The new great place


Jeff Greenwald
December 31, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Stepping off the plane in Vientiane, Laos, we were greeted by the sort of reception usually reserved for package tourists to Waikiki Beach.

Pre-pubescent girls in native costume rushed up with leis; a troupe of Lao dancers swayed on the tarmac, dancing to musical accompaniment that sounded like a rhapsody composed on a planet inhabited by medieval cats. Press photographers snapped pictures as we accepted free T-shirts, handed out by smiling boys who lined our passage into the arrivals lounge.

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"This gives fresh meaning," I said to my companion, "to the phrase 'accidental tourist.'"

The date was Jan. 1. My friend Diane and I, along with a load of other unwitting travelers, had arrived from Bangkok on the maiden flight of "Visit Laos Year 1999-2000."

This "Visit (your country's name here) Year" business is an honor doled out by ASEAN -- the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- to its member nations. Last year was Thailand's turn; this year, for the first time, Laos (which joined ASEAN in 1997) received the mantel. The hope of this poor and landlocked country, naturally, is to cash in on the millions of dollars in foreign exchange -- much of it from tourist revenue -- that has flowed for decades into Thailand and, more recently, into Cambodia and Vietnam as well.

Long-restricted Laos dropped many of its travel limits in 1994. It now offers a visa on arrival at the airport. And it has launched "Visit Laos Year 1999-2000" on the wings of a tender slogan, a phrase officials clearly hoped would root in the hearts and minds of the waddling Westerners whose shirts and blouses had been permanently stained by the potent botanical oils in their pesky leis: "Laos: My New Love."

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Vientiane, the capital, is almost cosmopolitan; there's an English-language newspaper, a district of tailors and countless lanes lined with shops selling metal tins and carved wooden boxes, cheap jewelry, counterfeit antiques and ethnic minority dolls. French colonial dwellings -- some of them converted to guest houses -- squat in the shadow of gleaming office buildings, and the menus of the French and Italian restaurants around Nam Phu Square list their prices in dollars, not kip.

And there are some glorious wats (Buddhist temples) in the capital. We spent our single sunset in Vientiane at Wat Sisikhet, with its long corridors lined with gesturing Buddhas. Also impressive is Wat Phra Keo, whose signature image -- an Emerald Buddha, presented to Lan Xang ("The Land of a Million Elephants," as Laos was then called) by the king of Ceylon -- was looted by the Thais in 1827, just before they razed the place to the ground. (The image is now in Bangkok's Wat Phra Keo, in the Royal Palace compound.) Still, there are some superb Buddha images at the rebuilt temple: One of them looks a bit like Groucho Marx, another like Mr. Spock, and several reminded me of characters from a Lynda Barry cartoon.

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But we did not tarry long in the capital. Our destination was Luang Prabang, a monastic center and former French colonial settlement, situated along the Mekong River.

Diane, a writer and producer who has written for National Geographic and worked on films like "Little Buddha" and "Seven Years in Tibet," lives in Nepal. Expatriates working in Kathmandu are always looking for places to escape to -- places where they can actually breathe. High in the hills, Luang Prabang had recently acquired a reputation as a retreat of choice. From initial reports, we expected something halfway between Shangri-la and classical Indochina: a sylvan enclave where hornbills nest, the mist rises through bamboo groves and the gentle peals of temple bells signal the dawn.

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We wound up at the Villa Xiengmouane by accident, after our first choice
of hotels -- the well-known Calao Auberge -- proved a noisy bust. At the
Xiengmouane (pronounced "sheng'mwan," but I'll just call it the "X") we
took a small suite: a pair of rooms facing on one side a handsome wat
(from which the guest house took its name) and on the other a large,
quiet garden. Laundry hung brightly on the line, and the umbrellas of a
riverside restaurant were visible down a nearby lane. In the distance,
toward the setting sun, motorboats plied the Mekong.

Despite our luck with lodgings, we were a little let down by the town.
It was far from what we'd expected. Wandering the streets, Diane and I
felt a little brokenhearted, poorly served by the paeans of praise that
our friends had heaped upon this rustic peninsula at the confluence of
the Mekong and Khan rivers. For all its anti-hype, Luang Prabhan -- "LP"
for short -- is already a typical tourist "discovery," a place that was
undoubtedly far more charming two years, or even six months, ago.
Alternative travel has become a lot like the stock market: By the time
you get wind of something, it's over.

