Saturday, 14 July 2012

Lorna and I in Laos: Volume I, Vientiane

So, properly, sabaidee from Laos. I am currently in a pretty bizarre place: an internet cafe in Huay Xai, surrounded by young boys playing online games, seemingly with each other as they shout across me. It's sort of hilarious place to be writing down my adventures. Just across the river, which starts only about 200 metres to my left, there is Thailand. Illustrating our proximity, my phone is using a Thai network here and most places accept Thai baht.

Anyway, I have a bit of catching up to do with the blog and am hoping at least to get my few exceedingly comfortable days in Vientiane down. I was grateful to be met at the airport by Lorna and her family friend, Rachel Dance and to be staying with her and her husband, David Dance, a doctor specialising in tropical diseases. After a night sleeping on the floor of the budget Kuala Lumpur airport and waking up to hurried footsteps going in every direction before I got on another cramped Air Asia flight, I was grateful to be in a very civilised house with a fridge full of food, clean sheets on a comfortable bed, a hot shower and, best of all, grown ups to look after me and advise us on our travels. My first day in Laos pretty much consisted solely of comfort, planning, getting to know my generous hosts and catching up with Lorna. We were treated to dinner in Le Vendome, a French restaurant indicative of Laos' colonial past. I had magret de canard with mango, a dish I haven't anything close to since the last time I was in France, nearly 2 years ago now I think.

We had a somewhat busier time the next day. The morning was spent wandering through Talat Sao, the non-food market, with Rachel as our guide showing us the difference between natural and chemical dyes as well as how to spot superior workmanship in fabrics and pointing out traditional cross stitch and common patterns or themes. After fresh spring rolls and a gorgeous fresh passion fruit juice for lunch, we headed to the COPE museum.

COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and their museum details the recent history of the secret war in Laos during the conflict in Vietnam. COPE itself, as indicated by its name, is a charity that provides prosthetic limbs and other support, both physical and psychological, primarily for victims of the UXO (unexploded 'bombies') that still litter the countryside but also for people suffering from diseases such as clubfoot or leprosy. It was an excellent museum and we watched an emotional yet very informative documentary called Bomb Harvest that detailed efforts to form bomb disposal units in each region to save further lives still being destroyed. All perpetrated by an enemy unknown to most Lao people living in isolation of the hills, only recognisable 50 years ago by planes high in the sky that broke international laws and conventions by dropping death on a supposedly neutral country.The 30% of their cluster bombs that didn't explode in the air or upon impact are taking hands and feet and lives today. It was pretty harrowing and I'm not confident in my ability to really express the shock and tragedy I felt. Watching a short interview with parents of a child killed by a combination of a bombie and lack of proper healthcare ("We drove to one hospital but there was no blood or oxygen. We drove to another, but again they had no blood or oxygen. We took him home so that he did not die in the truck."), Lorna and I were left speechless and shaken. The drawings by eyewitnesses compounded the horror. Beyond the sadness and fear, there was also guilt and self-loathing depicted for not doing more. Punishment heaped upon punishment for no wrong committed.

I would highly recommend that any visitor to Vientiane take a few hours to visit this centre and take in the inhumanity of the damage inflicted on this country. If you really want to 'go travelling' and experience the 'real' country, like all the gap yahs claim, then take time to learn some history, bloody and unattractive as it often is, because no matter how many beautiful temples and sunsets you see and photograph, it's the difficult things you see that you'll remember and learn from. So I'd like to say how grateful I am to the Dances for recommending the museum and I'll get off my soapbox now, except to say if you want to learn more, the website is 

