Local food is a much better way to go when you are travelling, so this morning I pop around to one of the streetside stalls – a much different set up than then Luang Prabang Bakery with it’s open-sided shed configuration – to order a local bread roll, freshly made. A million times nicer than yesterday’s breakfast and so much cheaper! The more I travel, the more I trust my instincts to try the local food, which is a far cry from my first trips where I pretty much lived on 2 minute noodles from the supermarket, only drank bottled beer (no ice of course), no fruit in sight and was desperately scared of eating anything off the street.
On the way out of Vang Vieng, we stop by the old airfield. In fact it is the CIA’s Lima Site 27, which now sits empty and potholed between Vang Vieng town and the lush paddy fields. And last night it was set up for a wedding party (ah, perhaps that was the processing I spied yesterday!), the remains of the podium still standing.
I kind of feel like I really dropped the ball on Laos. Usually I make sure I am aware of a country’s history as much as I can before I travel, but I am ashamed to admit that I don’t know about the ‘secret war’ for which this landing strip was built. But I guess that’s ok, because technically the runway isn’t supposed to exist.
It was built in contravention of the 1962 Geneva Accord, which prevented US military involvement in Laos, and used to supply the Royal Laotion Army and the Hmong Clandestine Army during the Vietnam War. It was built because the US needed to get supplies through to these factions who were fighting the communists and the roads in Laos at the time were pretty crappy. Why the airstrip has remained is a mystery. Check out Where The Wars Were for more information on Airstrip Lima Site 27 and other war sites in south east Asia.
A bit further out of town, we stop at a local Fish market. Dissected fish of all types sit drying on various racks by the roadslide, flies clambouring over the fresh meat. The smell is quite overpowering, so I’m glad the day is still relatively cool. Imagine this place in the height of the days heat! Phew!
Whilst making a toilet stop further still down the road on our journey to Vientiane, I have another flashback to my first trips and the horrors of navigating Asian toilets! OMG I was so scared – I have seen squat toilets in China with no doors on, dealt with a squat toilet on a rocking train where you also have to try and hold your pants/skirt/scarf up off the discustingly unclean floor (concentration to the max required) and had to navigate a toilet on a bus that was too high off the floor for my feet to touch (as well as hold a window curtain that was too short to hide me from the street outside). I take it in my stride now and these situations provide funny stories to look back on, but if you are travelling through Asia, you are going to have to do the same. Which reminds me, this generally also includes not flushing your toilet paper (if indeed any is supplied at all) down the toilet – this is thrown into a waste basket instead. You may also have to paddle water into the toilet to flush it, like in the photos below, though some will flush. My advice, always carry tissues and hand sanitiser.
This toilet stop is a massive place with restaurant, supermarket and food stalls lined up outside. The ice cream stall looks good to me, flavours being pandan and yam. Sprinkled with roasted peanuts, it’s a great little treat as the day begins to heat up.
Once more, the open road shows us glimpses of rural Lao life, every scene a potential picture postcard that makes the monotony of road travel into something special.
The landscape is changing from the previous road trips – the homes are grander and the fields more manicured. Workers move around the rice paddies hard at work in the days heat. It’s not too long before we arrive on the outskirts of Vientiane. It’s a big mess city with not a lot of visual appeal. There’s certainly none of the charm of the smaller cities we have visited. Our hotel – the Manorom Boutique Hotel – is boutique only in name we discover, as one by one members of our tour group advise Sar that they are missing towels, have leaking showers, dodgy doors or non-working fridges.
Lunch is the first order of the day and most of us end up at Lao Kitchen neraby. Continuing with the pandan theme today, I order the pandan and chicken which is divine. So what is pandan? It’s a kind of tropical plant, almost resembling a palm in many ways, which is used for its frangrant flavouring properties. You’ll see it a lot in south-east asian countries, and one of my favourites is pandan cake. However in the case of this dish, the chicken in cooked inside the pandan leave parcels, which are undone to reveal the flavoured chicken before dipping it in dressing.
The heat packs a wallop here in Vientiane. So I should have thought twice about heading out on the orientation walk, but I was interested in getting to visit COPE to find out more about this secret war which caused (and is still causing) so much grief to the Lao people.
But that’s last on our tour route, so I try to make peace with the heat. Our first stop is Wat Sisaket, which is famous for it’s wall of thousands of tiny Buddha images. Almost 7,000 Buddha images of all materials from the 16th and 19th centuries are housed here. Thankfully the grounds are rather shady and we get a welcome respite from the heat.
Outside the temple, an artist sits creating intricate drawings of Buddha.
I have forgotten to mention that we have now been joined by our local guide, Sak, for our time in Vientiane. Sar describes him as ‘a K-Pop star’ because of his fancy western clothes – denim on denim today – I can’t understand why he is not boiling to death! But when we get to the Patuxai monument, it becomes clear – this is the latest fashion trend in Vientiane.
Patuxai is the Victory Monument to remember those who died fighting for Laos’ independance from its various owners, including the French, Siamese and Japanese. The grounds are beautifully manicured and many locals come to hang out here.
For a small fee you can also climb to the top of the monument.
Patuxai is reminiscent of the Arc De Triomphe to many, though its decorative designwork features beautifully inlaid Buddhist sculpture work. Opting not to climb to the top of the monument, I spent my time looking upwards and enjoying the architecture.
Lastly, we hop in a tuk-tuk for our last stop, which is COPE.
COPE is the (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and its aim is to provide nationwide rehabilitation services for those affected by unexploded ordinances scattered throughout the Lao countryside.
It is truly discusting to learn that “from 1964 to 1973, the US dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Lao PDR in 580,000 bombing missions – the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years” leaving it the most heavily bombed country in the world and then simply left the Laos to clean up the mess themselves.
30% of ordinances remained unexploded when they fell, a tragedy which is still unfolding today with around 40 incidents a year still occuring.
It was a highly sobering experience, as I thought it would be, and a sad reminder of the horrors of war. To find out more about what happened and what COPE does, you can watch COPE’s video here.
Tonight is our final night together as a group, so it’s group dinner time which turns out to be an unenjoyable night consisting of people fighting over how to split the leftover tip kitty and one couple refusing to put their email addresses on the contact list cause they ‘won’t be speaking to any of us again anyway’ – even though we had all had great conversations with them along the way. Oh well. The night fizzles out early and I am glad that I have a room of my own. I need some time to regroup. I’m finding these tour groups harder and harder to deal with because people are less and less compromising and complain more and more. And I’m sorry to say, looking back to the last couple of tour groups, it seems to come from the older members of the groups, of which the groups seem to consist more of. I remember my first couple of Intrepid trips were groups full of young people of a similar age (maybe with one older couple that were very youthful). The last few groups have been full of problems – with differing expectations for the trip (standards of hotels, having to use local transport/walk/carry their own bags – perhaps not having even read the itinerary beforehand), judgemental comments and behaviour and general misalignment of thoughts to the younger people in the group. I would really have to reconsider this as an option for future trips.
Anyway, for the rest of my time away, I am on my own and I can’t wait.