Vientiane is touted in guidebooks as a delightfully sleepy Southeast Asian capital, replete with idyllic riverside bars, quaint French colonial architecture, and the smell of baking bread permeating the streets. All rather enticing.
Sadly, our first impression of the place was that it was dusty, noisy, uninteresting, and that there wasn’t the merest whiff of baking bread about it. We actually felt quite disconcerted to be so unenchanted by the place that so many others enjoyed.
As we went for a walk we found that the entire riverside was being dug up, and instead of a lush, tropical destination it instead resembled a desert. The river was miles away from the actual ‘riverside’ (perhaps due to the low river levels that plagued us further upstream), and the excavators and tractors were stirring up tonnes of sand, all of which were being whipped into a frenzy by the strong southerly wind. Amazingly, as we walked along the riverside food vendors and bars were still present, in the midst of a veritable sandstorm, enticing us to come in, buy from us, have a beer, you like Beer Lao? We hastened away, wondering how these poor people could be making a living at the moment.
The next day we improved matters a little by getting out and about a bit more. The local market was immense and catering largely to the mobile phone and electrical goods consumers. It took ages to find anything like roadside snacks, but eventually we found some sweet rice balls and spicy rice paper rolls. We ate them, Lao-style, crouched in the gutter, to the amusement of the locals. They were delicious (the snacks, that is, not the locals).
We then made our way to the Patuxai Monument, otherwise known as the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. Sadly, our photos of this monster are still stuck on our other contaminated memory card, but it’s a sight to behold. It was built as a victory memorial, but the building wasn’t finished until the 1960s, when a load of cement donated by the US for the construction of an airport runway was diverted to this project. It’s quite astonishingly hideous, while simultaneously being quite charming and weird.
Our other main visit in Vientiane was to the COPE foundation. During the Vietnam war, the US dropped countless bombs over Laos in an attempt to block the flow of arms/troops to North Vietname. Laos now has the unwelcome distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation in the world. Horrifically, many bombs were cluster bombs which didn’t detonate on impact, leaving the country riddled with unexploded ordinances (UXOs). One source estimated the number of unexploded submunitions in Laos at 78 million. Needless to say, every year Lao people are injured or killed as a result of inadvertently detonating submunitions dropped on the land more than 30 years ago during a war that didn’t involve them.
COPE is a rehabilitation foundation with a hospital in Vientiane. It provides prosthetic and orthotics to the victims of UXOs and also designs wheelchairs and other vehicles to increase mobility. The work they do is absolutely amazing. Their hospital has a great visitor centre with information, films, survivor stories and more about the UXO problem and the progress they’ve made. It’s a wonderfully uplifting (though undeniably tragic) place. I highly recommend a tour around their website, and a donation if you feel so inclined. Their donation page is great and also gives a sense of the attitude of optimism that seems to characterise COPE.
Enough of that – suffice it to say that our time at COPE made a visit to Vientiane well worth it. However, if we had any advice about travelling in Laos, it would be to start your trip in Vientiane and end it in Luang Prabang, as any superficial comparison between the two places will see Vientiane pull up short.
Following Laos, our next stop was Siem Reap, Cambodia. One way to travel from Vientiane to Siem Reap is to head south through Laos and cross the border into northern Cambodia. However, given the parlous state of the Lao roads and the unpredictable nature of the border crossing between Laos and Cambodia, we opted to take an overnight train back to Bangkok, then a bus to the Cambodian border, followed by a second bus into Siem Reap.
It sounds like a long journey and it was. We left Vientiane at around 3pm, and finally arrived in Siem Reap at 7pm the following day, having endured getting lost in Bangkok (we stupidly thought that Morchit bus station would be easy to find from Morchit train station), avoiding scammers at the Cambodian border, and a slow bus to Siem Reap. Luckily, we were entertained during this final bus ride, especially by the British girl sitting behind us. She must have just changed some money into Cambodian riel at the border, and on the bus said, “So if one pound is worth 5,600 riel, how much is ten pounds worth?” After discussion with her friends, she hazarded a guess. “So, is it, like, 25,000?” By the time we hit the traffic jam surrounding Siem Reap (and heard her ask the driver, “So, is Siem Reap a city or a town or something?”), it didn’t seem like she’d mastered her ten times tables yet.