Aside from our hellish ride from Luang Prabang, Vientiane was actually pretty nice, even though other travelers and online reviewers said to skip it. It’s pretty small for a capital city, but that just makes it easier to get around, and the sun actually shines here (in contrast to Luang Prabang). We rented bicycles and saw the “monuments” such as Patuxai Arch (the Lao version of the Arc de Triumph), Phra Tha Luang (the nation’s most sacred religious monument), Buddha Park (a park filled with oddly-shaped Hindu and Buddhist statues), and the COPE Center (an organization that provides prosthetic limbs to Laotians). Given that they were colonized by the French, some find it ironic that the Laotians would build a monument meant to mirror the French historic site, but I think its pretty common for colonies to model their cities off those of their colonizers.
At the COPE Center we learned about the so-called “Secret War” the US had with Laos from 1964 to 1973 (coinciding with US efforts to stem the spread of communism during the Cold War/Vietnam War). I had never heard of it before so the information was particularly interesting. Apparently over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during that period (in contravention of the Geneva Convention, which expressly prohibited the use of force in Laos specifically). Worse yet, up to 80 million of these bombs failed to explode (they are called unexploded ordinances or UXOs), leaving millions of live, undetonated bombs in schoolyards, fields, underneath homes, and other areas where people encounter them in their daily lives. Apparently one person dies or is injured by a UXO every week in Laos, 40% of whom are children. The COPE Center provides prosthetics to many of the injured.
The best part of Vientiane, however, was hanging out with Carlos, whom we had met in Bangkok. We met for drinks at Jazzy Brick, where his friend was playing live music, then went for dinner at Muzaik. The food was incredible. We had salmon laab, Luang Prabang weed (it’s like a seaweed crisp sautéed in olive oil), skirt steak, Pad Thai, and kale with fish (the most flavorful kale I’ve ever had).
Back to Carlos. He was, to us, one of those “most interesting man alive” types. He told us about how he quit his job some 15 years and traveled to Tunisia by boat from London. He twice (TWICE!) tried to walk through the Sahara Desert, getting lost both times and twice being saved by a random passersby. The first time, he had lost his way in a sandstorm. By the time it ended, all his “markers” had shifted. Some time later, a man appeared and took him back to his home. The second time, he had drank all of his water to get rid of the weight he was carrying, thinking he had only a short distance to go. It turned out he had 5 hours. Fortunately, he encountered a woman who allowed him to follow her through the desert. He spoke of visiting the pyramids in Egypt, riding up the Nile, and just exploring. His experiences were incredible. We were both entranced and jealous.
Afterwards, we went to his friends’ birthday party, chatted with new friends, danced the night away, and Shazamed a bunch of music. As it was in Thailand, the music was on point!