three yellow and orange bracelets and tied one around each of our wrists — right wrist for men, left for women. I watched as he tied Lori’s bracelet, and then Noe’s.
Noe can’t fully comprehend the significance of this moment. But then again, I’m not certain that we adults can either. He won’t likely remember this either. But whether he remembers it or not the important thing is that it happened, and that he was a part of it. Regardless, Noe was unusually solemn through much of our visit to the cave, so perhaps I’m not giving him the credit he deserves.
So where does that leave us? Honestly, I really don’t know. All of this will undoubtedly take time to process. What I will say is that what seems to have left the greatest impact on me from this day has nothing to do with the cave at all, but revolves around the kindness of strangers throughout the entire journey who had every reason to treat us far differently and instead welcomed us with warmth and generosity.
Try as I might, I can’t help but contrast today with what has been happening in the U.S. and Europe for some time. Our time spent in some of the least industrialized places on Earth only seems to underscore our common humanity time and time again. There are so many forces at play in the U.S. at the moment working tirelessly to have you believe otherwise.
So that’s it from Xiang Khouang. Lori’s final work trip for 2016 is in the can. We’ve had a great time getting to explore more of the region, but it’ll be nice to be back in Vientiane for a while.