Laos, the Asia of golden pagodas and elephants
Although Vientiane is almost unavoidable, the capital is one of the lesser glories of what was once Indo-China, redeemed only by its proximity to the Mekong. It once felt like the backdrop to a Graham Greene novel – crumbling, Frenchified and clandestine. These days, despite its lingering Gallicisms – baguettes, an affection for shuttered windows and the faint, stale whiff of Gauloises in the cafes – Vientiane leaves you with little more than a sense of anomie. After a half-day tour of the temples, a trip out to see the concrete statues at a Buddha theme park and a spirited ascent of the Pratuxai, the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe, my guide shrugged his shoulders. “That’s about it,” he said, and with a sigh of relief from both of us, we headed off to watch the sunset from one of the bars that jut out over the Mekong.
Most of the country’s prime attractions lie in the north, and after an early morning bowl of congee, I boarded a helicopter and headed north across the sharp limestone peaks of northern Laos to Phonsavan, the capital of the Xieng Khuang province and gateway to the Plain of Jars. The region takes its name from the huge sandstone jars that lie scattered about the plain, some up to two metres high and weighing several tonnes. Who brought them or why is a complete mystery, although they were transported from hundreds of kilometres away between two and three thousand years ago. The jars themselves – anything up to 50 to a site – are pretty awesome, tumbled about at various sites on the plain, although you have to wonder about a culture that left no other tangible evidence of its existence than this enormous stoneware.
Coming in to land, the scenery below looked like a giant golf course – comprehensively defoliated, with bomb craters for bunkers.The reason for this devastation is its location. The Plain of Jars is the strategic key not only to northern Laos but also to the western highlands of Vietnam. In 1964, Pathet Lao troops and their North Vietnamese allies took the Plain and in an effort to dislodge them, US bombers shattered the region in a saturation bombing campaign, and the detritus of war – bomb casings, perforated metal strips used for makeshift roads and aluminium fuselages from downed aircraft – have been ingeniously incorporated into the everyday architecture of Xieng Khuang.
Another dimension to the Plain of Jars is the H’mong people of the surrounding hills. The H’mong are among the most colourful of the hill tribes who make up the Lao ethnic soup. Staunchly independent, the H’mong migrated to Laos from southern China and they form a vivid subculture, living in thatch villages, practising slash and burn agriculture, cultivating opium poppies and clinging to their animist beliefs.
By far the most compelling sight of Laos is Luang Prabang. The former royal capital sits at the junction of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers in northern Laos, and it’s easy to be seduced. On the morning that I arrived the city was still recovering from the after-effects of Pi Mai Lao, which is celebrated here with legendary enthusiasm, yet even that had not dimmed the Lao appetite for a party. That afternoon, I stumbled on a pageant at Xieng Thong Temple. A golden statue of the Buddha was carried around the temple, preceded by monks.
On my first evening, I went walking along the banks of the Mekong. Despite its royal palace, Luang Prabang is essentially a small village, and down along the riverbank brothers were taking smaller brothers out for wobbly excursions on their bicycle handlebars. Evening cooking smells drifted from the houses and fighting cocks were being sparred on a small patch of lawn.