We flew into Vientiane from Ho Chi Minh City after changing planes in Pakse, Laos. The airport at Vientiane was about on par with Pakse airport, which made for a quick baggage pickup and exit. A 5-minute drive got us to our hotel (S Park Designer Hotel, $56/night with breakfast). Not sure what was “designer” about it except for the faux industrial look they were attempting, but it was a nice hotel if a bit away from the center of town (we rented bicycles).
Our international flight from HCMC was aboard a 70-seat ATR 72 turboprop plane. That’s right, an international puddle jumper; good thing that it’s only a one hour flight. Pakse International is the smallest international airport that I have ever seen. The arrival hall containing customs and immigration was only about 30 feet square, and the departure lounge not much bigger. In any event we made it safely to Vientiane, along with our luggage.
Unfortunately, we had though that we had arranged a 60 day visa for Laos, only to be informed by immigation officials that is was actually a 30 day visa that entitled us to enter Laos in a 60 day window. We were able to extend our visa at later date to a total of 6 weeks. After the 6 weeks we are planning to go to Cambodia.
We had lamented that we chose to move from Vietnam to Laos over the Christmas|New Years holidays which made it extremely difficult to make reservations for Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Given that December-March is high season in southeast Asia, it appears that we will have to change our habit of going where and when the spirit moves us and plan a little ahead from now on.
On December 29th, we took a local bus to Buddha Park which was a 60 minute ride away. We have never seen so many huge Buddha’s in one place! We also went to Victory Monument and the Cooperative Orhtotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) Center in the days ahead.
The Victory Monument is Vientiane’s version of the Arc De Triomphe, and commemorates the Lao who died in World War II and the independence war against the French. It was built prior to the 1975 establishment of the current Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, using concrete and funds donated by the United States that were intended to help build a new airport. Instead Vientiane got a spiffy new monument, which you can climb to get great views of the city.
We visited several other stupas and temples too numberous to go into detail. But here are some of the images of our adventures:
The COPE center is dedicated to providing artificial limbs and wheelchairs to Laotians injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the various wars in the last 70 years, including WW II, the independence war against the French, various civil wars between WW II and 1975, the “secret” American War (1961-1973), and a few skirmishes with Thailand. It is another reminder of the long history of war in this area, and in particular the 30-year history of the United States wars in Southeast Asia, which by far was the most destructive chapter in that grim story.
The overwhelming bulk of UXO in Laos is from bombs dropped during the “secret” American war, which at the time was secret only to the American public. There is ample history of the “secret” war available now for those who are interested, but the short story is that the “secret” war included two massive United States bombing campaigns during the period from 1964 to 1973. One was against the communist-led Pathet Lao resistance (which in turn was actively supported by North Vietnamese troops and supplies) opposing the Lao monarchy. The other was against the Laotian branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which supplied troops and materiel from North Vietnam to the battlefields in South Vietnam. Bombing missions over Laos in the period between 1964 to 1973 were run at a rate of one mission every 10 minutes. An estimated 2 million tons of bombs were dropped during this time.
During the American War in Vietnam the government of North Vietnam denied the existence of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, while the United States government denied bombing this non-existing supply route. In any event, the legacy of the “secret” war has been, and continues to be, tragic for the people of Laos. Vast areas of the country still remain contaminated with UXO, rendering these areas unusable for agriculture or human habitation. In addition, even today about once per day someone in Laos is killed or injured by UXO.