This week I have had the fabulous opportunity of traveling around the beautiful country of Laos. It's landscape is like a scene out of a movie. Many amazing jungles, tall mountains, and many rivers decorate the countryside. Also a placewith ricefields, extreme poverty and many left over bombs made in America dropped during the Vietnam War. This is the first communist country I have travelled in and surprisingly is a place where I feel completely safe and taken care of by every person I have encountered.
On my tour with me we have a Cambodia guide named PK, 2 Canadian women named Jen and Teran , a Portuguese woman named Maria and an Australian guy named Andrew. Everyone is in their 30s and it is a good group of people. We started our tour in the crazy city of Bangkok Thailand. Bangkok was full of lots of people, large numbers of tuktuks (3-wheel carts that work as taxis- pictures coming soon), and many street vendors. We spent a few days in Bangkok exploring the culture and seeing the Grand Palace and the famous reclining Buddha statue that is in Wat Po, the oldest monastry. On our way back from the Grand Palace Andrew and I decided to take a taxi back to the neighborhood our hotel was in. Andrew tried to explain to the taxi driver (who spoke no english) where to go and the taxi driver nodded and smiled indicating he knew where to go. As we drove the taxi driver polished his DVD player on his dashboard and played for us the movie Independence Day dubbed in Thai. We should have known then that he might not know where to go but we trusted the guy. After about an hour and a half in the taxi we ended up on the other side of Bangkok at what he thought was our destination, the train station. When we tried to explain the destination with the guy he got all flustered asked a few other taxi drivers about it and then proceeded to drive us back to the area we were just in. Apparently our hotel was in walking distance of the Grand Palace. Afterward we just thought- well it was an interesting way to tour the city, driving around in a taxi watching a dubbed version of an American movie while sitting in crazy Asian traffic. (: We determined that Bangkok is a crazy but fun city to visit but our tour was more about seeing the countywide of Laos and Cambodia. So we quickly set off on a night train from Bangkok to the capital city of Loas, Vientiene. On the train ride to Laos PK taught us some of the local language he knew of Laos. Saba dee means hello and Kop chay lie lie means thank you. These words have since become second nature to us as everyone here says them multiple times In Conversation.
In Vientaine we explored some of the Buddhist temples, and went to an awesome restaurant called Makphet. Makphet is a restaurant that was created to teach street children of Laos how to cook and run a business. The students then prepare meals at their restaurant and practice the art of amazing high quality service. It was easily the best restaurant I have ever eaten in and the students were amazing. They also have a program that teaches the children to use recycled goods to make quality items to sell that are then sold in their restaurant gift store. It was an awesome organization to learn about and see in action and the food was amazing.
The next day we headed to another organization called COPE (The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise). This is an organization whose sole purpose is to work with the government to help with rehabilitation and rehab services in Laos. Laos is considered the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. The US Airforce dropped a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years on the country of Laos during the time of the Vietnam War. Often these pilots did not know their targets or ever see how these bombs impacted the people they fell on. 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on this country and over 260 million cluster bombs where dropped. There were often rules during the war on what could be dropped on Vietnam but those rules did not apply to Laos and since the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through Laos it was impacted greatly by these bomb drops. Today it is estimated that 78 million bombs are still in the ground undetonated. In areas of great bombing people are very poor and see so many bomb shells, bomb clusters, and scrap metal that they try to find ways to use the metal. They may use the bomb casings as boats, pots, plant holders, or even stilts to hold up their houses. The children may see the bombies (small cluster bombs) and play with them like they are a ball or a toy. This stuff is so dangerous and there is so much of it that it often leads to people getting hurt or dying due to their lack of education on how to deal with the material. There is also a large illegal scrap metal collection going on that leads to really poor children and families hunting for bombs to trade to the black market scrap metal collectors for money to feed their family. The level of poverty mixed with the lack of education also causes many bombs to be detonated and people to be killed.
