Lockdown Armchair Travel – Laos – March 2013

Whilst we’re not all (currently) still in proper lockdown, travel is still a risky business, so let’s continue with L – which is for Laos, one of the three countries we visited in 2013 as part of our Indochina tour. A gentle, spiritual, welcoming country with some fascinating secrets.

So what do you think of, when you think of Laos? Do you actually think of anything?! Maybe this:


Young novice monks, seen everywhere – but more of them later. We started our five days in Laos in the capital – Vientiane.


Of all the world’s capitals, this must have the least traffic. The statue of Chao Anouvong, the King of Vientiane from 1805 – 1828, welcomes you from his plinth alongside the Mekong.


This is where the President, Bounnhang Vorachith, lives. Laos is a one-party, Communist state, but you wouldn’t really know it from day-to-day life. Not as a tourist, at least.


In the centre of a roundabout is a stupa, which many believe is inhabited by a seven-headed nāga (a snake deity) who tried to protect them from an invasion by the Siamese army in 1827. If it gets in your way you can refer to That Dam Stupa – which is exactly what it’s called.


Our tour took us first to Buddha Park, 25 km out of town, which is a somewhat bizarre place. Opened in 1958, and with so many proper temples around, one wonders why they felt the need to create a kind of Disneyland to Buddha. None of the buildings is sacred.




Weird. But they do sell great barbecued bananas.


Back in to Vientiane, and time to see some temples. Pha That Luang is a reconstruction of a temple that was destroyed in the Franco-Thai War and was rebuilt after the Second World War.





Nearby is the Lao Tripitaka Research Centre, another temple/library where the monks learn and study.



and the temple at Wat Sisaket – built in the early 1800s.




In the centre of the city is the Patouxi Gate, built in the 1960s to commemorate the country’s struggle for independence from France. Amazing view from the top!



Then we had a trip around the food market. At times you needed a strong stomach…







Our final sight in Vientiane was the fascinating – and sad – COPE centre. This is a museum/visitor centre relating to the prevalence of the use of prosthetic limbs in Laos due to the amount of unexploded land mines. It makes for a sobering visit.





The next day we flew to the beautiful city of Luang Prabang for three fantastic days. We stayed at the wonderful Xienthong Palace hotel, which was perfectly located by the banks of the Mekong – and why not, it was the last residence of the Lao Royal Family!


The centre of Luang Prabang is very small and everywhere you want to go is easily visited on foot. Our first port of call was to visit Wat Ho Pha Bang, a Royal Temple completed in 2006 to house the Phra Bang Buddha image.


It’s stunningly beautiful.


With ornamental nagas


exquisite architecture


ornate decorations


moody windows


majestic columns


and picturesque views.


Next we went out of town to visit a silkworm factory – here are the little blighters


and this is where they make clothes and material out of the silkworms’ hard work!


Back in town, we visited the Wat Xieng Thong, a very striking Buddhist temple that’s now over 450 years old.



I particularly like the ornamentation on this pink wall!


One of the fun aspects of Luang Prabang is that there’s a good variety of bars and restaurants for an enjoyable night out!


and I can definitely recommend:


The next day was mainly devoted to a delightful Mekong River Trip. I could bore you with hundreds of photos of the Mekong. Here are just a few.














During the trip we visited the Pak Ou Caves, and had lunch nearby. The caves are full of miniature Buddhist sculptures, and make quite an extraordinary sight in that particular location.



At sunset, we did what all tourists to Luang Prabang do, and that’s to ascend Mount Phou Si and watch the sun go down over the city.



After the sun has descended, so do the tourists, into the waiting arms of the stallholders of the Night Market.



and our favourite watering hole, the Opera Bar. (This, however, is the Xieng Muan Garden Restaurant, also very nice!)


On our final day we got up early to offer alms to the monks. You do this by giving them lumps of sticky rice. Sounds neither appetising nor healthy, but it’s a tradition that goes back a long way. The rice is cooked like this


Then dried like this


And then the monks all file out of the temple



and collect the rice, that has been given to them by the people, in their shoulder bags


It is then taken back to the temple kitchens for the monk chefs to prepare it into something pallatable for breakfast.


