I’ve been actively avoiding Laos for the past 10 years.
Even though I have friends who used to live there and others who live there now, I never got the “wow” vibe from Laos. (Much like the way I feel about India. I know. Blasphemy.) Instead I found myself turning my precious vacation days (and budget) elsewhere. Was it ignorance of what there was to see? Or simply biased misinformation? Hearing numerous people say “Laos is just like Cambodia. But less developed,” was a death sentence. Having lived in Cambodia for 10 years and loving it, I still wouldn’t impose a visit to Phnom Penh on anyone – there just wasn’t that much to do and see.
So it was with some hesitation that I finally booked a trip to Laos. And I’m thrilled to admit that I loved it.
Having spent most of the night nursing a cup of Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur waiting for my flight, my first few hours in the Lao capital was spent in a daze. But not one borne of sleep deprivation. It was that strange feeling of not quite being able to put your finger on something, waking up at 5 o’clock after a long nap and not sure whether it’s 5am or 5pm. Like eating a dish and not being able to figure out what’s in it. Everything I thought I knew about Laos was about to go out the window.
The first thing I noticed was that the weather was remarkably cooler in December compared to still sweaty Saigon. Driving from the airport, the streets were straight and wide, only hitting a pocket of traffic around the city’s mini-mall (aka Morning Market) where locals congregate for the free air-conditioning. That was just the beginning. There was an eerie quiet to the city where streets seemed to have more cars than motorbikes. Tuk-tuk drivers didn’t harass you for your business, content instead to take a mid-morning nap in a hastily slung hammock. Low-lying buildings, none more than two or three stories tall, lined the roads where drivers purposely let others go ahead of them, giving credence to the old joke that Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) actually stands for “Please Don’t Rush” Us.
It got to the point where I had to ask the locals if there was actually a ban on honking. “No,” said Khun. “It’s just that we don’t like noise. If you have to honk your horn that means you’re a very poor driver.” Hmmph. Coming from horn-happy Ho Chi Minh City, his impeccable logic stumped me. In fact, everything about Vientiane seemed the anti-Saigon. No 7-11s or international food chains. I think I saw two beggars all week and they were very unintrusive. Trees were plentiful, as were birds.
Huge green public spaces dotted the city, with parks within blocks of each other, especially along the riverside, with its expansive boardwalk, all but deserted in the early morning.
We spent the morning exploring random temples and ducking into silk weaving shops. The very high quality workshop, Carol Cassidy’s Lao Textiles, was great to visit, where you can watch artisans in the back of the colonial era house weaving the gorgeous silks for sale inside. I’m not really a scarf kind of guy because a) I’m not French and b) while I don’t exactly know what panache is, I’m pretty sure I don’t have any.
pa·nache /pəˈnaSH/ (noun): Flamboyant confidence of style or manner. (aka something I don’t have)
Not unlike Elaine in Seinfeld. “You can’t have a little grace. You either have grace or you don’t”.
But visiting this workshop kind of made me wish I was the scarf-wearing type. You know. The type with panache.
I took one afternoon to visit iconic Vientiane in the form of the golden Pha That Luang stupa (admission USD 0.60). Built in the 3rd century, it was originally a Hindu temple then a Khmer temple and finally a Buddhist temple in the 16th century. There is a museum and manicured gardens in the back, with photographers ready to instantly color print your photos.
For a 360 degree view of the city, I headed over to Patuxai, the Gate of Triumph. An admission ticket will allow you to climb seven floors to the top, past a surprisingly big market inside, to look out on Lane Xang Avenue. You’d be forgiven if, only for a second, you thought you were somehow in Paris. The Gate of Triumph or Victory Gate is very much modeled after the L’Arc de Triomphe (but with Lao painted ceilings) and the avenue looks very much like the Champs Elysees. Sometimes called “the Vertical Runway” because it was built with US money allocated for a new airport, the Lao sense of humility is shown in the plaque which points out about the unfinished structure that “from a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.” Ouch.
For my Vientiane stay, I was a guest at the gorgeous Ansara Hotel, a collection of colonial-style mansions set around a verdant courtyard, on a quiet lane just a three minute walk from the riverside. With only 12 rooms and 2 suites, it was private, refined and comfortable. Every room comes with a complimentary mini-bar that’s refreshed daily (!), laptop with printing capabilities (!!), fast wi-fi and a beautiful buffet breakfast.
Location-wise, Ansara was perfect. The surrounding area is known as Nam Phou, a very walkable few blocks chock full of high end craft shops (again, more scarves!), trendy eateries and traveler services. A night market sets up under crisp red tents right at the end of the lane. Ansara (built by the Laotian architect husband and Japanese-French wife owners) also has La Signature, a fine French restaurant with art deco furnishings and soft French Jazz to set the ambiance.
I had a set dinner that started off with a surprise amuse bouche (a shot glass of refreshingly cold tomato soup with the perfect amount of citrus for acid), a feta and smoked duck salad, Mekong fish roulade in a bisque and finished off with caramelized apple with vanilla ice cream drizzled with strawberry coulis. The after dinner coffee came with heated milk, a beautiful touch. Doubles start at USD 125.
For more on my favorite foods while in Laos, check out my article, “Five Dishes You Shouldn’t Leave Laos Without Trying” over at Bootsnall.