After a few days in Vang Vieng, we headed further south to Laos’ capital, Vientiane. It was a stark contrast to beautiful Luang Prabang and rural Vang Vieng. We were back in a chaotic, noisy and grubby city. On first impressions, Vientiane isn’t particularly likeable. It feels more like a functioning city than Luang Prabang, with more industry and less attention paid to making it pretty for visitors, which is fair enough. Although we weren’t blown away at first, we stayed for a few days and there was plenty to entertain us.
Reunited with the Mekong, on our first day we decided to walk down to the riverside to a large daily market. Across the river we could see Thailand again. The market was bustling, and there were stalls selling all sorts, from clothes (including very entertaining and badly translated slogan t-shirts) to electronics. The road along the side of the river was very busy, and it was a less peaceful trip to the river than we had anticipated. After the market we found a small cafe and sat down for a few Beer Laos, something which was consistently good in Laos. We went for dinner at a great Indian restaurant in the centre of town, which reminded us of home. That’s a good thing about being back in a big city again, the food is good and diverse.
The next day we thought we’d visit the two big sights of Vientiane, the Patuxai, Laos’ take on the Arc d’Triomphe and Laos National Monument, Pa That Luang. It was a very hot day and it was a fairly long walk. We arrived at the Patuxai very hot and sweaty. We then paid a small fee and climbed up inside the arc to the top. The Patuxai monument itself was quite impressive (albeit quite grubby and unkempt), but the story behind it is what’s most memorable and entertaining. The concrete was donated by the USA to Laos, to help build a new airport, but instead the Laos government decided to use the concrete to build this victory monument, gaining Patuxai the nickname, the ‘vertical runway’. I’m not quite sure how the Americans reacted, but I’m sure they were a bit annoyed. We then stopped off at a bakery for tasty bagels, a bit of French influence, air conditioning and a sit down before walking on further to the national monument. Pa That Luang is a large golden pagoda, the most important in all of Laos. I have to say though, lots of the buildings and temples in Luang Prabang were more impressive, even if the national monument is very, very gold. We wandered around it for a little while, but it didn’t take too long, and it didn’t leave much of a lasting impression.
Walking around all day can be very tiring, especially when the temperatures are in the high thirties and it’s really humid. So, like we did in Luang Prabang, we looked up where we could go for a swim in the city to cool down. In Luang Prabang we used the pool of a posh hotel nearby, but in Vientiane we went to a local public swimming pool. It was in need of a bit of TLC, but it was almost empty except for us and a couple of people sitting by the pool or using the gym next door. We peacefully spent a few hours by the pool before it was suddenly overrun by school children, finishing their day at school. They were all very sweet and highly entertaining with their dives and tricks, but they were a bit too enthusiastic. The peace had been broken. It was very cheap to use, and was cool to hang out somewhere which wasn’t so touristy, somewhere locals actually used.
The most interesting and memorable thing we did in Vientiane was visit the Cope Centre, a non-profit organisation which raises money to help victims of unexploded ordinances left over from the Vietnam war. We didn’t realise, but Laos is actually the most bombed country in the world per capita, as during the Vietnam war Laos was subject to mass covert bombing. It was a strategy used by the United States to cut off communist forces in neighbouring Vietnam. Laos was also treated as a huge dump zone for bombs; if planes hadn’t dropped all the bombs they had on board and were returning back to base, they would dump their remaining bombs in designated areas in Laos, as it was unsafe to land with bombs still in the aircraft. Many of these bombs remained unexploded on farm land, and still cause huge devastation when workers come into contact with them. The Cope centre provides artificial limbs for those who have survived explosions and they promote organisations who train Laotians (many of whom are women) to detect and destroy unexploded bombs to make the land safe. Documentaries shown in the centre emphasised that these communities simply cannot fully develop if so many of their workers are either injured, killed, or living in fear. There were tragic stories of families torn apart, and it had such an impact on me. It was not only heart-wrenching, but also surprising, as I knew so little about it before visiting the centre. It’s not all depressing though, as the centre is doing some amazing work to help victims, so there are some positive stories to be found too. This week, President Obama visited the Cope Centre on a visit to Vientiane and claimed that the USA had a moral obligation to help Laos heal, and pledged $90million over the next three years to aid in bomb clearance initiatives (you can read a Guardian article about it here). I’d recommend it to anyone as a really important topic to learn about when in Laos.
Overall Vientiane was okay. It was much less touristy than other cities we had visited before it, which has both pros and cons. It was good to see how people in Laos live when they aren’t working in the tourism industry. I probably wouldn’t make too much of an effort to visit Vientiane again any time soon, but I’m glad we did, even for the Cope centre alone.