Life and Death in Laos

There have been many a time while travelling over the  past few years when a situation felt a little dodgy or unsafe or uncomfortable, and I coped by repeating a silent mantra to myself,”Nothing bad will happen today.” Since bad things happen every day, my mantra was more a delusional self-soothe than a fact-based reality, but it worked for me.

Yesterday, my mantra was shattered, but I will get to that later.  I want to tell you about the life we have been experiencing in Laos, and how varied it has been as we’ve travelled the country from north to south.

We spent two days in Vientiane, the country’s capitol, referred to by some as a dustier, less charming version of Luang Prabang. We were advised to give it a miss, but since it was a hub for our travels, and also Laos’ capital city, we wanted to see for ourselves.

It has its own Arc de Triomphe, unkindly referred to as a “concrete landing pad.”

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Vientiane lacks the polish and lustre of Luang Prabang – the word “crumbling” comes to mind. The French colonial style of architecture is still evident, but not as well-maintained and not in as great numbers – you have to wander the streets a bit to find the charm.

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The French influence on food is strongly felt – patisseries are authentic, and the butter croissants make a great change from white bread toast in the morning.

The promenade along the Mekong is a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. People start to gather around 4:30 or 5:00, to walk along the river, check out the night market or take in some exercise. We watched a zumba class, but the music was boring, and so were the moves. The aerobics class was quite spirited – I was (almost) tempted to join in.

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We ran into this curiosity – the travelling manicure ladies. At least three or four women called out to me,” Manicure, madam?”  I might have taken them up on the offer if it hadn’t felt so strange to perch on a tiny plastic stool out in public, and have my nails done under questionable hygienic circumstances.

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We actually enjoyed our time in Vientiane very much – it felt more Laotian and less touristy.  We were tripping over temples, and wandered through a few of them. This sign caught our attention, and I was curious as to how many people had smoked on the grounds of a sacred place.

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There are definite signs of affluence here – we saw a mint-condition vintage white Jaguar parked outside a hotel, and a Rolls-Royce tucked on the grounds of an exclusive art gallery. There are bangin’ big Toyota trucks, and Lexus SUVs, and many, many Range Rovers. Cranes dominate parts of the city – foreign investment has hit.

The riches are not available to everyone. This is the first place in Laos where we encountered begging. These women and children passed us and asked for money, and then one of the women squatted down on the city street, hoisted her skirt and peed; a thick stream of urine running down the sidewalk. It was shocking to see the utter absence of basic decorum; her rules (and life) so different from mine.

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A highlight was a visit to the COPE Visitor Centre – part of the rehabilitation centre for people who have lost limbs with UXOs (unexploded ordinances). Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the world: between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 270 million bombs and 80 million of them failed to explode. Forty-four years later, at least one person every day is killed or injured by unexploded ordinances – many of them children. There is a market for scrap metal, and dealers will send out kids to retrieve metal for a small profit to them – and the risk is all theirs. The COPE centre is excellent – very well laid-out, with many displays and short videos. All donations go to prosthetics and ongoing treatment.

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This sculpture was made of 500 kg. of UXO, including cluster bombs, “in memory of those who have been injured, killed or lost loves ones from UXO.” – Anousone Vong Aphay – local artist – 2008.

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Among the many excellent displays is the list of countries who have signed the CCM (Convention on Cluster Munitions) International Treaty. Among countries notably absent from the list is the United States.

Moving on to the slightly absurd – we visited the Buddha Park, a monument to concrete craziness, about an hour out of town. It is far from being a sacred site – more of an Asian theme park – with themes of lust, sex, domination and excess – all enjoyed with flute music wafting over the bamboo fence.

The Big Giant Pumpkin greeted us first –  we had to squat down and squeeze through the gaping mouth to climb inside, walk around three levels and finally reach the top. Safety was at no time a consideration in the building of this monstrosity, but…it made a grand spot for endless selfies.

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Lots of fun wandering around the park for about an hour.

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And then…our reality took a bit of a shift. We wanted to head south from Vientiane to Pakse,  enroute to the 4000 islands. The only affordable travel option was a sleeper bus leaving Vientiane at 8:00 pm, arriving in Pakse at 7:00 am. The bus consists of two levels of bunks, and if you are not intimately associated with your sleeping partner before the ride, you will be after, as the bunks are cozy. We got a lower bunk, two pillows and two blankets. I tried not to think about bed bugs, head lice and long-living bacteria. Armed with our sandwiches and water, we settled in, and surprisingly, we slept quite well.

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The next morning, we transferred to a regular bus for our three-hour ride to the 4000 islands, and that is when tragedy struck.  Our bus driver had been driving carefully and we were about 10 km. away from our final destination. Suddenly the driver hit the horn, hit the brakes and swerved, but could not avoid the motorcycle that pulled out in front of him.

Our bus slid sideways down the hillside, but came to a stop at quite an angle without tipping over. One of the passengers broke the back window and climbed out, followed by two or three others. The front door was jammed so it was a bit intense, but they managed to pry it open. Slowly we made our way out.  Our first reaction was relief  at being off the bus safely, but then we began to realize how serious the accident was.

A man carried the body of a small child, and three men carried the lifeless and bleeding body of a woman and put both of them in the back of a truck. Apparently the motorcycle came up from a side road and just drove across the highway without looking.The driver was pinned under the front of the bus – one of his feet was severed. A couple of passengers were trying to administer CPR, but it was pointless. Someone brought a blanket and put it over his head.

