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.
"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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.