If you started following my blog because you liked the travel entries, you must have been gravely disappointed recently. It’s all been about theatre and music and stuff like that and not a word about exotic foreign destinations. Sincere apologies for that – mea culpa (if you’re under 25, that’s Latin for My Bad). Fear not – I’m going to put that right – or at least that’s my aim.
Way back in the dim and distant past – March 2013 in fact – Mrs Chrisparkle and I were lucky enough to undertake a three week tour of Indochina, visiting Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. They were countries we’d always hoped to see, and we’d heard amazing things about them from friends who had already been.
Laos was first on our itinerary; an extraordinary little country, with wonderful, kind, friendly, relaxed people. The country itself forms a slim strip of land separating Thailand from Vietnam, and at one time was divided into three principalities – each a different “Lao”. I don’t know if there’s any truth in the story we heard that when it reunified in the mid-twentieth century, that’s when it became Laos – i.e. plural – because it was the three different Laos coming back together again. But I believe you’re still meant to pronounce it Lao, as in the second syllable of “allow” and not Laos as in louse, or indeed, to rhyme with chaos, as I erroneously thought when I was growing up. The people are Lao – that’s their race, their ethnicity; the language is Lao. The cuisine is Lao – and fabulous it is too. The beer is Lao. Everything is Lao.
We started off in the capital Vientiane for two nights. It’s a French looking name, not surprising with the area’s French colonial past perhaps, but if you think in terms of its being a francophone version of Viang Chan, it makes more sense. Vientiane must be the sleepiest, most laid back capital city in the world. Wide roads with a few cars occasionally sedately driving by. You can park almost anywhere. The South East Asian predilection for motor bikes is evident here, but so much more restfully than anywhere else. The local “ton-up” kids are more like “10 mph” kids. You can almost overtake them on foot. They will stop to let you cross the road, even though it’s their right of way, and always with a beaming smile. I bet they’re so kind to their grannies. A typical street will be a mix of shops, housing, and Buddhist temples and shrines, not all higgledy-piggledy and mish-mashed as in many Asian towns, but nice and neatly laid out and sitting in their own grounds. There seems to be bags of room for everyone, and the people are proud of their environment, keeping it clean and well maintained. I don’t believe we saw a scrap of graffiti anywhere.
Our hotel was the Green Park, and it’s conveniently located just slightly out of the centre but still no distance from the main sights. The rooms are in several blocks located all around the gardens, and it has a very atmospheric sense of being in the jungle, even though you aren’t. We did put up our mosquito nets though, just in case. There’s a nice little bar in the hotel lobby which was where we met our fellow travellers on the first evening – we were a select little group, one other English couple and a solo Swiss lady – and a first floor restaurant with a lovely terrace overlooking the grounds. The hotel has a complementary shuttle bus service to the centre of the town and back; and on the first afternoon, whilst everyone else was unpacking and resting from the long flight – Heathrow to Bangkok, then Bangkok to Vientiane, we couldn’t resist just leaving the bags where they stood and getting the shuttle bus to the town centre for a first walk around the town.
The bus drops you off at That Dam, which isn’t a manmade barrier to control water levels, but a large stupa that forms the centre of a roundabout. From there we just wandered around, partly following the map and partly our noses, enjoying the unique combination of peace and commerce that you can only find on a Lao street. Plenty of evidence of the local sense of humour too, as you can see from these photos. We took a path that led us down to the banks of the Mekong – the mighty river which would follow us all over the subcontinent during the next three weeks – and there we saw the horizon-stabbing statue of Chao Anouvong, King from 1805 – 1828, whose arm extends you a slightly spooky welcome. In any other capital such a statue would be a real focus of attention, probably with swarms of traffic seething round it, like the Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome, or with a magnificent Versailles-like park surrounding it. In Vientiane however, it overlooks a completely empty road that goes nowhere. The combination of splendid bronze statue and barren surroundings is really quite eerie.
We returned to the Green Park for a rest and an unpack, and decided to play it safe by simply eating in the hotel restaurant that evening. The food was fantastic. Lao cuisine is delicately spicy, full of harmonious flavours that really complement each other and tease your tongue with their deliciousness. Comparing it with other food styles I had previously tried, I would describe it as most similar to Thai, but even more so, if you know what I mean. It doesn’t have the brassy self- confidence of Chinese and it was considerably more appealing than the harsh tastes of Vietnamese cuisine we were to “enjoy” later.
