It’s the second and final week in Laos, and we are travelling South on the way to the capital of Vientiane. To break up the trip a bit first, a little stopover in Vang Vieng.
It’s getting to the point that you can really tell the end of summer is coming for S.E Asia and the wet season is kicking in. Rain thumped on the roof of the minivan for the entire 3 hours drive into town. To lighten the mood, the bus driver was repeating the same joke that the bus was destined somewhere else….to anyone who would listen.
“We’re here!”, he smiles and looks around as he finally parks up. The windows are so steamed, and the rain is coming down so hard that there is no visibility out of the windows….and by this point, everyone is so skeptical of what he’s been saying, that no-one budges an inch.
It’s no bluff this time, and after we grab our slightly damp bags from the roof of the van, we tuk-tuk it to our guesthouse.
Vang Vieng, is best known amongst the travelling community for its ‘tubing’. Grab a rubber ring, and drift down the Nam Song River. Formerly known as a party run, there were heaps of bars and activities along the route where you could pull your ring over to the bank and grab a beer or two (or something slightly stronger!) before drifting along again.
This has since changed in recent years, due to a government crackdown which closed up the majority of riverside bars after 27 tourist deaths in 2011 due to drowning and other tubing related adventures. You can still tube….you’ve just got to be a bit more sober!
We weren’t really here for tubing anyway, and with the weather as it was we decided to try to sit it out in a local bar for a while.
And then we saw it!
Like a hero….coming out of the Vang Vieng fog…….lifting and filling your heart with hope and joy…….our saviour……..a drinks menu, with a guiness on it!
The next day we felt a bit hemmed in by the weather. I caught up with some general life admin, but in truth we were ready to move on, a bit disappointed in what we’d not been able to see.
Fortunately, just as we were giving up on Vang Vieng, the rain dropped down to a drizzle, and the clouds lifted slightly….suddenly you feel as if you’re in a different place. Vang Vieng had just opened up and revealed itself.
One one of the last nights, we stumbled across a sign for a German/Thai restaurant. It seemed a bit too strange to pass up, so we followed the directions. We found more signs along the way, “Congratulations! You’re almost there!”…..”It’s about to be great!”
We arrive to a tiny, little place down a side road – Vimen. We’re a bit early and there is no-one around apart from a small guy who seemed to be buzzing around the room. He comes over and introduces himself….Mr Kaz…the charming and eccentric owner and chef. He hands us some menus and continues buzzing around.
“I love this guy!”, Rach whispers across the table.
I glance over to the left where there are a set of 4 massive paintings that cover the far side wall. “Are those….all self portraits of his own face?”, I ask.
Before Rach can confirm, Mr Kaz is back. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Can we get two Radlers please?”, Rach asks. A radler is a german shandy. Beer and lemonade.
“You can…..but please be aware….it will take 8 minutes”
That’s such a specific number, I think………. “No problem”, I say :-)
Mr Kaz comes back in 8 minutes with two radlers which have been blended with ice and fresh lemon juice……it was worth every one of eight minutes waiting!
The food was just as good. Mr Kaz couldn’t half cook! As the restaurant was pretty quiet that time of day we also had a really good chat with him about his background in Germany, and what it’s like to live and set up a business in Laos.
Feeling a whole lot different about Vang Vieng after our day in the better weather, we moved onto the final stop in Laos, the capital, Vientiane.
We’d had our expectations fully set about visiting the capital. Anyone who had ask and we had told responded, normally with a frown and a “Why?”.
Because: Capital City dude! And because: how about give a place a chance and judge for yourself without bias! And because………..well, because our flight was booked out from there :-)
In truth, Vientiane just seemed like a normal city. Busier than other places I’d seen in Laos, not as busy as a lot of other places seen on the trip. One big highlight (although a strange word to use) was a visit to the COPE visitor centre.
To paraphrase from their website: A not-for-profit organisation formed in 1997, COPE was created in response to the need to provide UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) survivors with the care and support they required, namely by way of orthotic and prosthetic devices.
What I learned in the couple of hours walking around the free exhibition, is that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. During the Vietnam war, 580,000 bombing missions were executed over Laos…the equivalent of one bombing mission, every 8 minutes, for 9 years!
Apart from the initial damage done in the missions, approximately 30% of the bombs failed to detonate on impact and are still having a devastating effect up to this day. Approximately 20, 000 people have been killed since the war ended, due to stumbling across these unexploded bombs…and UXOs still carry a death rate of approximately between 30 and 40 per year. A large proportion being children in rural farming areas.
The whole day was pretty harrowing……and the thought that just kept repeating was ‘how did I have no idea about any of this?’. This definitely wasn’t covered at my school, and I have never seen a single incident covered in the media about the annual deaths caused by these 30 year-old war remnants in Laos. Can you imagine if an unexploded bomb from another war killed a child in the UK or America? It would be worldwide, front-page news, no?
In between one of the short movie screenings we were chatting to a couple of guys who were visiting the centre also. We both remarked how little we knew about it and one of them replied,
“Me too……..And I’m a teacher…….My subject is the cold war!”
I completely recommend going to COPE if you’re ever in the area. The facility, staff, and what they do, is brilliant. Just make sure to ready yourself for a pretty emotionally down day.
Time to say goodbye Laos! Thanks for a beautiful, sleepy, and emotional 2 weeks.