After COPE, we recovered ourselves back to usual giggling exuberant form, storing more meaningful thoughts for later. We were excited to flag down our first tuk tuk, Lorna using the 'pat the dog' technique - not waving but sticking your hand out and keeping it relatively low, part of the cultural crash course Rachel provided us - to great success and we managed to bargain 10,000 kip off our fare - about $1.20. We were dropped off at Wat Sok Pha Luang where we had hoped to get massages or experience a herbal sauna but we had arrived too late, right in the middle of prayer time. The monks and nuns were sat amongst the company of dogs while the chants went on. We were feeling very self conscious and quite wary of insulting anyone through our own ignorance so we didn't enter the praying area and instead wandered around what turned out to be a fairly unimpressive wat (temple) from the others we've seen since. But we did both notice the distinct difference between the Balinese Hindu temples which are very much places for worship on important occasions while the Buddhist wats are more like monasteries as the monks and nuns live there full time. I still need to learn if they do anything for the community or if, and this is all I can gather so far, they do simply lead lives of strict meditation regimes and abstinence in their quest for ultimate spiritual enlightenment. As we learned later in Luang Prabang watching the alms ceremony, it seems to be the community that provides for the monks rather than the converse. Interestingly, Lorna, who has had more experience of Buddhism than me, commented that it was a rather selfish religion as you are essentially seeking peace for yourself and each individual must do it by and for themselves.

The next day would have been rather lazy had it not been for the 17km bike ride the Dances treated us to around some of the backstreets and dirt roads of Vientiane. We enjoyed great views of the river, saw rice paddies and people fishing. We received calls of 'Sabaidee!' and smiles from just about everyone we passed. It was fairly amazing, to Rachel and David even more so than Lorna and I since they were comparing to the views just 6 months ago, to see the extent of development going on in the capital city. We passed diggers and roads being improved, as well as wetlands cleared for new buildings. We also passesd the Russian embassy, a ridiculous concrete cube that resembles something out of a 1960s James Bond film. The market we rode through also revealed change; the young women (teenagers and my age) were dressed far more skimpily than Rachel had informed us was respectable and in a far more Western style - fewer sin (the traditional skirt) and more shorts.

That night we had our first taste of Lao food, trying laab, riverweed, buffalo, morning glory (a vegetable, we discovered) and scooping handfuls of sticky rice from small baskets designed to keep it warm. It was lovely to sit outside and enjoy a live band performing such classics as Ronan Keating 'When you say nothing at all' but getting the words wrong.

On Sunday, we visited Buddha Park, a bizarre man-made modern holy ground. Overseeing the park is a giant Buddha lying quite serenely on its side, resting its head on one hand as if to calmly observe the madness around it: an absolute melange of Buddhist and Hindu statues and imagery placed quite deliberately, it seemed, but with no sense obvious to us. Dominating one end of the park was a huge 3 or 4 storey pumpkin shaped construction that inside seemed to represent 3 levels of Hell. There were broken, incomplete and abandoned smaller statues here, enclosed in the semi-darkness and their positioning seemed grotesque in that setting. At the top, you could crawl out of a small opening to stand atop of the pumpkin and survey the craziness with a tree of life crowning the strange giant vegetable. The whole experience was quite bizarre and not without sinister aspects but we both thoroughly enjoyed it - there was definitely a strange appeal to it. Helped of course by our giggling fits.

Monday was our final full day in Vientiane and with the comfort of the Dances. We made it a busy one. Aside from our errands for departure the next day, we also visited the food market and the National Museum. The market was certainly an experience: narrow aisles with buckets of live fish, tied up crabs and netted bowls containing frogs. While that was distressing for the animal lover within Lorna, the smell of the fermenting fish, loved by the Laos, was fairly off putting for both of us. It was certainly an education and, at the fruit end, exciting to try out some simple Lao phrases to buy snacks for the next day's bus journey. The National Museum can be quite fairly summed up in one word: communist. It was a bit old and tired yet full of the requisite propaganda revering the appropriate revolutionaries and damning both the brutal colonialist French masters and the 'US imperialist'. An interesting experience as much for the presentation of photos and information and building itself as the somewhat biased history we learned inside it.

I've spent far too long in here now so it's time to find Lorna. Start of Gibbon Experience tomorrow and then onto Chiang Mai so we have a few things left to sort out but we are very excited for the next 3 days!

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