1. Ban Nong Ping
Ban Nong Ping is the guardian village for the XeBangfai River-cave. This village of 273 people (53 families/49 households) is a multi-ethnic combined village made up of Makong, Kaleung, Salang and Phouthai. The village has three caves that were surveyed during this consultancy.
Only 300m from the village is a cave called Tham Long (coffin cave). It is a small but important cave to the villagers. The name Tham Long is used as a long time ago, wooden coffins were there. It was believed that these coffins came from an unknown ethnic group and were present before the Makong people came to live in the vicinity. During the 2nd Indochina war this cave was used by thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers. One section of the cave house 203 dead soldiers held in hollowed tree-trunk coffins. Recently Colonel Choui from the Vietnamese military came to retrieve the bones and repatriate them to Vietnam.
Legend of Tham Long: A long time ago, prior to the establishment of Ban Nong Ping, the local village was called Ban KokMouangThao. In those times when people died they were put in a coffin and placed in the cave, and no parade or ceremony was offered. After 3-7 days the corpse came to life again. One day villagers observed the neighboring village conducting a ceremonial parade when one of them died and they thought it looked enjoyable. The next time someone died, they copied the ceremony and found that the corpse remained dead. They were sorry about this and went back to their old ways and found that the subsequent corpses remained lifeless; the magic was broken. Nowadays villagers practice the funeral ceremony and accept that the body will not come back to life.
Other caves surveyed included Tham Bing (Bat cave) which has been confused with the nearby ThamPhaleusi (Forest Hermit cave). The main attraction though, is of course Tham Nam Lot XeBangfai cave (XeBangfai River-cave).
Legend of ThamNam Lot XeBangfai: In former times villagers thought this to be the source of the XeBangfairiver and knew it as ThamKhounXe, meaning "the cave at the source of the river". According to village legend, the cave is inhabited by a spirit. One time a broken khaen (musical instrument) was left at the entrance and was found restored to immaculate condition the next morning. The spirit was also known to lend beautiful clothes to individuals for various ceremonies until one time a woman could not clean a blood stain off the garment before it was returned. After this the spirit no longer lent clothes to people. The spirit is still believed to be benevolent though, as those villagers who have fallen while gathering swallows nests and bats within the chamber have never lost their lives from the event. Not only that, but no bombs entered the cavity during the war. A sacrificial offering was traditionally made before each entry to the cave. Nowadays the sacrifice is made once a year to ensure the spirit's continuing protection.
2. Ban Nongboua
Ban Nongboua, located 8.5km from Langkhang is a predominantly yooy ethnic village with Phouthai mixed through marriage. There is about 6 water points in the village although there is no sizable stream near the village. The village is quite large and was found to be very noisy all day and all night. There is only about two places on the quite outskirts of the village that may be suitable for homestays. During the war, this village was on the Ho Chi Minh trail and was seriously bombed. About 1km from this village there is a free-standing limestone bluff which was passed by many thousands of North Vietnamese, on foot, bicycle, or truck. This limestone outcrop housed hundreds of local villagers andNorth Vietnamese troupes at any one time during the war period. Two large caves gave shelter to villagers.
Tham Nam: In this cave a chimney-like passage goes right through the base of the bluff and into another cave on the other side of the bluff that was occupied by Vietnamese soldiers. These soldiers shared their rice rations with the 15 villagers families who lived in Tham Nam cave and who couldn't plant or harvest rice from 1965 to 1973.
Nowadays it is forbidden by villagers to go through the tunnel, as the limestone is still unstable after the Vietnamese soldier's cave took a direct hit from a bomb, shattering the limestone structure and making the sides of the tunnel weak. Loung Ki, a former chief of the village was born in 1955 so he became a teenager while in the caves. He explains that villagers used Tham Nam cave during the dry season only (as it gets flooded in the wet). During the wet season families hid in smaller caves higher in the cliff-face. However, the bombing was not as intense during the wet season because there was not as much traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail during those months. The cave entrance was barricaded using old 200L fuel drums filled with rocks stacked about 2 drums thick to resist missiles and shrapnel from entering the cave. The drums are no longer there, but the stones that filled them are scattered about the entrance.
