In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, ex-pats and the more wealthy locals duck into French cafes for their morning croissant and cappuccino on their way to work - a massive contrast to the rest of this very poor country, we were later to find out. We arrived in the capital very early so we ate breakfast in the bus station canteen, whose menu offered such delights as "rice with food" and "insipid soup". Once in the city, we ate delicious bread, went ten-pin bowling, and got our Vietnam visas from the most obnoxious man in Southeast Asia. We also visited the local version of the Arc de Triomphe for a view over the red rooftops. A bizarre sign at this monument explained that the arc was never finished and, in an unexpected display of honesty, admitted that "close up, it looks even less impressive, like a concrete monster".
In Vientiane we also visited a fascinating centre that makes prosthetic limbs for the obscene number of people who need them here (largely because of the unexploded bombs left over from the Vietnam war). The centre offered lots of horrific information in its displays and various documentaries. Clearly there's loads of info about this in much more learned and reputable sources than my blog, but here are a few things we found out: Laos is the most bombed country per person in the world; it's as if the U.S. bombed this country in the '60s and '70s once every eight minutes for nine years; people are still being blown up because about a third of the bombs are estimated to be unexploded; people who rely on farming (not to make money, just to be able to eat) often have to dig in the potentially explosive earth; the fact that the earth is dangerous means many people don't have enough to eat; 70% of Laotians don't always have enough to eat; some people are so poor they actively look for and collect bombs in order to use the explosives or sell the scrap metal.
Before heading north to see some of the most heavily bombed parts of the country, we went a little further south, to the small riverside town of Tha Khaek (with Thailand in view on the other side of the water), where we found a bar with several petanque pitches. The Laotians love their petanque. Shahar and I played quietly (and I quite badly) in the corner, while the locals targeted their opponents with the precision of darts players, the place frequently erupting in cheers. Also in Tha Khaek I saw a tiny child having a bath in a bucket, and also ate a delicious dinner served in a hollowed-out pineapple.
From there we headed to Kong Lo, which boasts an almighty cave on a river. We took a boat into almost complete darkness, lit only by our guides' headlamps, into this impossibly cavernous and silent space. Once inside, we walked through an unnerving lunar landscape of stalactites and stalagmites before rejoining our boat. I rarely use this word, but it was awesome.
We got stranded in Kong Lo overnight (annoying at the time, very boring now), and then headed to northeast Laos and the city of Phonsavan on a bus with neon disco lights that had only beds, no seats. This city is the capital of one of the most heavily bombed provinces, and several organisations that are very slowly trying to clear the landscape have offices here. While here we visited the mysteriously named Plain of Jars - several sites of what are thought to be hundreds of enormous funeral urns. Our guide led us past paddy fields to the urns, located in a natural landscape, and told us about his work as a translator for one of the bomb-clearance NGOs, helping western bomb experts communicate with the local bomb-disposal teams. His wife also works as a team leader for an all-female bomb-clearance team, meaning she's away from home for 22 days and then at home for eight, before going off again. What a crazy life. During the tour, we went past bomb craters, some of which would comfortably fit several cars, and through villages that make use of bomb paraphernalia, such as using huge bomb casings as planters and decorations.
The town of Sam Neua, further east, was next for a short visit - a quiet place with a nice riverside walkway - before we carried on to the village of Vieng Xai. During the war, the communist leaders lived in the impressive limestone caves that tower over this lovely place. We expected to see empty, hollow rocks, but instead found an entire network of buildings, including bedrooms, dining rooms, meeting rooms and even reinforced-concrete shelters with Russian-built machines to provide oxygen in case of a chemical bomb, all built into the caves. Also in Vieng Xai, we played petanque with a nice couple from the south of France who taught us the proper rules. I'd like to say we beat them. We didn't... but it was close.
Yesterday morning we left Vieng Xai and began an arduous journey to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. At the border crossing, one very thorough guard found a bag of tampons in the backpack and asked me whether they were to eat.