THE BUMPY ROAD TO VIENTIANE
Sleepy Vientiane is built along the Northern bank of the Mekong River, right on the Laos/Thai border. Laos’s capital city sits in the river valley lowlands and is hot and steamy – the kind of place where nothing happens fast and no one moves too quickly because it’s just too damn warm most of the time to exert yourself too much. And we arrived into Vientiane in the hottest part of the day, right around lunch time today. After a 4 hours drive in an air conditioned bus, it was quite a shock stepping out into the traffic, dust, heat, and chaos of Vientiane! With just an afternoon here though we wanted to see what we could of the city and so ventured out in the heat to see some of this town’s main sights: the Patuxai Victory Monument, Wat Si Saket, and the COPE centre.
As is our habit, we were up at 6:00am this morning, keen to catch the sun rising over the mountains and watch the hot air balloons make their daily pilgrimage across the dawn sky in Vang Vieng. We were not disappointed.
From there we went fir a coffee and croissant from the LP Bakery – and not one of those SE Asian coffees* either, but a proper espresso! By 8:00am we were on the bus and Southwards bound, heading down the bumpy and dusty roads towards Vientiane.
*Like in most SE Asian countries the coffee here comes tick and strong, with a healthy dose of sweet condensed milk. It’s certainly an acquired taste but good for a kick start if you’re desperate.
It was just 220km by road to Vientiane, but the journey took us 4 hours due to the terrible condition of the roads. Plus we had an unexpected stop when our bus got a flat tyre. The poor bus driver had to get down and change the tyre in the stinking heat!
Still, we the views from the bus window were pretty interesting for most of the trip, with the villages getting bigger and closer together the further South we got. All along we caught glimpses of daily life in Laos, with lots of children playing by the side of the road and families gathered around relaxing.
We had a couple of toilet stops along the way – one at a busy petrol station with the dirtiest bathroom facilities we’ve had the displeasure of using in Laos, and the other adjacent to a market selling all manner of dried fish. Not sure which was more nauseating: the smell of the dirty toilet facilities or the all-pervasive aroma of dried fish. Both toilet stops were memorable though, that’s for sure!
Arriving in Vientiane around lunchtime our first stop was the hotel to drop our bags off, then lunch at a local place, before we set out to explore the centre of town (population: about 120,000). With its mixture of French colonial architecture, Russian-style Communist apartment blocks, and dusty back streets, Vientiane seems interesting enough. There’s not much here and you wouldn’t want to stay for too long, but there was certainly enough to see to keep us entertained for an afternoon.
First stop for us was Wat Si Saket, the oldest Buddhist temple in Vientiane. The temple only dates back to the 19th century but is the only one to have survived the 1828 Siamese* raid of the city.
*Thailand/Siam and Laos were at war during the 19th century as Laos sought independence and Thailand/Siam wanted to keep the country as part of its own territories. Laos sought French support in fighting the Thai/Siamese invasion, a move that ultimately led them to become a French colony. Not quite what the Laotians had intended!
As well as its age, Wat Si Saket is famous for its cloister wall housing thousands of tiny Buddha images and rows of seated Buddhas. These images mainly date from the 16th and 19th centuries and come in all sizes and are made from wood, stone and bronze – there are more than 6,800 Buddhas within the temple in total.
The temple if located opposite the Presidential Palace, home to the Laotian Communist Government leader.
From the Presidential Palace we could see down the city’s grand central avenue to the Patuxai Victory Monument. Dedicated to the Laotians killed in the fight to gain independence from France, the monument is (ironically) built in a style designed to mimic the Arc de Triomf in Paris.
The highlight of our afternoon in Vientiane, however, was our visit to the COPE centre. The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, or COPE, is a non-profit organisation that provides support for Laotians with disabilities – most of them caused by unexploded bombs. COPE makes prosthetic legs and funds the manufacturing of orthotic devices, wheelchairs, and tricycles for the thousands of Laotians who fall victims to unexploded weapons.
It was a sobering and moving visit, and interesting too as we learned about the tons of unexploded bombs that litter the countryside in Laos as a result of the Vietnam War (despite Laos being officially declared neutral territory). Between 1964 and 1973 the US army dropped over 3 million tons of ordnances on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country (per capita) in history. Of the more than 270 million submunitions rained down on this tiny country, an estimated 80 million failed to explode. As a result about 100 people per week are killed or injured, many of them children who find the bombs and play with them, not realising what they are toying with.
Watching the documentary they played at the COPE centre and listening to the centre’s guide as he explained the work COPE does was profoundly moving. It’s terrifying to think that t he simple act of picking up the round metal ball, ploughing a field, lighting a cooking fire, or walking through the forest, can put you at risk – that’s why you never stray off the path whilst here in Laos!
And so ends our final day in Laos. It really has been an incredible week here in Laos and we can see why people recommended we come here. Yes, the country is pretty under-developed and we’ve had to forgo a few creature comforts here (e.g. hot showers), but the scenery is simple stunning. That alone has made us glad we came. Add to that good food, simple but kind people, and some interesting cultural and historical sites, and Laos has turned out to be a lot of fun – way more fun than we expected!