L: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians tend the rice, and the Lao listen to it grow.” According to a Frenchman. According to the guide book.
D: Beautiful. How does that answer my question?
L: You asked what Laos is like. That’s your answer. It’s really laid back. Avoiding stress is a national past-time.
D looks out of the plane window at the unending ridges of forested mountains below, ribboned with occasional silvery rivers and orange dirt tracks.
D: it’s all so empty. Where are all the houses and towns and things?
L: There aren’t very many. It’s about the same size as the UK but only has 10% of the people.
D ponders this.
D: Wait a minute. What have the French got to do with it?
L: They were in charge for a bit. They went home in the 1950s, leaving behind some nice buildings and the recipe for a decent baguette.
Their arrival at Luang Prabang airport is, predictably, stress free. They drift calmly through the visa queue and out to an efficient booth organising taxis at reasonable prices. D spots a cashpoint in the small terminal building. He returns, looking very pleased with himself.
D: (whispering) I’m a millionaire!
Twenty minutes later, they are stepping out of their flip-flops at the foot of the stairs leading to the Mekong Charm Guesthouse. They are welcomed warmly with watermelon juice, then led barefoot across squeaky varnished wood flooring to their first-floor room – a gleaming dark-wood box with windows on two sides and a balcony.
L: It’s charming! And we can see the Mekong!
D: Don’t sound so surprised. Surely the clue’s in the name.
L: Of course, but you never know how much artistic licence has been sprinkled on a name.
They are here for 4 nights and love everything about it. The bed is huge and comfortable, the room so eccentrically dark they find clothes from the wardrobe with a torch, and the shower, with luxury shower head, tremendous pressure and masses of hot water, is designed to wash the entire bathroom floor before draining in the opposite corner, under the sink.
They sit on their balcony in the golden light of the afternoon sun with cans of Beer Lao. The temperature is perfect, somewhere in the mid 20s. Just across the road, beyond the palm trees, the Mekong River slips by silently, fast-moving and coffee-coloured.
L: (tapping her phone) It’s one of the great rivers of the world. 12th largest, it says here. Feeds millions of people, not just in Laos but from China to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
D: Must be quite useful for transportation too, especially here where the roads are famously bad. Let’s do a boat trip.
They watch a long narrow passenger boat careening sideways down the river, battling the current as it struggles to turn around.
L: (doubtfully) Let’s.
Luang Prabang is seriously low key. There are no high rise buildings – from above, the French colonial architecture seems to just melt back into the surrounding jungle. There are lots of tourists, of the quiet, earnest sort.
L: I keep thinking I recognise people. They all look as though they could be friends of our parents.
D: I know just what you mean.
Much of the town is stretched along a tongue of land between two rivers – the Mekong on one side and the smaller Nam Khan on the other. After dark, the riverside streets are peaceful and empty of vehicles. This is when Sisavangvong Road comes gently to life. Running down the centre of the tongue, it has restaurants and shops and every evening a huge outdoor market selling brightly coloured textiles, crafts and good quality souvenirs. Further on there is street food – aromatic grilled meats seasoned with lemongrass, freshly pressed fruit juices and smoothies, and melt-in-the-mouth coconut pancakes served in little boats of banana-leaves. People stroll, chat, shop and eat. There is no traffic and no loud music.
D: Oh God. More wats?
L: Oh Buddha.
L: Oh Buddha. Not God.
L: One wat.
D: One what?
L: One wat. We’ll just visit one wat. You’ll love it.
They set off, watching a group of orange-robed monks pass by. They are a common sight in the streets of Luang Prabang.
D: Don’t touch one.
L: Don’t be weird! I wasn’t going to touch one!
D: I’m just saying. Don’t. it’s not allowed.
L: People aren’t allowed to touch monks?
D: Women. Women aren’t allowed to touch monks.
L: Right. I’ll bear that in mind. Thanks for that. Really.
D: They collect alms at dawn. People give them rice and vegetables. Not money. It’s how they survive. I saw them on my run this morning. Look though – some of them are just kids.
L: Most Lao boys become a Buddhist monk for a time, I think. Often it’s the only affordable way for them to get a decent education. Of course, even in the monasteries the government makes sure everything’s taught to proper Marxist principles.
L: It’s communist. Laos, I mean.
D: It doesn’t feel very communist, does it?
L: I don’t know what communist should feel like. But it’s been that way since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Same time as Cambodia and Vietnam. I’ve just been reading about it. I’m a political encyclopaedia. Ask me anything. But you’d better be quick – I’ll have forgotten it all again by tomorrow.
D: Is communism working here?
