I spent a good portion of my day today at the COPE Centre in central Vientiane – their exhibit was more eye-opening and moving than I had expected. COPE is an organization that helps fit disabled Lao people with prostheses and ortheses. In many ways they are similar to other aide organizations except for one thing: the majority of the people they help have lost their limbs in accidents with UXO’s (unexploded ordinances) that are leftover from the Vietnam war. Although there were never any American GI’s stationed in Laos, there were an estimated 260 million cluster bombs dropped in eastern Laos in an attempt to stop the flow of munitions to the Viet Kong army across the border in Vietnam. About a third of these cluster bombs failed to explode on impact and they are still in the fields and jungles today, ready to explode with the slightest jostling.
You can read the basic facts on their website http://www.copelaos.org but there are some things that just don’t translate onto a 2 dimensional webpage. The most striking thing is that many of these UXO’s are found at/near the surface and instead of keeping a safe distance, many Lao people see it as an opportunity to make some easy money from selling the scrap metal and they don’t hesitate to handle the UXO’s or even dismantle them to remove the detonators and high explosive. Needless to say, this often doesn’t end well. And many of them are children who just don’t know any better.
Not many tourists make it to this exhibit – its pretty grim compared to the pretty Buddhist temples and enchanting cafes. But its reality and anyone who claims that they want to see the ‘real Lao’ should come here. A little goes a long ways – a prosthesis here costs as little as $15 and it makes a huge difference in people’s lives so I would encourage anyone to make a donation through the website.
In the evening I dropped my gear at a cheap hotel and ventured out to find some dinner. A few blocks away there was a big commotion on the corner and a crowd had gathered around a small group of girls and their steaming hot pots. I’d found my dinner! I got a Pad Thai, their specialty it seemed, that put to shame every Pad Thai I’ve ever had before. It was so good that I went back for another. The fresh-cooked doughnuts on the way back to the hotel were also pretty sublime. I wandered around the streets for a while, enjoying the cool evening air and thinking that this was a nice ending to a great trip.
The next morning I packed up and hit the ATM one last time on my way back to the C.O.P.E. center. Knowing that Lao money is virtually unexchangeable anywhere other than central Vientiane, I had budgeted well and had very little cash on my last day. Normally that’d be just great but, in this case, it meant that I wasn’t able to make a cash donation at the C.O.P.E center the previous day. And so I became a millionaire once again and I walked back to the center with a pocket bulging full of bills. When I plunked them down on the counter, the clerk hardly knew what to do. Apparently, they don’t often get such large donations. She even called down one of the doctors, a British lady, who thanked me profusely before I sauntered back out and caught a tuk-tuk to the Airport.