Petit Paris

Trip Start Jul 16, 2012
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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, April 17, 2013

So after 4 and a half months we finally managed to drag ourselves out of Thailand and into Laos. When we started our planning, I pretty much had no idea where Laos was, what it was like and what we would do there, so needless to say my expectations were low. All I did know that it was landlocked and I did not fancy the idea of no R&R beach time.  Regardless we cracked on and planned 3 weeks in Laos and boy am I glad we did. I think that Laos is possibly the most amazingly wonderful, relaxing and stunning place I have ever been.  It is quiet, it is calm, it is old fashioned and tourism is still a side line so whilst the people are wonderful and friendly and welcoming there is a distinct lack of organisation when it comes to tourism so it is go local or go home; so guess what, we went local! 

Our introduction to Laos was an odd one, we arrived over the friendship bridge from Thailand and after a 20 minute taxi ride arrived in the bustling capital of Vientiane, the largest city with a population of just 754,000.  What struck me is that it was a bit like arriving in a small market town with a distinct lack of everything.  The hotels and restaurants were lovely and developed, but there were just no people or cars.  We had arrived on the final day  of New Year, the family day so possibly a bit like arriving in any town on New Years day and being surprised how quiet it was, but even in the following days it didn't really get a whole lot busier.  Bliss.

Our first mission in Vientiane was to get a Vietnamese Visa so we set off to the Consulate and amazingly arrived on the only day that the Consulate was going to be open in 10 days, amazing, our luck was changing.  After a few forms and $70 dollars later we were the proud owners of visas for Vietnam, onwards with our tour of Vientiane.

One of the most iconic landmarks in Vientiane is the Patuxai - Victory gate, also known as Vientiane’s Arc De Triumph.  This was constructed with concrete that was donated to Laos from America in 1957.  The concrete was donated for a runway to be repaired in Vientiane but for some reason they decided to build the Victory Gate instead, brilliant.  Locally they call the monument the Vertical Runway.  For a small fee (literally 25p) we were able to climb up the gate and we were most surprised to find a selection of shops inside it, selling everything from t-shirts and Buddhas to postcards and decorative lobsters?!  One of the most terrifying items for sale in the market was a postcard from the war which shows 15 GI’s holding a The Queen River Naga which was fished out of the Mekong River, this put pay to me stepping foot in the Mekong!  We kept climbing and kept finding more shops and eventually reached the top which provided the most amazing panoramic views over Vientiane.  We did make one last stop at a temple called Wat Si Saket which has a series of Buddhas lining the walls of a temple.  The temperature in Vientiane was a scorching 40 degrees so we decided to put our touring on hold and made our way to a café called Joma Bakery.

We had read tons of reviews that this is the best place to eat in Vientiane and I cannot tell you how excited I was when I ordered a cheese sandwich and I was asked the following "Cheddar or Edam?".  Having survived on a diet of fake cheese squares pretty much since leaving home I at this point fell truly, madly, deeply in love with Loas.  Wow I am easily pleased these days.  Joma Bakery certainly didn’t disappoint and it became my second home after a day or two. That magic question “Cheddar or Edam?” made me go weak at the knees every time, heh heh.

One last stop on the way back to our hotel we visited That Dam, also known as the Black Stupa. This is literally a Stupa which has been turned into a roundabout.  There was no information around about the Stupa but having looked it up I discovered that many Laotians believe that the Stupa is the home to the 7 headed Naga which tried to protect them from the invasion of the Siamese Army in 1827.  Awesome, I am more than happy to believe that there is a giant 7 headed snake chilling in the random roundabout Stupa.

So day two and we decided to go in search of the Buddha Park, we knew that this was outside of the main town so after a lot of haggling (where Tim included a packet of Minto’s into the haggle??!!) we managed to get a Tuk-Tuk to take us for the afternoon and to bring us back.  Lonely Planet was not lying when it said that the park was quite a way out, we went back to the Friendship Bridge where we came in from Thailand and turned off down the bumpiest dustiest road.  The perfect example of Laos not really caring much for tourism; in most cities this road would be paved with an overpriced bus running every hour, but not Laos, it was local bus or Tuk-Tuk and you were in with a high chance of rattling loose your fillings enroute.  Thankfully the journey was totally worth it and the Buddha Park did not disappoint.  It is literally a little park just filled with various Buddhist and Hindu statues.  It was very reminiscent of the park we found in Moscow with all the cities abandoned statues just randomly gathered together.

The centre point of the park, was a huge concrete pumpkin, which as you climb in the mouth you crawl around and in the middle the pumpkin is full of old Buddhist and Hindu statues of every shape and size, the top of the pumpkin provides a little viewing platform over the rest of the park to just take in the view.

After a good wonder around the park in the scorching midday sun we braced ourself for the Tuk-Tuk ride back into Vientiane and were treated to a drive by of the Beer Laos factory.  That is where the magic happens; you could smell the hops a mile away!

On our way back to the city we stopped off at COPE, The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise who provide comprehensive rehabilitation services for Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) survivors and other people with disabilities across Laos PDR.

Factoid time - During the Vietnam War (1964-1973), conflict spilled over into Laos in a secret war where more than 500,000 bombing missions dropped over two million tons of ordnance on the country.  Lao PDR is the most bombed country in the world per capita. More than two million tons of ordnance was dropped on the country during the Second Indochina War. Up to 30 per cent of some types of ordnance did not detonate.

The Lao Government has shown that UXO contamination still affects more than 25 per cent of Lao villages. Between 1999 and 2008, there were 2,184 casualties (including 834 deaths) from UXO incidents and more than 50,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents since 1964.  UXO contamination also remains a key cause of poverty and is one of the prime factors limiting the country's long-term development, preventing people from using land and denying access to basic services.  As in other South East Asia countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam, collecting scrap metal is a major cause of UXO accidents. Forced into the trade by poverty, people risk their lives using primitive detectors to hunt for scrap: normally what they find is harmless, but there’s always the risk it could be a deadly bomb.

Needless to say COPE was utterly depressing and tear jerking, but a real eye opener as to what these poor people are living with on a daily basis.  The stories covering the walls were almost unbelievable, in January 2012 some children lit a bonfire to keep warm, unbeknown to them there was an unexploded bomb under the ground which was set off by the bonfire.  Four children aged 3-12 were killed and one adult and 2 children were injured.

COPE are a non-profit organisation working with the victims of UXO’s and other disabilities to enable them to the live normal lives.  Totally emotionally challenged by what we had read and seen we could not leave without making a donation to buy someone a prosthetic leg.  If anyone is interested in finding out more about this amazing organisation or wants to make a donation here is the website http://www.copelaos.org/index.php

In order to cheer ourselves up, there was only one thing for it “Cheddar or Edam?”, yup we were back in Joma Bakery!!

Before we set off to Luang Prabang there was time for one last quick tour so we went to Wat That Luang, the national symbol and the most important religious monument of the Country. That Luang is a three-layered gilded stupa. The current version dates from 1566, although it has been ransacked and renovated numerous times since then.  Rumour has it that the stupa contains a relic of Buddha himself…. The Stupa looked stunning, a bit like a giant sandcastle against the clear blue sky.

Time to leave the bright lights and big city of Vientiane (ha ha) and head off the Luang Prabang.
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