Of Alleyways and River Runs in Laos

December 12th, 2017

From the top of Patuxai, just under 200 steps up (or a seven-floor elevator ride), you can see Vientiane spread out before you.

View from the top of Patuxai at Vientiane, Laos

The capital of Laos is the product of ancient Lao civilization, French colonialism, set on the banks of the Mekong River, the Danube of the Orient.

Mornings are best up here, while the temperatures are still hovering in the 20s, when you can enjoy the aerial view of the palm trees planted at the monument’s base, the musical fountains on the other side, and the low-rise buildings that afford a view across this entire small, fascinating, strollable city.

The monument itself is like the city in little, a riff on the Arc de Triomphe in concrete with Laotian styling and Hindu and Buddhist touches throughout. Only a little more than 50 years old, it’s become Vientiane’s icon, like Brussels’ Atomium of roughly the same vintage.

Patuxai monument at night in Vientiane

If you were up the Eiffel Tower, or London Bridge, you could reasonably chart your day’s itinerary, tracing routes through the city to various attractions and neighbourhoods. But Vientiane is not that kind of city.

Like a tiny Taipei (the population here is about 750,000), Vientiane is all about its sois, or its alleyways. The city was mostly destroyed in the middle of the 19th century, and was built back up over the next century or so with the help of the colonizing French, slowly regaining its prominence.

Bars and cafes are often entered off these alleyways through what look to North American eyes like residential yards and driveways. There are no monumental halls here, and few large-scale buildings of any sort, and often the best places don’t announce themselves at all architecturally, often eschewing even signs, making an afternoon or evening out a bit of a scavenger hunt even for locals.

Sunset over downtown Vientiane

Banh Yaddao, a newish Franco-Laotian restaurant on Rue Lao-Thai, is a prime example. A leisurely hour’s wander from Patuxai, even though it’s on a main street, you could easily walk or drive right past the distressed pink-columned cement wall that surrounds it.

But once inside, with its heavy, low-slung wooden furniture, soft lighting, and genteel staff — mostly members of the same family — it’s a snapshot of late post-colonialism. The chef, Lao and trained in France, offers a cuisine that’s become a sort of comfort food to people of what was once known as Indochine.

The walls are lined with the sides of wine crates, the clientele a mix of local and Europeans, with a sprinkling of other international tourists and businessfolk. It’s a nightly celebration of the Lao ability to embrace what’s good about their past, and make it their own.

It’s this way throughout the country, as you see when you board a riverboat and head upstream.

A boat heads up the Mekong River

A little more than 10 per cent of the population of Laos is in Vientiane, with the rest of it spread fairly evenly across towns and villages like the ones you’ll see on the banks of the Mekong.

Like Pak Lai, a colonial town set in a rainforest that’s the site of Laos’ largest elephant festival, tourist interest in which has been a major boon to the country’s declining elephant population.

Or Ban Park Bor, a small village mostly inhabited by Kmu people, one of the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia, and possibly the original inhabitants of much of Laos and Thailand.

Getting to know a little about them, preferably through conversation, can help put the nation in perspective, revealing it as an accretion of a succession cultures, civilizations, languages, and people that goes back thousands of years, all of them contributing to contemporary Lao culture.

Luang Prabang is a few days farther upriver, and though it’s about half the population of Vientiane, it’s the tourist centre of the country. Step off the boat, and it’ll become pretty clear why.

Tour boats on the Mekong at Luang Prabang

The road along the river is dotted with cafes, restaurants, and the Luang Prabang equivalent of diners, open-air open-kitchen specializing in fish from across the street.

Tourists are mostly French here, and the cafes cater to them, offering comfortable places to perch for an afternoon, reading a little Outhine Bounyavong or The White Nightjar while nursing a cup of the home-grown coffee Laos is becoming increasingly well known for.

One of the more unexpectedly beautiful spots in town was set up only recently by a young Dutch couple who fell in love with the place and needed to figure out a way to stay.

Their idea: butterflies.

A butterfly near Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Butterfly Farm is both simpler and more charming – and probably more environmentally sound – than most other butterfly conservatories you may have visited.

Instead of a building, the farm has simply put up some netting among the flowers and shrubbery in the most picturesque spot in the area, at the base of the Kuang Si waterfall.

The butterflies, which they simply corral from the area, are as close to being in their natural setting as you can get and still have this many species easily viewable in one place. For a fee of about $10 (65,000 kip), you can not only wander among these gossamer creatures, but have lunch with them, too.

The falls themselves about 300m away are gorgeous. They’re not big grandstanding things, like Niagara or Victoria, just a stream running down the side of a hill, beside and sometimes over a set of unobtrusive stairs.

At the top, the pool from which it flows, with a man on a skiff ready to take you to the other side if you like, though you can also just take off your shoes and hop from rock to log and admire the sylvan beauty.

Kuang Si Waterfall, Luang Prabang, Laos

But Luang Prabang is also a major Buddhist centre, and there are many shrines and temples from various eras, splendid in the sunshine, and dramatically lit at night.

And in the mornings, there’s a parade, famous among tourists but as popular with the locals, in which monks in their saffron robes file down the main street and accept offerings of food from kneeling lay people.

There are stalls for tourists to buy the sorts of things monks need so they can join in, or you can just stand, or sit on a low roadside wall and watch the ancient ritual of this simple but meaningful exchange between secular and spiritual worlds as blessings are conferred in exchange for rice, fruit, and other snacks the monks will eat as their one daily meal.

Buddhist monks at the traditional alms giving in Luang Prabang

The alms-giving ceremony is so colourful, so interactive, and so charming that it can seem like it must be done for show, but this daily ritual is a perfect example of how tourism and local traditions can be seamlessly interlaced, the daily facts of one culture providing a spectacle to those from away, who are free to participate and contribute to the well-being not just of the monks, but to an entire way of life.

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