Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Vientiane's oldest temple, and learning to COPE

I chose a French café at the bottom of Rue Francois Ngin for my breakfast today, where I enjoyed coffee and scrambled eggs amidst French people reading Le Monde and sipping espresso. Without any real plan for the day, I firstly headed for Wat Sisaket, Vientiane’s oldest surviving temple, built between 1819 and 1824 on the orders of the last king of Vientiane, Chao Anou. A Siamese invasion in 1827 saw all of the other temples of the city razed within a year, but this one was left standing, although all the Buddhist texts in the library were looted and taken back to Bangkok. The central building is the sim (sanctuary), with an altar and the oldest murals in Vientiane on the walls, telling Buddhist folk tales. The wooden ceiling is decorated with metal lotus flowers. Surrounding the sim is a cloister lined with Buddha statues, each one dressed with a metallic orange scarf. Within the walls are thousands of miniature statues, and behind a gate is a huge pile of broken Buddha statues found underground after the war. A guide told me that there are over 10,000 models of Buddha within the temple grounds. Outside of the cloister is a monastery courtyard filled with stupas of varying sizes and decoration. Traditionally intended as monuments to hold relics of Buddha, these angular structures are nowadays used to house the cremation urns of deceased family members. Most had photographs on the outside of the person or couple whose ashes were held within.

A cat sleeps in the hollow of a stupa

Buddha statues large and small line the cloister

The eerie sight of hundreds of headless Buddha

Beautiful flowers and a sunny day

Monks rest in the shade of this lavish tree

I left Wat Sisaket and walked to the Patuxai, a victory monument erected in commemoration of those who died fighting for independence from the French. It is modelled on the Arc de Triomphe but in Laotian style and with four archways in a symmetrical box shape. I paid 3,000 kip to climb the stairs to the top to see the view. On each floor on the way up t-shirts and souvenirs could be bought. These huge, windowless rooms inside the monument were a bit strange and unpleasant.

Patuxai from the ground...

...and from the air

At a Laotian road-side café I ordered a papaya salad for lunch. It was spicy and quite tasty but I was a bit put off after noticing a caterpillar wiggling out of a green bean shortly after I started eating. It could have been much worse than a caterpillar though; I will have to get over my squeamishness, particularly as I’m now living in Vietnam!

In the late afternoon I took a tuk-tuk to the fascinating COPE visitor centre. The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) produce artificial limbs, wheelchairs and walking aids. The free visitor centre explains the circumstances that bring forward 50% of its patients; Laos is littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the USA’s ‘secret war’ against the Pathet Lao in an attempt to ‘contain’ the spread of communism during the Vietnam War. This involved the heaviest bombing campaign in world history; it is estimated that between 1964 and 1972, there was a bombing mission in Laos every eight minutes. The ordnance used were cluster bombs, cases from which up to 680 tennis-ball shaped bombs, known in Laos as bombies, are released. Each is packed with explosives and metal ball bearings. Cluster bombs have a killing radius of 15-30km. The problem that remains today is that many of these bombies failed to explode when first released; test conditions have found that 30% do not explode, leading to estimates that 80 million unexploded ordnances were left over after the bombing campaign came to an end. It is thought that 25% of Laotian villages are contaminated with UXOs and more than 50,000 people were killed or injured between 1964 and 2011 as a result of accidents when they are discovered. Discovery of UXOs can be unintentional or intentional, mostly occurring in rural areas through farming, gathering food and materials for domestic uses, lighting fires, or hunting for scrap metal. The latter is a tragic problem in Laos today. The scrap metal market is very lucrative and for those living in poverty it is an inviting opportunity to earn twice, or sometimes four times, the average daily salary. Despite knowledge that scrap metal collection is both illegal and incredibly dangerous due to the presence of UXOs, for some it is a risk that has to be taken as the metal used to make American bombs is very valuable. For this reason, many household items in rural homes are made out of metals from UXOS. Sometimes bombs are kept as souvenirs. This level of familiarity is particularly dangerous for children who may find unexploded bombs while out playing and be unaware of the danger.

Around 1,000 people are employed by UXO Lao, the largest bomb clearance agency in Lao, which is supported by international humanitarian organisations and, since 1993, the US government. But with an average rate of one hectare of land cleared over ten days, it is very slow work and insufficient to prevent the injuries that continue every year. 

The second part of the visitor centre displays the work of COPE. There is a striking display of prosthetic legs suspended from the ceiling; across the room is another display of hundreds of model cluster bombs, also suspended from the ceiling. Artificial hands and wheelchairs are available for visitors to look at and even try out. There were photographs and accounts from patients, many of them children, who had lost limbs from UXO accidents and had replacement limbs fitted for them by COPE. In the middle was a piece of rehabilitation exercise equipment; a set of steps and a bridge facing a mirror for patients to use to become accustomed to walking with, and seeing themselves with, a new leg. Visitors were invited to try walking up the steps and over the bridge using a ‘pretend’ artificial leg that can be strapped on to a bent knee. A sign reminded us that we often think as disabilities as only happening to other people and that looking in the mirror while using the artificial leg gives us a sense of the change of perception of body image that must come to somebody who has had a life-changing injury.

Artificial limbs in construction

Display of 'bombies' in visitor centre

Illustration by Lao villager in refugee camp, early 1970s, depicting American bombing

Display of artificial legs

My artificial leg was a bit longer than the other one

A touching moment

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