We left our hotel in Vang Vieng at around 8:30 AM and walked to our bus which was still parked on the airstrip to head to the capital city of Laos, Vientiane.
During the 4 hour drive, we learned about the dark history of this beautiful country. Laos used to be known as Lan Xang or the “Land of a Million Elephants” until 1707 when the ruler died without leaving an heir. This caused Laos to be divided into three kingdoms until 1779 when they were invaded by Thailand and colonized. The Thai ruled Laos until 1893 despite numerous attempts to regain their independence. Many Laotians were forced to move to Thailand to do labor that the Thais didn’t want to do. Then, in 1893, the Thais gave Laos over to the French in an effort to avoid being colonized themselves. It worked & the French colonized all of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia until just after World War 2. They were supposed to build hospitals and schools, but only built them in the main cities. They did build a few roads which made it easier to travel throughout Laos.
During World War 2, Laos and the rest of Indochina was invaded by Japan, but the French regained the colony after the war. They had bigger issues to worry about than Laos, as they were rebuilding their own country, and formally withdrew from Laos in 1953. As this was happening, communism began to take hold in Southeast Asia and the USA began to get involved. The CIA installed a puppet government, but failed to turn the country into a democracy.
As the Vietnam War began to ramp up, the Vietcong used the Ho Chi Minh trail to move supplies which went through Laos and the Secret War in Laos began. The American troops began to train local villagers that were sympathetic to democracy and supply them with guns. During the same time, the USA dropped over 2 million tons of bombs on Laos. This is the equivalent of a full plane load of bombs being dropped every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 9 years! As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Thais allied with the Americans during the Vietnam war and allowed the USA to land their planes in Thailand. As it is safer to land an empty plane, the pilots would drop the bombs on Laos their way back to the base. They had no target, they would just drop them. The bombs were cluster bombs, too, so they are designed not to destroy land, but to kill people. More than 98% of the victims were civilians; 40% were children that mistook the bombs for toys. Up to one third of the bombs have still not exploded & much of their land is still unusable. After spending the last week in this county and having the opportunity to meet some of the local people, my heart breaks for what they or their parents had to live through. Recently, President Obama committed to $90MM of funding to help the clean up effort, but I don’t think it’s enough.
We also had the opportunity to learn about the life of a typical Laotian person, our amazing tour guide, Khammy. He now lives in Luang Prabang, but the town he was born in still has no power. They rely on flashlights and lanterns to get around at night. He told us stories about his childhood where his parents would have him carry up to 10-15 kilos of rice with his bare hands through middle hills for many kilometers. The walk would take him a few hours.
Now, he can only go home to visit his family during certain times of the year because the rainy season washes out most of the roads. Today, he lives in Luang Prabang with his family. He was such a nice person and really helped make Laos come to life for us!
Our first stop in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, was a bakery called Joma Bakery. It was like we had all just gotten off a plane and arrived at a Panera in America. I had a chicken Caesar wrap – the food was so fresh, it was nice to have something like that after 10 days of traveling!
We then headed to That Luang which was home to the old Parliament, a temple, a reclining Buddha and a beautifully painted mural that tells the story of the Emerald Buddha from birth until he became the Emerald Buddha. I saw the actual Emerald Buddha statue in Bangkok at the Grand Palace, but did not realize it had been stolen from Laos when they were ruled by Thailand and it has never been returned.
We then headed to Patuxi which was where the French influence from their colonization became very evident. It is considered the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe and was beautiful. It had a pool of water in front of it along a walkway lined with palm trees which almost gave me a Middle Eastern vibe.
We climbed 187 steps to the top and were rewarded with an amazing view of the entire city.
After our workout, we went to the COPE Center which is dedicated to providing prosthetic limbs to victims of unexploded cluster bombs. We watched a 20 minute documentary which provided an overview of how the cluster bombs were dropped on Laos and told the story of organizations that go around to try to identify potential cluster bombs and explode them before they hurt anyone. The documentary focused on the story of a father that was lighting a fire like he did every night, but a cluster bomb exploded and severely injured his arms and legs as well as blinding him. Now, his wife needs to support the family all by herself. The father has trouble even watching the children while she’s out because he can’t see them. It was very emotional.
Many people are afraid to farm their own land because they don’t know if a cluster bomb is hidden below the ground. For a country where a lot of people are food insecure, it really breaks my heart to know that my country caused this. I know times of war call for desperate measures, but surely there has to be better methods than dropping bombs in a country you’re not even at war with so we can safely land our planes.
We then walked through the visitor center where we learned about how cluster bombs work and can provide enough damage to impact three soccer fields. As I mentioned earlier, cluster bombs are designed to kill people, not damage land or buildings. Many world powers have signed an agreement stating they will never use cluster bombs again, but others have not (including America).
We then learned about how Laotians turned the scrap metal from cluster bombs into household items like spoons or other tools. We also saw a variety of prosthetics that were created with whatever materials people had. It was really impressive!
I even saw an ankle-foot orthotic (what I wear), which was definitely professionally made.
At the end of our tour, our group donated over $380 to the COPE Center which is enough to provide two prosthetic arms and two prosthetic legs to victims of cluster bombs. It is great to be able to give back to such an amazing cause.
We then headed to our hotel for about an hour of free time before meeting up with our group for a dinner at a Chinese restaurant. It had a giant lazy Susan in the middle of the table, so we each ordered an appetizer and an entrée and shared. The food was great and abundant. Our bill came to 1.5 million kip which sounds like a lot, but it came out to $9 USD per person!
We the walked through the night markets. As we were in the capital city, the markets were a lot less touristy and had various household items that people living in Laos may need. After the night market, we went to a local rum bar which doubles as an art gallery for a few drinks before heading bask to the hotel.
The following morning, we were able to sleep in as we had a flight out of Laos to the capital city of Cambodia at 11:35 AM. We left our hotel at about 9:00 AM and arrived at the airport by 9:15 AM. It was really weird to see an airport in the middle of a city like this as they are normally on the outskirts, but it works! The airport was a small, 3 gate airport, but served its purpose.
In retrospect, I didn’t know anything about Laos before I arrived, but it quickly won me over. The scenery was beautiful, the people were so genuine and nice and the laid back way of life is inspiring. It is a shame that this country had such a dark past, but it is nice to see that it hasn’t impacted the Laotian people in a negative way. I look forward to returning to this amazing country at some point in the very near future.