leaving lao

And so we headed south on an overnight bus to the Laotian capital, Vientiane. God bless Mervin (or “Mer-VIN” as he introduced himself and who we quickly dubbed just “Merv”), the ebullient Singaporean beer bottle collector whose high spirits were contagious despite being weighed down by 6kg of glassware. Even against a soundtrack of spewing passengers (yet another delightful feature of Lao bus travel), it wasn’t such a bad journey and little did we know that our bus experiences were about to get a lot, lot worse in the not-too-distant future (to be continued…).

Vientiane: Apparently the Perth rental shortage migrated to Vientiane – who knew? Dodd took one for the team as he worked himself into a lather for over an hour trying to find us a room. The city is punctuated by the follies of leaders past and present: grandiose palaces both presidential and accommodational; ambitious civil works projects for the upcoming SE Asian Games and the Patuxai, Lao’s very own Arc de Triomphe aka the “Vertical Runway”, given the cement used for construction was actually supposed to pave a new runway for the airport. Runway schrunway. Heck, even the official signage talks it down:

Nevertheless, this shabby capital grew on us with each passing day. We hired bikes and cruised around, which, as well as making us the source of much amusement for locals, is proving to be a key element to us enjoying ourselves. Stay Another Day continued to deliver the goods – we really can’t rave enough about this organisation. Hands-down highlights were the excellent COPE visitors centre, which we visited on a whim and ended up staying for several hours, and an awesome dinner-for-a-cause at Makphet restaurant. Even sipping a beer in the mud on the banks of the Mekong had a certain appeal.

Savannakhet: Stinking hot and replete with faded colonial glory, this dusty little town was like something out of our new favourite book, Love in the Time of Cholera. We followed the walking tour suggested by the tourist office which featured the immaculate Saint Therese church, derelict stadium and the nostalgic Musée des Dinosaurs, a flashback to your high school science lab and as much a museum of museums as it is of dinosaurs. In proof that the world really is a global village, we even stumbled across a tiny expat enclave although, like the Druids, nobody knows who they were or what they were doing…

It would be remiss of us to make our final notes on Lao without mentioning what is known as the “secret war.” Despite a fairly horrific history of their own, Lao has just as much been a victim of the historical conflicts of its neighbours. The stats are jaw-dropping: over 500,000 bombing missions were conducted over Lao during the Vietnam war, which is the equivalent of one every 8 minutes for the duration of the war. About 260 million cluster bombs, with 680 submunitions in each casing, were dropped and of those, it is estimated that 30% of these did not explode. Tens of thousands of people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance since the end of the war: this is the overwhelming legacy that Lao has to grapple with. By pure coincidence, a few weeks ago we managed to catch the Lao episode of Tony Bourdain‘s show, No Reservations. For a show about food, he gives a lot of coverage to this issue and offers some interesting comments on being a tourist and, to some degree, a voyeur in a land that has suffered so much for so little reason.

Yet, without wanting to sound romantic about it, there is a palpable sense of will for a better future. The New Internationalist country profile puts it well: a sort of tranquility that will hopefully lead to critical reflection and positive change.

Good luck Lao 🙂


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