We hadn’t originally intended to visit Laos but as we were so nearby and we couldn’t imagine we’d ever be taking a holiday there, we decided to splash a bit on flights and tick off another country. We therefore decided to miss out some of central Thailand and instead booked flights from Bangkok to Laos’ capital, Vientiane, for about £50 each.
Not sure how much rush hour would affect our timings, we made sure we had plenty of time to take a taxi to Don Mueang airport, so shoved some breakfast down us at the hostel and set off. It turned out we were a bit too keen and had to wait an hour for check-in to open. Once through security Tom had his second breakfast at McDonalds (greedy) and we boarded our plane which was about a quarter full. The flight only took an hour and once we’d paid the $35 visa on arrival fee, we successfully had an extra stamp in our passports!
We withdrew 1,000,000 Laotian Kip, bought SIM cards and caught the airport shuttle bus into town for £1.40 each. The driver dropped us a short walk from our hostel and the whole area seemed so dead compared to Bangkok – there was barely anyone around and the roads were quiet. Wondering where everyone was, we found our hostel, the Green Box Capsule Hostel, and checked in. It was the worst place we’d stayed for sure. There was a coffee shop at the bottom with steep stairs heading up to the bathrooms and dorm rooms which had no locks so were open to anyone, residents or not. Our dorm had around 40 beds, was dark and dingy, had cobwebs and dust everywhere and our bed – which was next to the noisy balcony overlooking the road below – was teaming with tiny ants. We got rid of as many ants as we could and checked the mattress and bedding for bed bugs. Trying to stay calm (mainly me), we secured our big bags and went for an explore.
We walked to a nearby park where we Facetimed our friends Theo and Sophie and Tom’s goddaughter, Arabella. We then strolled along the river front with its market and food stalls. We grabbed fruit smoothies (mainly ice) and watched yet more community aerobics classes as the sun set in the distance, turning the sky a beautiful orangey pink.
Tom researched where we could go for dinner and found a highly rated pasta place so, not feeling street food, we decided to indulge and made our way to The State of Pasta. It was super modern and wouldn’t have looked out of place in London, but it was dead. Staff jumped on us straight away and we ordered a carbonara, a Laos sausage tagliatelle and two beers. We were given a complimentary appetiser of bread and oils and the food was absolutely delicious – back to our flashpacking ways!
That evening I found a beetle on the bed and convinced myself it was a bed bug (it wasn’t) so climbed into my silk sleeping bag liner and spent the night itching and using my torch to inspect the sheets.
Waking to the sound of rain we put on raincoats and headed out to explore the city. Our first destination was the Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) Visitor Centre. COPE is an organisation which provides nation-wide physical rehabilitation services for those injured by bombs and land mines, and gives access to prosthetic and orthotic services, allowing them to regain mobility and dignity – all free of charge.
Unexploded ordnance (UXOs) are explosive weapons that failed to detonate when they were fired and still pose a risk of exploding. An estimated 270 million ‘bombies’ from cluster bombs dropped over Laos between 1964 and 1973 and 80 million are thought to have failed to explode. During the Vietnam war Laos was subject to bombing runs equivalent to a bombing every 8 minutes… for 9 years. This has resulted in around 50,000 injuries and deaths in Laos due to UXO incidents since 1964, many of which have been children.
The centre is free to visit and as we arrived a rather shabby looking Kiwi man was giving a tour to two visitors. As the centre is quite small and we were going at a similar pace it was impossible to not listen in and before long we’d inadvertently joined their private tour. The Kiwi was an ex New Zealand soldier who now runs a bomb disposal company in Laos with his family. He was so knowledgeable and he’d actually provided a lot of the footage and photos in the exhibition so he was able to give fascinating first-hand accounts of the families affected by horrific incidents. The stories were harrowing; parents had lost their children as they’d been playing with bombs, not realising what they were, only to die due to the surrounding hospitals not having any blood or oxygen in stock due to lack of funding. The frustration and anger felt by the Kiwi was evident. This re-affirmed for us how lucky we are to live in the UK and have the NHS – we should never take it for granted (as so many people do).
We spent almost 3 hours at the centre and Tom was obviously really interested with his background in orthopaedics and we got to have a go on an adapted prosthetic leg, attempting to climb a set of stairs. It was so so difficult and pretty scary to look up at the mirror and see yourself in the reflection with a prosthesis. Taking note of the instructions we’d been given to avoid dangerous UXO zones, we made a donation to the centre and Tom said he’d love to spend a month volunteering there. As we left, a gentleman was entering the rehabilitation building next door on crutches, missing one of his legs. It’s worth noting here that in 2016, President Obama announced that the US would provide $90 million annually over the following three years to help Laos detect and clear their UXOs. Trump has since slashed that funding.
Tummies rumbling, we left COPE in search of food. Laos used to be colonised by the French so they have an odd culinary mix and bakeries are prevalent, so we headed back into town and I directed us to a bakery called Le Banneton. Seeing the pastries, quiches and breads in the window made us both drool and, somewhat ignoring the prices, we ordered a prosciutto, roast ham and cheese baguette and a quiche. Needless to say, they were incredible and we ate every last crumb.
Next we walked to the Patuxai – a large arch similar to the Arc Du Triomphe, then on to Pha That Luang – a big gold temple with a reclining buddha statue. It had been spitting a little bit but the heavens then well and truly opened and we took shelter with some locals under a tree (not the best idea). My umbrella was useless as the rain came in sideways and the roads were instantly under inches of water. We waited for a good 15mins hoping it would subside but accepted defeat and jumped in the back of a truck for a taxi ride back to our hostel.
We had dinner at Lao Kitchen that evening, both having beef with vegetables and rice then packed our things to depart the following morning.
Next stop… Vang Vieng!
See ya later, Sophie x