Today we had decided just to have ourselves a day of strolling about Vientiane in order to get the vibe of the place. In some ways Vientiane is quite a strange place, a mix of French style bakers and Noodle Bars and architecture that crosses over from all sides. So I was quite looking forward to having a look around the place. After last night’s exertions first thing though, we needed something to aid our recovery, so we stopped at one of the nice smelling bakeries and had ourselves a delicious recovery pastry and croissant.
Much revived we went off for a wander to go and find the COPE centre. Following in the footsteps of Vietnam and Cambodia, yet in some ways worse than both Laos is another one of those places whose past problems really get you thinking. The Americans dropped bombs on Laos in what was known as ‘the Secret War’ they waged against Ho Chi Minh in their paranoia trying to stop the spread of communism. The intention was to stop the Vietnamese from using Laos as an alternative route to getting from one end of Vietnam to the other. When the Americans were dropping bombs in Laos because it was happening ‘unofficially’ and no-one knew anything about it, it appears there were no actual ‘rules of engagement’ as per the Geneva convention. It was not recognised so it was not actually happening and yet the Americans were bombing anything that moved in a country which was not taking part in the conflict it was simply a case of Laos being caught between a rock and a hard place.
The COPE place itself told some sad tales with some very poignant messages and it really saddened me to see the depths to which humanity can sink to in order to try to kill other human beings. I know my own country has probably been involved in many similar acts of atrocity and it really does get you thinking. I feel I am a reasonable person who as such, despises terrorism in ALL its forms but is there really any honour in any act of war? In this one, the Americans ran 580,000 bombing raids into Laos dropping an estimated 100 bombs per run, now I am no mathematician but even I realise that even if you allow for an amount of exaggeration on the part of the people that were wronged, that it is still an awful amount of ordinance and destruction to the place. The reason COPE exists is to get the message across that the effects of all of the bombs and artillery that was dropped is still being felt today. We sat and watched a film about an Aussie bomb disposal expert who was in Laos teaching volunteers how to dispose of bombs themselves but with so much unexploded stuff still around, that is no mean feat. The problem is that in a country as poor as Laos, a whole new industry has sprung up based on the value that the scrap metal that the UXB’s have. So untrained youngsters and adults are getting themselves maimed and killed simply to get themselves the scrap metal so they can sell it on for money. It just seems mad that people would put themselves at such risk for what would appear to be, to those of us who live in more affluent nations, a very very small amount of money. It was all very well exhibited and explained by the place though and by the end of it we were more than happy to hand over some money towards their cause, it seemed to be the very least one could do.
So, when we left, it was quite a stark contrast to so quickly find ourselves in what must be Vientiane’s biggest – perhaps only – true shopping mall. It was all very swish too in fact we felt somewhat underdressed to be roaming around in it. Someone in Laos has money even if it is not necessarily the Laotians – it must be all these Chinese or Chinese money that I keep reading about! After the burst of aircon from the mall it was once more back out into the stifling heat for the slow trudge back to the hotel but this time we decided to go back a bit of a different route in order that I could get my Mekong ‘fix’.
By this time it was getting on a bit and on this side of the Mekong, just like the Thai side, it was time for the locals to come out and take in the sunset by the river. We strolled through to the park and just did some people watching as the Sun started reaching the point of becoming picturesque, then a most strange thing happened. Whilst preparing to take up a good position to take a photo of the Sun taking a dip into the mighty river a young couple came up to us and asked if they could talk to us. They were both Laotian and college-age and unfortunately, to begin with at least, it was one of those situations where I felt suspicious and wondered what the ‘sting’ was. Instead they just asked if they could ‘interview’ us and would we allow them to film it? It turned out that they were taking English at Vientiane university and needed to prove that they had been out and tried to converse with someone English speaking. To us it was all a bit surreal but jolly good fun. First the young lad interviewed Liz and then the young girl did the same to myself. The questions they asked were simple enough and we both tried striking up a bit of a conversation with them. By the end of it all they were very pleased and thanked us both most enthusiastically – what was all my suspiciousness about eh?
Well by the time our interviews were over we had missed our ‘setting Sun’ photo opportunity so we strolled back through the park and grabbed ourselves a bite from a roadside vendor, which still seemed quite expensive. I hope this is just another example of a capital city’s excess prices. We wandered on back to our hotel and with all the Sun and a bit of food in our bellies we stopped in our room for a bit of a sleep before returning out on the night time.
At night there was a market just round the corner from the hotel so we went to have a mozy round it. We were hoping to buy ourselves some hip looking tops but either the tops were too hippy or not hippy enough or some of them simply would not go down below our hips! It was quite good fun though mixing with the locals. Then hunger once more got the better of us so we went to a Pizza place next door to our hotel to grab ourselves a bite to eat. This was very tasty but the only problem was that it was a bit too expensive for our poor tastes. Maybe I will have to have a look at adjusting the food budget in my spreadsheet to compensate but I am still hoping that when we get away from the capital things will take a more pleasant and cheaper turn.