This particular temple houses an Emerald Buddha.


It’s actually made of glass but I don’t suppose that matters.



I caught this boy looking wistfully out of the window. I often wonder what he was thinking. I’m not sure he was happy with his lot. I wonder what has happened to him.


There’s a school nearby, which looks surprisingly modern in comparison with the simple lifestyle of the monks.


Later we took a trip out to the Kuangsi Waterfall Park


which also houses the To Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre


and those bears have a great, safe time!






The waterfalls are beautiful and are a great place for people to relax.




Coming for a swim?


At the end of the day we headed to the airport to get our flight to Hanoi, more of which in a few weeks time! On the way we stopped at a rather sad little craft village where desperate villagers made all sorts of desperate attempts to sell you their rather desperately underwhelming products. Wasn’t a great experience, to be honest.


Mind you, it was worse for the rats


And there you have it – Laos in a nutshell. I remember its beauty, its tranquillity, and its sense of humour, which you could see everywhere!



This is where you go for remedial treatment for venerteal disease – nasty!


I didn’t fancy the testes of tea


Two more things – incredible spiders!!



and the usual quirky sights – novice monks everywhere


hard-working fishermen


vintage cars outside restaurants as a promotion feature


egg delivery by moped


beware of the bridge!



Thanks for accompanying me on this lookback of a few days in Laos. Next regular blog will (probably) be back to the theatre programmes and some shows I saw from November 1982 to March 1983. Stay safe!



Indochina – Laos – Luang Prabang

Clean toilets at Vientiane airportOur early morning flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was courtesy of Lao Airlines. To be fair, they don’t have a great reputation, and just a few months after we flew with them, one of their aircraft was involved in a crash with no survivors. There didn’t seem anything particularly wrong with our flight, although it was delayed, which gave me time to take this amusing photograph of a sign that encourages you to keep the toilets clean at Vientiane airport. Let’s just say, it’s not an airport where you’d choose to linger.

Hotel Xiengthong PalaceDriving to the hotel, the auguries were good. The town has a lovely relaxed atmosphere, like a Buddhist version of a clean mountain spa, with good walks, lots of temples and plenty of places for après ski. We couldn’t wait to investigate. Our hotel was the Xiengthong Palace, and entering it felt like heaven. It was such a beautiful sunny day anyway, and the place looked fabulous. The rooms are beautiful, the staff are friendly and the restaurant, the “Kitchen by the Mekong”, is just superb. A perfect place to dine on the terrace overlooking the river, with exquisite food and immaculate service – that highly sought after blend of politeness and friendliness that many attempt but few achieve.

Novices on the streetWe did a little independent recce before our guide, KL, came to take us on our afternoon tour. Luang Prabang feels like a wealthy, well-to-do village. It’s like a Lao Cotswolds, except that everywhere you walk you see groups of novice monks. We were instantly entranced with this beautiful place as we wandered about, and decided that this was definitely a place to come back to. We had to find somewhere for lunch, and we discovered the Tamnak Lao, which had some free places upstairs, not on the balcony (which looked really nice) but inside. Although we lost out on the view, it was still very comfortable and the food was great. I particularly relished my thirst quenching bottle of Beerlao.

Wat Ho Pha Bang Our afternoon jaunt started with a visit to the National Museum. It’s a stunning complex, with its opulent highlight being the Wat Ho Pha Bang, built to house the most sacred of the town’s religious icons, the Pha Bang. Its reconstruction had only been recently completed a short time before we were there which is probably why it looked so beautiful. The generous daubings of gold on a rich red background are enough to make Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen jealous. The complex also houses inter alia the Royal Ballet theatre and a statue of King Sisavang Vong. From the Wat Ho Pha Bang you take a stately walk down the broad path that leads to the National Museum itself, which features French and Lao architectural styles and royal apartments. Sadly they don’t let you take photographs, so you’ll just have to imagine it. To be honest, a lot of the exhibits were a bit on the – dare I say it – boring side.