The Night of the Cultural Performance: There are a number of large boulders at the entrance of Tham Nam cave. These fell during an air-raid in 1969. At that time a performance was underway by a 16 person Vietnamese cultural dance troupe. All the village was in the cave that night to enjoy the show. Perhaps the large boulders fell early in the raid, reinforcing the barrage against bombs that night as there were bomb craters in the ground just outside where the boulders rested. Nobody was killed in the cave that night, but after the cultural dance troupe left to return to Vietnam, villagers were saddened by the news that all but 3 were killed in a bombing raid near Naphao.
In Tham Nam, Loung Ki shows where the kitchen was. At this point cooking had to be done without raising smoke that could attract aerial attack if the smoke was seen. In a large sleeping area, old soldiers boots, bits of camouflage plastic sheets, wire, some medicine bottles and some dismantled weaponry is still visible embedded in the cave floor.Loung Ki says that, at one stage there were at least 30 bombed-out truck bodies near the entrance of Tham Nam cave but they have all been collected by scrap-metal merchants by now.
Tham Long: On the northern side of the bluff is another cave called Tham Long, named after ancient coffins that were found there many years before the war. This was the cave that Loung Ki's family sheltered in.
The night Loung Ki's father died: One night while his family was hidden in Tham Long cave Loung Ki's father reclined himself outside the cave between a large boulder and the cliff-face. He listened to the radio for news. A missile suddenly struck the cliff face about 3m above him. He was fatally struck by shrapnel from the missile.
The day Loung Ki's uncle went to get water: Loung Ki and other family members sheared the dangerous task of fetching water for the families. This entailed running across a field full of bomb craters. No tree cover was available by this time. If a plane came while going to the HouayHeuk, about 300m from the cave, one had to hide in a bomb crater and hope they wouldn't be seen. Sometimes bombs would drop and there would be a delayed detonation. Loung Ki's uncle made it to the stream just in time for a bomb to explode. The family could only find his hand and about 3kg of flesh for the funeral rites.
Tham Bing: On the southern side of the bluff, there was a cave occupied by North Vietnamese soldiers. Thousands of the soldiers stayed in this cave on their way to build and repair parts of the road. This is the cave that has a passage running under the bluff joining this cave with Tham Nam. Many of these soldiers shared their rice with village families. This cave was destroyed by a direct hit of a bomb. It is not advisable to take visitors to this cave, as the limestone structure is no longer stable, in addition to that, there is a pile of missile heads stored in the cave.
Tad Songsou Waterfall: 2.2 km away from Ban Nongboua is a 20m waterfall. This waterfall flows year-round so would be an inviting swimming pool for tourists to freshen up. The name "songsou" indicates a couple. This was said to originate from a story of two young lovers.
PhouCheuang: A 6 km climb up the sandstone mountain behind Ban Nongboua took us to a small stream in a forest. Although the forest is beautiful, there are no views to reward the climber. It was decided that the rewards were not worth the effort of climbing the mountain in the place we surveyed.
3. Ban Nongseng
Nongseng village is named after a lake with a profusion of oxalis herb (somseng) growing in it. This Phoutai village is along the road to Ban Dou, about 10km from Langkhang. This village, has a population of macaques (provisionally Assamese macaques) living on the cliff-face of PhaKout only about 800m from the village. It is claimed that there may be a population of 200 of the monkeys. The macaques can be seen early in the morning and late in the afternoon only. There is an option to walk around PhaKoud in order to see more of the macaques.
4. Ban Thongxam
This yooy ethnic village is 3km up a small branch road from Ban Dou. The road is likely to be impassable during the wet season. This village has a beautiful stream that flows through 3 caves within fairly easy walking distance from the village. The surrounding limestone karst hosts black langur as well as other wildlife . There is the potential also to see hornbills here.
