It takes an hour or so to fly to Vientiane from Bangkok, or a few minutes to cross one of the bridges over the Mekong river, the border between Thailand and Laos. But the time travelled is a great deal more sweeping; Laos is anchored years behind Thailand in time.
Not for nothing is the People’s Democratic Republic – PDR – nicknamed Please Don’t Rush. This is a nation that moves at the pace, both physically and spiritually, of the monks who set out at dawn in search of alms. It is a place where the skyline is defined by mountains and temples rather than skyscrapers, where cicadas can drown out the hum of city traffic and the only sound in the temples comes from squeaking bats suspended from the rafters.
Landing in Laos, visitors at once start to slough off the vicissitudes of everyday 21st-century life, as if the entire country were a non-stop and singularly arresting spa treatment.
Vientiane is the largest metropolitan area in Laos, but it defies the normal conception of a capital city. A lone high-rise – the statuesque Don Chan Palace Hotel – hovers above the Mekong, and the rest is all low-lying, low-key, and – as Cole Porter might have put it – delightful, delicious and de-lovely.
One of the longer-established hotels, the Novotel Vientiane, cradles its guests at breakfast in a picturesque courtyard set about a tempting swimming pool, before allowing them to sally out to discover the city’s pleasures.