SilkwormsTo take a break from the lavish religious buildings, we then visited the Ock Pop Tock weaving centre. Here you can see the traditional textile work of the Lao people created by modern artisans as well as watching them at work. You can also meet the silkworms, which is always an enjoyable, if slightly itchy, experience, as they wriggle and munch their way through their mulberry leaves getting fatter and producing more silk. Ock Pop Tock’s products are lovely, and it’s a great setting, but we thought it was all a bit on the expensive side.

Wat Xieng Thong mosaicsBack to Luang Prabang, our final visit of the day was to Wat Xieng Thong, a magnificent monastery with several highly decorative outbuildings, which feature mosaics on the external walls, depicting Buddhist scriptures. Boats decorated with nagasDespite some scaffolding inside, it’s still a fascinating place to walk around, and I found the boats, in the form of nagas, particularly interesting. Many of the Lao kings were crowned here in the ordination hall. That's a gong!It’s also got the most elaborate gong you’ve ever seen in your life – J Arthur Rank, eat your heart out.

After a much needed rest, we had dinner at the Kitchen by the Mekong. Mrs Chrisparkle’s concerns for a gluten-free meal were easily put to rest by the chef coming out to meet us and to discuss her precise requirements. Vintage cars outside restaurantThat’s what I call service. Dinner took the form of a multi-coursed banquet, and it was sumptuous. Afterwards we decided to stroll back into town again to see if we could find a suitable watering hole for late night wining – the dining had already been catered for. By night the town is brightly lit with fairy lights and warm glows emanating from bars and restaurants. A nearby restaurant parked vintage cars outside its doors, just because it could, to make it look cool. I think they moved them again in the morning. We then discovered the Opera House Wine Bar, Opera House Wine Bar drinkiesamusingly named as I don’t think there’s an opera house anywhere near. But the wine was classy and the atmosphere welcoming. We loved it. A fantastic place to people-watch and while away the final hours of the evening.

Next morning, after a spiffing breakfast, we joined our party for a Mekong river trip. Boat on the MekongThere’s a place you pick up boats just across the road from the Kitchen by the Mekong, and our little group headed off north east up the river out of town. The boats are very comfortable, with nicely varnished wood and rather plush airline-style seats. It’s a very relaxing experience, Water buffalojust watching the world go by, and a very rural world it is. Water buffalo and other cattle, fishermen alone in boats and fisherwomen wading into the river with baskets, Fisherman on the Mekongkids running around, it may feel like the middle of nowhere but there’s a lot going on. In some places the forest comes right to the water’s edge and you see these massive exposed root formations, looking like some unruly wooden stalactites.

Fishing with a basketOur first port of call on the river trip was the Pak Ou Caves. About 25km from LP, the boat moors up and you climb some steepish steps to discover two discreet little caves that contain a big surprise – they are thronging with tiny Buddhas. Roots into the MekongEvery available spare inch of surface will have a Buddha on it. Some wooden, some bronze; standing, reclining, some with orange sashes; but none of them are in good condition, as this is where the locals take broken and tatty effigies for it to be their final resting place, as it were. Pak Ou CavesIt doesn’t matter though – in fact their condition makes the place seem even more unworldly. On the opposite side of the river is a restaurant, whose name I’m afraid I can’t remember, set up to provide buffet lunches to hordes of tourists. It was very nice, but we were both amused and alarmed at how the toilet is basically an overhang into the river.Pak Ou silhouettes Imagine “walking the plank” on a boat except that the plank is enclosed, until you get to a hole at the end… I’ve probably said too much already.

The leisurely route back to LP was via Ban Xang Khong. It’s a very attractive little village, known for its crafts stalls and shops, where you can see the skilled local artisans creating their textiles and their art. Ban Xang KhongNaturally, you can itch at the sight of silkworms doing their thing too. The village’s speciality is the creation of a highly textured paper from mulberry bark. They make excellent pictures and greetings cards, and I confess Mrs C and I spent a few thousand Kips (that’s the rather cute name of the Lao currency) on some very arty cards. We were the only people wandering around the village – we did wonder how on earth those people actually make a living. But, to be fair, it looked very neat and well maintained so I’m sure there’s money in them there mulberry bushes.

