It hardly seemed like Vientiane could live up to the standard set by Luang Prabang, but nonetheless we decided to press on to the capital city. Our bus was set to depart at 8:00am, but after some delays – including loading a motorcycle onboard – we finally got on our way. The ride itself was unexpectedly beautiful, with the road narrowly twisting through the mountains atop precipitous bluffs, providing dramatic views into the surrounding valleys. Unfortunately, signs of logging and clearcutting appeared around nearly every turn – many hillsides were covered with nothing but dry, arid dirt, or hundreds of trees felled and lying on the slopes like scattered toothpicks.
What was indicated to be a 9-hour ride ended up nearly 12 hours, as the slow roads and a flat tire added to our time. In addition, calling this bus air-conditioned would be generous; it seemed to merely have a noisy, occasionally-shrieking device on the roof that transformed intolerably hot air into uncomfortably warm air. This particular bus also featured lumpy seats that didn’t sit up and a suspension that, I suspect, hadn’t been serviced since Laos gained its independence. We were exhausted, sweaty and desperate to get out by the time the bus pulled into the station. I dumped my pack at the hotel room, turned around and headed out into the darkness to find some food… only for the sky to open up in one of the most breathtakingly intense rainstorms I’ve ever experienced. I was instantly soaked to the skin, and the sidewalks turned to muddy rivers around my feet. It seemed little use to seek shelter, as I couldn’t have been wetter if I had gone swimming in my clothes, so I kept trudging along and watching the occasional car navigate roads that, in some places, were now covered in 6” of water. Enormous bolts of purple lighting cleaved the sky all around me and, with a crack of thunder, the entire city seemed to vanish into darkness. It seemed like an appropriate time to laugh at myself, as I stood in the torrential rain, sopping wet with mud splattered up to my knees, with no food after a 12-hour bus ride, and not a store or restaurant with power in sight. I turned and started back, eventually locating a restaurant whose power had just come back on, and convincing the proprietor that I was not a homeless drifter and that I just wanted some fried rice.
After that start, it seemed like Vientiane could only get better. The next morning, the city had dried out and the sun was shining, so we headed to Patuxai Park. At this park stands the Patuxai monument, a war memorial honoring those who fought for independence from France. The whole monument seemed somewhat unfinished, and we noted with amusement that a large sign inside acknowledges the monument to be unattractive, calling it a “concrete monster.” Looking for a view of the surrounding area, we bought the cheap tickets to hike up several flights of stairs to the top of the monument.
The city itself was very nice, as far as large cities go. A number of large, beautiful wats and chedis are sprinkled throughout, including one of the oldest wats in the area, Wat Sisaket. This was one of the few temples that was not razed during the Thai invasion of the city in the 1820s, thought to have been spared because it eschews the traditional style of Lao architecture. Pha That Luang, a huge golden stupa in the middle of the city, was surrounded by sprawling grounds that housed several temples, an enormous convention hall, gardens and a large collection of gilded statues. The presidential palace was quite stunning, though during our several trips near it we never saw evidence that there was a soul inside.
The food in Vientiane, though perhaps not quite up to the standard set by Luang Prabang, was also excellent. Jenn couldn’t get enough of the House of Fruit Shakes – smoothies in a hundred varieties and fruit salads containing things we hadn’t even heard of. My favorite was Kualao, where I ordered a local fish dish from a section of the menu that advised “extreme culinary discretion” since the dishes were tuned towards local tastes. Though I am still not sure what the spices were (outside of some very distinct fermented fish sauce), the flavors were amazing and incredibly well-balanced. We also enjoyed some traditional music and dancing during our meal, as the restaurant features local entertainment each evening.
One of our morning excursions was out to the COPE center (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise), which houses an educational museum providing information on Laos’ history with unexploded ordinance (UXO), and what they are doing to help. The COPE center is a nonprofit institute that provides prosthetics, rehabilitation, training and education to those who have lost limbs, or have limited function. This is a particularly big issue for Laos, as over 2 million tons of ordinance was dropped on the country during the Vietnam war. Many of these bombs were cluster munitions, whose bomblets had a nearly 30% rate of failure to explode, leaving as many as 80 million unexploded bomblets (of the 270 million dropped on Laos) scattered throughout the country after the war. These bomblets have killed or injured over 20,000 people since the war concluded, and there is still an injury or death, on average, every 3-4 days (~100 annually) – more than 40 years after the last bomb was dropped. Most of these injuries come from accidental exposure to the munitions during farming, foraging, or gathering scrap metal – a common activity for villagers, especially children, to earn extra money. Today, roughly 25% of villages are still contaminated, and it takes a specially-trained team about 10 days to inspect and clear 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of land.
Many times, villagers who have lost limbs simply become a burden to the community. With little in the way of handicap accessibility, and few tasks suited for someone of limited mobility, these people often lose any ability to provide for themselves or their family. COPE is aiming to change that, by providing free prosthetic limbs and physical therapy to those who can’t afford it, as well as occupational training to those who may have lost their livelihood. These prosthetics are low-cost, a mere $75, and while they may lag behind the quality and sophistication available elsewhere, they (and the rehabilitation) can allow villagers to return to their homes to live full, productive lives. The museum is exceptionally well presented, combining artistic sculptures, beautiful photographs and impactful movies, with thoughtful and educational displays, as well as personal stories from those affected by UXO or COPE. They also have an interactive exhibit where you can “try out” a prosthetic leg on one of their physical therapy training platforms, really driving home the challenges of living with a prosthesis.
We found the COPE center museum to be incredibly moving and educational. Neither of us knew the extent to which Laos was affected by the war, and continues to be affected to this day.
A number of people suggested we check out Vientiane’s morning market, so we wandered down to where the locals set up dozens and dozens of tents, shops and blankets, spread with local foods, handmade crafts, clothes and trinkets. After meandering for a while, we found ourselves in the chaos at the heart of the morning farmers’ market, surrounded by table after table of fruits, vegetables, spices, along with fish, chickens, frogs and hanging meat of all varieties. This was clearly not a typical tourist destination, as I believe we may have been the only non-locals in the place, but it was fantastic to see such a huge assortment of fresh, raw ingredients of every imaginable type.
Our last stop was at Buddha Park. This sculpture park is an oddity located 26 km (16 miles) outside of Vientiane, which is easily accessed by jumping on the cheap (and surprisingly comfortable), 6,000 kip ($0.74 USD) per person #14 bus, in lieu of paying the local tuk tuk drivers an order of magnitude more to take you. While the park is full of religious figures, it is not a temple, and contains a truly bizarre assortment of religious and non-religious figures. While we weren’t entirely sure what to make of some of the imagery, the park was certainly an interesting diversion and we enjoyed the excursion.
In sum, we loved our entire stay in Laos – full of warm people, amazing culture, and truly outstanding food. Goodbye, Laos – we’ll miss you!