Black & White: UXO and Cope Centre, Laos

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This article was published in Gaya Travel Magazine 8.2 Issue for my column,Black & White. 
In this issue, Black & White highlights on the plight of the landmine victims consisting of innocent Lao citizens and salutes the officials at Cope Centre, Vientiane, who work hard to assist those victims to get back on their feet.
Despite its lush greenery and peacefully laidback environment, Lao has a disturbing thorn on its side: many parts of the country are still replete with Unexploded Ordinance, known as UXO or landmines. It is reported that there are about 7.58 million UXO still unfound and buried throughout the country. These undetonated UXO are part of the 58 million that the United States (US) military placed during the war against the Khmer Rouge.
Many had unfortunately succumbed to the danger of these UXO, some lucky to have survived. A research conducted had mapped the UXO locations, showing that they are largely present in the southern part of Laos. It would take another 100 years for Laos to be totally cleared of UXO. The clearing process is still in progress.

My son is dead! Dead!

“My son is dead! Dead!” screamed a distraught mother in the video. She lost her 6-year old son to the UXO. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I watched the recording of the interview with the parents of the poor child. The boy was out trying to eke his family’s income by following some adults to find scrap metal without realising the danger.
The adults had makeshift UXO detector to protect them but not the children. When the adults were searching in a distant area, suddenly there was a loud explosion that could be heard as far as the other village. Upon hearing, the villagers knew that someone must had fallen victim again to the UXO.
Three innocent young boys were found sprawled closed to each other; close to their almost charred bodies were the pieces of exploded UXO. Though one of them initially survived, he died eventually due to the undersupply of blood and oxygen at the local hospital. This is only but one of the many stories that can be heard about families losing their loved ones to UXO. This heart-wrenching reality is actually a fact of life in Laos.

If I weren’t poor, I wouldn’t have touched the bomb

On one evening, Ta who lives in Khammaoune Province in Southern Laos had gone to the jungle with his children to harvest scrap metal and bomb to be sold in order to feed the family. After walking for a while, he saw a cracked UXO bomb. He remembered how some other villagers had managed to take the TNT inside the bomb and used it to catch fish.
He dreamt of bombing the river so that he could catch large amount of fish, sell it at the market and buy groceries for his family. Little did he know that it was the last time he would still have his limbs. As he was retrieving the bomb, it suddenly exploded, causing severe injury to Ta’s hands and legs. Again, due to the under-supply of blood and oxygen at the local infirmary, Ta was left untreated for nine hours until they managed to get him to a town hospital. By then, the doctor had to amputate his arms and legs. He has now lost the ability to provide for his family, forcing them into deeper poverty.

The Cope Centre

Standing at the door, I was panting after walking a distance from my hostel to this Cope Centre. The signage did not help as I almost missed the centre as it is actually situated inside The Centre of Medical Rehabilitation. But the tiredness, sweat and walking went away as I walked into the centre and was awed by the display of the victims’ stories, prosthetic arms and legs and the UXO.
It started out about 16 years when Power International – an organisation that advances the well-being of people with disabilities in Africa and Asia – initiated the program with the Lao Ministry of Health, groups of non-Government organisations, World Vision and the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics. The effort provides UXO victims with the necessary care and support needed in using the orthotic and prosthetic devices.
The visitor centre gives insight on how COPE works by helping and assisting the victim of UXO and other accidents in Laos. Stories like the “Dead child” and Ta demonstrate the UXO victims’ and their families’ dire needs.
Whenever you are in Vientiane, spare some time to visit the COPE Centre, which is definitely an eye-opener. Your visit means a lot to these people and I am sure you can spare some change to donate to this centre as well.

