Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Crossing the border into Laos, first stop: Vientiane

Our long bus journey started in Hanoi, in a sleeper bus of ok quality. I had no idea how long it would take and hence I decided to kill the time by sleeping as much as I could. Next day, early morning at around 5, our bus took a long halt. Getting up to see what was going on, I saw a number of buses and trucks on a muddy track, surrounded by green mountains and ever-present mist. Finally, our driver announced that it was the border crossing checkpoint! We got down of the bus, passports in hands, looking for any sign to show where to go. A little enquiry with officials there, we found Vietnam check post and got our passports stamped with a bribe of $ 1. Continuing our walk on a muddy track, for under a kilometre, we reached Laos checkpoint. It was unlike any border crossing I ever imagined to be! Hardly any people there and only handful of officials. You could walk through without anyone stopping you! Another $ 1 got us the entry stamp of Laos and we hopped on our bus once again, to enter into the heart of Kingdom of Laos.
Vietnam-Laos border crossing

Misty border crossing

As the morning took over the dawn, mist started to disappear and the mountains were more clearly visible along with a few houses at the base, hazy smoke rising from there. Further inside, rice fields appeared, dotted sometimes with a lonely monastery.

It took good part of the day, before we reached our first destination in Loas, Vientiane, the capital city. The evening brought more traffic to the street and for that two hours or so the city seemed quite busy (as against I realised the next morning, that this was the quietest capital city in South East Asia)! Trading its way through the traffic, our tuk-tuk took us to the river-side and dropped us in the tourist-friendly area.
We came back to the river-front and entered the famous night market. Sheltered under the red tent-like roof tops were shops selling juices and drinks, electronics, traditional Lao clothes, wrist-watches, jewellery and souvenirs.
Night market

It didn’t take too long for me to realise that this was indeed the most laid back capital in South East Asia. Lao people are famous for their laid-back attitude and relaxed life style and this culture is embedded in every establishment, may it be a house, a restaurant, a museum, a bus or a hotel. No one is in a hurry and it works best for you, not to be in a hurry yourself.  Another specialty is a smiling face. Most of Lao people are welcoming and always have a smile on their faces when they say “Sabaaaaideeee”.
We walked through the city, passing an old looking Stupa, before continuing on to the National Museum. The museum has a collection of old pottery and artifacts of archaeological importance, information and photos of Lao culture and ethnic groups and a huge department dedicated to history war in Lao, specially the American bombing.

After our lunch, we went to the MAG Cope Center. MAG is a non-profit organization who are trying to make Lao a safe country by clearing Unexploded Ordnances (UXO). They train local people in detecting bombs and defusing them or safely exploding them away from harm to anyone.
As the history goes, Lao was officially a neutral country and had nothing to do with Vietnam War. But when the central Vietnam was heavily bombed, thereby affecting the famous Ho Chi Minh trail, North Vietnam started moving their supplies from Laos and hence the US bombed this country too. Apart from that, based on some accounts of US pilots, if they had any unused load on the plane, they were instructed to drop the load in Laos, as it was too dangerous to come back with full load. This resulted in Laos being the most heavily bombed country in the world, per capita. To add to the worries of innocent Lao people, approximately, 30% of the bombs never exploded and are still lying in fields, on mountains, in the villages or on roads. The most dangerous are the bombies, small bombs which used to be dropped out of a big container. There are accidents each year, people stepping on them, building a fire near them, children playing with them or someone trying to take these bombs to sell as scrap thereby earning some money for the house. These UXOs are what MAG is trying to rid the country from.
The cope centre shows mind numbing documentaries about the bombing and accidents that keep happening every year even four decades after the war. There is a good selection of photos and re-creation of a house made from bomb material, a common site in some of the towns in Laos. Apart from clearing UXOs they also help in recoveries of people affected by accidents, by providing them medical services and artificial limbs. It is possible to donate some amount for this good cause or buy souvenirs, proceeds of which goes into this activity.
Statue made from bombs

Recreation of bombies

We got out of this cope centre and headed to a famous monument just outside city centre, Patuxai or Victory Gate, which is a Lao version of Arc de Triomphe. It differs the original as it has Buddhist embellishment and also has four gates against two. The monument looks impressive from the distance, but gets less impressive as you come nearer. Some of the work is yet to be completed since a long time. There is a nice garden adjacent with a couple of fountains inside, a famous spot for locals to spend the evening time.

Victory gate

Fountain, gate and the sun

We continued to walk west-wards towards Mekong river and reached another stretch of a park and a long stretch of a side-walk along the river. As it was the dry season, the water had retreated to the centre in the bank and yet it was quite a wide snake winding its way through. We saw a few locals going near the water, through what looked like beach sand and decided to follow them. Sitting close to the water we saw the Sun sink down. This side was also crowded by locals, some just sitting and enjoying the view, some playing badminton, some taking a swim in the shallow water. There were a few boats doing rounds through the water. Checking the map, we realised that other side of the river was Thailand. It was a weird feeling to know that we could actually see Thailand, sitting on edge of Laos!
Mekong, overlooking Thailand

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