L: I gather they’ve eased up a lot since the beginning. To start with, to get everything under control, they quickly restricted freedom of speech and group gatherings and nationalised the economy. People who weren’t on board were sent to “re-education camps” where conditions were really hard. Lots of people who didn’t want to live under communist rule fled the country – about 10% of the population in total. Including pretty much all of the educated classes.
D: If there was no-one left with an education, wasn’t that a bit of a setback for the country’s development?
L: Yes. And the sums didn’t add up. So 4 years later, people were allowed to start farming their own land again, instead of just working for government cooperatives. And private enterprise was permitted.
D: Did things pick up?
L: Not enough. But in the mid 80s they took a leaf out of China’s book, opening up the economy to the rest of the world, but still keeping a tight hold on political power.
D: So still a one party dictatorship?
L: Yes, but now with inward foreign investment. China has come in and built roads, dams, and plantations to grow food and timber to take home. But Laos is still really poor. Something like three quarters of the population are subsistence farmers surviving on about $2 a day. The country’s still heavily dependent on foreign aid.
Wat Xieng Thong has beautiful tiered roofs sweeping close to the ground, and gigantic green-jewelled glass lotus buds each side of the entrance steps. They walk straight past.
L: We’ll start with the garage.
They stop in front of a smaller temple clad entirely in gold. Elaborate decorations and scenes are worked into the façade. They shade their eyes, dazzled by the glare of the sun bouncing off the glittering surface.
L: Behold. The garage.
Inside it is just as ornate. The red walls are covered in technicolour mirror-shard mosaics, and a platoon of slender Buddhas stand to attention at the back of the room. L is entranced.
D: Never mind all that. What on earth is this?
The rest of the temple is filled with a golden chariot. Seven golden nagas rear up, waving bright red tongues. Behind them on the carriage are several towering golden urns.
L: They’re funeral urns. For Lao royalty.
D: Are there any?
L: Any what?
D: Any royalty.
L: Not any more. Royalty and communism aren’t much of a natural match.
D: No. I see that.
L: When the Marxist government took over in ’75, they arrested the royal family.
L: But then they were worried that the royals would escape from house arrest and lead a resistance.
L: So the king, queen and crown prince were sent off to re-education camps where they worked in the fields. Until they eventually died. Probably of malnutrition or malaria. Nobody much knows.
D: That seems like an ignominious end to an era.
L: I don’t know what that means. But probably.
D: How long had there been an established Lao royal family – until then?
L: 650 years.
They wander through the grounds. Several of the smaller temples, and the rear wall of the main temple, are decorated with more mosaic scenes of vivid coloured glass. There are armies and elephants, temples and trees, owls and peacocks. The designs are both simple and complex and all of them beautiful.
The following day they find more of these stunning coloured glass mosaics in the public rooms of the Royal Palace, in stark contrast to the adjoining austere private quarters of the last royal family, also on display, and in use until their arrest.
They do the done thing. Phu Si is a stand-alone hummock a hundred metres high, right in the middle of town. It’s a must at sunset. They start in good time, climbing the 329 steps to the top. Plenty of others have the same idea. Women are selling tiny birds in tiny cages – one bird to a cage.
L: Poor things. To eat?
D: To set free at the top.
On the summit is a small temple and a concrete platform from which to admire the views. And approximately 500 people. It is so crammed that they literally cannot move. A forest of selfie-sticks sprouts above the crowd. Of all those here for the sunset, 90% cannot see a thing.
D: Bloody hell! Retreat! Retreat!
He squeezes a sweaty path through to the steps on the other side of the platform, and they make their escape back down. During the descent they pass several hundred more people going up.
There is still time. A rickety bamboo footbridge bridge crosses the river from the tip of the town’s tongue to the overgrown bank beyond. This is the mouth of the Nam Khan, where it joins the mighty Mekong. On the far side there is no-one, apart from a woman sitting on a bamboo platform. Beside her, miraculously, is a cool-box.
D: Sabaidee. Two Beer Lao please.
They take the cans to the smooth rocks jutting out into the mouth of the river. Downstream the evening sun is glinting off the river. On the spit of sand opposite, kids skim stones and a couple are posing for wedding photos. Half a dozen long narrow passenger boats are dawdling out on the Mekong, full of camera-poised passengers, waiting for sunset. The water turns golden, the land turns black. It couldn’t be any more lovely.
At breakfast, D gets up and crosses the room to get more coffee.
They are told that the fresh pineapple juice is off the menu. There has been a power cut.
D starts looking uncomfortable. Eventually he speaks.
D: (whispering) I think it was me.
L: What was you?
D: (whispering) Shush! Me that broke the electricity.
L: How was it you?
D: (whispering) I lifted the lid on the coffee machine.
They find a boatman to take them across the Mekong and upstream a little way. The sloping river banks are neatly planted with lush green vegetable gardens.