Climbing up Mt Phou SiA minibus returned us to LP late in the afternoon in time for a freshen-up and then a walk up Phou Si hill to watch the sunset. Phou Si (pronounced “pussy”, to general childish amusement) means “Sacred Mountain” and there are 328 steps up to a viewingTuesday Buddha station where you get a fantastic view of the town and surroundings. There’s a Buddhist temple (naturally) halfway up, complete with resplendent nagas, and also a splendid Tuesday Buddha in his reclining state. Yes there is a Buddha Sunset from Mt Phou Sifor every day of the week. It’s worth the climb up Mt Pussy to see the sunset, even though there was quite a lot of cloud that night. Get there early if you want a good view – every single tourist in LP will be there as well.

Night MarketFrom there we walked down the other side and into the Night Market. As the name suggests, every night Sisavang Vong Road becomes an open-air market. It’s a fun walk, and I bought a Beerlao T-shirt, which made me look like a Lao Lager Lout. Not bad quality, actually. A lot of the stuff is tourist trash, of course, but they also stock all those arty artifacts that you can find in the craft villages, and it’s a pleasant way to spend a pre-dinner hour or so.

Luang Prabang by nightFor dinner we went to the Three Nagas. It looks quite posh, and the food was excellent, as always in Laos. They had an extensive wine list, with some fairly pricey options, so I started at the cheap end until I found something suitable. Smilingly they went off in search of my first choice (didn’t have any) and then my second choice (didn’t have any). Before I made my third choice I asked them which wines they did actually have in stock. All the expensive ones, quelle surprise. Still, we were on holiday, and the occasion cried out for a decent vino. Afterwards we wandered back to the Opera House bar again, for something equally palatable and this time a darn sight cheaper.

Monks at Wat Xieng MouanThe next morning we were up with the lark to participate in the traditional offering of alms to the monks. KL, our guide, used to be a novice monk himself, and had great insight into the daily lives of these people. Drying sticky rice in the sunYou can give whatever alms you want to the monks as they wander past you, but the usual practice is to give them a piece of sticky rice. All round the town you see people preparing sticky rice cakes for the next day’s alms. KL bought us a clump of it (that’s the most suitable word I can think of for sticky rice in its “dried in the sun” format) and we sat by the kerb, Monks gathering almspulling bits of it off and offering it to the endless queues of monk-men and novice-boys shuffling past us. The offering was placed in a metal bowl, encased in a cloth cover, that each monk had attached to a strap that they wore over their shoulders. For all the world it looked like they were showing off their new man-bags. It was a curious procedure; there was hardly any eye contact from the monks as though there was a sense of embarrassment to it, although I expect that’s not the reason. Maybe they were bored with the same ritual every single day. Mind you, I wouldn’t be happy with a main meal of clumps of sticky rice accumulated from dozens of hands; you found yourself hoping they’d had all their inoculations because I can’t think of a more sure-fire way of spreading disease.

Emerald BuddhaOnce they’d gathered alms from all the tourists (and to be fair, plenty of locals too) the monks trooped back to their temple – in this case the Wat Xieng Mouan – and we followed them. Wat Xieng Mouan means “Monastery of the Amusing City” so some translator, somewhere, at some time, was having a bit of a joke. It’s a smart temple, with a very lavish emerald Buddha that looks like it’s been dunked in Listermint. Novice at the windowI wondered what life was like for these monks and novices. The monks are presumably used to their lifestyle, but some of the novices are very young and must have been removed from their home life – who knows if willingly or not – to live a life of religious devotion. Wistful noviceI caught this one boy looking out of a window in the temple with a look part wistful, part sad. I think back on him and hope he’s ok. Back outside, we walked round the temple and from the side we watched the senior monks preparing all the food they had been given and handing it out for their communal meal. Monks in the kitchenThey are very quiet, dignified, peaceful people, as you might expect, so we left them to enjoy their sticky rice in privacy.

