On a whirlwind tour of Laos, Devanshi Mody dissects its heritage and local culture, gets introduced to the austere ways of monks and indulges, albeit guiltily, in some luxurious retreats. By Devanshi Mody
“Lao PDR officially stands for Lao People’s Democratic Republic,” says Michael Roehrig of Trails of Indochina, “but really, it stands for Please Don’t Rush.” Languorous like the stately River Mekong that traverses it, this is a destination where two cars on the street counts as a traffic jam. Unless, luxury cars from China are whizzing through Luang Prabang’s quaint, slender streets, their broad, burnished bodies almost grazing the UNESCO-protected town’s heritage edifices. These French-colonial structures are fast becoming hotels, restaurants, bars and boutiques for tourists, whose numbers near Laos’ seven-million population. And yet, an imperturbable tranquillity pervades Laos. In three weeks, I won’t hear a horn bleat. Nor see a McDonald’s, Starbucks, or smug white Apple store! My hotel—the latest ultra-luxe abode in the region—the Rosewood Luang Prabang is 15 minutes out of town, and that’s considered far. Michael awaits me at Rosewood’s colonial Great House, which pulsates with elephant motifs evoking Laos’ former name ‘Land of a Million Elephants’ almost in tragic irony. Just 400 elephants survive.
Poaching has exterminated rhinos and crocodiles. Apparently, rhino horns (the Chinese love them) sell at Luang Prabang’s famous Night Market.
Michael has been in Laos for 15 years and is phlegmatic, even about Laos’ corruption sensations. However, my displeasure at much-vaunted erstwhile-royal capital Luang Prabang provokes him. Why is it UNESCO-stamped when Puducherry and Chettinad’s architectural splendour surpasses the charming but unstaggering French-colonial buildings here? Michael calls these the best-preserved vestiges of Indochina architecture. I have seen finer specimens in Vietnam and Cambodia. Michael claims that UNESCO’s presence checks China. Really?
Destiny contrives to dispel my disappointment with Laung Prabang. Legendary hotelier Adrian Zeccha is in town, and Michael engineers a rendezvous at Zeccha’s villa. The little beaming man, white-clad and sharp-witted, usually spends his birthday in Luang Prabang. “But I don’t know why I celebrate these things any more. I am 86,” he notes. Zeccha looks 20 years younger and recalls distinctly his doings at 20, including being clandestinely engaged as a debutant journalist to approach “Panditji,” mandated by the Americans to persuade Nehru not to invade and expropriate Goa from the Portuguese. The architect-turned-hotelier could be anywhere on his birthday. Why Luang Prabang? Perhaps I must see Laos through Zeccha’s eyes.
Rosewood’s ‘Sunset Cruise’ is encouraging. French Riesling in hand, propped on a luxury daybed, I peruse books on colonial Asia, chuckling over portrayals of the British with their tight suits, stiff ways and mercantile minds, contrasting the French, who drank and danced, their arms crooked round a pretty local damsel. Incidentally, Laos was called a French ‘protectorate’, not ‘colony’, in chic euphemism.
Next morning, at 5.30 am, the phone jangles in my room. Apparently, I am required to embark on an expedition to dispense alms to monks. I am in yoga; besides, I don’t do touristy things. I venture, however, a heritage walk of the protected town abundant with ornate Buddhist temples. The royal Wat Xieng Thong temple exhibits the Emperor’s regal hearse in an enclave with stunning depictions from the Ramayana. Discussing meditation with my guide Somai, formerly a monk, I aver that four hours of yoga and meditation every day—over 15 years—hasn’t tamed my mind. Somai confesses that eight years of monk-hood hasn’t alleviated his mindset either. He suggests hearing the monks’ becalming evening chant, but it’s hot and I’d rather lie face-down on a heated bed over a glass panel set over a streaming cascade under the deft hands of Ly at Rosewood’s spa and then explore Royal Laotian cuisine crafted by Executive French Chef Sebastien Rubis, UN-endorsed GI Ambassador for Laos.