The COPE center helps the people of Laos deal with the effects of these bombs. They produce artifical limbs, supportive devices and offer physiotherapy and occupational therapy. They help support the costs of the devices, surgery and treatment so that it is free for those who cannot pay. They also provide transport costs and work to increase awareness amongst communities about the impacts of the bombs and how people can rehabilitate themselves to get their lives back after explosions. They help all people with physical needs but the largest number of people come from bomb explosions. While there we were able to tour the visitors center and see what the bombs look like and how they explode. We also saw what a typical house looks like for people that live in areas with high number of bombs. We were also able to see how the prosetics where made and how rehabilitiation is done. We met a young teenager who had a bomb explode on him. He lost his eyesight and both his arms but was so happy to talk to us and introduce himself. It was just heart renching to see how something that happened so long ago has such life altering affects today for so many people. After touring the visitors center we were able to watch a documentary on how the government is working with local NGO's to train people on how to locate, detonate, and remove bombs so they will no longer be a danger. In the documentary they interviewed many people on their thoughts of the bombs. When they go in to try to remove the bombs they often have to evacuate villages until the bombs are either detonated or removed. They stated that the hardest people to evacuate are the older members of the village. One man who was 96 years old said his whole family was killed by the bombs in the 60's. He survived. He stated, "they dropped the bombs I had to leave, the clear the bombs I have to leave- I don't want to hear any more about bombs." Another little boy about 6 years old lost his best friend (to a cluster bomb he stepped on) said, "These bombs were not ours we didn't ask for them. They brought them, they should take them away."
It was statements like this that broke my heart. Yes the US is giving Aid to Laos to help remove the bombs but it is a very difficult job and not many are trained to do it. This area is no longer farmable due to the bombs and the people are greatly suffering. I left this organization with a great sadness in my heart over this issue. I love the country I live in and am happy to be from it. I have been given lots of opportunities and privledges because of it and am greatful for the freedoms I have. I know that many in America are struggling but as I travel this country I wish more from my own country. I wish that Americans had more knowledge of the longterm horrors that some of our actions have on others around the world and that we looked at things through a more global lens. I am one of the first to say that injustice and cruelty in the world needs to stop but often dropping bombs or going to war does not stop it. It just ends up creating much more poverty and more poverty continues to enflame the problems the world faces. America is not the only country to do something like this and it won't be the last but spending time in a country that is so greatly impacted by the actions of my country created a sense of disappointment and sadness in myself. I will from this point on always look at war as a crime against humanity.
After Vientiane we headed by public bus to the small town of Vang Vieng. On this bus I sat next to a really cool relaxed French Canadian named Guillaume who was traveling solo for one year also. He also happened to be a teacher in Quebec. We chatted for the full four hour public bus ride about education and Edpowerment. I tried to convince him to come teach in Tanzania, which i am sure he will do one day. :) I was happy to have such a nice guy to sit next to for so long. After checking into our hotel we walked around the city and ran into Guillaume again. I invited him to join us for dinner and from that point on he was an additional member of our tour for a few days. We had dinner that night at an Irish pub located in the middle of town. It was a place run by an Irish guy who had moved to Laos three years prior and opened up a business. It was a fun place to stay and watch the monsoon rains outside the restaurant (the first rains we had experienced during the so called rainy season). While it was raining our guide, PK convinced us to show off our countries dance moves. The owner put on some Irish music and the Cambodian, Australian and American danced around the pub. It was good fun, made the entire place laugh histerically and a memory we have since tried to recreate everytime we hear music. The next day our group and our new French Canadian friend set out to explore the caves around Vang Vieng. We learned that during the Vientnam War and the heavy bombing many people came to live in the caves around the area. Often the woman and children would stay in the caves for weeks while the men went out to get food and water. The bombing lasted for 9 years so their life in the caves also lasted that long. Many of the caves also had temples built into them so people could also worship in safety. It was cool to see the caves but very hard to imagine living in them. One thing that I admire about the Laos people is their perseverance to move forward. Although Americans bombed the heck out of their country not a single person treated me poorly or looked at me badly because I was an American. When I asked about their opinions they would often state that it was a time long ago and they are looking to move forward not backward. It was an amazing thing.
