My time here in Southeast Asia is running out quickly! Like always, I’ve been rather busy the past few days and without decent internet. Last time, I left off in Luang Prabang where we explored beautiful waterfalls and had quite the birthday party for our tour leader. The next day (the 8th), we were off to Vang Vieng. Although the distance between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng is only 184 k (114 miles), the ride took seven hours because of the mountainous terrain and the bad roads here in Laos. That is literally averaging a speed of 16 km/hour… it was a long bus ride when half the time I felt like I could walk faster! I had quite the surprise in Vang Vieng when I arrived–if you remember, I jumped off in Chiang Mai along with about half of my group but the other half continued on… definitely a bummer of a situation as we all got along so well. Well, the rest of them (who thought that they couldn’t jump off the bus due to time constraints), hopped off at Vang Vieng so we had quite the reunion with our old group being back together… along with a few new people. Although I was a bit tipped off, I was so thankful that everyone was back together and we could enjoy a few days together again! We quickly settled into our hotel in Vang Vieng then changed into our swimsuits and headed for tubing… essentially what the town is known for… and what a blast it was! We checked in and then the tuk tuk took us up the river to an outdoor bar (located right on the river) which was filled with people… more precisely, tourists. We spent awhile hanging out at the bar, playing games, and enjoying the beautiful weather before it was time to get on our tubes and head down the river to another bar… essentially it is bar hopping via tubes on a river! The next bar was incredibly fun as there was music, dancing, volleyball courts, basketball courts, a mudslide, and sprinklers… what a fun day it was! We stayed there until the bar closed then we headed an hour down the river on our tubes to the end. A bunch of us linked up and enjoyed the stunning sunset as we made our way down the river. Tubing was certainly a highlight of the trip so far and it was even better enjoying it with EVERYONE… even those I never thought I’d see again! The next day, we made a quick pit stop at Tham Jang cave before heading off to the capital city of Vientiane. The cave was used in defense against Chinese Ho in the early 19th century. After the cave, we headed out on a five-hour bus ride to Vientiane. Vientiane is the capital city and largest city in Laos with a population of 750,000. Our first stop in Vientiane was to the COPE visitor center. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and is a locally run non-profit organization that works with the health system here in Laos to provide rehabilitation for survivors unexploded ordnance (UXO) survivors. The visitor center is a place where people can learn about the problems of UXOs here in Laos and the services that COPE provides. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world (per capita). During the Vietnam War, more than 580,000 bombing missions dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives on the country. At that rate, a bombing mission occurred here in Laos once every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years… wow. More than 270 million cluster bombs were used during the war, of which more than 80 million malfunctioned and remained live and buried in the ground following the war. These and other such explosives (grenades, mortars, landmines) are referred to as unexploded ordnance (UXO). Today, 25% of Laos’ 10,000 villages are UXO contaminated meaning that there could be an explosive anywhere–in forests, rice fields, villages, schools, roads, and other populated areas. This is a huge problem here in Laos as more than 50,000 people have been hurt by these explosives (30,000 during the war and 20,000 post-war). Often, people lose an arm or a leg from the explosives… or even worse, death. More than 300 people die each year from UXO incidents here in Laos. The country set up teams that are trained to find and destroy the UXOs but unfortunately it is a very slow process. More than 1,000,000 UXOs have been destroyed in the past 10 years but still, many UXOs remain. COPE is an organization that works with victims that have come into contact with UXOs and provides prosthetic arms and legs for those in need. They also provide rehabilitation services, an important step in dealing with such a situation. The visitor center was extremely moving and it is sad the realities of the after-effects of the war here in Laos. After visiting the COPE visitor center, we headed off to Pha That Luang, a large, golden Buddhist stupa in the center of Vientiane which is often regarded as the most important national monument here in Laos. The stupa was nice but at this point, we have all seen enough temples and stupas for a lifetime! People were selling birds that you could free for good karma… it’s a little ironic that they catch birds so that you can pay and free them… oh Laos. Our last stop was at Patuxai or the Victory Gate. The Victory Gate is a war monument dedicated to those who fought for independence from France. The United States government gave Laos $40 million dollars to build an airport but instead they built this monument… I guess we can all have our opinions about that, ha… Afterwards, we settled into our hotel and went out for dinner on the waterfront–it was my last night with everyone so it was certainly bittersweet. The next morning, I got up and said goodbye to everyone… definitely a very hard thing to do! I already miss everyone so much and its only been two days since I’ve seen them! Fortunately there were seven of us that finished the trip in Vientiane so we were all able to travel back to Bangkok together via an overnight train. We got back into Bangkok at 6 am and I accidently booked a hotel room for the previous night which actually turned out great as I had a place to go and wasn’t just hanging around with my luggage! I got settled in then headed off for the day. I went to breakfast and then somehow I ended up in a custom tailor shop. There are a ton of custom tailors here in Thailand and that is one of the “big things” to get while here in Thailand as the suits good quality and much cheaper than they would be at home. So, I decided to look and I ended up deciding it would be a valuable purchase for my future… so I’m not bringing home a three-piece suit. You know you’re old when your souvenir becomes a suit rather than a stuffed animal… what a sad day! I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the Khao San Road area (a pretty touristy area) before grabbing some street food (pad thai… yum… I’m going to miss the food SO much) and heading off on an afternoon/evening tour. Our first stop was to Rom Hub Market… or better known as the folding umbrella market. The market is built on active train tracks so the shoppers walk on the narrow railway track to shop as the stalls line the track. When a train approaches, the vendors quickly fold away their umbrella and move things away from the tracks to let the train pass. Once the train passes, the stalls are back up and ready for customers! I found a youtube video of the market as a train passes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvS1gb5zbP8). Next up was Amphawa Floating market, a large market that was packed with locals. The market had a few souvenirs but had lots of food and restaurants with a great atmosphere. The small rowboats on the river often served as the kitchen… it was really neat! Old, wooden shops lined both sides of the river and as I mentioned, it was packed with people! I fought my way through the crowds to make my way around most of the market before heading on a long tail boat ride to see the fireflies once the sun went down. After spending so much time in such a crowded place, the breeze was definitely welcomed! Fireflies filled the trees and sparkled like blinking Christmas lights… it was absolutely beautiful and quite the sight! It has been a great few days and I’m really bummed to be heading home tonight… I could definitely use a few more months here… but, I suppose that there is reality to get back to. Fortunately, I will have the memories forever! Also, I can officially check off “filling up a passport” on my bucket list as I’m officially out of pages… I guess it’s time to head home!
I’ll be back soon,
PS–make sure to check out my previous post for lots of pictures (as promised!)