Thursday, 9 February 2012

LAOS - Laid back in Laos, Vientiane

The overnight train from Bangkok to Laos was pretty uneventful with the now typical screeching and jolting and lack of sleep.  The train dropped us off at the Thai border where we had our passports stamped and then hopped on another train that took us over the “Friendship Bridge” across the Mekong into Laos.  At another dusty border crossing we filled out the necessary forms, paid for our Visas to get into Laos and hailed a tuk tuk to get to Vientiane, the capital city.  Having to “hail” a tuk tuk was a first for us in South East Asia and it was our first clue that things were going to be different in Laos.  In spite of the fact that there were a number of drivers and tuk tuks milling about, none were too eager to actually pick up passengers.  In every other South East Asian country we have visited we seemed to hear “TUK TUK?” bellowed out to us around every corner and especially at typical transit points.  The competition for passengers is usually fierce and business is sought quite aggressively.  As we watched the drivers at the Laos border chat to each other and seemingly just enjoy the day rather than attempt to get a fair we were a little surprised. We actually had to walk over to someone, intrude on their day and ask them if they would take us.  Our attempts to barter the inflated price downs were pointless, no negotiating with these guys.  There were obviously far more vehicles available than there were passengers yet no one was particularly interested in gaining business.  Welcome to Laos.

Fearon & Eric, enjoying the view as we cross the Mekong in to Laos.......!


A short tuk tuk ride from the border took us into the heart of Vientaine, the capital city of Laos.  What a contrast from the epicenters of exuberant energy that Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh are. There were no high rises in sight, traffic was slow, streets were un-crowded and first impressions were that there was not really much to look at.  We were not too sure how we would like it.

We checked into a clean and surprisingly modern hotel and set out to find some food.  Although our hotel was in a main tourist area there were very few tourists milling about.  The shops were pretty empty and the same went for the streets.  We walked towards the riverfront and found a number of great looking restaurants.  The French influence was most definitely present (Laos was occupied by the French for over 50 years and only became independent in 1953). Baguettes, pastries and good coffee were on offer everywhere.  We found a charming little establishment with such a relaxed feel that we were tempted to curl up and have a snooze right in the restaurant rather than wander back to the hotel.  Our so so first impressions were being challenged, maybe there was more promise than we thought.

We ended up spending more time in Vientiane than we initially thought we would and although it initially did not appear to offer much, the city grew on us.  The restaurants and cafes were really good and we were mostly content just hanging out and eating.  In between meals we also did some site seeing, spent time at the riverfront and enjoyed relaxed evenings at the night market. 

Vientiane’s Victory Gate - Patuxay

The site that interested us most in Vientiane was COPE, the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise.  COPE provides a variety of services for people in need throughout the country.  They make prosthetics, provide rehab services, employ, educate and advocate. There are a lot of people in need in Laos and COPE is truly making a difference. This small land mass that makes up Laos is the most bombed country in the world – hard to believe but true.  There were over 260 million cluster bombs alone dropped here.  It is estimated that there are over 80 million unexploded ordinances (bombs) still littering the land.  Many people are injured or killed every year when they inadvertently dig up a bomb.  COPE tries to help as many victims as they can by firstly locating victims and then by providing rehabilitation services, apparently not an easy thing to do as many villagers are hesitant to leave their village and come to the centre for help.  Bombs are not the only things that cause people to lose limbs in Laos.  There are still thousands of cases of leprosy here, a disease that I had no idea was still so present any where in the world. Leprosy is but one of the nasty products of the poverty that plagues much of the country. Malnutrition is a significant problem and considered to be a serious barrier to development. As we filled our stomachs and enjoyed the selection of wonderful restaurants in Vientiane , we sure thought of the many others, not far away, who were not nearly so lucky.

The Diminishing "Might" of the Mekong

The mighty Mekong (see below) did not look so mighty in Vientiane.  China is having a field day with natural resources throughout Laos and as they have built huge hydro electric dams to feed their appetite for power, the flow of the Mekong has been forever altered.   The river here resembles more a used up  quarry then one of the world’s most significant waterways. To see this first hand was shocking and to think that this is but one example of how the land is being pillaged and ruined was even more shocking.  We had to really wonder how this could possibly be happening without more international press and outrage.  Once again, we were also left to wonder what we could do to make a difference.  So many problems, so few apparent solutions….when we left Victoria we sure didn’t think travel would be difficult in this way.

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