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A day's stroll was all it took to see where LP is heading. The streets
were abuzz with new Honda motor scooters; a couple of years ago, Luang
Prabang was filled with bicycles. A CNN report on the impeachment trial
issued from a coffeehouse; above the Scandanavian Bakery, an
enterprising Lao had opened a cybercafe.

There was construction everywhere, a steady soundtrack of power tools and
the steady percussion of hammers. Observing the new architecture, we
had to laugh at the irony. After declaring the old part of Luang Prabang
a World Heritage Site, UNESCO insisted that all new structures must be
of traditional design; but "traditional," in the case of Luang Prabang,
means French Colonial. With its new designation and an evident influx of
capital, LP seems well on the way to becoming another travelers' mecca:
a watering hole on the ever-expanding Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam circuit.

But the town was not without its charms. We passed the afternoon at the
LP's most fascinating temple: Wat Xieng Thong (pronounced "Washington"
by some fellow travelers). Walking into the compound is like stepping
into a fairy tale: There is a sense of magic that, once upon a time,
must have saturated all of Luang Prabang. Built in 1560, the temple
complex is named for its venerable thong, or bodhi, tree. The ficus -- like
most of its companions at temples throughout Asia -- was probably grown
from a cutting taken off the original bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, India,
beneath which the Buddha gained enlightenment.

Some of the wats at Xieng Thong are inlaid with mosaics made of colored
mirror. The style, showing cartoonish figures on a red background (some
with their heads getting cut off), reminded me of "naive" American art.
Others are decorated with bas-reliefs of carved wood, thickly layered
with gold leaf. (The most beautiful building of all, emblazoned with
golden panels depicting erotic scenes from the Ramayana epic, is
actually a parking garage for the royal funeral chariot.) As the low sun
struck the wats, the air seemed to fill with colored sparks; it was like
sitting in the middle of a giant jewel box. We caught our breath, looking
beyond the temple gates to the shimmering cord of the Mekong River.
Only one element compromised the scene. A teenage monk sat on the steps of
the main temples, smoking a Marlboro Light and tapping his Nikes
restlessly on the steps. Enlightenment, I thought to myself. Just Do It.

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The full moon rose over Mount Phousi,
casting the wat on its crest into spooky silhouette. Diane and I
wandered the old town, searching for a restaurant that served crepes
and fruit salad. When we finally found one -- after a long walk in circles
through the old quarter -- I decided to stay local, ordering a traditional
Lao specialty called laap. Made of minced fish ground in a mortar with
spices, garlic and green onion, the brown paste was the nearest thing
I've eaten to cat food. (I must add, for fairness's sake, that on subsequent evenings I tried
chicken laap, at the Phousi Hotel restaurant, and found it delicious.
Lao food can be terrific, but you have to know where to look. Lonely
Planet recommended a "small, funky" place where the locals go. We found
it; it's now in a cement building, packed with guidebook-toting
Planeteers. The food was great, though. And there's precious little to
choose from in Luang Prabang.)

It felt good to return to the villa, to put Segovia on our portable CD
player and nest in our little suite of rooms. Outside the window, Wat
Xiengmouane lay in shadow. I could make out the spires of the small
vihara shrines and, to their right, the temple's ritual drum: a huge
cylinder with two leather heads, suspended from ropes within an elegant
gazebo.

I climbed into bed at 9, three days of international travel finally
catching up with me. Diane was equally spent. She was fighting off a
cold as well as the body-memory of four stressful, all-consuming months
of work in Nepal. Right away, we ran into trouble. The bed squeaked like
a cave full of bats, screaming at every adjustment of an arm or a leg.
Tired as we were, we burst out laughing. Earplugs muted most of these
high-register sounds, and I drifted off to sleep.

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I was shaken out of bed -- literally -- at 4 in the morning. Twenty feet
below, the monastery drum had begun to beat: thunderous thumps that
shook the room by the neck, punctuated by a cacophony of cymbals and
bells. The charming cultural racket continued, unabetted, for 15
minutes. I tried desperately to pretend I was back in my old Santa
Barbara apartment, right next to the railroad tracks. I'd gotten used to
that, hadn't I? The clamorous thumping of the freight train, rolling
past my window at 4 each morning? Yes, I had; it had taken two years.

In the strange clarity that accompanies premature awakening, I
formulated a cunning plan. Years of travel have taught me the value of
preparation, and I carry a few items that most travelers never think to
pack. My noise-addled brain imagined with satisfaction the bewilderment
and confusion of the monks as they arrived for their next wee-hour puja,
only to find their mammoth drum webbed behind the bright yellow tape I'd
snatched from an Oakland, Calif., patrol car: POLICE LINE: DO NOT CROSS.

