A Lesson In Perspective

My long long wait at the consulate this morning ( more of which to come) was by anyone’s standards awful, sitting around for 2 and a half hours to hand in some papers and another hour and a bit to pay for the privilege made me a little grumpy.

But boy did I give myself a lesson in perspective this afternoon.

Without a small one in tow I was able to visit a place that I wanted to see last time round but was unable to due to point blank refusal and tiredness of said small person.

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COPE visitors centre is located within the grounds of the Vientiane rehabilitation centre. COPE is a non profit organisation that, amongst other things, provides prosthetic limbs and support for victims of unexploded ordinance (UXO) in Laos. The fact that this organisation is so desperately needed is a shame on the western world.

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Now while I don’t have the best grasp of recent history I do credit myself with a little knowledge of the Vietnam war. I’ve been to the movies. But what I learned recently was both surprising and shocking. This afternoon reduced me to teary mess.

Now what has the Vietnam war got to do with Laos ? It’s a different country which was neutral and not directly involved in the war. Yes, it borders Vietnam, but it wasn’t involved was it?

Horribly the answer to that question is an emphatic yes. But not through its own choice. The Vietnamese troops used Laos as a supply corridor and as such it was considered by the US army as an ally and therefore a legitimate target. Despite agreements made and ratified by the Geneva convention the US army dropped more bombs on Laos between the years 1964 and 1973 than were used by all troops combined in the Second World War. It is estimated ( using the US army’s own statistics ) that more than 2 million tons of ordinance were dropped on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions, equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. A country that wasn’t supposed to be involved in the war.

The US army used the reasoning that they were destroying the supply lines of the Vietnamese troops to justify the bombing in what they called ‘ the other theatre’. Even if it were only that it would be atrocious, what I learned today is that If a plane missed its designated target in Vietnam it was under orders to use one of the ‘free drop zones’ in the north of Laos to divest itself of its payload as it was unsafe for it to land fully loaded.

It is estimated that around 70% of these bombs detonated as they should have at the time, which means that around 30% didn’t. 30% of unexploded cluster bombs still on the ground. That’s an approximate 80 million explosives primed and ready to explode when they are discovered. EIGHTY MILLION.

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Since the end of the war ( that Laos was NOT in ) over 20,000 people have been killed. Over 8,000 of those were children.

It has been dubbed ‘The secret war’ as many of these details have only come to light in the west in last 20 years.

The legacy of these unconscionable acts is that 1/3 of the land mass of Laos is deemed to be unsafe due to the high presence of UXO. 1/3 of the landmass. That is a HUGE amount of land that could potentially kill you. As over 70 % of the population is dependent on farming not just as a living, but to feed their families the amount of families that risk death and disability by the simple act of ploughing a field, or lighting a fire to cook is phenomenal.

The trade in scrap metal is big business in Laos, many people supplement their small incomes by selling scrap metal to foundries. Due to the vast amounts of ordinance dropped during the war there are a lot of metal fragments to be found in the overgrown wilderness. It was this that reduced me to a watery mess this afternoon as I watched the story, told just a few years ago, of a small boy who went out looking for scrap with his friends so that he could afford to buy a present for his mothers birthday.
Both of his friends died instantly when they found an unexploded cluster bomb. Hamm, the little boy in question, was badly injured but none of the hospitals nearby had any supplies that could help him and he died in agony several hours later. He was 9. The same age as my little girl.

Laos is an extremely poor developing nation, something that is easy to forget when sitting in a terrace bar in the capital city, and there just isn’t the money available to clear the huge swathes of contaminated land. 50 years after the end of he war and just 1% of the land has been declared safe. Until 100% of this land has been cleared the economic and social development of this country is effectively stalled.

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There are many organisations that are trying their best to do this and deal with the fallout, but without funding there is little that can be done.

I will add some links at the bottom of this post and if you feel so inclined then please donate if you can. If you can’t then at least spread the word so more people can know what is happening today, now, because of a 50 year old conflict that continues to claim innocent victims ruin the lives of generations.

Jer Gan Mài

COPE Laos

legacies of war

UXO Laos

MAG international

Flying Solo

I’m oddly unenthusiastic about this trip.

