|Laos has about 7 million people but the population has more than doubled in the last 30 years. Now we have learned to say sabaidee (hello) and kwap jai (thank you). The currency is kip - 8,000 kip to 1 US$, so things sound expensive. The local brew is Beerlao 12,000 for a large bottle.
Vientiane, the capital, has a population of about 300,000 people and a rather turbulent history. We visited COPE (Center for Orthotics and Prothesis) and learnt about the huge number of cluster bombs that were dropped in Laos by the Americans during the Vietnam war to try and flush out the Vietcong who had skipped over the border and to stop the flow of soldiers and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh trail. A cluster bomb was a 1.5 meter long torpedo shaped bomb, designed to split open lengthwise in mid-air, scattering 670 tennis ball sized bomblets. About one third of these "bombies" did not explode on impact, with the result that there are still tens of millions of UXO's (unexploded ordnances) in the countryside. Once disturbed, a bombie explodes, projecting around 30 steel pellet-like bullets. Forty years after bombing has ceased, roughly one person a day is still killed by UXO's. The bombies remain embedded in the land, causing an ever-present danger to builders, farmers and especially young children who fatally mistake them for playthings. At present clearance rates it would take an estimated 150 years to deal with the problem.
A 3 hour van ride brought us to Vang Vieng, a smaller town in a beautiful setting of stunning limestone mountains, which are honeycombed with tunnels and caverns, and the Nam Song river bordering the town.
We did a trip down the river in a kayak, first visiting Water cave where we floated on tubes and pulled ourselves along by a rope deep inside the cave. We also walked to Elephant cave, so named because one of the limestone formations looked just like an elephant. During lunch we got talking to three Chilean girls to learn that they had spent last kiwi fruit season in Te Puke working at Trevalyns! It is the dry season now so the river is lower and we needed to watch out for rocks in places. There were a few rapids, enough to keep it interesting - one kayak from our group capsized.
Yesterday we hired bikes to explore out of town - 15,000 kip each for the day. We crossed a "seasonal" bridge to the other side of the river. (This bridge gets swept away during the rainy season and people then have to use a toll bridge further out of town). We meandered along dusty roads, through little villages of the Hmong people. They grow vegetables that the women and girls carry in baskets on their backs to the market in Vang Vieng - quite a few kilometers away. Our main destination was the Pou Kham cave which has stunning stalagmite and stalactite formations and the Blue Lagoon swimming hole at the foot of the mountain. We swam clothes and all, and kept cool for most of the trip back to town!
We have found a comfortable restaurant where we sit on squabs and pillows overlooking the river and the mountains for a spectacular sunset.