Much of what is now Laos was previously a gift horse. The territory was
ceded to the French (along with part of Cambodia) around 1895 by the
king of Siam in an effort to keep other, more belligerent powers at bay.

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But there was never really anything for the French in Laos. The land was
too steep for cultivation, the Mekong River unnavigable. So the French
set up an administrative outpost in little Luang Prabang, leaving the
locals more or less alone and amusing themselves with assorted
debaucheries: sampling local consorts, enjoying long drinks on the banks
of the Mekong and manipulating the opium trade. They built lovely
homes, the French; some of the more popular guest houses, the Villa X
among them, are restored mansions.

I thought about the fate of Laos in Luang Prabang's Palace Museum, a
compound of white pavilions with mirrored murals and the long,
fingernail-like eaves that one sees everywhere in Thailand.

It's a strange and lonely place. The would-be king -- Sisavang Vatthana -- vanished in 1977, two years after the Pathet Lao communists liberated
the country. Rumor has it he was sent to northern Laos for
"re-education" -- always a dubious fate. He's simply not talked about, and
the question of whether he and his family are alive or dead remains a
mystery.

The palace is now a tourist attraction, and it's hard to believe it was
ever really lived in. In one room, I spent many minutes surveying a
collection of stingy gifts presented by foreign leaders to the former
Lao royalty. Far from demonstrating Laotian importance, the presents
betray the near contemptuous disregard in which the country was
typically held. I noted replicas of second-rate statuary from India; a
handful of lapel pins from the former Soviet Union; an absurd vase
decorated with mosaic conquistadors; a boomerang from Australia. One
case displayed the keys to various American cities, including San
Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington. The biggest key in the
collection, oddly, was from Knoxville, Tenn., while the smallest -- smaller than
an actual house key -- granted gracious entrance into the hearts and souls
of the citizens of Phoenix.

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On the shelf above these mementos, I spied a tiny Lao flag that flew to
the moon and back with the crew of Apollo 11. Such flags, mounted on
generic brass plaques ("We went to the moon, and here's a little
something for you"), were presented to the leaders of all nations
recognized by the United Nations in 1969, when the first manned lunar landing
occurred. Beside the flag, sealed into a glass marble the size of a
radish, sat another, more recent gift: a bit of moon rock, retrieved by
the astronauts of Apollo 17. Yet another plaque proclaimed that this bit
of cosmic rubble was presented to Laos by President Richard M. Nixon in
1973 as "a symbol of the unity of human endeavor, and ... the hope of
the American peoples for a world of peace."

What the plaque fails to mention is the fact that 1973 also marked
Nixon's reluctant cessation of the "Special War," an undeclared and
illegal action during which more than 600,000 sorties, flown during a
nine-year period, heaped upon northern Laos more bombs than were rained
upon Europe, by all sides combined, during the Second World War.

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No one ever raises his voice in Luang Prabang; the Lao seem as docile
as rabbits. One of the most startling things about walking through LP is
that, unlike in any other Asian town, no one uses his horn. Cars yield
to pedestrians; trucks brake courteously, allowing motor scooters to
pass.

Bargaining, for goods or for transport, is devoid of any mercenary
streak. There's a tiny range between the highest and lowest bids; Laos
agree to the offered price with a shrug. They simply don't nickel and
dime you. In the endless conversions between Lao kip and American
dollars, Thai baht and kip, baht and dollars, they're happy to let you
do the math -- even if your ignorance of current exchange rates lowers
their profit by thousands of kip.

Money is also bizarre. For one thing, there are no coins in Laos. All
transactions are in paper money, with the largest notes worth 5,000
kip. There are nearly 4,500 kip to the dollar, and it is quite possible
to find street food that costs 100 or 200 kip. One afternoon,
after crossing the Mekong to a village on the other side, I actually ran
into a situation where I felt I was being "cheated." The boatman had
charged Lao passengers 200 kip for the ride; he demanded 500 from me. I
strutted and fretted, howled and argued, and wasted about 10 minutes
before realizing that we were talking about seven cents.

Time in Luang Prabang moves slowly. There is very nearly nothing to do,
except for visiting the many wats -- and there is nothing to do at the
wats. So placid are the Lao that the French overseers coined a phrase
about their Indochine colonies: "The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Laotians listen to it grow."

