December 11th, 2014 - Vientiane, Laos
I'm certain I cannot find the words to accurately describe the 4 days I just spent in Vang Vieng, so I'm hoping that videos and pictures will do it justice.
After four days in the backpacker heaven of Vang Vieng and almost three weeks since I last encountered a big city, Vientiane was a huge culture shock. Exposure to traffic, air pollution, and a real economy outside of tourism was the polar opposite of my lifestyle since departing Bangkok. Although considerably more expensive than anything I've experienced in a while, the aspect I enjoy most about bigger cities is the ability to encounter completely new things, eat to your heart's content, and thoroughly entertain yourself by simply exploring the surrounding area.
Although Vientiane certainly has its fair share of tourists and all the Western necessities in the main part of town, it also feels great to immerse myself more in the Lao culture, with fresh local markets, plenty of spicy noodle soups at roadside stands, and a hilarious night market complete with street food, carnival attractions, and giggling high school students. With three full days in the city to physically and mentally recover while my visas for Vietnam and Indonesia were processed, I had plenty of down time to observe the city's sights and inhabitants on foot, bicycle, and motorbike.
At my Dad's recommendation, I also spent some of my recovery time in Vientiane learning more about the historical relationship between the United States and Laos, which heightened during the 1960's when the CIA recruited Hmong tribes to repel militia from communist Vietnam. One of my first stops in town was a bookstore where I picked up Hmong Means Free, a historical account that includes provocative first hand testimonies of Laotians as refugees and American immigrants during and after the Vietnam war.
Without a doubt, the most memorable activity in Vientiane was visiting the COPE Visitor Centre, where I learned more about the covert bombing raids the United States sent over Laos in an attempt to destroy the Vietnamese army's Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was used to funnel supplies around the demilitarized zone in central Vietnam.
Between 1964 and 1973, 580,000 bombing missions occurred over Lao territory, which equates to one mission every 8 minutes for NINE YEARS. During these missions 270 million bombs were dropped, yet approximately 80 million failed to detonate, resulting in an inordinate number of injuries and reputations as the unexploded ordinances (UXO's) were uncovered by Laos' rural farming population. COPE serves a vital role in the country by manufacturing artificial limbs and rehabilitating those in need.
Yesterday I rented a motorbike and escaped from the chaos of rush hour traffic to take the long route to the surreal Xieng Khuan, which contains bizarre Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.
Vientiane is renowned for its spectacular French and Lao cuisine, and apart from the plethora of bakeries in town, I indulged in a pair of memorable meals:
- Larp sounds simple enough: chopped beef with vegetables. But when served with hot chili peppers, a plate of fresh greens, and hot soup broth, Larp takes on a life of its own and makes for a spectacular traditional Lao lunch.
- The dish that has most enthralled me since my entry into Laos is one that I'll undoubtedly be trying to re-create upon my return to the United States. I was powerless to the addictive effects of stir-fried green beans and morning glory mixed with fresh garlic, chopped peanuts, and fresh chilis. When I went back for a second time the stand owner saw how much I appreciated his work and thankfully heaped up a massive portion.
Today marks one month since I landed in Asia and began this spectacular journey. If I've learned anything so far, it's that this world is truly a magical place. It's filled with amazing people, places, and things. Although the norm is to strive to become rich in money and possessions, travel has taught me my audacious goal should be to become rich in experiences and relationships.