In Champasak, South Laos, Michael has arranged a visit to Vat Phou, precursor to Angkor Wat’s Khmer architecture, in 38° Celsius. Michael must be mad! I decide to locate our hotel. I know La Folie Lodge across the Mekong is accessible only by boat. What I don’t know is that the ‘boat’ is a broad wooden floating platform with a scatter of chairs and umbrellas to hold in feeble defence against the sun’s vicious mid-afternoon sorties. The boat-ride seems eternal (the Mekong is wide-girthed down south). And it’s unimaginable that we’d have to disembark into the water, tight-rope-walk on planks, and then be hoisted onto a tractor to trudge up to Champasak’s poshest accommodation. ‘La Folie’ in French means ‘madness’, and this is madness!
By the time I reach, I want to dismantle the place brick-by-brick. Except, there are no bricks at the all-wood eco lodge, where the winsome young Lao manager beams like the benign sun at dawn. River- facing log cabins dot the resort. But I have picked La Résidence, the private villa and that’s down a pot-holed, little-shaded cow road. My mother, with an injured leg, is not impressed. But La Résidence is an oasis of cool, with quirky France-meets-Laos exoticism and outdoor terraces overlooking crisp white sands descending to the Mekong. Landlocked by China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos has no sea, but La Folie seems set on a beach, except that babes in bikinis are replaced by buxom buffalo basking on the sands in wild abandon.
At 3.30 pm, the sun has intensified its aggressions, but we must return to Vat Phou, where the museum shuts when it pleases. Past massive lotus pools, we reach the two immense principal temples segregating male and female pilgrims. The original Hindu structures dated from the sixth century, but the existing Buddhist enhancements are from the 11th-13th century.
Stone steps climb to a Buddhist shrine. On the way down, frangipani trees with their kissing clusters of yellow flowers fragrant in the evening breeze are like golden aureoles encircling each step. Through the blaze of gold in the ponds below appear lotuses with pink cheeks ablush in the lilac skies at dusk. Crimson and carnation smear fading skies like trailing silken scarves, above which a hilltop Shiva Lingam presides. Back at the boat-stop, there’s no sun, mercifully. Except, there’s no light either. With the light of the boatman’s dinky mobile screen, we descend to the shadowy boat. Mum is incensed. Until, mid-water, there suddenly appears an enchantingly lamp-lit pathway like a golden serpent flickering through the dark sands rising to the lodge.
Next morning, after waiting long for the tractor and then the boat, we are finally on water. The boat flounders, the boatman has no fuel and no mobile to summon help; we are stranded mid-stream and we stamp and stomp in idiotic impatience effecting zero impact in these somnolent, timeless parts. Eventually, we’re speeding past expanses of vivacious paddy and rural splendour towards the Cambodian border where Khone Phapheng waterfall holds out her effusive white lace skirts across a tremendous breath of 10 kilometres. This bounteous beauty remains the sole impediment in the Mekong’s navigable channels.
In Si Phan Don (literally ‘4,000 islands’), on a local boat, past tufted mounds—the ‘islands’—we reach the Don Khone island with the Liphi Falls, a natural demarcation between Laos and Cambodia. Another boat-ride through islet-splotched waterways more captivating than perhaps even the Amazon and we are where Irrawaddy dolphins arc in and out of water.
Back on land, we’re assailed by scooters bearing up to five school-children and driven by kids barely 12 years of age. Have they licenses? Stupid question met fittingly with guffaws. Schoolgirls blare red-lipstick-smeared lips, gleaming sensually in the sultry afternoon sun.
That evening, La Folie’s owner Antoine de Noailles manifests. He charms, being the French aristocrat he is. China is supplying Laos bullet trains, he says, explaining his qualms: China furnishes roads and bridges and trains and dams and slaps you with bills you can’t settle, and then hijacks your country. Laos has already ceded sovereign territory now called “China Town.”
Forest covers 70 per cent of Laos, and this is intensely so in Vang Vieng, with its bald-headed mountains. We stumble on some caves. An uphill trek leads to the first one. Unswayed by the Buddha statue standing sentinel at the cave’s entrance, I decide against the second cave but the guide is insistent. It’s a long swirl up. The cave is hot, dark and pointless. And then, the guide’s torch illumines interiors bedazzled as if with a billion diamonds. There are stupendous formations, some like champagne-pink rosaces, others like cunning pieces of modern art, a hoary, frosted tree stump and even a terrific sacrificial altar.
