Like the good cop/bad cop detective routine, Alex and I have a similar dynamic duo to
pat.This comes into play when bartering a tuk-tuk ride and so far, the Lao have proved
our most formidable opponents. But hell hath no fury like a Scouser scenting a rip-off,
and even though I know it’s coming…it’s impossible not to wince, cower or quake in
his wake. So, pleasingly, we have managed to mark down most of our rides to around
a fifth of the price, though the poor drivers look woefully begone when carting us
Carrying on with the theme of sharing our adventures, we made the journey from Vang
Vieng to Vientiane - the capital of Laos. We had heard no raving or blaspheming about
the place so we had no idea what to expect. I could spend a paragraph or two on our
take of the city but I would waste a precious minute of your life (if you are reading this).
It was a dump.
What was worthwhile was visiting the COPE centre, about 15km outside of the city -
a rehabilitation centre and museum raising awareness about the 80 million undetonated
bombs in Laos, leftover from the Vietnam War. Poor children in villages go hunting
for scrap metal in the forests, picking up tin-cans or the buckle of a belt to sell for a
bit of money or to remould into a latch on the chicken coop or to fix a handle for a
frying pan. They see a UXO - unexploded ordinance and have no way to tell if it is
deactivated. Many have never seen one before. When they explode, they shatter and
no one knows for the better. A mother is sitting in a hut, rousting the fire for dinner.
A daily routine that is once too many, for the heat has finally travelled far enough
through the earth to detonate the bomb sitting two metres beneath her. Over 300
people still die annually - 40% of them children.
The COPE centre does a number of things. It provides prosthetics to ease the hardship
of having fewer limbs or being less mobile. They have COPE Connect which is an
education programme - volunteers travel to remote areas of Laos to let people know
about the centre - that there is help and spread awareness about the dangers of bombs.
They also have a large department dedicated to the dismantlement of all explosive
devices. The museum was moving and when we left we walked past the rehab centre
where people were sitting outside in a park with limbs covered in bandages, in wooden
wheelchairs. There was a father holding a baby with bandages on both legs. He stared
at us expressionless as we walked past. I didn’t know whether to smile and wave, or to
look away. In the end, I did neither.
We are now boarding the night bus to Si Phan Don - liberally translated to mean ‘Four
Thousand Islands’ and described as a “travellers’ mecca”. It’s a bloody long way away
- at least half the country so it had better be worth it. Getting to the night bus
automatically got the exclamation “like in Harry Potter!” from my mother and “Pfff…
she means Darth Vader” from Alex. Either way, it really doesn’t matter, it has a
fluorescent grill that changes colour and we have got a double-bed that is situated
under the engine of the bus. Next to us are two Korean men who are using wipes to
clean their faces and placing masks over their mouths. We stare at each other wordlessly
(at least I don’t think they are saying anything). The driver was shouting down his
phone with a very high-pitched voice and sliding into oncoming traffic. It was a very
confusing experience and I am still mildly traumatised that I managed to get a decent
Within minutes of stepping on the boat, Alex had made his mind up that this was the
very best part of Laos as we motored past tiny dotted islands on the Mekong River and
entered a sort of Wind in the Willows world where swallows spun threads through the
air and the river was more of a turquoise-green as opposed to a muddy swamp. The
boat was taking us to Don Det - one of the 2/4000 islands which is inhabited - small
enough for it to take 60 minutes to walk all the way around. Mr Tho, whose
guesthouse was situated in between Mr Pho’s and Ms Mo (no joke) (don’t smile) was
delighted to welcome us and since the bungalow on the riverfront that we had arranged
for online was double-booked, we were upgraded to a suite which had a hot shower.
Bonus. Since I am considered the filthiest of all my family, it will seem amazing that I
care so desperately about being clean now - but it’s more about the moderate to warm
heat that comes with it.
Staying on Don Det is a chance to see the rural Laos without any pretences. The houses
are bare shacks except for the more successful of the guesthouses. We learn that the
reason food is ‘so expensive’ here is because very little produce is locally grown - most is
imported from Thailand or further afield. The centre of Don Det is arid, barren - there is
nothing here, everyone is crammed back-to-back round the edges of the island. Naked
children run amok - dusty, blackened by the sun, muddy amidst the chickens, cats, pigs,
buffalo that roam freely here. The wooden bridges that cover the banks are on the verge
of collapse and riding a bike down the lone road through the middle is like giving your rude
bits a power-plate session. But the locals are genuine - they ignore us for the most part and
get on with the day-to-day job; whether that’s sitting at a shop, running a guesthouse,
being a fisherman or carpenter, everything is family orientated and that way of life spills
onto the street. It is charming.
We hired power plates, sorry, bicycles to visit Don Khon the neighbouring island for the
day. When we arrived at the bridge which connected the two, Alex’s bike broke so we had
to walk back and hire another bike. Finally crossing the bridge, the troll told us there was a
toll - a steep 35,000 kip apiece and after obliging him and presenting 100,000 kip, he
announced to Alex that he had no change. So Alex insisted that we got our tickets for free,
as this wasn’t his problem. The troll tried to snatch the tickets back.
Whilst a loud exchange was taking place, the queue of people lining to pay their toll was
growing behind me. I went and hid behind a tree. Eventually we proceeded past the bridge
without our change and collected it from the toll-person who was sitting in a box on the
other side. Mission accomplished with no blood spilt, just.
Taking a road down the west coast of the island, we arrived at the Liphi Falls - the
largest waterfall in Asia (by volume). ‘Liphi’ means spirit trap and the locals steer
clear of this place for they are convinced that bad spirits of dead bodies from the
Vietnam War are trapped here - many got caught in the fishermen nets. Not an
appealing Surf and Turf. But the falls were stunning. Crossing back to the centre of
the island, we visited the beach and then headed south to the French Port where rare
irrawaddy dolphins can be seen, and you can observe the invisible line that indicates
the border to Cambodia. Hiking up the east coast, we ended up on a narrow track
past villagers who unapologetically stared at us, climbed under a tree (we did, not
the villagers) and crossed some barely-there bridges before realising that the path to
the next set of waterfalls was probably out of action. It was a long long way back to
Mr Pho’s at this point and our bruised buttocks needed extra padding when we sat
down for dinner.
This place is exceptionally beautiful and there is not much to do but to sit on the
riverbanks and enjoy it. This has been one of the only places in Laos where sitting and
doing very little has been worth it. As one of the poorest countries in the world, we were
not expecting a substantial amount from Laos and furthermore, were careful not to
measure it against the same standards as we did Vietnam. But the whole country - or what
we saw of it, is…lacking. There is not another word to describe it and it’s mystifying.
Mystifying as to why there is not more foreign investment, why the country has not quite
figured out how to capitalise on the tourism it receives. We overheard a conversation in
Vang Vieng (or I lipread) and apparently the government banning the drug trade and the
tubing lost Laos a lot of its customers. Apparently the only reason people came here
originally was because it was easy to get intoxicated by illegal substances. It’s an
interesting position to consider. So I digress from my opinion on Laos slightly because
in spite of the harsh sentence it has ended up serving itself with, Laos is now regenerating
tourism from the ground up. And this is the right way. Being principled is more important
than wealth, isn’t it? Even if the country suffers a while in the meantime? And I have
every hope that in a few years time, they will have figured it out.