by Emma Dowson
An ancient temple in a communist republic seemed an unlikely place to meet a budding entrepreneur, particularly one dressed in saffron robes. At Wat Si Sakat a myriad worn Buddhas perched in cobweb-festooned crevices and a teenage novice monk clutched a text book. “This is what I want,” he said, pointing to a page where cartoon businessmen shook hands: “Money is God now.”
Laos is in a time capsule, tantalizingly poised between the practice of communism and the pursuit of capitalism, but first impressions of its capital, Vientiane, were of a torpid backwater. Ochre houses blending into coconut palms stretched languidly along the banks of the Mekong River. A four-hundred-year-old golden stupa dominated the skyline. Traffic comprised bicycles and the occasional VW Beetle. Jasmine trees poked their roots through dusty paving stones and dragonflies hung like clothes pegs from telegraph wires. The local greeting – “Sawadee” – hung in the warm air like an incantation. It was Asia on valium.
Vientiane is dreamily peaceful, yet it hasn’t always been that way. Sandwiched between China, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, landlocked, sparsely populated Laos, was, for centuries, something of a cross-roads for warring armies. This former outpost of the French Indochinese Empire, became the most bombed nation on earth during the Vietnam War. The communists took over in 1975, isolating Laos from the rest of the world for a decade and a half, but although Vientiane’s colonial villas are crumbling, a European, frayed-around-the-edges charm pervades, fading only occasionally into Iron Curtain solemnity.
Today, loudspeakers spew advertisements for soap powder and soft drinks rather than revolutionary rhetoric, as private enterprise is encouraged by the Laotian version of perestroika.
At the Mixay Cafe beside the Mekong, still known as “the Russian Bar” – a hangover from the days when the only foreigners in town were Soviets – I met Ting a middle aged man returning to his homeland for the first time in over twenty years. “My family fled Laos for San Francisco over twenty years ago, just before the communists took over. Vientiane looks much the same as when I left, but there are little signs of change everywhere” he told me.
Evening in Vientiane
It was Saturday night and as the cherry sun sank deeper into slabs of pale strawberry and coffee sky, melting into one another like ice-cream, newly built wooden bars buzzed with fashionably dressed locals sipping BeerLao. Teenage boys flaunted the long hair for which, ten years ago, they could have been sent to a re-education camp, and the “OK Video Store” was filled with young monks – boys in orange renting “Men in Black.”
As night inked in, a string of lights appeared of the opposite side of the river. Thailand. Fifteen miles away the Friendship Bridge, opened in 1994, links Laos, via Thailand, with the outside world, providing the possibility of prosperity for this poverty-stricken nation. But, Ting told me, many locals fear that Westernization will destroy the equilibrium of their fragile country.
Living In Laos
Despite economic changes in Laos, there have been few political reforms. The contradictions didn’t seem to bother anyone I spoke to. “We’re making money again now. The system works. We haven’t got time to think about politics,” one pragmatic local told me. Another agreed: “There’s no need to rush into change.”
Few people seemed to rush anywhere in Vientiane. Steeped in the tenets of Buddhism, Lao culture dictates harmony, and the phrase baw pen nyang – “why worry” – is exchanged as frequently as well-worn coins. Tuk-tuk drivers, elsewhere the most vociferous of characters, court passengers merely with a raised eyebrow. There was hustle – well some – but no hassle.
If city life ever does get too hectic, locals head to a herbal sauna for a tranquillity top-up. In the peaceful grounds of Wat Paa, “the forest temple,” was an al fresco beauty parlour where a bevy of elegant women lay on wooden benches amongst tropical flowers as shaven-haired nuns kneaded and oiled them with warm coconut oil. The sauna itself was raised on stilts above a torpedo-shaped boiler, heated by an enormous fire. Dusty shafts of sunlight pierced cracks in the wooden chamber, illuminating swirls of pungent steam billowing through a pipe in the floor. An intoxicating potion of twenty-two herbs, of which lemon grass, mint, coriander, sandalwood and eucalyptus were the most easily distinguishable, left me feeling slightly woozy but with squeaky clean pores and a pulse adjusted to the rhythm of local life.
It was just as well, for Lao Aviation’s forty-minute flight to Luang Prabang which I boarded a couple of hours later, was enough to test anyone’s cool. Windows rattled as the antiquated 18-seater Chinese plane skimmed jagged mountains at 12,000 feet, swooping towards the ancient city where rhino-horn-shaped temple spires below threatened to impale it.
Cocooned by mountains and nestling on a bend of the Mekong River is one of the most colourful cities on earth. Narrow streets are lined with scarlet and golden temples, apricot walls, peppermint shutters and powder-blue doors. Luang Prabang’s plumage seems to belong to another age, its colours enduring to make the modern world look monochrome by comparison.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Luang Prabang is littered with graceful Lao timber dwellings, colonial colonnades and grandiose stairways, but its thirty-two well-tended temples are the main draw. An aromatic trail of incense led me from medieval-looking Wat Visunnaret, filled with four-centuries-old Buddha statues, their hands extended calmly downwards in the characteristically Lao “calling for rain” position, past a succession of low sweeping temple roofs and gleaming gables up 332 steps to the peak of sacred Phou Si Hill, from where the mighty Mekong below was reduced to a tea stain. I sat beneath a huge frangipani, its branches weighed down with petals like tiny pieces of origami, just imbibing the magic of the place.
Palace to Museum
Luang Prabang was the royal capital of Laos for six centuries, until the communists dissolved the monarchy. The imposing palace is now a government run museum with the royal bedrooms maintained as they were before their former occupants were imprisoned in a remote mountain cave, where they are said to have died of malnutrition.
A couple of hundred yards away, behind vast shop-house doors, life seems to continue much as it has for centuries, to the clack of antiquated looms and the hammering of silversmiths.
Mekong and Pak Ou Caves
Early one morning I caught a longtail boat up the Mekong to visit the famous Pak Ou Caves. Mist clung like coconut flesh to the river banks, gradually lifting to reveal a patchwork of lush green vegetable gardens fenced with bamboo lattice and clusters of wooden houses almost hidden by tamarind trees. Skinny wooden punts filled with market-bound Hmong tribespeople, their indigo clothes fastened with bright pink sashes, drifted slowly by. At the water’s edge a group of women panning for gold, amid a clusters of earthenware jars containing LaoLao, a potent moonshine whisky, distilling in the sun.
Three hours later we stopped beside a gothic-looking limestone cliff and followed two women, their handbags balanced on bamboo shoulder poles, up the steep steps into the cave. Thousands of Buddhas of all shapes and sizes, flaking and worn, jumbled together in every crevice, left there by the faithful for the past four centuries. One of the women carried a gleaming new Buddha, an offering to the river spirits.
“Good luck to you,” she said as we watched her garland it with flowers. I had heard these words stitched to the ends of conversation all over Laos by market-stall holders, monks, bus drivers and school-children – they always sounded heartfelt, so infectiously optimistic.
Laotian food was delicious, similar, yet more delicately spiced than Thai cuisine. At the Villa Santi which once belonged to a princess and at restaurants balanced on stilts over the Mekong, we feasted on local specialities.
A favourite was watercress sautéed with chilli and sesame seed oil and “laap,” a salad of minced buffalo tossed with lime juice and garlic served with brimming baskets of sticky rice.
Turkeys ran free all over Luang Prabang, and on Christmas morning I watched an American couple determined on a more traditional lunch stalk a gaggle of them: “Someone could have made a fast buck,” they told me, “but no-one seemed bothered about selling us one.”
Laos may be on the brink of enormous changes, but if money was God, most people were yet to be converted.