Everyone that visits here for the first time is always amazed at just how different it is from other countries in South East Asia. From the lack of traffic to the ease of bargaining and the genuine kindness of its people, Laos is definitely a place to see before the rest of the world discovers this tranquil oasis.
Its been a few years since I've been to its capital city, Vientiane and whilst its definitely changed from the sleepy town it was back in 1999 when I first visited, it is still a far cry from the hectic pace of its neighbours in Bangkok and Hanoi.
It still has the vibe of a country town rather than a capital city and you can still safely cross the road and wander the streets without the threat of being mowed down by a motorbike or harassed by tuk tuk drivers or street peddlers.
As well as seeing the obligatory tourist sites of Wat Phrae Keo, the serene Wat Sisket with its hundreds of Buddha statues, the famous That Luang Stupa and Praxay monument gate we also spent time getting to know a different side of Lao.
One of the places on everyone's must see in Vientiane should be a visit to the COPE visitors centre which aims to highlight the enormity of the damage done to this beautiful country and its people as a consequence of the American/Vietnam war. Often referred to as the "secret war" most do not know that from 1964 to 1973 that the US and its allies dropped over 2 million tones of ordnance over Lao in 580,00 bombing missions - the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for 9 years! The damage done at the time and the enormous and destructive legacy of these bombs are still impacting on the people of Laos with many men, women and children still being killed or maimed by the remnants of these bombs everyday.
COPE - the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise is run to ensure that people with physical disabilities have local, free access to a quality, nationally-managed rehabilitation services. http://www.copelaos.org/index.php
One of the highlights of our of our time in Vientiane and one of the best experiences of the whole trip was a visit to the fantastic Laos Disabled Women's Development Centre (LDWDC). Run by a small group of dedicated women this fantastic organisation aims to create practical opportunities for people with disabilities through vocational training and life skills training and advocate for the rights, recognition and equal opportunity of disabled women by promoting awareness and raising the profile of disabled women.
When they have sufficient funds the centre sponsors up to 30 women with disabilities from all over rural Laos to come into the centre for intensive training in a range of activities from weaving and sewing to paper crafts and computer skills. Participants get to specialise in an activity of their choice and are then equipped with the skills and supplies to be able to go back home and make a sustainable income for themselves.
The centre also employs and continues to support a number of women who live at the centre. These women actively produce a number of products which the centre is then able to sell, ranging from cooking pots to gorgeous cotton weaving, handmade banana paper and a host of beautiful recycled paper crafts.
We spent a wonderful afternoon with these inspiring women, touring the centre, having lunch and trying our hand at recycled paper crafts. W also had the privilege of participating in a moving Bacci ceremony conducted by the local Sharman. This ancient ceremony is based on the Lao belief that the body has 32 spirits and that when these wander from the body you are prone to sickness and bad luck - this ancient ceremony brings them back to you!
I was so impressed with the centre and the fantastic work they do that I'm hoping to work with them in the future to take small groups of talented women with me to help in expanding their training to offer a number recycled crafts. http://laodisabledwomen.com/
We also spent a morning at the fabulous Houey Hong Weaving Centre. I first visited the centre back in 2007 and am pleased to report that 10 years on they are still going strong and offering more fantastic classes and producing some of the most beautiful weaving you will see in all of Lao. Established to provide various skill levels, in weaving, dyeing and tailoring for women from rural areas who are disadvantaged, poor and/or who have a disability the centre is also an important player in the revival of Lao’s traditional crafts, such as natural dyeing and traditional weaving.
We took the half day natural dyes class which focusses on using shibori dyeing techniques which was great fun. I look forward to going back again and trying out some of its other classes on offer!