Lao PDR

Trip Start May 28, 2008
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Trip End Aug 26, 2008


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Modern Vientiane (capital of Lao PDR) was laid out by the French, and has a number of wide avenues. After walking in Thai roads because the sidewalks are crammed with street vendors, it is such a change to have sidewalks again.

The area has been inhabited for centuries, but the Thais sacked the city in 1828 and all the ancient temples were lost. The Mekong river delta location has proven popular but not easy to defend. Khmer, Siamese, Burmese and Vietnamese people have all had turns in power here, and in the past half century the city has been under the influence of French, Americans, and Soviets. When Saigon fell and America left Vietnam, U.S. aid in Vientiane stopped and the local economy collapsed. The city went from entertainment center for soldiers to a place where American culture was simply banned. The Lao royalty were also forced out, ending about 600 years of monarchy. Today it is an interesting mix of influences. We are getting more stares in Vientiane than elsewhere, and we didn't see any other Caucasian people here until we found the riverfront restaurant strip.

The American bombing campaign in Laos during the Vietnam War was devastating, and gave Laos the sad distinction of being the most bombed country on the planet. Bombing has been estimated at a 1/2 ton per person in Laos when dropped, and the organization clearing ordinance here says it will be decades before their efforts to clear fields are complete (if ever). The country is littered with bomb fragments used as a major source of scrap metal, along with countless unexploded cluster bombs that continue to kill and maim regularly. In this country you stay on the established streets and paths, although the bombing was concentrated on the eastern side of the country and Vientiane actually experienced economic growth during this period. To put it in perspective, Laos received more ordnance than Germany and Japan in WWII combined.

Without discussing the politics of how this happened (a lengthy discussion of the Lao civil war and Vietnam war would be needed), I will simply say that it is a human catastrophe of incredible magnitude. The Lao people we have met have been remarkably friendly, and what little we have seen of the country is lovely. I can't quite fathom what it must be like to have most of your country booby trapped with bombs, but it is sad to think about.

We met a nice guy named Xai, a former monk of 7 years from the countryside who moved south to the capital to find his sister. He is studying English, and helped us learn a few Lao words that were useful. When Stirling was tired, he even offered to lend me his motorbike to get the family home across town and save the expense of a tuk-tuk ride.

Gailen and I happily discovered Lao Traditional Massage. It was similar to Thai traditional massage, but with some different techniques that were really great... definitely a great antidote to travel fatigue. Stirling and Laura had a foot massage, as Stirling is currently pointing out nearly every foot massage on offer throughout the day.

The victory arch here is reminiscent of the one in Paris, although the one in Vientiane was built using American concrete and/or funding that was intended for an airport. Never fully finished, it is about seven stories tall and the interior floors house hidden tourist shops. The Chinese government helped add a large reflecting pool and fountain, making the area a nice hang out for families. We kind of liked this spot, although the visible disrepair up close and the funding history have earned this monument nicknames as a "monster of concrete" and a "vertical runway".

We walked several kilometers here, which is how we like to get around a city and get a feel for a place. Tuk-tuk drivers are usually aghast at this behavior, as are some locals... why would anyone walk if you don't have to? Stirling sometimes shares this view, and has been known to try hailing a ride behind our backs.

The afternoon stroll past the embassies on our way to Pha That Luang (the golden Buddhist stupa that is the national symbol of Laos) was particularly hot and emergency ice cream was required for Stirling. Pha That Luang was built in the 16th century on the ruins of 13th century Khmer temple, which is thought to have been built on the ruins of a 3rd century temple built by missionaries from India.

As the sun started to go down, the city came out to play around Phat That Luang. Football (soccer) games were all over the place, and I was happy to see a few outdoor badminton matches as well. I like to play a french ball game called Petanque, similar to bocce, and I've finally seen the metal ball sets available here and in northern Thailand.

Travel Tip #4

Tired children may be either cranky or sleepy, but hungry children are guaranteed to whine, complain, moan, and/or mope. Provisions should be carried in daypack at all times, and supplemented with markets and hawkers as needed. Ice cream IS fuel, and may be used daily. Ideal ratio of fresh fruits to ice cream is 2.5 to 1, but do not hesitate to rapidly apply emergency ice cream bar to child having meltdown in hot Asian sun. Ice cream aid is most effective when administered within 10 minutes of first observed symptoms of youthful drama and dismay.

- Demian
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