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One morning, restless for an excursion, Diane and I negotiated for a
boat and motored up the Mekong to the Phak Ou caves, a shrine by the
mouth of the Nam Ou tributary.

It was a long ride, in surprisingly chilly weather. There were a few small
rapids, but nothing threatening. Cement pylons rose from outcroppings of
limestone, their red-painted tips showing the river's perilous
high-water mark. Diane and I huddled on a hard bench near the front of
the long, narrow boat. The jungle along the banks of the Mekong appeared
pristine, storybook exotic. Tall stands of bamboo leaned over the water,
looking as green and soft as sea fern. Deeper in the forest I spotted
tall palms, purple flowers and strange Jurassic foliage that once
sheltered the dinosaurs so popular on Laotian postage stamps.

The Mekong is not a lovely river, but it does have personality.
Small plots of cultivated land glowed on the banks. Still, I was
surprised by the lack of wildlife. On the entire trip -- which took all
day -- we saw only two or three water buffalo. And what we'd romantically
imagined to be the cries of exotic langurs, emanating from within the
forest, turned out to be the squeak of our rudder.

Nor were there any birds. We could never figure out why. A few people
insisted it was because they had been hunted out, but this was hard to
believe. Laos is the most scarcely populated country in Asia, with a
paltry 17 people per square kilometer (according to Michael Buckley's
superb new Moon handbook). A few villagers with primitive rifles can't
really decimate an entire avian population -- can they?

The Phak Ou caves were a fascinating stop, filled with thousands of
Buddhas in every imaginable medium, at every stage of antiquity and
decay. Many stood in the uniquely Lao "Calling for Rain" posture. Their
long arms descended straight down their sides, giving their forms a
rocket-like countenance. Some were so worn that their wooden bodies had
all but rotted away, leaving the merest hint of a gesture, or an
omniscient smile.

Diane offered candles and incense, but the sacred ambience of the caves
was frequently shattered by the deafening roar of express speedboats -- a
relatively new feature of the region. Each one passed like a fighter
jet, whisking a dozen crash-helmeted passengers to the Thai border in a
percussive and agonizing journey, six hours long.

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The following morning we rented a motorcycle and drove it 20 miles
south along a dusty, corrugated road. We passed many small villages, the
simple homes perched on poles above the ground. There were loads of
children. The girls walked by in groups, doe-eyed, arms slung over each
others' shoulders; the boys stretched out their palms, hoping to slap me
five as I passed along the road. There was none of the begging, none of
the mercenary mania that I've come to expect in Nepalese villages.

After an hour, we reached our destination: Kuangsi Falls. The waterfall
was lovely, a sculpted travertine cascade framed by lush
foliage and an unlikely riot of poinsettas. The torrent fanned out over
weird, cone-shaped ledges that looked like the hats worn by the Seven
Dwarfs, dropping into steel-blue pools. The landscaping was simple and
inviting, and there was not a mote of litter. The courteous Lao,
evidently, took to heart the cautionary signs: "Thank Slot, You Do Not
Drop Garbage."

We ate dinner that night at a restaurant along the Mekong. The scene was
picture perfect. Longboats crossed and recrossed the river, and a
persimmon sun sank behind a tree-shrouded hill. I watched the scene
through a glass of Beer Lao, realizing that, somehow, our visit had been
remarkable after all. Even if the trip hadn't been the romantic
interlude we had intended, we'd encountered a society unique in our
experience of Asia. It was inconceivable that France and America had
spent so many years, and so many lives, trying to destroy these people.

Equally bizarre was the notion that Westerners were now flocking to
Laos: ordering chocolate soufflé, checking their e-mail and keeping an
eye out for unexploded bombs. And as the expansion of Luang Prabang
continues, Laos is poised to become another communist parody: a place
where hard-won liberation has been co-opted by Honda, Nike and Microsoft.

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Ever since arriving in Luang Prabang, Diane and I had tried to come up
with a more accurate slogan for Visit Laos Year 1999-2000; a
truth-in-advertising improvement on ASEAN's "Laos: My New Love." Our
efforts had been futile; nothing we imagined did justice to the strange
paradox of this industriously emerging backwater.

The next morning -- on our way to the airport -- we passed another
"traditional" guest house, rising noisily along Luang Prabang's main
drag. Diane straightened suddenly in her seat. "I've got it," she
announced.

"OK," I replied dubiously. "Let's hear it."

"Laos," she recited. "Listen to It Grow."


Jeff Greenwald

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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