There was a house with several people standing outside, and we felt they must have been related. One of the women was shrieking with the most raw grief and anguish – I will never forget that sound.

We were all in shock  as we began to understand the severity of the accident. It will take a  long time to process.  I will remember the cracked windshield, the pools of blood, the little hat on the road. There is no sense to be made of this – no lesson learned.

 

21 thoughts on “Life and Death in Laos

  1. Sheila February 17, 2017 / 4:08 am

    So very glad that you are safe. We know how dangerous the roads in Laos can be.
    Take care. Sheila and Jim
    Ps we are loving SL.

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  2. Patricia February 17, 2017 / 5:42 am

    How sad. Such a traumatic experience for u & Steve. Im so glad u guys are ok. Take care…

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  3. Kathy Mc February 17, 2017 / 6:18 am

    What a horrible experience, you two. I just can’t tell you how relieved I am that you are both unscathed.

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  4. Annie February 17, 2017 / 6:26 am

    Oh Ginny what a terrible experience. So glad you and Stephen are physically well and you’re right it will take time to get over this. Giant Hugs

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  5. Linda Whitely February 17, 2017 / 6:56 am

    Oh my poor friends, what anguish for you. What a frightening experience! You’re right you will never forget the sounds and sights. Like the above comments we are so happy you were not hurt physically. Big hugs.xoxo

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  6. rohana laing February 17, 2017 / 7:36 am

    Hi Ginniy and Steve, good to hear you are safe. Good piece of writing. Interesting to read your struggles with death and suffering. Like you I struggle to understand and even after many years as a United Church minister I don’t have easy answers! I cant stand some of the pat answers given by some religious people such as ‘it was Gods will”. Suffering and death are part of the way this planet/system/dimension works and I struggle to accept that reality. We can respond with love and compassion and do our best to alleviate suffering and avoid unnecessary accidents and deaths. As an adventure traveler myself, I pray for your safety as you continue your journey. be courageous!

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  7. Junita Bognanni February 17, 2017 / 7:57 am

    Simply heartbreaking…. I am so, so sorry. And equally glad you are both safe.

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  8. Vikki February 17, 2017 / 8:21 am

    My poor friends ! This is not what you would have expected on your adventures but I guess you have yo be thankful your both okay . We can’t image what it must of felt like to experience such a thing , how are you now ?

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  9. Lesley February 17, 2017 / 9:20 am

    So glad you are both physically ok. What a shock though to experience such a terrible accident. Hugs to both of you and here’s to safe travel ahead.

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  10. Cindy Burr February 17, 2017 / 11:16 am

    How incredibly sad and tragic!! So glad you two are physically okay, but what a traumatic experience to go through. Sending hugs to you both.

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  11. Danielle February 17, 2017 / 11:23 am

    The visit to COPE must have been very inspiring!!Just try to erase the accident from your memory, it is a daily occuring in Nam as well, motorbikers are just not paying attenton !!
    Luckily you are both safe !!

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  12. Eveline Boysen February 17, 2017 / 11:53 am

    We all know that to live also means to die, while hoping ours will be a peaceful death. Hopefully being able to write about what you were witnessing has started the healing from this horrendous experience.

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  13. Donna February 17, 2017 / 2:39 pm

    Oh, how absolutely terrible! I am so relieved that you’re physically okay but I imagine it will be some time before you are over the shock. My heart goes out to you both. Sending love and hugs. xo

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  14. linda ogle February 17, 2017 / 3:15 pm

    Be gentle with yourselves. Much love Linda

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  15. Shelley and Tom February 17, 2017 / 3:57 pm

    These tragedies remind us just how fragile human life is and how quickly (and senselessly) it can be taken away – something we don’t usually think too much about until something like this, or some personal tragedy, happens. The shock may even set in later, like a form of PTSD. Talking about it, expressing your feelings as much as necessary is important in the processing of it. Take special care of yourselves.

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  16. Jen Reed-Lewis February 17, 2017 / 5:21 pm

    Oh my, and thankfully you are safe. Take care of yourself and don’t hold back your emotions around the accident. It is important for your own healing to share; these thoughts and feelings have no place being kept in silence. Your circle of friends can hold them for you.

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  17. Heather Scott February 17, 2017 / 7:06 pm

    Words fail me after reading about the accident. Life is fragile; the best we can do is treasure each day as it unfolds.

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  18. Elisabeth Charlotte Dieryckx February 18, 2017 / 10:00 am

    Dear Ginny and Tom, yes, life and death are part of life, there is no escaping it, one way or the ohter. Poor little family that instantly disappeared to death in the blink of an eye….motorcycles are a death trap to my mind, do not like them at all, and fear for those who ride them.
    I am very relieved to know you are both well, that the bus at least did not also have a bad turn.
    take good care of yourselves, thinking fondly of you, love, Lis

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  19. christine737 February 20, 2017 / 10:23 pm

    Oh my goodness Gini, thank heavens you guys are safe.

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  20. Penny Goldrick February 21, 2017 / 6:07 pm

    What a terrible experience. I hope the rest of your trip goes smoothly. Hugs

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  21. Kathryn February 24, 2017 / 10:06 am

    Ginny and Steve, I’m so very glad you are safe and sending you warm healing hugs. thank you for sharing these tragic and beautiful stories.

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