Patuxai Monument in Vientiane

VIENTIANE

In Laos by thedustyroad2 Comments

Laos, Finally! Welcome to Vientiane

We finally made it to Laos! After all my concerns about crossing the boarder, we purchased our 30 day tourist visa on arrival and were welcomed to Laos in a relatively timely fashion. This was probably lucky for everyone involved (especially Jimmy), after an 18hour journey that included a 15hour overnight bus, a tuk tuk ride, and another bus across the bridge, I was on edge and the likelihood of a meltdown was rapidly increasing. Thankfully, I managed to keep it together (just) and started to appreciate all that is Vientiane. The strangest thing was crossing the bridge from Thailand, were you swap to drive on the right!

A Bit of History…

Lao history is something I have rapidly become fascinated with. The country was a French protectorate from the early 1900’s. Under Pathet Lao’s guidance, the country moved towards independence from 1946 and finally regained control in 1954. Control over the whole country however, wasn’t gained until 1975 after the fall of South Vietnam.

Laos is a country still feeling the aftershocks of what is frequently referred to as ‘The Secret War’. The second Indochina war, commonly called the Vietnam War, raged through the 1960’s and escalated as the US became more involved. The French controlled Vietnam as a protectorate from 1883-1939, and then as a possession from 1939-1945. On 2nd September, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnam’s independence. The French opposed this, and from 1946-1954 the first Indochina war raged. Ho Chi Minh commanded Vietnamese warfare until their victory on 7th May, 1954. Soon after, a temporary division between the North (controlled by Ho Chi Minh) and South (who had the support of the US) was signed in Geneva. The involvement of the US military increased gradually and by the 1960’s the second Indochina war was raging between the North and South.

Laos suffered greatly over this period. From 1964 to 1973 the US conducted over 580,000 aerial bombing missions. This equates to a plane load of bombs every 8 minutes for the entire 9 years. To this day, Laos remains the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The reasoning behind the bombing is vague and depends on what you read, and the US denied bombing Laos at the time (which is why it is now referred to as ‘The Secret War’). Laos was bombed to prevent the country developing into a communist-controlled nation. There were fears in the US that if Vietnam became a communist country, the remaining South East Asian countries would rapidly follow suit. These fears were largely fuelled after the communists won the Chinese Civil war in 1949.

There were several other reasonings behind the bombings; the Ho Chi Minh Trail runs through the mountains in Laos, which provided the North with a route to the South. Ho Chi Minh used this as a supply route to their troops in the South. The bombing was so widespread it is difficult to believe there was a specified target.

Approximately a third of the bombs did not explode, which left nearly 80million bombs undetonated (unexploded ordnance) throughout Laos after the war finished. Today, more than 40 years after all bombing ceased, only 80,000 (1%) of these bombs have been destroyed. Every year, there are around 100 new casualties from these bombs. Of these, 40% are children. The deaths account for 60% of bomb related accidents, meaning there is another proportion who are injured and often left significantly disabled.

With all this in mind, Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is relatively quiet. The relaxed vibe radiating throughout the city makes is instantly soothing. The local people are friendly and welcoming and the distinct French influence is refreshing. From the baguettes sold on shop corners, to signs written in Lao, French and English, Vientiane is a beautiful city.

ACCOMMODATION

We stayed at Mixok Inn, right in the heart of town. We choose this place purely due to convenience and exhaustion, arriving at the door straight from the boarder. For us it was a mid-range find but after looking around the area, there was little more to choose from. The complimentary full breakfast was a definite bonus!

FOOD

Being so close to the Thai boarder, the food in Vientiane had some similarities to Thai food. We are still enjoying the fried noodles, it gets pretty exciting as they are always different. Much to my surprise, Jimmy continues to have a love for curry! At home he would usually opt to have anything other than curry. No complaints about this from me though.

Of note was a beautiful grilled meal we had on the edge of the markets. With the taste of the BBQ fish from Bamboo Nest (Chiang Rai) still lingering, I jumped at the opportunity to have another similar meal. We overindulged a bit here, ordering a grilled fish, some chicken, a spicy papaya salad and sticky rice. The flavours were incredible and a complete contrast to our usual orders.

Enjoying the spread of food in Vientiane

Enjoying the spread of food


ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS

We spent a bit of time catching up here, enjoying the café scene and lovely coffee Vientiane has to offer. As they drive on the right in Laos and the traffic is hectic, we didn’t feel confident hiring a scooter. We did our usual fair share of walking and had a look at a few of the main sights throughout the city. The Mekong waterfront is lovely to walk along in the evening. Relatively quiet, it’s a lovely place to watch the sunset.

