Laos - Land of Please Don't Rush

Vientiane & Luang Prabang Tour Review

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.

A note: the country may appear to be decades out of the joint with the rest of the world, but booking and paying for flights, tours and hotels is modern simplicity itself, through this web portal.

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.

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One of the most intriguing things about Vientiane is that it has no discernible centre. Bordered by the Mekong, its thoroughfares lead this way and that, past historic temples and stately colonial residences, along lines of shops and boutiques selling handicrafts and colourful locally-made clothing.

The monumental Patu Xai, built in a style reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, seems as if it might presage the start of something important, but it doesn’t. It simply stands in solitary, charming splendour, providing the best panoramas over the city and out to the countryside, and a favourite meeting point for strollers, courting couples and skylarking children after the heat of the day dissipates at dusk.

One of most vibrant – and remember, the term is relative – parts of Vientiane is the Talat Sao, the Morning Market, a gallimaufry of shops and stalls selling everything from fresh vegetables to freshly minted antiques, jumbled together hither and thither, yet still with very little in the way of hubbub.

An hour or so’s browsing here, even with only a handful of US dollars (which are accepted everywhere) or a small pile of kip (as the national currency is appropriately named) will turn up some sort of souvenir, be it a hand-woven basket or some traditional textiles. Despite its name, the market is open all day.

From morning market to evening malarkey: nightlife in Vientiane, not surprisingly, is still in its infancy, and although there’s a range of bars, karaokes and clubs, many visitors find that after supper they’re more than ready for – to coin a phrase – a good night’s kip.

If Vientiane is laid back, then Luang Prabang, the former capital roughly an hour’s flight to the north, is positively horizontal. A UNESCO world heritage site since 1995, it is festooned with scores of temples, and inhabited by hundreds of monks. Many visitors rise early to join local residents kneeling on the sidewalks and dolloping out scoops of rice to the abbots, monks and novices who glide through the streets like a gorgeous orange rivulet.

As the sun rises, Luang Prabang takes on a mildly different character, for it seems that every other building has been converted into a guesthouse, an eatery of some sort, or a handicraft shop.

One of the most lovely hotels, the Villa Santi, opened in the early 1990s, the brainchild of Mr Santi Inthavong, who had married a former princess. As the years passed and the business prospered, they opened a second property a little removed from the town, and the Villa Santi Resort & Spa now stands as a haven surrounded by nothing more than paddy fields in a hushed, lush valley. 

By day, most visitors are content to stroll about the temples and museums, soaking up the atmosphere of this marvellously preserved time capsule, exchanging reverential greetings of “sabaidee” and perhaps dropping into one of several Internet cafés (which, incidentally, are very popular, too, with the younger novice monks) to share their experiences and excitement with friends around the world.

Come evening, Luang Prabang’s main strip, which runs between Mount Phou Si and the Royal Palace Museum, metamorphoses into the night market. Tribesfolk, who wear traditional dress as a matter of course rather than for touristic spectacle, spread out their wares in a double rank of beautifully genuine retail therapy.

There’s silverware and hand-carved wooden bowls, tops and trousers in all the colours of a PhotoShopped rainbow, woven bags and gem stone jewellery and – mark this – barely a sound apart from the low murmur of buying and selling. Not one of the traders pushes or hassles – they simply sit by their goods, napping or nursing children, and occasionally emitting a shy smile.

Bargaining is gentle and courteous, and the prices eminently reasonable. There can be few more restful shopping experiences on earth. And this being Luang Prabang, everybody heads off for yet another good night’s kip by about 10pm.

Indeed, there can be few more restful destinations on earth. A university is being built outside this achingly pretty city, and there’s talk of a new airport, one that will cater to larger aircraft bringing yet more outsiders to experience the magic of Luang Prabang. But for the moment, Luang Prabang slumbers, and rather than being shuttled aboard a bus, departing passengers walk out to their plane across the airport apron, bathed in the warm sun and the warmth of the gate clerk’s farewell: “Pop gun mai” – see you again. And nobody can ever take off from here without fervently wishing that those parting words come true.

Review by Ed Peter


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