After Vang Vieng we headed to the sleepy town of Laung Prabang. Before our travels we had heard stories of some landslides along the mountain (sorry mom but I left out this bit of information in my emails). We were told they had sent the tractors to rebuild the road and by the time we reached it the road would be ok to cross. Coming from flat land this was a bit nerve racking but there was no other way to get there so we drove on. When we reached the area of the landslide we were backed up in traffic. We got out of our bus to investigate. We saw the area of the landslide and learned that four houses with families inside were hit by the mud and killed. It was a very sad feeling. We watched as tractors dug out the road and all the travelers trying to get through discussed how crazy it is that this is everyday life for people who live on a mountain during monsoons. After a while our bus made it to the other side and we continued on. I was glad to make it across and find our way back to lower ground.
Laung Proaang our next destination is a UNESCO world heritage site due to the amazing architecture and beautiful historic buildings that cover the town. It was a quiet sleepy town but full of culture and cool experiences. Our first day we explored some amazing waterfalls and stumbled across a cool NGO called Stay Another Day that was studying ethnic Culture in Laos. They put together a cool multimedia display of the different aspects of Laos culture and had a cool shop that displayed work of the remote villages. A very cool volunteer told us about the organization and how it worked. A very cool education program that I was happy to find. On our way back to our hotel we once again ran into Guillaume who came on his own by bus. Being that we didn't think we would see him this was quite funny and we were able to hang out together for a few more days. During the time in Laung Probang there was also a water festival going on. This occurs once a year and many of the locals gather for boat races on the river and to have a good time. It is like a big street festival on the river front. We woke up early that day to see the monks procession. It is done everyday at 5:30am. The people give monks alms of rice and food for them to eat for the day. Afterward Andrew, Maria, Guillaume and I walked through the morning market where we saw people trading local vegetables, native fruits, all types of animal products and many types of live fish. It was cool to see how the locals function when the tourists are still sleeping. We then headed to ride some elephants through the jungle. This was pretty cool but I was a bit scared. They have you sit on a bench on top of the elephants and ride them through muddy jungles trails. All I kept thinking is, "I hope this elephant does not trip and fall." Although our elephant chose to go up and down every hill and swampy area she did her job and got us through safely. When we returned to town we headed to the water festival to watch the wildness of festival life. People were everywhere eating, drinking , selling stuff. It was wild. (I have a video of it but Internet is not cooperating) After hours of observing and walking around town we made it to dinner at a local restaurant where we tried to navigate the binder menus they give you of assorted Laos and asian food options- all mainly with different versions of rice, noodles, chicken, beef, and fish. After dinner PK asked us if we wanted to go to a Laos disco. We said yes and headed in a tuktuk to an interesting dance club where a Laos band was playing and we were the only westerners in sight. We had alot of fun dancing with the locals and learning the different dance style of the people here. In Laos there is a common saying said by people, "same same but different" and this was all I kept thinking throughout the day. Same same but different. Festivals- Same Same but Different. Dance Clubs- Same Same but different. All in all we were so glad we spent the day amongst the locals and we had so much fun. It was definatly a great group of people to travel with.
The next day we said goodbye to Guillaume who is going to try to explore Laos on foot walking North until he finds a small village that will allow him to stay. It is sure to be a great adventure and I am excited to hear about what he encounters. We also said goodbye to Andrew who is going to head to see some of his friend that are scattered through southeast Asia.
I am writing this from a small island called Don Khong which is located in an area known as the 4,000 islands. They are small islands located in the Mekong River (one of the longest rivers in the world- it runs from Pacific Ocean off of China to the Indian Ocean by Cambodia). We spent today riding bikes around the island and seeing the local life. We saw fisherman fishing, woman harvesting rice, and kids playing. It was a great day. Tomorrow we are headed to Cambodia to stay in a small village and learn about how women make money through a co-op using their tailoring skills. My next post will be all about Cambodia but for anyone interested in coming to Southeast Asia- Laos is definitely worth the trip.
I hope things are good a home as many of you are getting back into the school year. For those of you who want to skype I will be in Tanzania in a week or so and will finally have a more consistent home. I wish you all my best.
As they say in Lao- Bow Pen Nyang (No Worries)
And to the blind young teenager who lost both his arms to a cluster bomb that was dropped on his village 25 years before he was born I say, "I am and will always be thinking about you from this day on."
For more information on COPE check out: www.copelaos.org