Thursday, 16 October 2008

Laos. Enchante.


We have crossed the border from China, south into Laos. En route we passed through some of the wildest, most remote terrain I have ever encountered.

It was also some of the most beautiful.
Our road wound along river valleys, their thick, muddy waters chocked with debris from the recently-passed moonsons. We skirted steep mountain sides and passed through tiny villages, with small thatched huts sat on stilts, children, chickens and little pigs scattering in our path.

And all along the thick, green jungle shadowed us, lining the route and stretching out across the hills as far as the eye could see.

The road was long, the journey arduous and slow. Our tiny little road bumped up and down, veered left and right and never ever seem to run straight for more than a few metres. No wonder Laos wasn’t accessible by road until about ten years ago.

Finally, after nine hours of bumping up and down we arrived at our Eldorado: Luang Prabang.

An ancient imperial capital of this wondrous country…an enchanting town of golden temples and the exotic mysteries of the east…an outpost of mankind standing at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers...and all a bit….French.

Upon arrival I was amazed , and rather charmed, to be addressed in French by the elderly Madame of our guesthouse. Enchante.

It didn’t stop there. The town is chokker with battered old French-style buildings, crumbling colonial houses with long thin shutters, rickety balconies, and outside walls whitewashed against the tropical sun.

On the main street, Sisavangvong Road, all kinds of treats await the homeless Parisian, from baguettes and quiche lorraine to tarte aux pommes and milles feuilles. And of course the excellent, thirst-quenching Beer Lao - a French lager if ever there were one.

I half expected Arthur Bostrom’s hapless gendarme/British agent character from ‘Allo ‘Allo to saunter by, waving his nightstick and greeting us, ‘good moaning’.

Across the road from our guesthouse we can hear young children learning French at the French language school; around the corner we had a nice chat with a friendly chap from Clermont-Ferrand who runs one of the town’s numerous bookshops.

My Francophile father would love it, though it did leave me wondering quite why the French went to the trouble of colonising a place which, despite it’s numerous charms, is rather inhospitable.

There must have been good reason to do so, after all the French were only one country in a long line of others to which the Lao people found themselves rather reluctant hosts. The Burmese, the Thais, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, even the Americans have also left their mark on this little nation.

Add into the mix a whole host of different ethnic groups, stir in the rise and fall of an imperial family and add a good measure of communism and Laos comes out with a rather interesting and unique flavour.

The people have certainly changed from those amongst whom we walked yesterday, on the other side of the Chinese border. Not only do they look decidedly different but their character is a refreshing change to the ebullient, noisy Chinese.
Quiet and shy, Lao people seem reticent to accost the numerous wealthy foreigners strolling about their town.

No shopkeepers hassle you here, rather you have to hassle them, waking them from their slumbers as they doze in the afternoon heat.

No rickshaw drivers harangue you mercilessly, instead they crouch in the shadows, perhaps offering a rather halfhearted sales pitch: ‘cheap cheap’.

No crowds, no pushing, no shoving, no spitting.
You can put your elbows away when you leave China and enter Laos, for it’s suddenly very well mannered once more. Smiles, apologies, bowing. Is it all going Japanese again?

1 comment:

Beatrice said...

hi there!!
just read that you are in laos now!! one of the best places in the world!! enjoy it! especially the hospitality of the laopeople!!
luang prabang... amazing place! go to the night market and shop till you dropp!! it's the best in southeast asia!! everything you don't buy there you'll regret afterwards because you'll never find it again!
a good thing to do in luang prabang is the mahout training (how to be an elephant-driver)! it sounds a bit touristy but it was really amazing!! we spent a lot of time on the elephants, could wash them and everything. i cant remember the name of the place we booked it it was on the main road on the right hand side of the road (comming from the scandinavian bakery), just before a road turning to the mekong. or just befor you climb mt. pou si on the left.... sounds complicatet...

well... i'm a bit jeallous!! you being in luang prabang and all...let me know if you need any tips.

but i've got some news as well...i'm getting a baby next april!!! and am really excited!! a new adventure!

hey, traveller, i wish you all the best, good luck, a lot of nice people and the time of your life!!

beatrice