Rickety bridgeWe got back to the hotel at about 7.30am to pack, check out and enjoy a final leisurely breakfast in the Kitchen by the Mekong. We even had enough time to return to the centre of LP for one last look at the rickety footbridge that spans the river. If you dare you can get halfway across and then start swinging it a bit, much to the disapproval of the locals, unsurprisingly. We were too scared, to be honest. Then it was on the bus to the airport via another major sight – the Kuangsi Waterfall Park.

Playful bearsThis is a beautiful park, notable not only for its eponymous waterfall, but also for its magnificent bear sanctuary. These big brutes, who would tear you apart as soon as look at you, frolic innocently in this huge compound where they are rescued and looked after. You can spend ages (we did!) watching their antics.Kuangsi Waterfall I’ve never seen so many bears in such perfect surroundings. The waterfall itself is stunning, and falls down onto terrace upon terrace upon terrace of beautiful blue pools. It’s a very popular site, with lots of hiking and swimming opportunities, and some very enterprising locals have set up a kind of picnic restaurant overlooking the waterfall, where Mrs C and I enjoyed the lunch that they’d brought in big chiller bags out of the boots of their cars.

Hmong VillageRelaxed and fed, it was on to the airport for our final leg but we had time to stop off at a Hmong village, and I have to say, this one wasn’t so clean and wealthy as Ban Xang Khong. Instead of feeling welcomed we felt quite threatened by the place and there was a lot of “heavy sell” tactics going on. Unfortunately, the items for sale were rather poor and shoddy, but we did end up buying something from a Ratcatcherslittle girl who was obviously going to burst into tears if we didn’t. My most memorable mental image of the place though is two boys sat by the roadside, doing nothing in particular, but with dying rats suspended by their feet from the boys’ bike handlebars. The village rat-catchers, I guess. Food for thought.

And that was it; goodbye Laos, and a one hour flight later we would be in Hanoi. Being Lao Airlines, it departed about forty minutes before it was due. Flight schedules in Laos are a bit like serving suggestions.

Indochina – Laos – Vientiane

WelcomeIf you started following my blog because you liked the travel entries, you must have been gravely disappointed recently. It’s all been about theatre and music and stuff like that and not a word about exotic foreign destinations. Sincere apologies for that – mea culpa (if you’re under 25, that’s Latin for My Bad). Fear not – I’m going to put that right – or at least that’s my aim.

Get your hands off my steamed bunWay back in the dim and distant past – March 2013 in fact – Mrs Chrisparkle and I were lucky enough to undertake a three week tour of Indochina, visiting Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. They were countries we’d always hoped to see, and we’d heard amazing things about them from friends who had already been.

Vientiane street sceneLaos was first on our itinerary; an extraordinary little country, with wonderful, kind, friendly, relaxed people. The country itself forms a slim strip of land separating Thailand from Vietnam, and at one time was divided into three principalities – each a different “Lao”. I don’t know if there’s any truth in the story we heard that when it reunified in the mid-twentieth century, that’s when it became Laos – i.e. plural – because it was the three different Laos coming back together again. But I believe you’re still meant to pronounce it Lao, as in the second syllable of “allow” and not Laos as in louse, or indeed, to rhyme with chaos, as I erroneously thought when I was growing up. The people are Lao – that’s their race, their ethnicity; the language is Lao. The cuisine is Lao – and fabulous it is too. The beer is Lao. Everything is Lao.

Peaceful VientianeWe started off in the capital Vientiane for two nights. It’s a French looking name, not surprising with the area’s French colonial past perhaps, but if you think in terms of its being a francophone version of Viang Chan, it makes more sense. Vientiane must be the sleepiest, most laid back capital city in the world. Wide roads with a few cars occasionally sedately driving by. You can park almost anywhere. The South East Asian predilection for motor bikes is evident here, but so much more restfully than anywhere else. The local “ton-up” kids are more like “10 mph” kids. You can almost overtake them on foot. They will stop to let you cross the road, even though it’s their right of way, and always with a beaming smile. I bet they’re so kind to their grannies. A typical street will be a mix of shops, housing, and Buddhist temples and shrines, not all higgledy-piggledy and mish-mashed as in many Asian towns, but nice and neatly laid out and sitting in their own grounds. There seems to be bags of room for everyone, and the people are proud of their environment, keeping it clean and well maintained. I don’t believe we saw a scrap of graffiti anywhere.

