Last stop in Laos

Trip Start Oct 15, 2010
1
27
Trip End Jan 11, 2011


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Where I stayed
Laos Silk Hotel

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Friday, January 7, 2011

Something new I've discovered about myself is that I like big noisy Oriental cities. Rundown yet elegant, smelly in ways that are good and bad, there's always something different to see. As our bus approached the heart of Vientiane both Nathan and I became increasingly excited.

Vientiane felt to us like a smaller, quieter version of Saigon, with wide streets and crummy colonial building. From reading up about the city and talking to other tourists our expectation were fairly low but we loved it immediately and quickly felt right at home. Further enhancing our initial positive impression, when we went out for our first meal we ended up at a restaurant that we later found out is number one on tripadvisor. I never thought I would have some of the best Italian food of my life in Laos, but everything we ordered at Aria was delicious. The wild boar lasagna was particularly amazing. It was made with a bechamel sauce that had a similar consistency to perfectly mashed potato, giving the rich, heavy dish a certain lightness.

Many people had told us that Vientiane has little in the way of sights, which generally suits us just fine. It does, however, have what seemed to us to be hundreds of Buddhist temples. Nathan in particular felt he had seen enough of these over the past three months so instead we headed for the Patuxai, which translates to Arch de Triumph. Despite the Hindu influenced reliefs it was easy to see the monument's resemblance to its Parisian model. In the 1960s the United States government provided Laos with concrete to build a new runway, presumably for the purpose of waging war against Vietnam and Laos itself. Instead the material was used to build the monument, hence its nickname 'The Vertical Runway'. It was never actually completed and is very run down. My favourite part was the plaque, which, in line with the renowned honesty of the Laos people, reads 'From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.'

We then made our way to COPE, an organisation that provides people with prosthetics, orthetics, occupational therapy and physiotherapy. About 30% of the people that use its services are victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Thanks to the excellent documentary shown in its visitors centre we learned about the scale of the UXO problem in Laos

While the world attention was focused on America's war in Vietnam, they were also waging a secret war against Laos' communists, the Pathet Laos. I say secret because neither Congress, nor the American people knew anything about. How the country's political system allowed the government to get away with this for over thirteen years is beyond me. On the ground the military campaign was fought by CIA trained Thai and Hmong minorities but the majority of the war was waged from the air. Despite having signed a 1962 international agreement to refrain from any form of interference in Laos, America conducted more than 580,000 bombing missions to the country. 260 million bombs were dropped, which is more than were dropped during the whole of the second world war. This has made Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world, ever, with 2.5 tons of bombs dropped for every person living in Laos at the time. With figures like these, it's difficult to imagine how anyone survived at all. 

An estimated 80 million bombs failed to detonate at the time they were dropped and now pose a daily threat to Laos' rural population. The documentary showed farmers tilling fields littered with 'bombies', as cluster bombs are affectionately known in Laos. They have no choice - there is no other land available to them. There is an estimated average of 300 new casualties resulting from cluster bombs every year. With help from international NGOs such as the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) the Laos government is implementing a massive bomb clearance programme, but the problem is vast. For more information on COPE, or if you'd like to buy someone a limb for US$50, see http://www.copelaos.org/.

In terms of food, Vientiane really come through for us on all counts. For our very last meal in Laos we went to lunch at the highly praised Makphet Restaurant. It is run by an organisation called Friends, which originated in Cambodia, and provides service industry training to young people who grew up as street children. We were not, however, primarily there for charitable reasons; we'd read the food was excellent. There have also been some complaints online that it's not 'authentic' Laos food. To be fair, the restaurant claims to be 'modern' Laos cuisine. Personally, I love eating creative food and sometimes find it more rewarding than something that tries to be 'traditional'. And creative it was. Each dish was stunningly presented. A highlight was the pork laap, a minced meat salad I've blogged about earlier, but this version had the addition of fried croutons that added a wonderful crunch. Another was the desert of steamed pumpkin cake which was sweet and delicious with a light, airy texture.

And so our time in Laos came to an end. We can't really say that we've seen much of the country, given that we spent most of the two weeks we had there hanging out in Luang Prabang. We were surprised at how much we enjoyed Vientiane in particular and the drive there from Luang Prabang gave us an intriguing taste of what Laos is like outside the main centres. If we'd had more energy at this point in the trip we could have gone south or north-east to some of the beautiful rural areas and national parks. As it is, however, we found Laos to be a great place to wind down toward the end of our trip. 
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