D: All these plots are seasonal. In a few months’ time they’ll be underwater.
L: Does the river level really change that much?
D: Apparently it can rise 10 metres or more during the rainy season. And when it falls again, it leaves behind this amazingly rich silt. Great for growing stuff.
The boatman picks a cautious route to the far shore, avoiding the constantly shifting mudbanks. They disembark and climb to the top of a flight of rough steps.
D: You said one!
L: I said one what?
L: One what?
D: Yes, one wat. Which we saw yesterday. This is another one.
L: This one’s only tiny. It hardly counts. It’s got pictures in.
In a clearing is a garden, pretty with bougainvillea, in which stands a small plain temple and a couple of cottages. Orange robes hang drying from windowsills. Under a tree, two young monks are playing with a puppy. Inside the temple they find the uneven walls painted with dramatic scenes: a great gale, a fierce battle, and a desperate shipwreck complete with sharks.
As they are leaving, two small children approach, carrying torches. They lead the way along a track in the woods, up a steep flight of stone steps, and into a cave. Here they helpfully wave their torches at a Buddha shrine, a stalactite, and what might or might not be a bat. D duly thanks them and pays them for their guiding service. They take the money and look at him, disappointed. L adds a boiled sweet each to their takings and they grin happily and scamper off.
Further along the woodland trail they come across another long flight of steps. At the top two crumbling stupas pierce the skyline, and beyond is another rural temple, a garden, a cottage, and wonderful views of the Mekong below. Monks are busy building something – an extension perhaps, guided by a skeletally thin old man. A middle-aged man sits in front of the temple speaking to a tourist seeking words of wisdom.
Tourist: So, tell me, how long have you been a monk?
Monk: Ten days. I’m just taking a few weeks away from my business.
The trail becomes wider and turns concrete as they enter the village of Ban Xieng Maen. Bamboo, wood and palm leaf dwellings line the track, single rooms with corrugated iron roofs and satellite dishes. Chickens scratch in the dust, dogs roam busily and cheerful children wave in greeting.
L: (waving) Sabaidee!
Children: Sabaidee! Hello falang!
The village has a smart well-funded temple, several small shops and, at the far end, where the road again widens but returns to beaten earth, a food market. Fruit and vegetables are displayed under ramshackle shelters, and dishes are being freshly cooked on barbecues and in large cauldrons.
The road descends to the river where a ferry is arriving. Two tuk-tuk drivers are waiting for customers, dozing in hammocks slung in the back. The rusty twin-hulled barge reaches the shore. It has ramps protruding each side like wings. An SUV and cluster of mopeds rattle over the ramp and off, and another cluster rattle on. Garden chairs and benches are set around the edges and at each prow is a small shrine, with a food offering wrapped in banana leaves and marigolds.
D: Stop staring! He’s half your age!
L can’t take her eyes off the skipper.
L: It’s not him. It’s his hat. He’s got the most beautiful hat.
D: I’m not looking. We can’t both stare. You stop looking so that I can. We’ll take it in turns.
D takes a look at the young man in a burgundy woollen hat with knitted brim and large sequinned flower.
D: OK, you’re right. It is a splendid hat.
Ock Pop Tok produces some of Laos’s most beautiful silk-woven textiles. Their Living Crafts Centre in Luang Prabang is also a perfect spot for lunch by the river. Within the grounds they run weaving courses and explain the process from start to finish.
L: Did you know the silkworm makes a cocoon from one continuous line of silk thread, so it can turn itself into a moth?
D: I did not.
L: Or that the silk gets boiled to make it soft?
L: Or that the most amazingly vivid colours can be made with natural dyes using stuff like leaves, bark, roots, rocks and rusty nails?
D: Not even.
L: Or that indigo dye is sort of alive – with bacteria I think – and you need to put chillis on the lid to keep the spirits from coming and spoiling it?
D: I need my lunch now.
Dinner at Tamarind Restaurant, Luang Prabang:
- Dried bamboo nibbles
- Lao-lao rice whisky flavoured with tamarind, honey and lime
- Pumpkin and mushroom soup with mint and lemongrass
- Lao herby sausages
- Dried crispy buffalo skin
- Dried crispy river weed with sesame seeds
- Sticky rice to roll into little balls in your fingers and dip into sauces of tomato, chilli and smoked aubergine
- Stir fried green pumpkin
- Chicken wrapped in lemongrass with peanut sauce
- Fish wrapped in banana leaf, stewed with herbs and chilli
- Sweet purple sticky rice with tamarind sauce and fresh coconut shavings
- “Cat poo” cookies – sweet, deep fried and caramelised
- Lao coffee, black with layer of sweet condensed milk at the bottom of the glass
- Location by Riverbank
- Sound-track by Frogs
- Lighting by Moon