NPC Newsletter (2nd New Series) No. 43 - May 1998

The Caving Potential in Lao

As an ex-caver, I know how excited cavers get by the possibility of virgin caves in exotic foreign locations so I thought I'd tell you a little about the caves I encountered whilst on holiday recently in Laos.

(photo, 12k mono jpeg) Laos (or more properly, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic) is a landlocked country in S.E. Asia enclosed by Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and China. The north of the country is dominated by limestone geology covered with tropical monsoon forest vegetation (ie. exceedingly wet for 3 months and dry for next 9 months of the year). Evidently, the high purity of calcite and geological structure are such that parts of the limestone succession are conducive to cave formation. Caves are abundant in Northern Laos: often an important supply of water during the winter months and sometimes worshipped with Buddhist shrines.

Laos has some interesting recent politics. In a similar fashion to other ex-French colonies in the region (Vietnam and Cambodia), the communists were gaining power in the early 1970's. Whilst engaged in Vietnam, the USA was also involved with a (then) secret bombing campaign in eastern Laos, financed by the sale of opium, in an effort to prevent a communist government. The communists (known as Pathet Lao) eventually won and took over control from the Royalist government in 1975. It is estimated that three quarters of the country's intelligentsia then left Laos fearing either prison or re-education camps (to which 10% of the population were sent) and the country was closed to most foreign visitors (especially Westerners) from 1975 until recently. This isolation from the Western world means that Laos has retained a rather primitive style of living. What few concessions there are to the latter half of the century are mainly from China (Chinese cars, lorries etc.) and there is very little industry (one cement factory and one major coal mine). For the most part, Laotians live in self-sufficient villages, operating "shifting" or slash-and-burn cultivation in a sustainable manner as they have done for centuries. A real eye opener for the Western traveller.

Cave formations, Van Vieng
(photo - 20k mono jpeg)

Accessible, pretty caves generally make for a good attraction and Laos is no exception. I went to see two "show" caves. The first was in Van Vieng, near Vientaine (the capital). The scenery was typical "sugar lump" type karst with disjointed hills about 400 m high. Perhaps not the best potential for a large cave system but interesting walk-in caves none the less. We were shown the way to the caves by a local farmer for a small charge. A short easy walk led us to an opening about 50m up from the plateau. Inside was a large dry cave on several levels roughly the size of a large church with excellent formations from ceiling to roof. (photo - 3k mono jpeg) The sun shining in made certain formations look rather rude (see photo), no wonder they have a shrine here!

Every day, at a certain time, the sun illuminates this rather rude cave formation in Van Vieng. A nearby shrine in the cave demonstrates that this formation is worshipped as a symbol of fertility!

The second show cave was Pak Ou caves, upriver from Luang Prabang, the ancient Buddhist capital (and now a UNESCO World Heritage site), accessible by boat and one of the major tourist attractions in Laos. It really was a stunning set of caves with a large staircase ascending from the jetty on the river making a grand entrance to the caves. For centuries, until being ousted by the communists, the King and Queen of Laos placed a statue of Buddha in the caves on a certain day each year. As a result, the caves are stuffed full of all types of Buddha statues. This enormously valuable collection of ancient Buddhas is only now being catalogued by a joint project with an Australian University.

(photo - 8k mono jpeg) Statue of the happy hermit, Pak Ou caves. The tourist information states that he's happy because he knows the medicinal properties of the plants in the forest. Maybe he also knows a secret or two about the opium poppies too!

Whilst the limestone is still rather disjointed at Luang Prabang, to the north it becomes more massive. Again, caves abound. During one short walk in the (easily accessible) agricultural area I found an obvious wide shaft of some 40 m depth near the top of a hill. Locals reported a "walk-in" cave at the base of the hill suggesting a promising virgin cave of approximately 200 m. Not bad for an afternoon's stroll! This region would be my recommended area for exploration. The area is quite agricultural so there are lots of networks of small tracks so tramping through the forest is kept to a minimum (I am a lazy explorer)! The locals operate traditional shifting cultivation systems whereby plots are cleared, used for crops and the forest (and fruit trees) allowed to grow back. Therefore, most of the older villagers know the local caves, even if they are hidden in current day forest. All you need to know is the Lao for cave, taam.

(photo - 22k mono jpeg)
Karst Scenery, Van Vieng

To the east of the country, in the Annamite Hills, the topography again grades into more massive mountains. According to the Lonely Planet (1996) travel guide, the area of Vieng Xai is "a striking valley of verdant hills and limestone cliffs riddled with caves". In fact, there are 102 known caves. These caves were the headquarters of the Pathet Lao during the "secret war". After the war, the King and his wife were banished here until their reported death a few years ago. They were kept under house arrest (should that be cave arrest?) in a cave deemed fit for royalty: "wooden walls and floors, as well as natural cave formations, divided the cavern into a bedroom, meeting room and various other spaces." Another cave housed the communist chief and "extends 140 m into a cliffside that was scaled by a rope before steps were added. Its various rooms included a political party centre, reception room, meeting room and library." Other caves housed a hospital, weaving mills and printing presses. I never saw these caves. Partly because you need special permission from tourist authorities in Vientaine but also, because this area housed the Pathet Lao headquarters, it was heavily bombed by the USA and the Royal Lao Army. This bombing and defoliation has left a scarred landscape and its legacy is present in the faces of the people, the craters in the hills and the missing limbs of children. Suffice to say that although this area has excellent potential for large cave systems, exploration isn't recommended due to numbers of unexploded bombs. However, the British-based Mines Advisory Group apparently have a presence here and they may be able to give advice.

Most of the caves I saw or heard of were apparently fossil caves, although it is difficult to be sure because I went in the dry season - it may be a different story in the rainy season! Active cave systems must exist though because the resurgences are used for water and some of the streams in these areas were a blue colour characteristic of cave outflow. There are huge vast areas of karst which I suspect have never been explored for cave systems, yet have considerable potential. As Laos has only been open to the independent traveller for two years now, it is unlikely that many expeditions are underway. A brief trawl through the literature didn't come up with anything but I'm not making any claims here as my cave literature searching techniques are a bit rusty!

Although the logistics of an exploratory expedition may be slightly difficult (eg. public transport is variable, the buses go when they're full!) and paranoid officials can make life difficult (I'm sure they thought all Westerners were spies in some regions), the rewards could be enormous. Laos is accessible from Thailand, making cheap flight to Bangkok a possibility. The cost of living is fairly cheap and the people there were so lovely, making my trip one of the most pleasant I have ever made. Fresh food was abundant, the Lao are clearly a nation of forest people who know all the plants to eat and how to cook them. I'm sure they would be delighted to demonstrate to an expedition chef! It's hard to believe that these friendly (but shy), helpful, Buddhist people are enjoying their first 25 years of peace and stability after more than two hundred years of war.

I'm sure that Laos will quickly become developed now it's open for visitors and trade. Whilst this may make for an easier expedition, it will undoubtedly lose some of its charm. Also, someone else might discover that vast cave system! My advice is to go as soon as you can, even if not for the caving, it's a great place! If any NPC member wants more information on Laos, then contact me at the address in the NPC list - I'd be only too pleased to help.

Janet Cotter-Howells

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