Tham Piew Cave: a tangible reminder of an atrocity that took place during a secret war.
On this day, November 24, 1968, daily life began much as it had for some time. Villagers, accustomed to 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 occasionally sought refuge in the dozens of large caves throughout the region as the insurgents made their way through eastern Laos.
However, if most of the caves proved to provide safe haven, Tham Piew Cave was a sadly exception: a single rocket fired by a United States fighter plane made contact with the cave killing 374 men, women, and children.
Tham Piew, located near the Vietnam border, about 60 km out of town along winding mountain roads, was a vast cave that served as a shelter for the local community seeking refuge from the bombing campaigns that were designed to contain the Marxist Pathet Lao.
Today, Tham Piew is open to the public as both a memorial and a testament to a harrowing era in Laos history. There is a small interpretive center at the base of the mountain near the parking area that explains the significance of the site from a Laotian perspective.
Then, the path to the cave slowly ascend the mountainside via a series of stairs cutting through lush jungle. Today, five decades on, the ceiling and sides of the cave still feature blackened scars from the missile strike, and the floor of the cave is carpeted in rubble, though some of the remnants had been made into cairns.
Author’s notes: a visit to Tham Piew isn’t for the faint of heart and it should be undertaken with the utmost respect for the local community and the deceased buried in marked graves along the walkway to the cave. Visitors can also leave an offering at the base of the steps to the cave in memory of the victims.