Venerteal Disease - nastyOur hotel was the Green Park, and it’s conveniently located just slightly out of the centre but still no distance from the main sights. The rooms are in several blocks located all around the gardens, and it has a very atmospheric sense of being in the jungle, even though you aren’t. We did put up our mosquito nets though, just in case. There’s a nice little bar in the hotel lobby which was where we met our fellow travellers on the first evening – we were a select little group, one other English couple and a solo Swiss lady – and a first floor restaurant with a lovely terrace overlooking the grounds. The hotel has a complementary shuttle bus service to the centre of the town and back; and on the first afternoon, whilst everyone else was unpacking and resting from the long flight – Heathrow to Bangkok, then Bangkok to Vientiane, we couldn’t resist just leaving the bags where they stood and getting the shuttle bus to the town centre for a first walk around the town.

That DamThe bus drops you off at That Dam, which isn’t a manmade barrier to control water levels, but a large stupa that forms the centre of a roundabout. From there we just wandered around, partly following the map and partly our noses, enjoying the unique combination of peace and commerce that you can only find on a Lao street. Plenty of evidence of theDiscount for ladies local sense of humour too, as you can see from these photos. We took a path that led us down to the banks of the Mekong – the mighty river which would follow us all over the subcontinent during the next three weeks – and there we saw the horizon-stabbing statue of Chao Anouvong, King from 1805 – 1828, whose arm extends you a slightly spooky welcome. Local humourIn any other capital such a statue would be a real focus of attention, probably with swarms of traffic seething round it, like the Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome, or with a magnificent Versailles-like park surrounding it. In Vientiane however, it overlooks a completely empty road that goes nowhere. The combination of splendid bronze statue and barren surroundings is really quite eerie.

Chao AnouWe returned to the Green Park for a rest and an unpack, and decided to play it safe by simply eating in the hotel restaurant that evening. The food was fantastic. Lao cuisine is delicately spicy, full of harmonious flavours that really complement each other and tease your tongue with their deliciousness. Comparing it with other food styles I had previously tried, I would describe it as most similar to Thai, but even more so, if you know what I mean. It doesn’t have the brassy self- confidence of Chinese and it was considerably more appealing than the harsh tastes of Vietnamese cuisine we were to “enjoy” later.

Buddha ParkThe next day we were up bright and early for a full day’s sightseeing. First stop was a 16-mile drive out of town to Xieng Thuan, better known as Buddha Park. At first glance you might be excused for thinking this was some ancient religious site, or indeed that it had become a repository where several displaced Buddha statues from all around the country could be reinstalled and brought back to their original condition. Wrong on both counts. It is in fact a glorified Buddha Park statuestheme park, but absolutely fascinating nonetheless, and a useful introduction to the world of Buddhist statuary before you get to see the real thing. A highlight is a large reclining Buddha that is worshipped by locals; but in all there are about 200 religious statues here, not just Buddhist but Hindu too, with some very interesting combinations of the two religions. They were constructed between the 1950s and 1970s by one Luang Phu Bounleua Soulilat, a Lao guru, inspired by the teachings of a Hindu Holy man he met in a cave in Vietnam. Barbecued bananasYou couldn’t make it up. When the constitutional monarchy of Laos fell victim to Communist invasion in 1975, Luang Phu fled to Thailand, where he built another Buddha Park just on the other side of the Mekong. The man was obviously obsessed. Alongside the statues there’s also a big round structure that represents heaven, earth and hell, which you can go inside and peer in the dark at the characters that inhabit each level. The park is a fun place to wander around and – if you dare – it’s great for a spot of hide and seek. There’s a refreshment stall at the entrance – don’t bother with the usual sweets and chocolates, just go straight for the barbecued bananas. They’re gorgeous.

