Prior to arrival, I had been warned on three separate occasions about how little there is to do in Vientiane, the implication being that a stay there should be as brief as humanely possible.
I found, however, that two nights in Laos’ charming capital, was a great way to learn more about the laid-back, beautiful country.
A 15 minute walk from the city centre, my visit to COPE (on Khou Vieng Road) proved to be a very moving, informative and powerful experience.
The centre is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. But it is also a tribute to Laos’ unideal title of “most heavily bombed country per capita”. As I learnt, about 80 million of the 270 million bombs dropped on Laos (Vietnam War spillover) failed to explode.
So, the visitor centre educates about the dangers of and recovery from the cluster bombs that still occupy much of the country. 30% of those that COPE helps are victims of these bombs exploding (many poor, rural villagers try and make a living from collecting scrap metal, putting them at risk).
I knew little about any of this history, so found it particularly interesting, though, obviously, distressing. Though small, the centre was well organised and the staff were happy to help. As well as a main room, there’s a cinema-type section with various documentaries on UXOs (unexploded bombs) and the many countries suffering because of their usage in war.
The stories of young, innocent people suffering because of war’s consequences were genuinely heartbreaking.
The exhibitions also contained explanations of the services COPE provides: from prosthetics to therapy, all the while covering all costs for rural families that can’t afford help.
If a relatively cold-hearted cynic like me could be so touched by the horrors, the stories and the much needed help, then I don’t doubt that anyone would be. These examples illustrate the amazing work much better than I can:
Entry was free, which I think is misguided. Anyone knowledgeable about COPE would happily pay a few pounds, at least, to assist in fundraising efforts. But the gift shop and cafe on site are a good way of helping, since all proceeds go to COPE’s work.
Overall, a great use of two hours and an even better cause.
After a fab lunch at Lao Kitchen, a sunset by the river and a browse in the nearby night market, it was time for another meal and another great organisation.
Makphet is a restaurant in Vientiane (#78, Ban Inpeng Vat Chanh Tha) run by the charity Friends International. It aims to help former street youth and those from marginalised groups by developing their skills in the hospitality industry.
This translates to providing them with on-the-job training (they work as waiters etc), education and support for their future goals.
It doesn’t hurt either that the restaurant is set in a charming French-style villa and that all its profits go to the cause.
It’s also a growing chain, present in Sihanoukville, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh (Cambodia).
It’s slightly pricier than many restaurants in the area (mains are approx 50-60,000 Kip, which is £5ish), but the menu is extensive and most dishes on it looked very tempting.
My friend and I opted for the ‘smoky eggplant dip’ to share for starters. The flavours were undeniably more smoky than eggplant-y, but it was chunky, home-made and very tasty.
My generously portioned main course was ‘curried mushroom and coconut soup with peanuts and rice noodles’. It was pretty spicy, pretty filling and just plain pretty to look at. (You dunk and disperse the noodle bundles into the soup, fyi.)
The service was a little hesitant but extremely well-meaning and friendly. For under £15, the tasty meal for two left us satisfied both physically and emotionally (yep, I just cringed at myself).
It’s definitely worth checking out, as is COPE. Both organisations are both simple, unpretentious and very sweet.