Our last few days in Vang Vieng were interesting to say the least. We spent one day planning our next steps and another (which we were meant to spend travelling to Vientiane) confined to a hostel room due to illness. Thankfully we managed to rearrange our bus for the day after at no extra cost and arrived into the capital of Laos yesterday in mid afternoon. We spent the last few hours of sunlight walking along the riverfront, grabbing dinner and checking out the local night market before getting an early night. Vientiane is like no other capital I have been to; it’s laid back and feels more like a sleepy town than a major city. Like Luang Prabang it has a French feel to it with coffee shops and tree lined boulevards.
After our very boring itinerary over the last few days, today was much more productive! We first went to visit Patuxai, a victory monument to commemorate those who died in ‘prerevolutionary wars’ (Lonely Planet is so useful for some things!). For me it was simply the Asian Arch de Triomphe, with worse views and tacky tourist stalls within its structure (so commemorative). While I wouldn’t bother paying the 30p to go up again, the sight’s exterior is pretty impressive.
We then checked out one of the main shopping malls in the capital and it’s safe to say we got a bit of a shock. Three levels of knock-offs and individual stalls selling fabric made up the entire mall; team that with the room on the ground floor that looked suspiciously like a temporary hospital and we were out of there. Admittedly I think we were rather naive to imagine a shopping centre like we have at home – stupid western ideals.
After grabbing lunch in a cafe near our hotel and planning our afternoon, we decided to opt for some history and visit the ‘Cope Visitor Centre’.
The ‘Cope Visitor Centre’ is an NGO which focusses on the education, rehabilitation and support of Lao people affected by UXO (unexploded ordnance). During the Secret War of the 1960s and 1970s, the USA dropped approximately 260 million cluster bombs over Laos’ rural communities; bombs which were specifically designed to cause as much loss of human life as possible. Laos remains the most bombed country in history per capita; around 7 bombs were dropped for every person living in Laos at the time.
While the Secret War may be a distant memory in the West (I had never learnt about it in school), out of the 260 million bombs dropped over Laos, 80 million did not explode on impact. Presently around one person dies a day in Laos due to a UXO explosion. 40% of victims are children.
Cope aims to educate rural communities on how to spot UXOs and their dangers, as well as allowing victims of UXO explosions free access to physical and psychiatric healthcare, and providing prosethic limbs for amputee victims (of which there are many). They also work together with other NGOs to clear rural communities of UXOs, so that the Lao people no longer have to live in fear. It’s a great organisation, and a hugely informative exhibition; one that I think every visitor needs to take a look at.
Ironically at the end of the exhibition, there was information about a treaty in 2008 to ban the use of cluster bombs and to pledge to aid in the rehabilitation of the victims that you have affected in past attacks. 98 countries have signed the petition – not America though; I mean really?!
I left the centre today feeling sad and angry. Angry that humanity feels the need to wage war and kill innocent people , with no end in sight. I hate that as westerners we are so out of touch with what is happening in the world and how we feel that we are somehow superior to everyone else. I wish that one day we would all just realise that we are all human, we are all equal and that innocent people do not deserve to die for political gain.