Set in a beautiful landscape, surrounded by overgrown bomb craters in a land where unexploded ordinance still to this day abounds in the countryside, the Pathet Lao Caves near Vieng Xai in northeastern laos were an impregnable stronghold during the Second Indochina War, a series of several hundred caverns that functioned as an underground city and resistance headquarters during the conflict.

The choice of these caves, close to the Vietnam border, would prove crucial during the conflict, enabling the leadership of both the Laotian and Vietnamese resistance to survive and direct their operations.

In 1964, the Americans, as the self-appointed guardians of the world in their effort to defeat the rising tide of communism, which had by then become indistinguishable from the nationalist movements in Indochina, adopted the policy of ‘carpet’ bombing them out of existence.

For nine years, the entire might of the American military rained over two million bombs onto this area of Laos, in an undeclared and illegal ‘Secret War’, giving the country the unenviable distinction of being the most bombed country on earth ever.

The Laotian communists, known as the Pathet Lao, had previously located their headquarters on the nearby Plain of Jars, but when the bombing began in earnest, the leadership took shelter in the vast cave system, undertaking considerable work to interconnect and enlarge some of the caves to better organise themselves.

Today, the caves and their leftover contents and furnishings are preserved as a museum, and provide a highly insightful view into the workings of the Pathet Lao and Viet Minh communists as they endured and finally overcame the wrath of the world’s most powerful nation.

Eighteen of the caves are open to the public, which include the private rooms of the Pathet Lao leadership, including those of the ‘Red’ Prince Souphanouvong, who later became the president of Laos and two senior commanders, Kaysone Phomivane and Khamtai Siphandone, both of whom would later serve as Laotian Prime Ministers.

The large Xanglot Cave was used for mass gatherings, such as political rallies, theatre and cinema shows. Elsewhere in the complex, printing presses, a bakery, shops, barracks, armoury, weaving mills, hospital and schools allowed the citizens to live something of a normal life, though life in the caves was hard, often cold, wet and accompanied by the fearful nerve-shredding soundtrack of daily, almost continual blasts from above.

At its height, the complex sheltered in excess of 20,000 personnel carrying out the work of administration safe from the searing rain of fire above. Farming implements were fashioned in the workshops out of American bomb shells, with the agricultural tending of the land largely taking place in the relative safety of the night. Even their domestic animals had to be dark in colour to avoid detection. To meet the demand for food, additional supplies, mostly tinned, were brought overland from Vietnam.

By the time of the US election of 1968, the Americans had already realised that the war was unwinnable, not least with their own public, and had arranged peace talks aimed at bring the unfruitful bombardment to an end, but Presidential hopeful Richard Nixon self-servingly secretly undermined the efforts by persuading the South Vietnamese not to sign up.

When Nixon achieved his presidency he persisted with the military insanity until he too finally accepted, following the public outcry over the My Lai Massacre which was was exposed in late 1969, that the war had lost public support and would never come to a satisfactory conclusion, beginning the gradual phased withdrawal that would be completed in 1973, though the citizens of the caves would see no abatement in the continual bombing during that time.

Over the Christmas period of 1972, Nixon ordered the largest concentrated bombing in history to take place over North Vietnam in a final effort to maximise leverage at the Paris peace talks he had previously and duplicitously undermined.

On January 27, 1973, the peace talks finally ended direct American military involvement in Indochina, and for the first time in nine long years, the residents of the Pathet Lao caves over the border in Laos could finally step out of their cavernous citadel.

In little more than a year the Vietnamese communists finally entered Saigon to reunify the country under their control, and the previously American supported Laotian government, seeing the writing on the wall, wisely decided on a policy of surrender to the Pathet Lao to avoid further unnecessary bloodshed in a vain attempt to stem the inevitable.