At this point I’m basically just cycling across Asia

I am fully aware that my bicycle tours are just getting ridiculous. After doing a night tour in Bangkok and a half-day tour in Chiang Mai, I figured I would be prepared enough for the big mama of bike tours: a full day, 37 km ride around Vientiane, Laos.  As a side note, 2 out of 3 times on these tours my guide was from Holland. At first I was surprised by the coincidence but considering the Dutch are literally born cycling out of the womb, I guess it’s not so weird.
Obviously that assumption that doing an eight hour tour would be fine was totally false, because I’m Kristen after all, but I did learn some good tidbits about Laos (and myself) throughout this day – even if by the end I was ready to just call a cab.
More templey-goodness and the lives of monks


In Southeast Asia, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a temple or a monk (or is it throw a dead cat? Either way, if you have a dead cat, a temple is nearby). It’s no surprise that I have been to a fair few temples and seen a lotta Buddhas on my bike tours. I also learned that monks only eat twice a day (once early in the morning and once around lunchtime)… FOREVER. Or at least as long as they are monks. That just wouldn’t fit in with my grazer stomach and tendency to pack yum-yums wherever I go. As an example, at this moment I have a package of butter biscuits, a box of crackers, two apples, a muffin, a pack of Thai chocolate wafers and half a bag of M&Ms. All in my bag. At this moment in time.
Of course, there are many reasons why I couldn’t be a Buddhist nun, the least of which being that the sole purpose of the nuns is to serve the monks. Girl’s gotta do her own thang, you know.
Also, there is such a thing as a Buddhist pope. I don’t know if the guide meant the head monk in Laos or what, but this is where he lives.
Thai/Laotian Pranks 


Thailand and Laos are basically full of a bunch of pranksters. This statue is of a famous Lao king or prince or something (my services are available as a tour guide, you guys), on the Mekong River. In Vientiane, the Mekong separates Laos from Thailand – and it’s surprisingly narrow at that point. So this statue is not facing the city, but has its back to the city and is facing Thailand. While I thought at first his outstretched hand meant he just wanted some skin, our guide told us that this is basically like giving the big “F.U.” and the finger to Thailand. In retaliation, a little while ago some Thais snuck up the statue and tried to saw the hand off. This is basically like letting chickens loose on the hallway during senior week. (CHICKENS! IN THE HALLWAY!!!). Or like William and Mary putting a statue of TJ facing away from UVa. I love it.
The eternal question – what to do with all this cement?!
In the 1950s, the U.S. was all over Laos like sticky on rice (sorry) but then decided to pull out, halting a lot of airport construction plans. They left behind a whole mess of concrete meant for an airport. The Laotians took it and decided to build a monument fashioned after the Arc de Triomphe. This baby is called the “Vertical Runway” and, amusingly, a “monster in concrete” – literally on the sign on the side of the monument. Apparently they copied the entry out of the English Lonely Planet book without translating it first. It’s been up there for years.
All the bumpy dirt roads… not great for the bum.
In contrast to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, we rode almost exclusively on dirt roads – meaning bumps, rocks, and holes. All that bumpiness meant a very sore bum the next day. But happy, tired muscles.

DON’T YOU WORRY – more bike tours to come!

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Little Laos

Before I decided to come to Laos, I knew literally nothing about it, except where it was roughly located. As I did my research, I learned a little bit more: former French colony (the “backwaters of Indochina,” as it were); current communist nation; one of the poorest countries in the world.

Most importantly, and most tragically, Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world in history. 

For nine years, bombs were dropped every eight minutes, 24/7.

The country that did the bombing? The United States, during the Vietnam War.

Now, I don’t know about you, but in most of my history classes we extensively covered up through WWII, then rushed through the major events of the latter half of the twentieth century before taking the state exam. (I still don’t really know what happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Complete blank.). As I got my degree, I was lucky enough to take a bunch of different history classes, but most were either of a wide breadth – like International History of the Cold War – or way back in history, like the Roman Empire (guilty of majoring in IA and minoring in Classics). So while I learned about the Vietnam War quite often, it was never in depth enough to know about the role Laos played – and the effects the country still faces today.

VERY simply put, in what was called “the Secret War,” U.S. troops heavily bombed Laos during the Vietnam War in order to try to damage the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (This is a massive simplification – you and I both know that events have far more causes and effects, for both sides, than can be boiled down to a few words).

What is easy to describe, but not easy to swallow, is the impact that the bombings continue to have on the nation. See, a lot of bombs didn’t go off when they hit the ground. A quarter of villages in Laos are still contaminated with UXOs; post-war, 20,000 people have been killed or injured by bombs, 40% of them children.

A number of international groups and a government national group are tasked with clearing the lands and diffusing the bombs, which I am sure you can appreciate takes a lot of time. In the meantime, despite the education people receive on the UXOs, people are killed and injured far too often. Some find a bomb and try to sell the scrap metal for pennies to feed their family for three months. Some are simply farming and hit a bomb by accident. Some people have even been killed when they have been cooking over a fire in their house, not realizing a bomb – activated by heat – is buried below.

I learned all of this when I paid a visit to the COPE Center in Vientiane, an educational and rehabilitation center for amputees. What surprised me is the lack of blaming that I saw in the exhibits – the U.S. was referenced maybe only once or twice, and never in a negative way, simply factual. (This is in contrast to the Lao National Museum, which only referred to the U.S. as the “U.S. Imperialists.” It’s cool, guys.

I know this isn’t chipper or shiny, but it’s the truth about Laos. Despite the horrors that the country faced, there’s still hope, especially with the help of centers like COPE.

Sculpture made out of old bomb metal…

And yes, the U.S. has done terrible things to other countries. But I’ve never seen the point of feeling ashamed about what my country did in its past. What is important is the positive impact that I can have in the future. More than ever, I’m loving my role in life as an educator. There’s so much I don’t know about the horrors of human history, but by educating myself and then educating others… maybe, just maybe, I can have an impact. When you travel, I encourage you to peek under the tourist veneer and learn more about the heartbeat of the country – its scars and its spirit.