The next day we were up bright and early for a full day’s sightseeing. First stop was a 16-mile drive out of town to Xieng Thuan, better known as Buddha Park. At first glance you might be excused for thinking this was some ancient religious site, or indeed that it had become a repository where several displaced Buddha statues from all around the country could be reinstalled and brought back to their original condition. Wrong on both counts. It is in fact a glorified theme park, but absolutely fascinating nonetheless, and a useful introduction to the world of Buddhist statuary before you get to see the real thing. A highlight is a large reclining Buddha that is worshipped by locals; but in all there are about 200 religious statues here, not just Buddhist but Hindu too, with some very interesting combinations of the two religions. They were constructed between the 1950s and 1970s by one Luang Phu Bounleua Soulilat, a Lao guru, inspired by the teachings of a Hindu Holy man he met in a cave in Vietnam. You couldn’t make it up. When the constitutional monarchy of Laos fell victim to Communist invasion in 1975, Luang Phu fled to Thailand, where he built another Buddha Park just on the other side of the Mekong. The man was obviously obsessed. Alongside the statues there’s also a big round structure that represents heaven, earth and hell, which you can go inside and peer in the dark at the characters that inhabit each level. The park is a fun place to wander around and – if you dare – it’s great for a spot of hide and seek. There’s a refreshment stall at the entrance – don’t bother with the usual sweets and chocolates, just go straight for the barbecued bananas. They’re gorgeous.
We headed back to Vientiane to visit Pha That Luang, the “Great Stupa”, not only an important religious building whose shape represents a lotus bud but also a symbol of Lao nationalism. It’s a very beautiful setting, with further temples beside it, all largely rebuilt in the 1930s. Nearby is the Haw Pha Kaew, once a separate temple but now a museum to Buddhist art. The rooms themselves are decorated with stunningly beautiful colours that take your breath away, let alone the interest of the artefacts themselves. Simply visiting those two sites could easily take you two hours.
From there we visited the Patuxai monument. Reminiscent of an oriental Arc de Triomphe in the centre of a beautiful park, this “Victory Gate” was constructed in 1964 to commemorate the fallen during the Lao Civil War. From the top there are fantastic views of the park below and the city – to get to the top you must walk up the steps inside and through a veritable bazaar that is housed within the building itself. Designed to catch the tourists of course, but nevertheless it feels very incongruous. The window openings are nicely obstructed with decorative modern wrought iron designs of Buddha and Lotus flowers, to stop you toppling forward and onto the square below.
After lunch we continued to Wat Sisaket temple, the oldest temple in the city (1818), notable for its wonderful cloisters filled with over 2,000 images of Buddha, nearly all of which were dressed in a bright orange sash. As with so many of these temples the roofs, banisters, and walls are covered with decorative naga motifs – the mystic cobra with a dragon-type head and snazzy claws found in both Hinduism and Buddhism. After a few days of wandering around religious sites in Laos, I got very disappointed if I didn’t spot a naga or two in each place.
There are a couple of markets in the city centre. Most interesting was the “everyday food market” – that’s not its title but how our guide described it – with its amazing array of exotic fruits, vegetables and spices, alarmingly side-by-side with buckets of frogs (and I can testify, they are indeed mad) and tortoises that we were assured were not for eating but were “placed near food for decorative purposes”. Hmmm. It’s one of those markets where you spend half the time breathing in the glorious scents and feasting on the sights, and the other half dry-retching.
That was the final part of our organised tour for the day, but before he dropped us off at the hotel, our guide suggested one more visit – the COPE Foundation’s headquarters, that just so happen to be on the other side of the road from our hotel. This is an amazing, thought-provoking and humbling experience. COPE stands for “Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise”, and it provides prosthetic and rehabilitation services for Lao people who are the victims of “unexploded ordnance”. The sad legacy of recent years in South East Asia is that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the entire world, and it is estimated there are still 80 million unexploded bombs there. A terrible price to pay for other countries’ wars. The danger to children playing is obvious. As well as helping to rehabilitate victims of these bombs, there are also those suffering from polio, leprosy and who have other disabilities. COPE is the only organisation in the country that supports these people.
As you walk into the Visitor Centre you are overwhelmed by a number of sights. A graphic model of a cluster bomb releasing its bomblets. A map showing, in blood red, the extent of unexploded ordnance in the country. Stacks and rows of prosthetic limbs are on display, along walls, in piles, even dangling from the ceiling. And there will often be a young person who has benefited from the services of COPE there to tell visitors of how they were injured and how COPE has helped them. When we were there, there was a young man on duty, who moved stiffly and looked awkward. He had that recognisable look about him of severe pain mixed with bravery. We decided not to add to his woes by talking to him. But it’s a very moving place to visit – and to appreciate the great work that the Foundation does.
And that was our long first full day in Laos. For dinner we went to the Makphet restaurant, the first of many eateries we would discover over the next few weeks that have been specifically set up to teach local street children the art of running a business, by means of cooking and waiting and general restauranteuring. It gets them started in a proper job and with the hope of a decent future. The Makphet was very enjoyable and the food totally delicious, but it was here that we realised the Lao don’t have any concept of the “starter” when it comes to serving food. Everything came out in one go. Starters, mains, sweets, the lot. Lovely though. The next day we were to have an early morning flight to Luang Prabang, so we were well behaved and didn’t sample the nightspots of Vientiane. To be honest, I doubt there was a lot of choice.