Laos: The hidden jewel

Idyllic and charming, Vientiane—Laos’s capital is one of South East Asia’s best kept secrets that has a lot to offer the intrepid traveler, from its quaint Franco-Laotian architecture and culture to its delectable cuisine

I have to admit that for the first time in my life I was embarking on a trip to a country that I knew virtually nothing about. I didn’t even know that Laos is pronounced ‘Lao’ with the ‘s’ being silent! But then, I’ve also always subscribed to the belief that sometimes we must let serendipity take us by surprise and lead us to discoveries that have the potential to change our perception of the world as we know it… forever.

And so, one supremely muggy April morning, I found myself waiting in line for my passport to be stamped with a Laos visa at the Nong Khai border check point that this landlocked nation shares with Thailand. I had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to spend a couple of days in Laos after concluding a business trip to Phuket and Bangkok.

Immigration formalities dispensed off with and armed with just my guidebook, my tiny overnight bag and an innate sense of adventure, I hopped onto a passing tuk tuk [or songthaew as it is known as in these parts] and made my way towards Vientiane, Laos’ capital city that literally straddles the international border. But trust me; you wouldn’t be forgiven for assuming this leafy, charming city to be a ‘border town’. For, it is anything but!

Hugging the Mekong River with all its might, this quaint Franco-Laotian style city is a revelation in more than one ways. To begin with, the bougainvillea-lined streets are prefixed with the French word for road—‘rue’ and you are never too far away from a pavement side Parisian-style patisserie where a scrumptious pain au chocolat has your name written all over it. Yet, there is an innate, all-pervading gentle grace here that is so comfortingly South East Asian. A grace that you will see in the lilting accent of the sarong-clad tender coconut vendor or in the wise, rather rheumy eyes of the saffron-robed monk who greets you at the temple.

And that’s exactly where I began my tryst with Vientiane—at the Wat Si Saket temple on the meandering Rue Setthathirat. Wearing the title of Vientiane’s oldest Buddhist temple, the almost 200-year-old temple was built under the auspices of King Anouvong in 1818 to be the resting place for the over 2,000 silver and ceramic Buddha images that each have a niche built into the temple’s interior walls to hold them. Adjacent to the temple, the grey and white [and heavily guarded!] Presidential Palace is a great example of the mélange of French and Laotian styles of architecture, with its large slatted French windows and tiered domes and steeples that are so distinctly Asian in their aesthetic.

Another such architectural and cultural hybrid is the Patuxai victory monument that occupies prime position, a short walk away at the top end of the Rue Lan Xang. Built in 1968, using concrete donated by the Americans to construct a new airport for Vientiane, this monument is also known as the Anousavali [memory] Monument as a mark of tribute to the Laotian soldiers who lost their lives in WWII, just like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris that honours the dead French soldiers. In fact, the Patuxai even looks similar to the Arc de Triomphe with its two columns connected by a large domed arch that is decorated with carvings of the mythical half-bird, half-women beings called kinnaris along with the trinity of Vishnu, Brahma and Indra on the ceiling of the structure’s inner dome. Nothing very ancient about it, but jaw-droppingly stunning none-the-less.

What to buy in Vientiane

  • Mulberry paper lanterns
  • Traditional Laotian hand puppets
  • Trinkets and jewellery made from detonated bombs

With increasing bouts of the munchies kicking in, I decided to have my first taste of the local cuisine, that like most of this enigmatic country, I knew zilch about. And so, paying heed to the suggestion of my hotel’s receptionist, I headed off towards the Ban Anou Food Market near Vientiane’s Chinatown, off the Rue Chao Anou to get de-virgined in the wonders of Laos’ food. A few skewers of ping kai or barbecue chicken pieces, a bowl of green papaya salad and a chilled bottle of Laos’ national obsession— the rather mild and fruity Beerlao acted as my appetizers. I chased them with a plate of sticky rice topped with the basil-scented pork salad called láap and a herbaceous chicken curry that was redolent of that typically South East Asian herb lemonbasil also known as lao basil. For dessert, it was an assortment of khao nom—that are mostly rice and coconut-based gelatinous sweets with hints of egg and sesame seeds—that finally got me ‘fully fed up’ in a very nice way.

Next on the agenda was a visit to the well-maintained Lao National Museum that finds itself ensconced in one of the most beautifully restored colonial buildings on the Samsenthai Road. Re-built in 1945, after it was ravaged during World War II, this building was originally built in 1925 to serve as a meeting and ceremonial venue for the royal government. Only in 2000 was it converted into the Lao National Museum to hold and display old portraits, pictures and other regalia from the war. I was particularly fascinated by the permanent gallery that depicts the history of Laos from the 12th century Lao Lane Xang Kingdom right up to today.

A short walk from the museum, I wanted to check out a monument that very few tourists ever visit, but one which I was told by the museum docent that I shouldn’t miss. The black stupa or That Dam may look like just another innocuous pile of rubble carelessly plonked in a garden in the centre of a residential street, but for the locals it is a veritable talisman that they guard zealously. Legend has it that the stupa is inhabited by a seven-headed naga that once protected Vientiane from an invasion by the Siamese [now Thai] army in 1827 and will once again rise from its slumber, if the need ever arises.

Hungry once again after all those doses of history and mythology, my dinner was an assortment street cart snacks. Shrimp-on-toast, ‘Angry Birds’-themed chicken sticks, fried pork skin and the sticky-n-sweet pham ngu [dried squid] along with plenty of luridly coloured drinks—with my favourite being the purple taro root and coconut milk iced smoothie—was what I picked up from one of the many food and drink stalls at the riverside night market. This market sets up every night at 7pm under the piercing gaze of the gargantuan statue of Quai Fa Ngum—the last king of Laos.

It was here that I encountered, perhaps, the most poignant of all pit-stops of my one-day-in Vientiane—the bomb-jewellery stall. ‘Thanks’ to Laos’ rather sad title of the most heavily bombed country on earth per capita—that it got as part of the Vietnam War’s collateral damage being its most affected neighbour—a few Loatians have found a very heartwarming way of referencing this heinous atrocity of the past. And they do this by making pendants, earrings, rings, paperweights and assorted trinkets from the shrapnel and other parts of erstwhile bombs, landmines and weapons that can still be found in the jungles of Laos—often still alive and undetonated! Picking up a few such souvenirs for friends back home from an old woman with no left hand, but with a winsome smile and a twinkle in her eyes, I couldn’t but help feel that for the gentle Laotians, life goes on, no matter what.

…and just like that, my idea of the world that was once ‘plagued’ by cautiousness and suspicion was changed forever thanks to the innocence and grace that I saw in abundance in Laos—a country that I dare anyone to dislike!

FACT FILE

  • Getting There
    At present, there are no direct flights from India to Laos, but one can always take a flight to Bangkok in neighbouring Thailand, from where there are several daily flights and buses to Vientiane that don’t cost much. And what’s even better, is that visas for Laos are easily available on arrival at both the Vientiane airport as well as at the Nong Khai border check point.
  • When to Visit
    Laos is a great destination to visit all year round. But the months from June to January are the most pleasant, while February to May are the hot and humid months.
  • Accommodation
    You are never too far away from superb, value-for-money en suite hotel rooms that almost always include breakfast and are spotlessly clean, with tidiness being almost a national obsession in Laos. But make sure you book in advance, as great deals are often snapped up before you can say “room”!

This was first published in the August 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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