16 Lao PDR (Please Don’t Rush) Backpacking Tips!

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Laos is well-known for its laidback atmosphere, friendly people and breathtaking landscapes. Despite being the only country in Asia that has the least temples to visit, Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) – or simply Laos – promises the experience like no other.
I am grateful for the chance to explore Laos’ capital city, Vientiane, then to Vang Vieng (which used to be a party town but has now become the hub for eco-tourism) and finally Luang Prabang, the scenic UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What captured my heart to explore Laos were its people whom I met and their heartfelt sincerity and innocence. Below are some tips that I hope would be useful for all travel enthusiasts out there who are keen to explore Laos soon:
1. Hello is sabaidee. It is normal for unknown strangers to greet you on the street – it is polite to greet them back the same way.
2. Thank you is kop chai, but if you are truly happy with the service, kop chai lai lai means ‘you are most welcomed’. By adding lai lai , you are saying ‘very much’.
3. A preferable drinking water brand is Tiger Head. Do not drink straight from the tap. If you are hiking or jungle trekking in Laos, bring a water neutralizer.
4. It is normal to feel like you are being scammed when you pay for transportation in Laos. For example, you may be given a minivan instead of the VIP Bus that you paid for. The best way is to really ask around – usually most tour agents in the town shares the same transport provider.
5. Opt for night travel if you are traveling to Laos’ mountainous Northern Provinces. This will give you the opportunity to greatly enjoy stargazing as the bus climbs up the highway that cut through the highlands.
6. Try the baguette in Laos – it is available everywhere with a variety of fillings to choose from. Do note that baguettes in central Laos are lighter compared to the ones up north. You may find differences in term of texture and taste.
7. There is an exit fee of USD 1 or 10,000 Kip if you exit overland from Laos.
8. Rent a bungalow overlooking the river in Vang Vieng, which offers an experience like no other. It is also one of the cheapest options for accommodation. Price starts from 20,000 Kip to 200,000 Kip (USD 2 to USD 20).
9. Do not be at the riverbank of Mekong River in Vientiane at night. There have been cases reported of undercover police asking for 1 million Kip bribery from unsuspecting tourists.
10. There are curfews for towns in Laos – ask the locals or your hotel/hostel about it. Please adhere to the curfew time.
11. Tuk tuk in Laos will quote the price for the whole vehicle, not per person. It is best to share your tuk tuk transportation with other people.
12. At the outskirts of Vientiane lies and attraction called the Buddha Park. It is possible to get there via the local bus. Though the road leading to the place can be a little grubby, it is an experience on its own! Take the local bus from the bus station and then change to a smaller bus at the Thanaleng border. Price is 8000 Kip one way.
13. The auto teller machines (ATMs) are available in major towns and the most visible bank is called Banque Pour Le Commerce Exterieur Lao Public (BCEL). The ATMs are in blue and red.
14. When the French arrived in Laos over a century ago, they left one enduring legacy: pastries. Try out the croissants, breads and biscuits in some of the many bakeries in Laos. A notable one is Joma Bakery in Luang Prabang, which Mango crumbs come highly recommended!
15. Hiking and jungle trekking is popular in Laos but do follow the path stated or follow the instructions from your guide. This is because Laos is still largely infested with UXO or landmines from the previous war between the American and the Khmer Rouge. It is said that there are about 7.5 million UXOs still buried in many of Laos’ provinces, especially in the south.
16. Mekong river fish, which are fresh and sweet, is abundant in Laos. Do try it out at the local restaurants. The prices range from 25,000 Kip to 50,000 KIP. The best ones are usually by the riverside.
But above all else, if there is only one thing that I must suggest to you to do in Laos, it is to lay back, take your time and enjoy the journey. This is the only country that I am sure you would not be constantly harassed or forced to buy stuff. Laos has taught me to truly appreciate life at a far slower and appreciative pace, which I think could even be the other meaning for PDR – Please Don’t Rush.

Laos, the Unplanned Adventure!

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I still remember when my Editor, Jeremy, handed me the copies of brochures and maps about Laos that he had gotten when attending a conference in Laos earlier, I was still not keen to head to Laos ; well my mind was sold to more cliche destinations such as Angkor Wat and the highland of Sapa. Plus, if my team was already, they probably have covered the area eh? 
 
