National treasures, Secret War

Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
Trip End Nov 30, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On Saturday we had a relatively short bus journey from Vang Vieng to Vientiane. Unfortunately once again we were dropped off at a bus station a few kilometres out of the city, and even though there was a shuttle bus waiting to take us into the centre, it was charging a lot of money. The tuk–tuk drivers were asking the same amount, so we decided the best thing to do was to walk outside the bus station and flag down a tuk-tuk. This turned out to be very easy as we got one just leaving the bus station, and negotiated a trip for half the price. Unfortunately this did cause a few issues with the three Thai people who were getting a lift as well – they had agreed to pay the original asking price in the bus station but then refused to hand over the full amount when they realised we were only paying half that. Needless to say the tuk–tuk driver was not very happy.

We were all pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the hotel – we had a lovely two bedroom suite with lounge and kitchen, and to my Mum's delight, a washing machine! The girls headed out to the supermarket to get some basic necessities, including washing powder, so it wasn’t long before the first load was on. Andrew and I were able to get the entirety of our washing done, including some less frequently used items, which we really appreciated.

After having some time to relax, we headed towards the riverfront in search of dinner at one of the many street kitchens. This was probably the biggest shock I had in terms of how things have changed in the last 10 years – gone were the riverside bars and cafes, and in their place a massive flood protection scheme was being built. I understand why this is necessary, but I couldn’t help but feel some of the charm of Vientiane had been lost.

Sunday was Mother’s Day and I was delighted to actually be with my Mum for it. After a wonderful pancake filled breakfast - probably the best ones of the trip so far, but no good for the waistline - we headed back to the river front to see it in the daylight. It was indeed very different, with a new promenade and a large statue of the last king of Laos, overlooking the Mekong. It was just a short stroll from there to Haw Pha Kaew, the beautiful old royal temple which once housed the Emerald Buddha we had seen in Bangkok - it was taken to Laos in 1551 by the King of Chiang Mai, who later became the King of Laos, but was recaptured by the Thais in 1778.

We had just enough time to visit Wat Si Saket before it closed for lunch. It was built in 1818 and is the oldest temple in Vientiane. When the Siamese sacked Vientiane in 1828, they spared this temple, perhaps because it is built in a style similar to Thai temples. It is a very simple, understated temple with beautiful murals on the interior walls. The most notable feature is the interior walls of the cloister which have over two thousand small niches, each of which houses a small Buddha image. Resting on the shelves below the niches are over 300 seated and standing Buddhas of varying sizes, age and materials - terracotta, wood, plaster, silver, gold and bronze. In addition to the ones in the ordination hall, there are 6,840 Buddhas at Wat Si Saket. That’s a lot of Buddhas!

After a short break at the Scandinavian Bakery for coffee and cakes, we wandered past the Nam Phou fountain and the Presidential Palace on the way to the Morning Market. It was no different to any other South East Asian market in that you could literally buy anything you wanted, including very fake looking iPhones, and twin tub washing machines. I thought the latter were some new modern machines, but my Mum then pointed out that was what my grandparents had used!

A little further up the main road was Patuxai – reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, it is a memorial to all of the people who died in pre-revolutionary wars. It was built in 1969 with cement donated by the USA for the construction of a new airport, hence its nickname 'the vertical runway’! After a hot climb to the top, pausing briefly at a gift shop halfway up to buy a communist flag (which I’m sure my next school will really appreciate), we were rewarded with wonderful views over Vientiane.

The stifling heat meant that we decided to take a tuk–tuk to Pha That Luang afterwards – it was only a short distance but the glaring sun was sapping all of our energy. The beautiful golden stupa is the most important national monument in Laos, a symbol of both Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty, with its image appearing on the national seal. Given its importance, we were surprised by how few people were actually inside the monument, making it a very quiet and peaceful place to visit. We made that our final stop of the day before taking a tuk–tuk back to the hotel – the driver had tried to get us to go in his air conditioned van, but much to his surprise we opted for the natural A/C of a tuk–tuk! Back at the hotel we were able to relax and cool off in the swimming pool before we headed into town for a nice Mother’s Day dinner.

Having seen the main sights of Vientiane the day before, on Monday we had a relaxing morning in the apartment reading, blogging and doing laundry! It would have been quite easy to stay there all day, but I suggested paying a visit to one of the more unusual places of interest in Vientiane, the COPE centre.

Unfortunately between 1964 and 1973 Laos was the victim of a hidden war, subjected to bombing campaigns by the US military targeting the Viet Cong supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail. 580,000 bombing sorties were flown over Laos, dropping 260 million ‘bombies’, 30% of which did not explode on impact. Unfortunately this means that around 300 people per year continue to be injured by UXOs (unexploded ordnance). COPE was set up to support these victims, providing artificial limbs, rehabilitation and training for local staff.

COPE wasn’t the easiest place to find, but once there we were rewarded with a very informative and moving presentation. There were various displays on the UXOs, explanations as to how the scrap metal trade results in so many injuries, and how people are rehabilitated. Despite the topic, it was fascinating and there is a very bright and cheery atmosphere to the place. Needless to say when I heard that Thailand had admitted to dropping cluster bombs on Cambodia in February it made me very angry as I now realise how much senseless damage that may cause.

After one final stop at the Scandinavian Bakery for hot chocolate and jam doughnuts – it’s interesting what you miss when you’re away - we headed back to the hotel for a swim and to relax, before preparing for an early departure the next day.

Next stop, the southern city of Pakse.

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