Eyes Wide Open: A Somber Visit to the COPE Visitor Center in Vientiane, Laos

I mentioned earlier that I would throw all caution to the wind if Laos was a man I could marry.

More than a month after my trip to the country ended, I’m still feeling its positive effects. To push the marriage analogy further though, I strongly believe in knowing a person’s history, the dark and the beautiful, before entering into something serious.

Laos has a disturbing tale to tell that began with the Vietnam War. The country of my heart and head, the United States, played a huge role in writing this horror story. I’ve heard bits and pieces of it as I traveled the region: land ordinances, civilians, death, and disfigurement.

I could turn away to more pleasant topics, but I’ve decided that at least sometimes I need to look with my eyes wide open. As a result, I visited the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE). After visiting the center, I posted this on Instagram:

Soooo…I've been in this position before…been an American overseas reckoning with the devastation we recklessly left behind in the name of peace and democracy. I saw this in Cambodia, Vietnam, and now Laos. I am not a pacifist. What we did to Laos though is unacceptable. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world (more than all bombs dropped in WWII were dropped on Laos), thanks in large part to the US. The sheer lack of respect shown to the people living there who were NOT a part of the official Vietnam war is disgusting. We drop our "extra" bombs while flying over Laos (and Cambodia!) after bombing the Vietnamese supply lines because, allegedly, it's too dangerous to land a plane with all of that still on it. It's not too dangerous to kill and maim unsuspecting people? Decades later, these ordnances still kill and injure people. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) provides artificial limbs, wheelchairs, and rehabilitation to the affected. The US has no moral authority in the world right now, but we damn sure have a moral incentive to clean up this mess. One theory for why Laos isn't as developed as it should be is because the bombs have not been cleared from the land. Would you want to build where potential cluster bombs are? If ever in Laos, COPE is a necessary center to visit. Donations are welcome too. In my bio is a link to my thoughts on the Vietnam War/American War Museum in Ho Chi Minh.

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Even today, whenever I walk on uneven ground (which is very common in Jakarta) I think about how people who’ve lost a leg have to relearn how to maintain their balance on such terrain. I also think about Laos’ position as one of the world’s Least Developed Countries and  how unexploded ordnances impede such development.

The COPE center was sobering, to say the least. However, when writing about travel I  think it’s important to discuss more than beaches & delicious meals. My passport gives me visa-free access to the majority of the world’s countries. At what cost to other parts of the globe did my country reach its apex though? As I plan my last stops before moving home for good, I can’t help thinking about this very question.

When I do, I think of Laos.



Vientiane, Laos

Y’all, I’ve made progress with my biking skills! Two years ago I almost had a panic attack while trying to bike ride in Phnom Penh.  Although I eventually enjoyed that experience, I ended up not bike riding in Vietnam (days later) or Thailand (a year later).

Time heals all wounds (or makes a person foolish all over again) because I found myself renting a raggedy rusted bike for 10,000 kip and cycling around Vientiane like I was getting paid to do it. I pedaled furiously as a woman on a motorcyle led me to the Patuxai Arch, biked (and walked) my way up to Pha That Luang, and coasted past my earlier misgivings. By the time I returned the bike to the hostel, I was coated in enough dust to fill an hourglass and knew that I would be smelling car exhaust in my sleep.

Yet. It. Was. Glorious.

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Luang Prabang, Laos: The Honeymoon with Myself Begins

If Luang Prabang was a man, I would marry him after only three full days of dating with no prenup. As soon as my van rolled to a stop, I couldn’t help but think Oh, I’m going to like it here. Maybe it was the smell of firewood perfuming the air as people heated dishes on traditional cookstoves or the small roads with slow moving traffic. Whatever it was, I could feel my spirit shift.

As usual, the end of the semester was stressful. I was fruitlessly running back and forth to the US Embassy, working until 6:00, 7:00, or 8:00 grading essays, going to the doctor because I thought I contracted a ringworm (thankfully, it wasn’t), and Go-Jeking food like I didn’t have a fully functioning kitchen (well, almost fully functioning. My oven is useless).

I was regretting my decision to fly out the first Saturday after school ended until my feet touched the winding pavement in Luang Prabang. Originally, I was so tired I wasn’t even going to venture out for dinner. I ended up walking to the Night Market, exchanging money at a roadside stall and eating a delicious traditional dinner at 3 Nagas.

There’s something about unwrapping a banana leaf to access my food that gets me every time. It’s a small but joyous act.

Luang Prabang was the beginning of a honeymoon with myself. I’ve traveled to eight countries solo, but this was the first time I felt day after day like a place was seducing me in the best possible way. From small teapots to wooden shutters to sunny crisp days, I felt loved, safe, and at peace. I got lost while biking around the town (I would manage to not be able to follow the mighty Mekong from one destination to another), popped into wats that dotted the town, and sipped wine that a 70+ year old Swiss man surreptitiously slipped to me in a restaurant because “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” According to him, all the wine in the restaurant was subpar. He had a bottle in his backpack in case just such a thing would occur.

As a teacher, I honor all who are prepared like this Swiss man.

A former French colony, I enjoyed a croissant that was so good it caused me to tear up and a daily basket of warm bread with pineapple, tomato and/or banana and mint jam. There were scones to be scarfed savored, creamy pumpkin soups to enjoy, lemon tarts to rejoice over, crepes with homemade chocolate to relish, fish to…the list goes on and on.

Of course, Lao food is a must. Though I’ve taken cooking courses in New York City, Peru, Indonesia, and Thailand, the best cooking class of my life was in Luang Prabang. Sign up with Tamarind to cook and eat in a gorgeous open kitchen. While there, I tried buffalo for the first time and left with new friends as well as a cookbook (included in the class cost).

Trips to a nearby waterfall are popular, but I said no. I preferred to wander in the small city. I took early morning outdoor yoga classes, watched the Tak Bat (which has so many tourists taking pictures–myself included–I felt bad for the monks. I wouldn’t want to have flashing lights in my face every morning), chatted with other travelers over Bite Mes at the Icon Klub, cruised down the Mekong at sunset, shopped, and luxuriated in the blessing that was, and is, my life. I was back in my hotel room by 11:30 every night. There’s actually a curfew in the city (according to my hotel), so everything shuts down by 10:30.

Laotian people are friendly but more reserved (shy even) than other Southeast Asian ethnicities. Where Indonesians would stare at me with no shame even if I caught them looking at me, Laotians would avert their eyes embarrassed. Where Vietnamese street hawkers plied me with their wares and one woman put all ten fingers in my hair, a Lao woman in one shop told me to come back after thinking about it more and no one touched my hair.

Laotians are laid back and sweet people despite a horrific history. What I learned about that history will be shared in a future post.

Until then, I’ll keep honeymooning with myself.