Rumsky's Australasia Walkabout travel blog

Colorful Central Post Office is our first stop

Basket salesman making a deal

Flower vendor pushing her wares...literally!

Rice shop has at least 8 different kinds on offer

Project COPE provides prosthetics and other support to the over 50,000 victims...

Cluster bomb mobile with map of Laos' unexploded ordnances in background

Powerful prosthetics displays

Laos brightly clothed monks collecting alms are a common sight on the...

Vientiane's main street reflects former French colonizers' Champs Elysees

The vertical runway: Patuxai, Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe, was built with US...

View from the top of Patuxai down the Lan Xang to the...

Lovely SE Asian plasterwork makes this arch very different from its French...

Bright orange is the color du jour for Laos temples and monks

Beautiful orange temple typical of Laos

Buddhist temple near the palace sports elaborate murals

Brahma's four headed figure shows Hindu influence

Impressive elaborate carved tree trunk shows off local craftsmen

Chinese influence is evident in temple by the waterfront

Beautiful elaborately carved stone columns

200 year old Wat Sis saket is an important shrine for Buddhist...

500-year-old Pha That Luang, built on the site of a Khmer Hindu...

Glorious Buddhist hall near Pha That Luang

Reclining Buddha selphie near Pha That Luang

Loatian-style Barbeque!

Best part of Laos was all that great French food like steak...

And cheese!!!

And blue drinks and great tunes!

And a wonderful band and bar scene!

We couldn't really figure out a sensible way to travel overland from Hanoi to Laos. Other travellers coming from Sapa in the northwest told us that the cold, drizzly weather limited visibility to the point that it was not worth the trip up into the mountains there. Lonely Planet and the internet did not offer much help; all of the border crossings sounded like a struggle. So Fran and I just decided to maximize our time and minimize lousy bus rides by flying from Hanoi to Vientiane. What a great decision! If we had gone over the border we probably would have missed this lovely capital city, and that would have been a shame. Despite the chaos and confusion at the airport in the long, long lines to obtain a visa and entry into the country, we made it to our airbnb apartment located close to everything in this sleepy city.

The major sights of Vientiane can be seen in a day; after the bustle and traffic of Hanoi, the quiet streets of this capital were jarring. They certainly did not scream "Nation's capital!" In fact, the closest comparison I can make is the tiny capital of Salem, Oregon, undeveloped and rural compared to its large cosmopolitan neighbor of Portland just an hour north. Still, Fran and I found Vientiane charming. As another formerly French colony, Vientiane has a curious blend of French and Asian architecture and cuisine. The presidential palace sits at one end of a long, wide boulevard giving a nod to the Champs Elysees. After a couple of kilometers, a round-about encircles Patuxai, modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but with uniquely Lao details, including mythical creatures. Apparently, the structure was built using cement donated by the U.S. to rebuild the airport runway, hence its nickname "the vertical runway." Many Buddhist monasteries are scattered around the city, unique in their intricately painted frescoes, lifelike statues and Hindu elements (e.g., Brahma statue with four faces). Monks in distinctly bright orange robes and pastel parasols are visible everywhere.

A pilgrimage to COPE revealed yet more devastating effects of the "American war." COPE is an NGO that provides prosthetics and support to victims of UXO (unexploded ordinances), and provides free information through exhibits and movies to visitors about our "Secret war." From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. American fighter pilots admitted that if they missed their targets in Vietnam, they dropped their loads on areas in Laos to render it safe to land the plane. And yet they show Tricky Dick Nixon denying that we were ever at war with Laos!

Up to 80 million of these cluster bombs (filled with "bombies" or granades) did not detonate. What makes it even more difficult is that Laos is one of the poorest nations in the world, and the locals earn pennies turning in scrap metal. People often ignore their personal safety by trying to harvest the active UXO's for a few crucial dollars. Each year there continue to be over 100 new casualties in Laos. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children.

While not included in the scope of COPE, the plight of the indigenous Hmong people are also a direct result of the "American war." Already at odds with the Lao government due to discrimination and lack of representation, the Hmong people were recruited by the CIA to fight in the war, particularly to disrupt weapons and supplies provided to the North Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh trail. In return, the Hmong were promised an active part in the government after we won the war. Of course, once we pulled out of the war the Hmong people were massacred in Laos (Evans 2002). Unable to stay in their own country, many were brought over to the US to attempt to start a new life in a very different culture from their own.

After absolutely destroying huge portions of their country and killing countless of its people, the Lao continue to astound me with their gracious, welcoming attitude towards us. We enjoyed some wonderful French and Lao meals, complete with cheese, wine, and blue cocktails. Afterwards, we discovered a fabulous band to follow around for the night. The best way to describe the lead singer is an edgy Adelle. What a great way to end a day full of mixed emotions.

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