The past week and a half has been one of the most memorable during my study abroad trip thus far. The academic portion of our week involved visiting numerous hospitals, public health facilities, and NGOs. The Laos healthcare system is similar to where Thailand was a few decades ago. The focus in Laos is still mainly on maintaining basic sanitation and hygiene in the communities and controlling for Dengue, as compared to Thailand where they are mostly focusing on non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. The most memorable facility for me was the Center of Medical Rehabilitation which produces prosthetics and wheelchairs for people with disabilities and has an on-site school for kids who are deaf and blind. Within the Center of Medical Rehabilitation was the COPE Center (Cooperative Orthotics & Prosthetics Enterprise). COPE helps provide rehabilitation for people who are injured from unexploded ordnances (UXOs). I was surprised to learn that Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world (why didn’t I hear about any of this in school?). These UXOs are lying around in fields, rivers, or along the sides of the road. Kids may come across them and not know what they are, or these UXOs can go off while people are working out in their fields or around their homes. While COPE helps with the treatment side of things, another organization called MAG (Mines Advisory Group) works to prevent these accidents and fatalities from happening. MAG conducts surveys in communities to safely remove UXOs; thus far they have removed about 200,000 items and cleared 58 million square meters. It was inspiring to see all the work that is being done to combat this problem and injustice.
When not in class, we took time to explore the city of Vientiane. We had a tour guide who showed us all of the highlights, including That Luang, the Patuxai Monument, and Buddha Park. The town itself is a bit sleepy, especially for a capital city, but we entertained ourselves at the night market and rode bikes along the Mekong River.
After the week of health site visits, our entire group decided to spend our 3-day weekend in Vang Vieng. The ride there was rough to say the least, but so worth it! The beautiful mountains combined with the nearby river provided the perfect backdrop for us to watch the sunset while chilling in some hammocks. On Saturday some of us went on a hike with no particular destination in mind. We came across an entry point and were told there was a cave with a lagoon you could swim in. However, upon entering the cave it seemed extremely small so we left and took another path, only to discover that we were climbing up the side of the mountain. We slowly made our way back down and checked out the cave one more time. Lo and behold, there was indeed a narrow entrance hidden in the back for us to go down! It was a tight squeeze, damp, and a bit slippery, but so cool to be in a place where you can stand in complete silence and darkness. Later that day, our entire group went tubing down the Nam Song River! It was very relaxing, except for the times when I would get stuck and have to half-heartedly use my arms to catch up to the group. It was sunset by the time we reached the end where we were treated to a bonfire, some drinks, and good music to top off the night. On Sunday we rented bikes to go to the Blue Lagoon which was about 7-9 km away. We arrived around 9:30am and already there were so many tourists milling about. The water was cool and refreshing (and I was happy that I remembered how to swim!). While it was scary to jump from the top tree branch into the water, I’m glad I took the plunge and just let gravity do its thing. Before leaving on Monday morning, I went on another short bike ride around the town and was able to see monks receiving alms along the side of the road.
Besides learning about the healthcare system and relaxing on the river, one of the highlights of the Laos trip was the food! Since both Vientiane and Vang Vieng are tourist cities, it wasn’t hard to find some good comfort food. In Vientiane I was able to get a hold of a chicken burger, a chicken caesar wrap, and even pizza! While in Vang Vieng, I satisfied my Mexican food craving with a quesadilla, burrito, and some bomb nachos. I ended the trip right with a breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs and banana french toast (MY FAVORITE!!!). Although school work is picking up (all of which are group projects), Laos was both a rejuvenating break and an eye-opening experience into public health.