Taking it Easy

Trip Start Nov 20, 2013
Trip End Nov 24, 2014

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, Vientiane Prefecture,
Monday, May 19, 2014

Vientiane is Laos' capital city and although it is different from everything else we've seen in Laos, it's also different from other capital cities we've seen. Vientiane is more developed than the rest of Laos and even has a three story shopping mall (it was interesting to learn that people who visit the city from the remote jungle villages call the escalators "electronic ladders"), but it lacks high rises, and even sites to be seen. This led us to a lot of time spent in the hotel room taking advantage of good wifi. It's such a contrast to the rest of the country.  So far during our three weeks here, we've seen hundreds of villages where people live in shacks and without electricity. Yet, here in Vientiane, it's not uncommon for the locals to live more like people in big cities in North America as opposed to their hunter and gathering and sometimes jungle-living neighbours in Laos.  A perfect example of Vientiane vs the rest of the country was a pizza restaurant we ate at a couple of times here that was packed with locals.  The price was still cheap compared to North American standards, but much pricier than other restaurants we've eaten at here that are also frequented by locals.  There's no way the majority of people we've seen and come in contact with to this point in Laos could afford to eat in a restaurant like this, yet in Vientiane, it was full of locals.  We had a funny experience here.  The first time we went, we ordered take-out and wanted the salad bar.  They gave us a good-sized plastic container and we filled it up as much as we could.  Yesterday when we ate it, Jason again ordered the salad bar.  Yet, when the plate was brought to the table, it was about a third of the size of the take out container and we were only allowed to go up once.  Jason did and did his best to fill it.  As we were eating, we noticed a woman spending about 45 minutes at the salad bar meticulously placing vegetables in different parts of her bowl not to waste any space.  It was like an art form how she made her plate and we needed to take a photo of her masterpiece!

We ended up staying in Vientiane longer than we intended to, not because we loved it here, but because of great internet and the fact that I wasn't feeling so well. It wasn't our all-time favourite city, but it still had a "Laos" feel to it and we really do enjoy it here.  Each day here, we did brave the extreme heat of Vientiane and ventured out into the streets. We saw Patuxai, a war monument, the presidential palace, the night market, a fantastic DVD store (because we really need more movies...we only had about 30 that we had yet to watch...), and my favourite place here, the COPE centre.  

COPE stands for the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. It's a centre that makes prosthetics and provides other services for victims of the UXOs (unexploded ordnances - bombs dropped 40 years ago which can still go off today). This centre does its best to deliver informative pamphlets to remote villages in Laos that are affected by UXOs and do not know about the services available to them. The centre shares the stories of many victims and provides information about how they help these people. We learned that over one third of the country's land is affected by UXOs and therefore, development is strongly hindered. We watched a documentary of a young family that is struggling because the husband and father of two was blinded as a result of a bombie exploding under the ground where he was lighting his nightly fire in the backyard to make dinner. It was difficult to hear and see the challenges this young family now faces as a result of the father not being able to work or look after his children as well as he'd like to be able to. It was interesting to learn about and see the many homemade "prosthetics" people used before being properly fitted by COPE. COPE helps many people in Laos, not just victims of UXOs, and they provide occupational therapy and corrective club foot measures, both which have only recently been introduced to the impoverished country.

Vientiane is busier than other places in Laos and this is most evident in the evenings. Along the Mekong River there are many restaurants and a large night market that are set up daily. For the first time maybe this trip, we ran into a situation tonight where we ran into a language barrier.  We ate a riverside restaurant and when the menu came Jason had some questions.  The menu was in Lao with some very loose english translations.  There were 4 or 5 different things on the menu that said "Green curry with soup" and they all had different prices.  When the waitress came to take the order, Jason tried to ask the difference between the two by pointing at the menu.  She didn't really understand and at some point said "not same", but Jason could tell we weren't making progress, so he just pointed at one on the menu and said, "ok".  A few minutes later, she brought green curry.  About 10 minutes after that, a waiter came to our table with chicken noodle soup.  Jason and I shook our heads no and he looked confused and went back to the waitress who took our order with the soup.  When he returned, he brought the soup and the menu and pointed to an item on the menu that was translated to english and read "Green curry with soup"! So, when Jason pointed to different "green curries with soup" on the menu to try to figure out the difference, the waitress interpreted it as ordering both.  Jason had two massive meals and needless to say, felt extremely and uncomfortably full afterwards.

Around the area of the Mekong and the riverside restaurants, fitness seems to be the main attraction in the evenings. There are large amounts of people jogging, cycling, and joining in aerobics classes. We also saw a ton of basic outdoor gym equipment being used by many people. Yet even with all the activity around, the city is still calm, relaxed, and slow moving, just like we've come to expect in this country. The amount of Beer Lao everywhere is insane, but the entire country lends itself to sitting and sipping a beer or two as a result of its relaxed and slow pace.
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