Pha That LuangWe headed back to Vientiane to visit Pha That Luang, the “Great Stupa”, not only an important religious building whose shape represents a lotus bud but also a symbol of Lao nationalism. It’s a very beautiful setting, with further temples beside it, all largely rebuilt in the 1930s. Nearby is the Haw Pha Kaew, once a separate temple but now a museum to Buddhist art. The rooms themselves are decorated with stunningly beautiful colours that take your breath away, let alone the interest of the artefacts themselves. Simply visiting those two sites could easily take you two hours.

PatuxaiFrom there we visited the Patuxai monument. Reminiscent of an oriental Arc de Triomphe in the centre of a beautiful park, this “Victory Gate” was constructed in 1964 to commemorate the fallen during the Lao Civil War. From the top there are fantastic views of the park below and the city – to get to the top you must walk up the steps inside and through a veritable bazaar that is housed within the building itself. Designed to catch the tourists of course, but nevertheless it feels very incongruous. The window openings are nicely obstructed with decorative modern wrought iron designs of Buddha and Lotus flowers, to stop you toppling forward and onto the square below.

Wat SisaketAfter lunch we continued to Wat Sisaket temple, the oldest temple in the city (1818), notable for its wonderful cloisters filled with over 2,000 images of Buddha, nearly all of which were dressed in a bright orange sash. As with so many of these temples the roofs, banisters, and walls are covered with decorative naga motifs – the mystic cobra with a dragon-type head and snazzy claws found in both Hinduism and Buddhism. After a few days of wandering around religious sites in Laos, I got very disappointed if I didn’t spot a naga or two in each place.

Food marketThere are a couple of markets in the city centre. Most interesting was the “everyday food market” – that’s not its title but how our guide described it – with its amazing array of exotic fruits, vegetables and spices, alarmingly side-by-side with buckets of frogs Bucket of frogs(and I can testify, they are indeed mad) and tortoises that we were assured were not for eating but were “placed near food for decorative purposes”. Hmmm. It’s one of those markets where you spend half the time breathing in the glorious scents and feasting on the sights, and the other half dry-retching.

Cluster bomb displayThat was the final part of our organised tour for the day, but before he dropped us off at the hotel, our guide suggested one more visit – the COPE Foundation’s headquarters, that just so happen to be on the other side of the road from our hotel. This is an amazing, thought-provoking and humbling experience. COPE stands for “Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise”, and it provides prosthetic and rehabilitation services for Lao people who are the victims of “unexploded ordnance”. The sad legacy of recent years in South East Asia is that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the entire world, Bombing mapand it is estimated there are still 80 million unexploded bombs there. A terrible price to pay for other countries’ wars. The danger to children playing is obvious. As well as helping to rehabilitate victims of these bombs, there are also those suffering from polio, leprosy and who have other disabilities. COPE is the only organisation in the country that supports these people.

As you walk into the Visitor Centre you are overwhelmed by a number of sights. A graphic model of a cluster bomb releasing its bomblets. A map showing, in blood red, the extent of unexploded ordnance in the country. Stacks and rows of prosthetic limbs are on display, along walls, in piles, even dangling from the ceiling. Dangling prostheticsAnd there will often be a young person who has benefited from the services of COPE there to tell visitors of how they were injured and how COPE has helped them. When we were there, there was a young man on duty, who moved stiffly and looked awkward. He had that recognisable look about him of severe pain mixed with bravery. We decided not to add to his woes by talking to him. But it’s a very moving place to visit – and to appreciate the great work that the Foundation does.

Novices at PatuxaiAnd that was our long first full day in Laos. For dinner we went to the Makphet restaurant, the first of many eateries we would discover over the next few weeks that have been specifically set up to teach local street children the art of running a business, by means of cooking and waiting and general restauranteuring. It gets them started in a proper job and with the hope of a decent future. The Makphet was very enjoyable and the food totally delicious, but it was here that we realised the Lao don’t have any concept of the “starter” when it comes to serving food. Everything came out in one go. Starters, mains, sweets, the lot. Lovely though. The next day we were to have an early morning flight to Luang Prabang, so we were well behaved and didn’t sample the nightspots of Vientiane. To be honest, I doubt there was a lot of choice.