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Kat & Andrew's Worldwide Adventures

Vang Vieng & Vientiane, Laos

LAOS | Thursday, 3 October 2013 | Views [3395]

The drive to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang took 5 and a half hours but it seemed much longer. The roads were bumpy with constant sharp corners and we were stuck on the back seats. It could’ve been incredibly horrific but I managed to tune out for most of it and thankfully didn’t get too carsick. I enjoyed watching the village people live their lives as we drove by – showering fully clothed outside, children kicking around a ball or playing with makeshift wooden toys (or even machetes!), adults carrying pales of water balancing on each side of a stick on their shoulders, or carrying woven bags filled with wood on their backs, selling vegetables on a rug on the side of the road, a little girl carrying her sleeping baby sibling in a blanket tied to her back, cooking or washing the dishes outside etc. The sky turned a pastel purple and blue as the sun set over the imposing mountains jutting out of the valleys – it was spectacular. Despite living so simply, and it must be so tough, I wonder if they realize just how beautiful their surroundings are.


Once we arrived it was late and we were tired, we weren’t sure where everything was. We were told to avoid staying in the small city centre as it was a place that never slept so we went to look at one place a bit further out. We got dropped off by our tuktuk and left at a bridge which had a toll charge to cross it – we weren’t aware of this! It was a bit of dilemma whether to walk back to town and try and find another place or cross the bridge without knowing how often we would need to go to town during our stay, and have to pay the toll each time. The toll wasn’t much but it was just an added hassle to think about cost and logistics and it’s the principal - its just another annoying opportunity to rip off tourists. It’s inevitable when travelling in a group that opinions will differ, which is frustrating, but we decided to stick together and cross the bridge. The hostel we found was very relaxed and a nice place to base ourselves. Because we only had 2 nights and 1 day there though, I did feel like we didn’t really get a feel for the place being out of the centre.


Our one day was super fun. We hired a tuktuk and explored a massive cave then swam in a glistening blue stream where you could play on swings in the water and jump of trees. Then we headed into town and rented big round tubes, got dropped off 4km upstream and then floated all the way back down to where we started. It was very relaxed and the impressive limestone mountains jutting up around us were quite a sight.


We had been warned that tubing had a bit of a bad reputation with hordes of foreigners getting incredibly wasted and rowdy – many of which died because of inebriation and stupid decisions. A lot of bars and all of the activities on the side of the river had been closed down in consequence but there were still a few bars pumping out music. We stopped at one that was more of a house / shack. They threw a rope out and pulled us in which was a laugh. The hosts were a lovely elderly couple trying to make a buck by selling beer. There were a few other foreigners but on the whole we didn’t actually see that many tubing in the water – although there were a mob of Chinese tourists in kayaks instead! I was worried the current would be too strong to control our tubes but we managed to stay together most of them time and sometimes linked legs and drifted along together. The afternoon ended up being overcast which was pleasant until, much to everyone’s amusement, a rock capsized me off my tube and then I started getting a bit cold!


I could’ve easily stayed another day to explore the stunning surrounding area and the small touristy dusty town but the weather packed itself in and it wouldn’t have been much fun in the rain. We all thought we had booked ourselves onto a VIP large bus but once at the bus station, we were herded onto a small bus that just seemed like an oversized van. Not ideal! But the road didn’t turn out to be so bad this time round and Leike & Palle saved us the front seat so the 4 hours to Laos’s capital - Vientiane - cruised past without too much suffering.


Vientiane is not what I expected of a capital city. There are no tall buildings or modern architecture. It seems more like a sprawling town with busy traffic, dirty roads and broken down unused buildings. Any type of cuisine you would like is available and there are plenty of shops and markets. Prostitution flourishes and police corruption is the norm. The bus station was 10km out of the city and as usual they wanted to force tourists to pay more for the journey with a provided tourist bus. We wanted to take a tuk tuk that was cheaper but the drivers said they were only allowed to take locals. They ended up agreeing to pick us up if we walked down the street away from the station.


That night was our last night together as a group (Sob!) so we went out for dinner and then drinks at a neat bar on the roof of a 4-story building. The bar ended up being full of older European men with prostitutes. As Laos’s women are very conservative with their dressing, it was extremely obvious that these girls wearing next to nothing were working girls. People can get away with wearing clothes like that in the western world – even if they are called skanks – but for Laos’s women it must be so much harder as it so far from their cultural standards.


Carrie, Andrew and I spent the next 2 days enjoying a slower pace of activities. We walked around the city (in extreme sweat inducing heat) exploring a few temples and monuments. There were a few interesting things worth seeing, but on the whole, it’s just another city. We went to the day markets, the food market and the night market and the stalls don’t seem to be as desperate to barter as the smaller towns. We were so tempted to try the street food but we don’t know what most of it is, no one speaks English, and everything is covered in flies. They see that were foreigners too and instantly double the price. Carrie kindly leant me her laptop so I could catch up with typing my blog and sorting out photos. I’m gutted my little laptop didn’t survive the trip, even though I knew it was on last legs. We have a tablet but it’s so small, it is incredibly tedious and fiddly trying to type anything on it.