Little that I know, my adventure this time revolved all in Laos -from meeting great people, great food to gruby-near dead-road condition. Laos left a big impact on me and probably on my future undertakings. Laos took my hand and let me in and hold me from leaving, farewell wasn’t easy. I’ll always look back and remember all those faces who sincerely said “Sabaidee” ( Hello in Laos)  to me. 
A lady who still has family that depend on her -shuffling back and forth to serve passenger. 

 

It seems like crossing overland from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai then to Bangkok via train has became more of a habit or routine every time I backpack to Thailand. Come to think of it, I have never flew in or out from South East Asia country yet except Indonesia. 
 
After arriving, again in Bangkok, my senses were harassed terribly by the noise, pollution and the extreme heat. Not to say I hate Bangkok, it is a great metropolitan city, probably it is matter of preference. Nonetheless, I did had some fun watching movies with two Canadian girls. Till I was in Bangkok, I literally had my passport, my cash and my bankcard with my huge backpacks and yeah NO WHERE TO GO.  
 
Sunrise somewhere nearing the bordering station in Nong Khai
 
I think because my hostel had to kick me out since they had booking and with me not liking Bangkok – I told myself “You gotta start making some move Rayyan!” 
 
There I was buying ticket at Hua Lamphong Train Station in Bangkok to a place that I literally know that it exist on the map yet not in my brain – I have zero knowledge of Laos. I did freak out a bit knowing that the train only arrive at Nong Khai, which is still in Thailand and I somehow how have to get a connection to Thanaleng in Laos PDR.  
 
Upon arriving, it was pretty easy actually though I did feel that this train-connecting thing is more of a tourist thing. No local was in there at all! Alas, the immigration is easy and Malaysian get 30 days Visa FREE! (We all like free things lah) And from Thanaleng Station to  Vientiane town is about 30 minutes and a shared cab was about 80 Baht is or 20,000 KIP
Patuxay, the War Monument that somehow reminds me of Paris.
 
So yeah, I arrived in Vientiane, Laos safely though the taxi driver kinda dropped me half-kilometre away, I think he wanted me to lose weight and decided I better walk. His plan worked, I was like THANK GOD I saw the hostel after the walk. It wasn’t easy I tell you…wasn’t easy. 
 
I decided to stay at Vientiane Backpacker Hostel and it was the best decision I have ever made albeit the bedbugs. That wasn’t easy to handle but am glad there were backpackers from Australia who were so friendly that they gave me to use their pesticide spray. Oh yeah, I asked to change bed the next day. 

 

Buddha park – this WAS THAT HIGH. I was shaking when a friend took my photo.

 

There were lots of things that I did in Vientiane, Laos and I’ll share it with you guys in the next next entry yeah? Till then, I leave you with the super-awesome minibus that I took from Vientiane town to the outskirt village where Buddha Park is situated. It is public transport though, I think it was donated by the Japanese government to aid Laos. 


Till then, keep on traveling peeps! 😀

Currently Backpacking in Vang Vieng, Laos PDR!

It has been 9 days since I crossed the Malaysian border to Hat Yai and then Bangkok. Never really planned for Laos and here I am!
Currently in Vang Vieng town, north of Vientaine. About 3-5 hours away from the capital city of Laos.Also you can find plenty of Air Canada flightsfor this destination if you would like to go backpacking!

The temperature here is amazing, during the day it is Sunny with about 30c but at night it could drop till 15c! That is cold for my Malaysian body. Glad I bought the jumper in Bangkok…
This morning I woke up and saw Andrew already left for tubing. Well, am sharing a 70,000 KIP bungalow with a british guy!
I head out to the town and ate brunch for two hours! The view is just too amazing! Baguatte is famous here, i ate tuna and egg baguattes with coconut and orange shake! Yummieh!
Well till next time, keep on traveling peeps! 😀