Part one of a journey down the Mekong River

Firstly, sorry for the delay of my second post – I’m sure you’ve all been waiting with bated breath to review the next page of my passport!

My week started by leaving Thailand and moving onto my second country of the trip, Laos. My first experience of this country was the most stunning sunset; looking across the Mekong river (fun fact, it’s pronounced the same way as ‘mechanic’ not ‘me’) as the sun went down behind mountains on the Thai side of river.

The next morning we set off on a two day slow boat cruise down the Mekong river and honestly, the scenery was some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. Our accommodation for the first night was in a local village home stay, where we got to visit the school, see their way of life and how they work, as well as participate in a traditional Baci ceremony, to give us all good luck on our travels.

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It was quite the experience, especially all sleeping together in one main room, on makeshift beds and under mosquito nets (which I was very grateful for as it would appear I’m their favourite snack). In caseyou were wondering, tin roofs provide excellent acoustics when a thunderstorms hits in the middle of the night, and roosters from 3am really add to the symphony. Needless to say, not much sleep was had that night.

My next stop as our river cruise came to an end was Luang Parbang, where we got to visit the amazing Kuang Si waterfalls, which is a definite must see if you ever visit Laos. Also, the night market had the most incredible street food and I absolutely feasted for about £3!

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Vang Vieng, the home of tubing, then became my home for the next 4 days. Yes, I got into my tube with a huge group of people I’don’t, et in Luang Parbang and floated down the river, giving me my first day chilling in the sun since my trip has started! On the slightly overcast days, I explored the areas around the city, visiting waterfalls, caves and the well known Blue Lagoons. Vang Vieng is the place to go if you like being outside and climbing mountains, I climbed so many in my first day! I also managed to accumulate quite the collection of scrapes and bruises doing all of this, but in my defense, caves are very dark and I bruise like a peach.

The final stop I’m going to cover in this post (I am very behind!) is the capital, Vientiane, where I was yesterday.  This was the most educational and enlightening place I’ve been to so far, but unfortunately it was a 50/50 split of beautiful architecture and historical horrors. When I first came to Laos, I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about the country. In my free time on the boat at the start of the week, I read a South East Asia travel book I’ve ‘borrowed’ from my hostel in Chang Mai, which informed of the basics for how the country has been ruled between this land, Myanmar,  Vietnam and France over the last few 100 years.

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Patuxai Monument (Victory Gate, Vientiane

However, when in Vientiane, we visited a few museums where we we told about the more recent history, from the Vietnam war onwards. In Laos, it is called the Secret War, and for good reason. During this war, more bombs were dropped on Laos by the US military than by all countries involved in WWII combined. They spent $20million a day on bombs, resulting in one bomb dropping every 8 minutes, 24/7 for 9 years, all with the purpose of breaking the Ho Chi Min City path where ammunition was being transported by the Vietnamese. However, if a carrier plane hadn’t located its bomb target in Vietnam that day, there were ‘free drop zones’ in Laos where pilots would unload their bombs before flying back as it wasn’t safe to land with an active bomb apparently. The US never declared war against Laos, but the damage from their bombings didn’t end after the war finished –  today, they call it ‘Surviving the Peace’. Of the numerous cluster bombs dropped on Laos, between 10-30% didn’t detonate, which means live and dangerous bombs litter the landscape, hidden on farms, in rivers and in the jungle, posing a daily threat to people working in these areas. Until these bombs have all been located and removed, Laos’ economy can never grow, as farm land cannot be expanded and everyone is at risk of being maimed by UXO’s. 40% of these accidents involve children. A charity called COPE, partially funded by the US, was set up to help those who have been disabled by these explosions, and they work in partnership with other charities to locate and destroy any remaining bombs. However, funding is only agreed for the next 3 years, and the current resources are over stretched as it is.

Although it was hard to learn about this, and to hear stories of people affected by these UXO’s, this is part of the reason I wanted to travel. To learn about countries, people and culture that I am completely naive to, and to change how I view situations at home. For example, it may have been frustrating the last few days not having good enough WiFi to post on my blog, but considering what this country continues to go through, I certainly won’t complain again, neither will I quibble over paying an extra £1 for dinner compared to Thailand. It’s easy to forget how lucky we are, and how easy our lives are in the UK.

On that slightly sombre note, I’m orry for the short history lesson, but I feel it’s not a subject widely known at home, and that it my new insights on this wonderful and beautiful country may also be of interest to any of you reading this. I hope it is.

Until next time,

E

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