A Visit To COPE

by - 3:00 PM


Lonely Planet does a good job at making hidden gems a little less hidden. Yet sometimes these places still don't get the attention they deserve. This is the case with the COPE Visitor Centre in Vientiane, Laos. My parents read about it in their Lonely Planet, wanted to go and I came along, even though a museum-like place all about prosthetics didn't sound that appealing to me. But this is Laos, and Laos is full of surprises.

We decided to walk to COPE and do some sightseeing along the way. The sightseeing went great. Finding COPE... not so much. We found ourselves in front of a red and white barrier when we came close to the Visitor Centre. A sign next to it said we were about the enter the grounds of the Centre for Medical Rehabilitation, an official Lao government institute. It didn't look like a place tourists could enter without getting sent away by angry-looking government officials, but the man in the booth next to the barrier assured us it was okay. A bit unsure I stepped onto the grounds, spotted a little sign with COPE Visitor Centre on it, followed it past the building of the Lao Paralympic Committee and then I saw it: a white building with the word 'COPE' made from old prosthetics on the front. I stepped inside. A few hours later I stepped outside a slightly different person.


Some time last century the US decided to fight communism. We all know how that went down in Vietnam, but did you know Laos suffered from this war as well? Laos was seen as a buffer between communist Vietnam and western allies Thailand and Malaysia. Now as Vietnam was turning communist it started working on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to provide the not-yet communist southern part of Vietnam with ammunition. Part of this trail went straight through Laos. Those two factors were enough for the US to bomb the shit out of Laos for nine years. It made the place the most bombed country per capita ever. To make matters worse: the US used cluster bombs, many of which never went off. This unexploded ordnance, or UXO for short, can be find all over Laos. Children play with the smaller bombs, farmers find them while working on their land, and many pay for this encounter with their life. Those who are lucky enough to survive often lose limbs and are in need of prosthetics, a product that's not easy to come by in a country like Laos.
This is the story the COPE Visitor Centre tells in its permanent exhibition. It might not have been the best idea for me to visit the place as I was a bit emotionally unstable at the time and the exhibition is very impressive and heart-breaking at times.


The first thing you see when you enter the exhibition is the UXO sculpture. It's the most photographed item and with good reason. For me it made clear what kind of fear the people of Laos must have felt when the cluster bombs fell from the sky almost every single day. I was already in tears and had only seen a sculpture.

In the rest of the first part of the exhibition I learned all about UXO, why it's there and what the consequences are. Anually the US donates a lot of money to Laos to help them clear up the American UXO (I really hope Trump doesn't put this to a stop, but I fear the worst), but there are still a lot of unexploded 'bombies' in fields and under houses. It's especially a problem in rural areas. And once those bombies go off there and a person loses a limb, they have to rely on homemade prosthetics... This is is where COPE comes in.
COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, which is nice and all, but the reason why I like the name COPE is that they literally help people cope with their handicaps. This is what the second part of the exhibition is about. Loads of homemade prosthetics are on display here, some professional-looking, others barely more than a wooden peg. All of them had been used up until the point where COPE doctors found these people and gave them real prosthetics - free of charge for those to poor to pay for it.
The Visitor Centre tells the stories of these people. How they became handicapped after an UXO encounter, what materials they used to build themselves their prosthetics and how their life changed when they came into contact with COPE. The exhibition will break your heart, stitch it back up and make it feel all warm and fuzzy inside in the end.


The last part of the exhibition showed more about the rehabilitation process, with which COPE also helps. Phantom pains, teaching people how to use the prosthetics more effectively, educating local people to become doctors specialized in prosthetics, COPE does is all. I was very impressed and pretty emotional. As usual when I visit places like these I wished I could help. There wasn't much I could do (besides telling the internet about the COPE Visitor Centre), but I noticed the gift shop sells their stuff to raise funds for COPE. When I saw the postcards and tote bags designed by Colin Cotterill, one of my favorite authors. If you like detectives and want more diverse reads you should check out his books, which are set in Thailand and Laos. Of course I had to buy some things, because who cares it's a little expensive compared to other gift shops in Laos when the money goes to such a great cause and the items have been designed by one of your favorite authors?
As I already buy postcards in every city I visit, this was the first thing I went for. All the postcards are cute, but I was immediately drawn to one that said 'Broken hearts are probably the only thing we can't fix'. I found it funny, since a broken heart was the only thing I needed fixed. For some reason the postcard made me feel hopeful; my broken heart would heal with time and COPE would help those with much more serious injuries.
Then, after I'd already paid for the postcard, I decided to take a tote bag with me as well. I went for a red one that said 'Stand up for COPE', so I'd have a reason to tell everyone back home all about COPE. It was also a much fancier bag than I'd expected, with a button to close it and a small pocket with a zipper for your valuable. I just had to have it.


When I left the COPE Visitor Centre I felt this unexpected hopeful sensation in my heart. Laos is a very impoverished country, so seeing it work hard to help its people overcome their handicaps restored my faith in humanity.
If you're thinking about going to Vientiane, I couldn't recommend visiting COPE more. It's interesting for people who want to know more about Cold War history, life in Laos or living with a handicap. It's also interesting for every person who has a heart.
There is no entrance fee, so there's really no reason not to go. Even thought more and more tourists find their way to COPE, I still think it deserves more: more attention, more appreciation and more donations to help more people overcome their handicap. If you want to know more about the COPE Visitor Centre, or maybe even make a small donation, you can visit their website at copelaos.org. And if you find yourself in Vientiane, go for a visit. It's more than worth it, I promise.

x Envy

You May Also Like

12 Fellow Ramblers

  1. I have always loved Lovely Planet Guide. I used it when I was in NZ but also Scotland and Gran Canaria! Cope looks great! I love to visit new places and exhibitions! xx corinne

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not my favorite travel guide to be honest, but I'm glad it recommended COPE to me :)

      Delete
  2. I love your blog posts about your time at Laos. Until I read your blog I never actually knew about the place at all! Lovely to see you write about your eperience there!

    acupofwonderland.wordpress.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's so good to hear you like them! I'm glad you learned about Laos because of my blog, because that was one of my main goals with these posts: telling people about an amazing place too little people know about and go to :)

      Delete
  3. Fab post! I've heard a lot about Lonely Planet. I move to Australia soon and someone suggested trying to find a lonely planet guide on that. I bet it's a huge help when visiting new places! zx

    http://www.grabyourcamera.co.uk

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Did you get a Lonely Planet? I didn't have one when I was in Australia because it's too big, hahaha.

      Delete
  4. Hi, I never knew about Laos until I started to read your posts, this looks like a unique and worth while place to visit. I hope that others will be more aware of it as a result of your post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Laos really is unique. I guess that's partly because so little people know about it and visit the place. But I know at least two people now know more about my new favorite country!

      Delete
  5. This exhibition sounds amazing! I’ll have to check it out as it sounds like one that would be really useful for my university work. Thanks for sharing x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's an eye-opening exhibition. There is so much to learn there, a bit of history, culture and social development as well. I hope it did help you with your university work.

      Delete
  6. Oh man, I would have been in tears the whole time!
    Cora ❤ http://www.teapartyprincess.co.uk/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To be honest, I don't know how I managed to keep myself from crying the entire visit...

      Delete

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good! Wait, no, I mean: I solemnly swear that I will answer each and every comment ;)