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Asia » Laos » West » Vang Vieng
August 12th 2012
Published: July 28th 2017
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Geo: 18.9401, 102.357

Waking early, we ate our regulation Asian backpacker breakfast of eggs (scrambeld), jam and bread and then headed quickly for the bikes that the hotel had managed to procure for us while we were enjoying our delicious sausage spring rolls last night! Our destinations were a the Golden Temple (via the palace, Arch du Triumph and the Black Stupa) and the heart-warming COPE centre.<br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; "><br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; ">We mounted our wobbly bikes and headed into the Vientiane traffic. Still searching for the sleepy backwater we had expected of Laos, we weaved our way through the luxury vehicles past the Black Stupa. The difference between a Wat (temple) and a Stupa is marginal at first glance, both have large, ornate sloping towers and are places of Buddhist worship, but stupas have a part of the Buddha or something of significance to do with his life within them. They are the holiest of places, and though the Black Stupa looked plain from the outside, to the local Buddhists it was more important than the impressive Wat on the outskirts of town. <br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; "><br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; ">Reaching Wat Si Muang, we saw several glistening roofs gently sloping to ornately decorated walls. Within the walls was a large pyramid with a statue of a seated Buddha at the top and many offerings left by those who had recently visited. It was a peaceful and calming place to wander around enjoying the sunshine and tkaing in the atmosphere Just outside the courtyard there was a huge reclining Buddha, his feet pointing away from the temple. Buuterflies danced around the gardens surrounding the Buddha, adding to the serenity of the place.<br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; "><br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; ">From there, we headed through the town, taking quick stops for photograps and mindful of our 1pm departure, and headed for one of the Lonely Planet's Top Picks in Vientiane. COPE is a centre for the Laotian people who have lost one or more of their limbs. The people that they help range from victims of UXO (unexploded ordinance) to those born with missing limbs or clubbed feet, to those who have lost limbs in road accidents. Of course, the most harrowing (and sadly common) of these incidents are the frequent victims of the UXO that devastates the landscape of Laos. Here is where we found the tragedy and poverty we had come to expect of Laos. Here, surrounded by the Western-influenced shows of wealth, were stories of people whose lives had been torn apart by the brutalities of war; a war which they had no part in, and whose lives have been overwhelmingly turned around by the brilliant work done by the team at COPE. Their aim is to provide as many people as possible with custom-made prosthetic limbs to enable them to continue a normal life after their injuries. They have programmes of rehabilitation; training programmes for new staff and help and support for the people they are helping and their families. The displays centred mostly on the effects of UXO and showed cluster-bombs, missiles and mines and photographs and videos of their effects. Terrifyingly, much of the country is still covered in UXO and people from the villlages make money by finding and selling scrap metal - much of which turns out to be UXO, causing the damage which COPE is helping to heal.<br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; "> <br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; ">There were also displays showing how nuch UXO has become a part of daily life for the Laotians, who found their country bombarded when the American Pilots were flying back to their bases and were unable to land with a full load of ammunition. People prop their houses up on bombs; their cooking utensils are made from fragments of ols missiles. Whole families are devastated when their cooking fire heats the earth and the UXO below it, detonating the missiles or mines below and destroying their homes in the process. COPE is a wonderful charity who are working hard to scratch the surface of the problem in Laos and I came away feeling very humbled by the great efforts being made to change the lives of those affected by the war nearly 40 years ago.<br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; "><br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; ">After our trip to COPE, we boarded the bus to Vang Vieng where we would be staying for 2 nights. We quickly left the shiny new capital city and headed out into the 'real' Laos, the pristine wilderness we had been expecting. Save for the main roads, paddy fields and jungle stretched as far as the eye could see. Workers planted and tended to the rice while villagers went about their daily lives. Laos is the Cambodia I remember from 10 years ago - wooden houses built on stilts with whole families living in 3 or 4 rooms. Although it is heartbreaking to see the poverty of the country, its beauty is unsurpassable by the richer developed countries in the West.<br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; "><br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; ">Our 5 hour drive brought us to Vang Vieng, the "adventure sports" capital of Laos. Famous for its drunken tubing on the river that runs through the town, people flock there to hire an inner tube and float to as many of the 20 or so bars as possible, before coasting into town to continue the party. Although this may sound like fun, the river is at its highest at this time of year and strong currents and rapids, combined with too many beers and "happy pizzas" have claimed the lives of around 4 backpackers per year. Needless to say, we opted for an alternative way to explore the area.<br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; "><br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; ">The best thing about our initial entry to Vang Vieng has to be the spectacular view we enjoyed from our balcony. Ben had a view of the children playing volleyball and another hotel while Stacey and I looked out from our corner room, over the river, with limestone karsts rising behind, their peaks shrouded in wisps of low-lying cloud. It was simply spectacular. We headed out for drinks by the river, only to meet a monsoon head on. It poured. It flooded the river to the point that the back section of the bar was completely closed off and we were unable to move from our sofas. Reclining watching episodes of FRIENDS on repeat (all of the bars have unlimited numbers of episodes of either Family Guy or Friends - constantly played on a loop throughout the day), I couldn't have asked for a better place to ride out the weather. Ironically, it was the part of season 9 when they are all in Barbados and unable to do anything they had planned due to the rain. I felt a strange camaraderie with Rachel and Monica's distress at the torrential downpour as it threatened our enjoyment of tomorrow's activity - kayaking and caving on the river! <br style="font-family: 'times new roman', 'new york', times, serif; font-size: 16px; line-height: normal; ">

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