Tham Nam Ork: At the resurgence of the HouayHok stream there is a large chamber, kept clean by seasonal inundation. This cave is reached by a 6 km walk up-stream from the village. Otter tracks are often seen at the mouth of this cave, and a strange boulder ceiling can be investigated inside the cave.
Tham Nok Aen: The HouayHok stream passes through this cave under a limestone cliff for about 60m. There is a beach for most of the way through and a constant flow of water at a depth of about 1.5m in the stream allows for swimming through the cave. Bats and swallows nest in this cave as indicated by the name "nokaen" (swallow). There are passages on the left hand side. During the war, this cave was occupied by about 3000 North Vietnamese soldiers. There is evidence of their habitation from the tin cans, and even a toothbrush from the war-time era.
Tham Pak Tham: This cave is the third tunnel that the HouayHok cuts through. The mouth of the cave is located 2.7km upstream from Ban Thongxam village. The resurgence is very deep and possible to swim in.
5. Ban Phanop
This mainly Yooy ethnic village of about 440 people, is situated on the Nam Ngo river. The name of the village was originally Pha lop after two massive discs of limestone resting against each other in the same way two pieces of toast may be stood up together. Phanop is currently used and is still appropriate for this feature as it looked like two hands in traditional greeting pose. This village was the scene of some of the most intense bombing on earth and infact the Pha lop feature is no longer visible. The limestone cliffs surrounding the village caused a narrow in the Ho Chi Minh trail that is known in American military terms as a choke-point. It was one of the most heavily armed places in Lao. Most of the cliffs around the village would have had anti-aircraft guns located on them. It is the scene of many plane crashes. One particular crash of a Phantom F4-C code named "Boxer 22"on the morning of 5th December 1969 started the largest search and rescue mission of the whole Indochina war. One of the two American Airmen who ejected before the plane crashed survived 51 hours on the banks of the Nam Ngo and after16 failed rescue attempts finally lived to tell the tail.
During the war, villagers sheltered under a rock shelf called ThamLongtinpha. They also lived in a cave called ThamMaa (dog cave) about 5km from the village. Villagers recall that there was hardly a 20 minute period of silence for the the whole war period.
Stone lining on the river bank at the ford at Phanop village is a relic of the Ho Chi Minh trail. There is also some rock lining on the road near the temple; this was also installed for the Ho Chi Minh trail.
The Village Blackboard: In 1984, there was no blackboard in the village school so a number of men set off to Nam Heuk to recover a section of the wing of the plane believed to be the Phantom F4-C to act as a school blackboard. 20 years later it ended up in the grounds of the village temple.
6. Ban Vangkhone
Ban Vangkhone, named after a section in the Nam Ngo river where a child was caught in a fishing net and drowned. The strange appearance of the dead child caused the local people never to forget the incident. The child held one hand over its mouth, the other covering it's anus. Villagers say that before the war this village had extensive paddy fields and the valley was full of beautiful trees. After the war this village was surrounded only by overlapping bomb craters. Nowadays the craters are still visible and are generally used for raising fish, and for vegetable patches during the dry season.
About 3km away along a rock-lined track that would have been used during the war, two village women (Nang Xaiphone and Nang Niem) showed us two caves used as shelter for both villagers and North Vietnamese soldiers. One cave called ThamPeowKhong was the watersource another cave called ThamPeowMaa was used by soldiers. Villagers said that if the Vietnamese soldiers didn't give them rice they would have starved.
7. Ban Senphan
The people of Ban Senphan are famous for their scrap metal collection. They have even devised metal detectors that can be used under the water in the river that flows past this village. One family has made their house out of ordinance. The house clad with flattened aluminium cluster bomb dispensers and a ladder made from the tubes. These tubes were dropped-off after CBU 14 and SUU 14 cluster bombs were released. The owner of this house calls it "his Bank" because if his family is short of money he sells some panels to scrap-metal merchants. This house used to have many other types of ordinance incorporated into its structure, but the owner evidently required some cash sometime in the past.