Day 41 | Welcome to Vientiane, the smallest of Southeast Asian capital cities*

We spent all day walking around Vientiane to see its top sights: the Patuxai Monument (aka Laos’ Arc de Triomphe), Wat Sisaket, COPE Visitor Centre and the riverfront Night Market.

After a buffet breakfast at the New Rose Boutique Hotel, we traced our way to the iconic Patuxai Monument. Despite the monument looking close by on the map, the 107 degree heat in Vientiane made the walk nearly unbearable. We darted across the roundabout’s neverending traffic – unlike Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, this one has no underpass – then took some photos.

In front of Patuxai

Maurice vigorously applied sunblock to his face while we sat on a bench underneath the monument.

Applying sunscreen

The ceiling of this arch is impressive with its intricate reliefs.

Patuxai ceiling

We bought tickets and climbed a few stories up to the top of the monument. We were greeted by views of the wide boulevard.

Patuxai view

And of a manicured park. Vientiane definitely ripped a page out of it’s former European colonist’s book. Given the hot sun however, the plaza should have contained more trees.

Patuxai view of gardens

We walked on to the next top sight Wat Sisaket, the only Wat not destroyed by Siam when they sacked Vientiane in 1827. It’s possible that this particular temple was spared because it was constructed in a Siamese style rather than a Laotian one.

Wat Sisaket

The inside of the temple courtyard was pretty empty.

Wat Sisaket courtyard

We strolled through the rows of Buddha statues big and small and in various states of decay. I couldn’t even tell if some of the statues were of Buddha since only the pedestal remained.

Buddha statues in Wat Sisaket

After just these two sights we returned back to Vientiane’s city center, Rue Setthathilath is its main street for restaurants. We went to the Green Discovery office first to inquire about their Treetop Explorer 3 day / 2 night ziplining tour package in the jungles of the Bolaven Plateau – a highland coffee-growing region in southern Laos. We had enjoyed our Green Discovery tour in Vang Vieng and had also read good things about their Treetop Explorer program. It was on the expensive side relative to our daily cost of living and activities in Laos, but it sounded like a YOLO experience so we booked it.

Then it was time for lunch. A high priority was air conditioning, lots of it. We had lunch at JoMa Bakery and Café. This was the first time we had Western food for lunch or dinner in a long time.

JoMa Bakery

After lunch we walked on the main street only about 50 meters before ducking into yet another air conditioned café Sweet Moo for dessert. I had this chocolate mille feuille with lychee ice cream and whipped cream.

Sweet Moo dessert

While Maurice and I ate our desserts in the café, I saw someone who looked like Andrew, one of the guys we met during our day tours in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, biking by on the main street. For fun, I decided to look him up on Facebook to see if it really was him in Vientiane. Crazy thing was we were already Facebook friends and he had posted photos of Vientiane from yesterday. We messaged each other noting the coincidence. We must have met at some point while we were both in college, but completely forgot. Small world!

Then Maurice and I toughened up and walked in the afternoon heat all the way to COPE Visitor Centre. Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) is a non-profit organization founded to help people with physical disabilities have free access to prosthetics and quality rehabilitation services.

This is especially meaningful given the devastation caused to Laos’ rural civilians by the 2 million tons of bombs dropped by the United States on neutral Laos during the Vietnam War (called the Secret War) – making Laos the most heavily bombed nation in the world. Thirty percent of these bombs did not detonate. After the war, Laos was left with 288 million cluster munitions and 75 million unexploded bombs. Post-war, 20,000 Laos civilians were killed or injured by these UXO.

Types of munitions

At the free visitor centre we watched a documentary about UXO removal in remote villages in Laos. The documentary showed Mines Advisory Group (MAG) another non-profit organization aiming to destroy unexploded ordinance (UXO) across Laos. In the twenty minute video, an Australian mine removal expert trained homegrown Laotian mine removal staff by removing live bombs in remote villages. We were heartbroken seeing that many victims of UXO are children. They pick up the pineapple-shaped “bombies” either thinking they are toys or intending to give them to their parents to sell for scrap metal at the rate of 20 cents each. Many of the former rice farmers cannot work because their fields are filled with deadly UXO, the disturbing new industry involves picking up UXO to sell cheaply as scrap metal.

American B-52 fighter jets indiscriminately bombed Laos releasing thousands of these large cluster bombs each containing a hundreds of tennis ball-sized bombies.

Cluster bombs

These are examples of bombies that children often encounter.

Bombies

The COPE Visitor Centre also housed a large collection of homemade prostheses that villagers created for themselves out of available materials prior to going to Vientiane’s COPE centre for their inexpensive but high-tech prostheses.

Prosthetic legs

For those victims who have lost a hand or arm, COPE provides multiple prostheses depending on the required daily function.

Prosthetic arms

Fascinated by the personal tragedies and success stories, we stayed at COPE’s mini museum until it closed. We each bought a T-shirt supporting the ban of cluster bombs. (Not surprisingly, USA has not signed the international treaty to ban the use of cluster bombs.) We were the last ones to leave the visitor centre.

Outside there was this huge canoe fashioned from multiple cluster bombshells.

Canoe made from cluster bombs

And elsewhere on the COPE campus, we watched some of the rehab patients play wheelchair basketball.

COPE basketball

Then we checked out Vientiane’s biggest and only modern mall on the way back to the city center. The mall has a movie theatre, an arcade and an unauthorized Frozen-themed winter wonderland with fake snow.

Check out those legs

Next up we went to see Vientiane’s Night Market which sprawls across the banks of the Mekong River. From across the wide river you can see Thailand.

Night market

We stopped to play with this pair of Labrador retriever puppies that could fit in the palm of our hand.

For dinner we went to Makphet Restaurant, it is operated by a non-profit organization Friends International which trains street kids for jobs in the hospitality industry. We had a medley of Laotian food, most of our dishes were pretty spicy.

Makphet dinner

* Note: Technically, the Southeast Asian nation Brunei Darussalam has a smaller capital Bandar Seri Begawan with a population of 280k out of the total country’s 408k.

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