I’m off to Vientiane in Laos to apply for my one year Thai Visa.
The reason I’m going to Laos is that you cannot apply for an education visa inside Thailand. It has to be done a a consulate or embassy on foreign soil and Laos is the most convenient .
No. I don’t know why I have to leave the country either, but I do, so here I am at the airport waiting to board my flight for Udon Thani. Yes I know I said I’m going to Vientiane but it is half the price to get a flight to Udon Thani and cross the ‘ Friendship Bridge’ into Laos from Thailand by bus.

Ah visa runs……

I’ve been to Vientiane before, last year when small one needed her Education Visa. And as much as I was looking forward to it I really didn’t have a good time.

When you first do a visa run there is always an element of confusion and chaos as you are not really sure of the procedures or which lines you need to stand in to get the right forms and such, add to that a very tired and confused 8 year old and it’s a joy I can tell you.

There are a few oddities at the Laos border crossing that its worth being aware of before you go.

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1- while you can pay the visa fee in thai baht the preferred currency, and cheapest option by far, is US dollars. 35 of them to be precise. Unless it’s a weekend when you will be asked to pay an extra dollar for ‘overtime’. ( T he irony of the preferred currency being the US dollar in Laos is not lost on me and if you have even the smallest grasp of Laos/ US history it should not be lost on you either ).

2- the Laos visa on arrival form is available to download online. Don’t bother. The actual form given to you is a very particular and specific size and any other sizes are not accepted. It really doesn’t take long to fill in the correct one.

3- it is advisable to ensure that the bills that you use to pay the visa fee are spotlessly clean and un wrinkled. This may sound silly but, I can assure you after the near fiasco we had last time, border officials will refuse to accept any bills that have even the tiniest smudge or wrinkle. I have been told that ‘some’ will accept blemished bills, but it’s really not worth the risk of either being refused entry or being stuck with a blemished $100 bill that can only be exchanged in one particular branch of one particular bank in the whole of Vientiane.

4- Be warned that once you are across the bridge you will be at the mercy of the local taxi drivers. You will, unless you happen to be with a local, get overcharged. It will cost you a minimum of $15 to get to Vientiane city.
However; Before you leave Thailand as you wait to get your passport stamped you may be offered a taxi into the city for around $10. It could be a wise move to take this offer as the price rises once you are across. If you are very fortunate the driver will accompany you through the crossing process and magically produce all the forms you need so you can fill them in on the way over the bridge ( there is a mandatory 20 baht bus fare for the bus that actually takes you across the actual friendship bridge ) . This only applies if you get a seat. It is usual for the bus to be packed far beyond normal capacity

Once the formalities of the crossing and taxi negotiation have been completed it is a short ride to the city itself. A city which is peculiarly similar to most other northern thai cities, yet in many ways starkly different.

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At first glance Vientiane seems like a vibrant multicultural city, but most of this is an illusion due to the huge numbers of ‘visa-runners’ who are simply passing through.

As little as 5 years ago it was still considered to be somewhat quirky to visit this cheap and cheerful corner of communist south east Asia, but the taxi drivers and street vendors soon got wise to the sheer volume of tourists passing through on visa runs for various other SEA countries and prices have been driven up to such a high that it is comparable cost wise more with western nations than eastern. There is also an unusually high level of aggressive street begging with many reports of people being followed around the city for hours at a time by groups of ragged looking children.

It was not children that spooked small person on our last visit, but a clearly unfortunate man who saw us having lunch in a side street cafe and decided to help himself to small ones bottle of pop from the table. Despite being chased out of the cafe by the owner he waited for us to finish and followed us down the road wailing and begging for money.
Now I’m not heartless and clearly he had suffered much in his life, but when he started tugging on my bag from behind it was more than time to flag down an overpriced taxi and get out of Dodge.
Of course i cannot blame people for trying to exploit the ‘rich white tourist’, but it has gone so far now that many people, myself included, will only come back to this city because they have to rather than because they want to.

Which is a great shame as I’m sure the city has many charms and wonderful sights to see, but to be honest after my last trip here I’m really not that inclined to seek them out.

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It’s now around 5 hours since I started this blog post and I am ensconced in the comfort of my hotel room with a take away dish of delicious smelling mystery food and a couple of cans of beer Lao. The rain is thundering down outside and ensconced I shall stay till the early morning sees me take my place in the first of many lines at the Thai Consulate. Once that is done and dusted I will try to walk around the city with fresh eyes and see the beauty that is here rather than relive the disappointment of the last trip.

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Wish me luck.

Jer Gan Mai