We also went to the COPE visitors centre and learnt all about the fantastic services & prosthetics they provide to victims of exploding UXO’s (the majority) as well as victims of other accidents and medical problems. It only costs $200 US to sponsor a person to get a new limb, as well as their rehabilitation, lodging and transport to the city from small far away villages. There are many charity’s to choose to support in the world and it can be incredibly overwhelming, but after being here and seeing how horribly these people have suffered and what COPE is doing to help, I can honestly say this would be an excellent one to check out. We watched a video of a family describing how their little boy was with his friends trying to copy the adults and find scrap metal (as they can make good money from it) and the boys accidently picked up a bomb left over from the war. 2 boys were killed instantly and the family’s son was seriously injured. They rented a taxi and took him to 2 hospitals and neither had blood or oxygen. The taxi driver didn’t want the boy to die in his car so they took him home where he died. Hearing this story and seeing the family cry was absolutely heartbreaking.  www.copelaos.org.


Vientiane will be unrecognizable if we came back in 7 – 10 years. They are beginning to build a massive shopping mall complex with cinemas, fancy apartments and office buildings. We saw the model and plans for it and it seems so bizarre as there is nothing like it anywhere is Laos. They are aiming to catch up to their neighbors - Thailand, Vietnam and China.


Tomorrow we say goodbye to Carrie (sniff!) and fly to Vietnam where we will be for the next month!


Few tidbits on Laos for those that are interested (snippets pulled out of the Lonely Planet):

  • China is Laos new best friend. In return for taking advantage of Laos rich timber resources, China provides Laos with paved roads and stadiums.
  • Laos is seen as the crossroads state between China, Vietnam and Thailand but I had no idea just how stunning this place is. It definitely holds its own to me!
  • Loas is on the list of 20 of the poorest nations in the world. However, the economy is growing at such a fast rate, they should be off this list within 7 years.
  • Vientiane, the capital city, has leased a large area of land to 50,000 Chinese migrant workers to come settle a satellite town.
  • Loas has one of the richest ecosystems in the world. It is a little larger than the UK and unmanaged vegetation still covers an estimated 85% of the country. Unfortunately only 10% of this is original growth forest due to the relentless logging and slash & burn farming.
  • Much of the land is still virtually unusable due to the remaining UXOs (bombs dropped from the Americans during the Vietnam War), they are still a huge cause of deaths in Laos. The scrap metal trade is so lucrative that children try to copy the adults by collecting whatever metal they can find without paying attention to the training they receive at school about how dangerous it is. 40% of deaths caused by UXOs exploding are children, and many others are from families making fires to cook their food without realizing that bombs are buried beneath them.
  • Education has improved and at least 85% of children are now enrolled in school. For many poor rural villagers though, it is very expensive to send their children to school so sometimes only one child will be chosen. Children are married, have children themselves and work long hours from a very early age. It usually begins at age 13.
  • You can be sentenced to death for trafficking drugs. A British woman made headlines with trafficking heroin in 2009 by changing her death sentence to life as she managed to get pregnant. Under Lao law, pregnant women cannot be executed.
  • Before the French, British, Chinese and Siamese drew a line around it, Laos’s earliest brush with nationhood was in the 14th century when a Khmer backed warlord conquered Vientiane. He made Buddhism the state religion. By the 18th century the nation had crumbled falling under control of the Siamese. The French negotiated with Siam to relinquish the territory east of the Mekong and Laos was born. After the Japanese invaded in 1953, the country managed to prevent the return to French rule by being granted sovereignty.
  • In 1954 Laos became a neutral nation as neither Vietnamese or US forces could cross the borders. CIA operatives secretly entered to train anti-communists in the jungle. To stop Vietnam from funneling war munitions down the Ho Chi Minh trail, the US dropped devastatingly amounts of bombs over the border seriously harming Laos. This increased domestic support for the communists. The US withdrew in 1973 and within 2 years, the communists took over completely. Around 10% of Laos’s population fled, mainly to Thailand. Many tribes that had been funded by the CIA were brutally sent to re-education camps.
  • In 1997, Laos entered the political family of Southeast Asian countries known as Asean, 2 years after Vietnam. In 2004 the USA promoted Laos to Normal Trade Relations cementing the end to the trade embargo in place since the communists took power in 1975. Politically the party in still in control and there seems to be little reason to move towards any meaningful form of democracy.
  • Most music and TV shows in Laos come from Thailand, and many of their customs are the same such as touching another persons head is taboo, or touching people with your feet and removing shows before going inside. Dressing in revealing clothing and public displays of affection are discouraged as well.
  • Many Lao males chose to be a monk for the duration of one month up to three years. After communism came into play, Buddhism was suppressed but by 1992 the government relented, allowing it back but with a few alterations. Monks are still forbidden to promote (spirit) worship, but this law is largely ignored.
  • The Laos jungle is home to wild elephants, monkeys, bears, leopards, tigers and the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. 


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