The medals on the uniform of the immigration officer gleamed, as he stamped our passports. Thump! Thump! Thump! A small bow from us, a slight inclination of the head, from him.We walked out of the airpot, and into the sunshine of Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
It was National Day in Laos, when they were marking 37 years of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The streets were very quiet, shops and some restaurants were closed- it felt like Invercargill on a wet Sunday. We joined the evening promenade along the Mekong along with hundreds of Lao, Thai, Chinese and a few foreigners. Many stopped to place flowers on the massive statue of King Chao Anouvong holding his hand out warning Thailand over the river to keep its distance.
Our room was on the top floor of the Khampiane Hotel, which gave a charming view of street life- children playing, little shops, street vendors of meat, rice, baguettes. Right next door is Nok’s fruit bar- we drank many of her delectable pure fruit shakes, and enjoyed relaxing in the colourful cool room.
Lots of temples to marvel at, and up the road is the biggest and shiniest gold stupa at the Pha That Luang, which was built in the 3rd century to enclose part of Buddha’s breast bone. It has an unusual enclosed cloister, reminiscent of European monasteries.
We explored the National Museum, a dusty and poorly curated display of priceless prehistorical artefacts, mixed with room after room of photographs of the French ‘oppressors’, Thai ‘invaders’ and the rise of the ‘glorious’ People’s Democratic Party. Hard work in the heat, but a good introduction to modern Laos.
A terrible part of modern Laos is the huge number of unexploded bombs and landmines scattered over the former Ho Chi Minh Trail from 1964 to 1973. Of the 260 million dropped on Laos, 78 million failed to detonate. Since then more than 12000 people have been killed or injured.
This happens as they walk to their rice fields, or along jungle tracks, or when children find a piece of shiny metal to play with. We visited the COPE centre,
where we ate lunch alongside three blind children; the gatekeeper had one leg, and numerous others had multiple disabilities.
The COPE centre is both an education and rehabilitation centre, and has very sobering displays, movies and demonstrations. See www.copelaos.org.
Ceridwyn Parr articles on Women Travel
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