Laos, Finally! Welcome to VientianeWe 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.
ACCOMMODATIONWe 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!
FOODBeing 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.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONSWe 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.
COPE Visitor CentreI 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wat Si SaketThis ancient temple in central Vientiane is unique with the hundreds of tiny Buddha statues sitting in small, individual cavities in the wall.
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.
PatuxaiThis 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.
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.