Following a 24 hour bus ride from Hanoi – When we take over the world, everything will be built next to each other – we arrived in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
We went to the COPE Visitor Centre. Despite a thorough googling, we still have no idea what COPE stands for; however, set in the midst of a hospital prosthetic department, it serves as a poignant reminder of the true cost of war. The Vietnam War may have made the headlines, but America was also waging a so called ‘Secret War’ against Laos and Cambodia. Its aim was to disrupt supply lines and avenues of retreat utilised by the Viet Cong. The American war-machine’s tactic was simple, drop as many bombs as possible. Of the 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos – equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – approximately 80 million didn’t detonate. The result is that 40 years later the country is still covered by a layer of hidden ordnance, locally called Bombies. These Bombies now lay dormant, waiting for the unknowing locals to disturb them and suffer the predictable consequences. The COPE centre highlights this issue; strange mobile like decorations created from disarmed bombs, a huge array of homemade prosthetic limbs suspended from the ceiling in a nightmarish version of wind chimes, graphic photos of whole families who have suffered the loss of limbs. Its exhibits were horrifyingly informative, and have left an impression that is not likely to dim with the passing of time.
Following months of abuse – caped off by being submerged in rancid flood water in Hoi An – Jamie’s flip-flops were no more. Sourcing new ones has proved to be next to impossible. During the search he has been greeted on more than one occasion with laughter when asking if they sold shoes large enough for his feet. Whilst size 10 is fairly average in the UK he is apparently a freak of nature by Asian standards. In the end it took 7 weeks to find a pair large enough.
Following Vientiane we jumped on a bus and headed north to Luang Prabang. Unfortunately it was during this journey that Jade ‘Iron Stomach’ Hodgson’s reign of supremacy came to an end, as she succumbed to crippling stomach pains and other signs of food poisoning
After a few days of rest, with Jade feeling a little better, we hopped on a bus to a local waterfall. It was stunning. Turquoise water tumbled over a sheer wall of rock into a series of calm pools that looked ideal for swimming. This moment of awe, however, was short lived. On the advice of a couple walking past we opted to take the 3km trip through the jungle to go to the source of the river. With only 2 hours until we had to leave we marched off along a jungle track, a muddy ribbon splitting the lush canopy on either side. Upon reaching the spring our hearts dropped. Whilst undeniably pretty, compared to the natural perfection we had left behind it was no more than a muddy puddle. We hung around for 15 minutes, cramming in some much needed food, before trudging back through the jungle. We arrived just in time to catch our bus, and with not a spare moment to revisit the stunning waterfalls from the start. All in all a bit of a disaster as Jade’s illness was reasserting itself and Jamie’s dodgy knees had begun to cause problems.
Having had our fill of buses, we opted for what was described as a ‘Slow Boat’ to take us to the Thai border. Rather than an 18 hour straight shot on bus, it involved 2 days going up river on the Mekong, followed by a 5 hour bus journey to Chiang Mai. Longer? Undeniably. Worth it? Absolutely. We set off from our hotel in shorts and T-shirts, ready for a sunny day on a boat. Unfortunately due to a freezing fog that hovered exclusively over the Mekong we ended up huddled together, shivering until well beyond noon. Jamie resorted to using his socks as gloves, not ideal as this particularly pair had been worn for 2 days straight …
With the temperature finally reaching a sensible level the boat became really enjoyable, and for two days we followed the twists and turns of the Mekong, flowing between soaring mountains and mist cloaked jungle, until we reached Thailand. After the first day on the boat we stopped off in a tiny little town called Pak Beng. Here we met and made friends with a nice German couple who had also been on the boat with us during the day, and after a brief rest we went out for what was described as an authentic Indian. Having been to India (and become up-ourselves food snobs) we had to hold back our criticism, even when Jamie’s cheese naan turned out to be a flat bread with a few flecks of Philadelphia splattered on top.
Prior to the boat trip Jamie had read that it was occasionally possible to see Elephants on the river bank. With this in mind, he spent 2 agonising days searching enthusiastically for the elusive beasts. Whilst none decided to show themselves we did get to see a large number of water buffalo, which may not be as impressive but they’re certainly less shy. In hindsight we both started to feel a tad guilty about eating Buffalo whilst in Laos …
Laos was short, vommity, and sweat. As or writing we are about a 6 weeks behind in these updates, and hope to catch up soon before it becomes some sort of unassailable task. Keep your eyes peeled.
Jade and Jamie
P.S If anyone does find out what COPE stands for, keep it to yourself; smart-arse.