Watching the sunset over the Mekong River in Vientiane

Watching the sunset over the Mekong River

COPE Visitor Centre

I don’t think we were well-prepared for what met us at the COPE visitor centre. While I was aware Laos had been affected by the Vietnam war, I had no idea the extent and the long lasting impacts the war continues to have on the country. The COPE organisation is a not-for-profit, dedicating huge efforts to help those affected by unexploded ordnance (UXO).

Inside the COPE centre, a display showing the number of bombies inside each bomb in Vientiane

Inside the COPE centre, a display showing the number of bombies inside each bomb

The centre is extremely well planned. While it is small, there is a huge amount of thought provoking material. When we arrived at the centre, we watched a documentary about the efforts put in to clear the bombs and the small villages most affected. I sat through most of it in tears, moved by the stories of those most heavily affected. Most chilling was the images of the children debating how much money they would get for the metal on the black market, with little understanding of how dangerous the UXO’s can be. Many of the children who are killed or injured detonate the UXO’s either by playing with them or trying to dig them up for scrap metal.

A pyramid of prosthetic limbs at the COPE centre in Vientiane

A pyramid of prosthetic limbs at the COPE centre

The COPE organisation supply prosthetic limbs and education to help rehabilitate survivors. They also have a training program with the goal of having more professionals with the skill set necessary to provide the necessary rehabilitation. I am still shocked by the level of severity of the UXO issue and how heavily Laos was affected by the war. As a Physiotherapist, the lack of available resources really upset me. I am still trying to think how I could use my skills to contribute, even just a bit, while we are travelling.

A display of homemade prosthetic limbs in Vientiane

A display of homemade prosthetic limbs

Pha That Luang

This is a golden monument, seen as a symbol of Buddhist religion and Laos nationalism. It is believed to hold a holy relic, the Buddha’s breastbone. The monument has had a hard life and has been rebuilt several times, most recently after the completion of World War II.

Pha That Luang in Vientiane

Pha That Luang

With all this in mind, Jimmy and I were a bit surprised by the state of the gounds when we arrived. The monument is surrounded by hundreds of meters of concrete, a lot of which was covered with rubbish. I think to truly appreciate this site you must have an understanding of Buddhist religion and why it holds such importance to the Lao people.

Recling Buddha at Pha That Luang in Vientiane

Recling Buddha at Pha That Luang

Wat Si Saket

This ancient temple in central Vientiane is unique with the hundreds of tiny Buddha statues sitting in small, individual cavities in the wall.

Wat Si Saket in Vientiane

Wat Si Saket

The ancient murals inside the temple are delicately being restored. There are informative boards throughout the temple, giving an insight to the meaning behind all the different elements.

Exploring the grounds of Wat Si Saket in Vientiane

Exploring the grounds of Wat Si Saket

Patuxai

This war monument is in central Vientiane and was completed in 1968. It has been dedicated to those who fought for independence from France. We spent a bit of time here, watching the sunset from the top of the arch was beautiful.

Looking over Vientiane From the Top of Patuxai, Vientiane

Looking over Vientiane From the Top of Patuxai


Watching the sunset from the Top of Patuxai, Vientiane

Watching the sunset from the Top of Patuxai

What was also incredible was the photographers with digital printers on the back of their scooters! The were set up to print out photos in front of the fountain for the tourists, an incredible service to offer from a scooter.

PEOPLE & CULTURE

Coming to Laos has been a breath of fresh air. The people are laid back and relaxed, which suits us perfectly. It has been such a noticeable change, we are able to walk through the markets and check out what is on offer without people hassling us constantly. The culture seems similar, quiet and modest, reflecting the practices of Buddha.

WHAT WE LEARNT

Laos was crippled by the extensive bombing carried out by the US throughout the Vietnam War. The widespread affects are still seen and felt by hundreds today. This has been a huge eye-opener for both of us and is something we will continue to try and learn more about throughout our journey through Laos.

BUDGET

I have created quite a generous budget for Laos, mainly because there are a few expensive activities we are planning on doing here. We spent 1,200,000K in Vientiane, so just over $200 AUD. We spent only half what I had budgeted, which is great because it might mean even with the activities we want to do we might stick with this budget!

PLAN

We will head to Vang Vieng for a few days before travelling further north to Luang Prabang. From here we are a bit unsure where to go. We want to head south towards Pakse eventually (and from here we will head into Cambodia) but we need to figure out how to travel in between and what we want to do along the way.

Comments

  1. Thank you Liz for another very informative blog. We learn through you learning! Glad to hear your on the mend from being sick. Take care & continue to enjoy the ride. xxx

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