It was Tuesday morning and I had a few hours to kill before catching the bus to Luang Prabang so I consulted Trip Advisor for a list of things to do in Vientiane. It didn’t take long to decide on a tuk tuk ride to the COPE Visitor Centre. After all, it was only about 15 minutes away from my hotel and it’s the city’s #1 attraction according to Trip Advisor. One reviewer went as far as saying, “It truly is the ONLY thing worth seeing/visiting in Vientiane.” I read a dozen short reviews and concluded that it’s the kind of place you’d be embarrassed to admit that you didn’t get to even though you spent a week in the city.
You might be asking, “How could you go wrong with the #1 rating on Trip Advisor?” My answer would be that I simply don’t put a lot of faith in Trip Advisor ratings. I’ve learned the hard way that I may not enjoy something just because 8.5 out of 10 people said it was Outstanding. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Whatever floats your boat.” Well, I’m beginning to realize that I’m imminently qualified to be the First Officer on the S.S. Different.
I’ve traveled with people who after 15 minutes had lost all interest in places like the Ashgabat Livestock Market or the hutongs of Beijing whereas I thought each was the highlight of that week or month. I’ve also met people who talk about life changing experiences in temples. My interest in temples (of any religion) began to wane after the third or fourth visit! Had I been dragged through even a fraction of the 27,658 temples I came across while traveling overland between Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, and Istanbul, I would have sacrificed myself a long time ago.
But what are my options for one last day in Vientiane? I could always hang out in the air conditioned hotel lobby watching CNN on their big screen TV. It’s a ho-hum Wednesday in Laos but with the time difference it’s still Super Tuesday in places like Texas and Oklahoma and Tennessee. If I see one more interview of a guy with a mullet and a moustache standing beside his pickup in a church parking lot, explaining why he voted for either Cruz or Trump, I will definitely lose it.
I could always walk down the street to the Sinouk Cafe and order a large hot latte (and likely receive a small banana smoothie) but that place is so horribly managed that I’m afraid I’ll get into an argument with the owner and end up managing or worse buying a cafe in Vientiane. As much as I like Laos, that’s not in the cards right now. Maybe next year, but not right now.
Another option was to walk about three blocks to Dairy Queen. The ice cream tastes just the same as at home, they have a sidewalk patio complete with Louis Ghost chairs and little marble tables and the best people watching on the main drag. But do I need another Oreo Blizzard? (Okay, you didn’t have to answer that in your head!)
No, a short tuk tuk ride to the COPE Visitor Centre sounded like the best option.
By now you’re probably wondering just what a COPE Visitor Centre actually is. I know I was wondering the same thing about five minutes into the Trip Advisor review. I checked the COPE website and was surprised to find two links at the top of the secondary page: “Visit COPE” and “Buy a Leg.” That’s different, I thought. We’re not talking KFC, I assumed, so why not check it out?
According to the site, “COPE is a local not-for-profit organization that works in partnership with the Centre of Medical Rehabilitation (CMR) and provincial rehabilitation centres to provide access to both orthotic/prosthetic devices and rehabilitation services, including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and paediatric services to people with disabilities.”
Clearly the next few hours weren’t going to be a barrel of monkeys – in a country where both live monkeys and vintage barrels from the Vietnam War are abundant – but with so many “Trippies” reporting that it was more than worthwhile, I decided to give it a go.
The location turned out to be about 3 km from where Google Maps said it should be. I had been following along on my phone and told the tuk tuk driver as much when he said “get out.” It became clear that I wasn’t going to win that argument when I was standing on the curb and he was setting up a hammock in the back of his tuk tuk. He was clearly prepared to wait for me so I figured that he had probably been there before and perhaps Google had it wrong. And so they did.
Two hours later I emerged from the visitor centre with a much better understanding of the plight of people in rural Laos. I also found the tuk tuk driver asleep in his hammock. I assumed that he was waiting for me so I woke him up and got a ride back to the hotel. Okay, Dairy Queen.
While touring the visitor centre I learned that several hundred people still die in Laos each year as a result of a war that ended 41 years ago. I could tell the story in my own words but I know you have things to do – and Trump videos to watch on Facebook – so it will be quicker and easier if I just report some facts and figures that were on display:
• Lao is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita
• More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Lao PDR – that’s one bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years
• Over 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped on Lao PDR during the Vietnam War
• Up to 30% failed to detonate and remained in Lao PDR after the war
• Approximately 80 million unexploded “bombies” remained throughout the country after the war
• Approximately 25 percent of villages in Lao PDR are still contaminated with UXO (unexploded ordnance)
• 41 out of the 46 poorest districts have UXO contamination
• More than 50,000 people were killed or injured as a result of UXO incidents in the period 1964 – 1973
• More than 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO incidents in the post-war period
• Out of this 20,000, more than 13,000 lost a limb and 40% are children
• Today approximately 100 new casualties still occur each year
• Usual activities causing UXO-related accidents:
• Searching for scrap metal (24%)
• Farming (22%)
• Forestry and gathering of firewood (14%)
• Lighting fires / cooking and other domestic activities (12%)
• Playing with UXO (11%)
The centre had an interesting collection of prosthetics and several displays showing the good work that COPE does to this day, but by far the most moving display was in the form of two short documentary films. I won’t go into details but trust me, they were moving.
As I was leaving the centre I noticed a banner listing the countries and organizations that support the work done by COPE. Had you asked me a few years ago whether Canadian taxpayers should be expected to support this initiative, I honestly don’t know what my answer would have been. Ask me today and I’ll say that a few million dollars a year spread amongst 30 million people is 5 to 10 cents per Canadian per year (and I highly doubt we send that much). I can see why the USA may want to throw some change this way, and I trust that position won’t change if smaller minds take over the White House, but I’m also very glad that a few of my pennies find their way here as well. You really don’t realize how well Canada is regarded in developing countries until you actually visit them.
And at the bottom of the banner was this slogan: COPE – Helping people move on. I don’t know what the people of Laos did to deserve this but at least they are … moving on.