Here, the cave conjures a snow-covered forest, there it becomes the Snow Queen’s Palace of my childhood. Back in Luang Prabang, at the beautiful all-suite Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao, Michael visits and drops a bomb shell: that Laos is the world’s most-bombed nation. America dropped a mind-blowing 270 million cluster bombs on Laos. Of these, 80 million remain unexploded, lying merrily around fields and forests. After bombing the Communists for nine years, America couldn’t prevent Laos from turning Communist, instead leaving a country so bomb-ridden that 300 reported casualties occur annually. The UXO (unexploded ordinances) Centre shows films of children who scooped something they thought was a stone or a fruit and it exploded, taking off an ear, an arm, a leg, when not a life. How come nobody knows of this outrage, I ask. “Oh, everyone knows about it—except the Americans,” Michael says.
The Belmond persuades me into alms-giving to the monks at dawn. This ‘great living tradition’ of Laos elevates: monks walk fast, in single-file, barefoot, a receptacle strapped across their shoulders into which the charitable deposit little balls of sticky rice. Novitiates, sometimes as young as 10, rub their sleepy eyes from having to wake at 4 am. The young monks are usually poor boys, compelled to monkhood for free education unavailable in remote villages. They can only eat alms offerings and only twice a day between 6 am and 12 pm. They supposedly soon get accustomed to these austerities. However, hotel waiters, frequently former monks, admit they were homesick and hungry as kids. Some would stock noodles to boil after midnight, which they claim is permissible. I am embarrassed at the extravagant breakfast onboard Belmond’s new ‘Sunrise Cruise’ after the alms-giving, especially when my butler, an ex-monk, reveals he had 11 brothers and sisters but only six survive. The downstream scenery, delightful though, brings little joy. The realities of existence strike, and life’s hideousness will impress upon me on my final dawn in Laos when I shall emerge from the befittingly-named ‘Alms Giving’ suite at 3 Nagas, which stands on the street the monks walk on for alms. Few alms-givers will dot the pavement, doling out alms, while tourists will streak the other side, frenziedly clicking away as the monks slide past like an obscene parody of fashion photographers snapping away at models on a ramp.
Buddha had the wisdom to turn away from life. But destiny hasn’t wisdom prescribed for me. Instead, copious glasses of Luang Prabang’s best rosé to be had on the Avani+’s ingenious al fresco lounge set out on the street overlooking the heritage town. I discern that my waiter Chan—attentive, intuitive, reticent—was once a monk. The discipline bristles and suddenly, I feel appalled at my excesses. Relinquishing the rosé, I decide finally to experience the monks’ evening chanting. I’m directed to Wat Xieng Mouane temple, nestled at the end of the slimmest alley. In a red and gold precinct, upon which a smiling Buddha presides, teenage monks chant. I remark their lean bodies tautened from the stringent diet, I remark their discipline, I remark their eventual fidgeting, I remark their distraction and the dissipation of my own mind, I remark the Buddha watching, his lip curled in an almost-ironic smile. I resolve I shall return tomorrow, but then how to extricate myself from the overwhelming arrangements—a three-hour spa at the Pullman, an Avani+ sunset cruise, cocktails at the Pullman, dinner at the 3 Nagas…? I reflect on what it is to resolve when the mind is scattered in a million directions. The Buddha smiles on. The chanting attains its apotheosis. I listen to the monotone of the chant. I hear the chaos of my own mind.
Bangkok Airways flies daily to Luang Prabang from Delhi and Mumbai. The airline campaigns fervently against wildlife trafficking.
Rosewood Luang Prabang: It boasts hill- top tents (`1,05,350 per night) recalling Laos’ ethnic groups through famous designer Bill Bensley’s tastefully integrated tribal artefacts in a contemporary setting where lanterns hang above your bed. Doubles from INR 46,000.
Belmond Résidence Phou Vao: You won’t leave your colonial suite, except for hot bamboo massages at the spa village with its own pool and secluded gardened pavillion set on a lotus pond. Doubles from INR 11,940.
Avani+ Luang Prabang: Fringing Luang Prabang’s main street yet elegantly apart, this is a fortress of affordable exclusivity with the best all-day dining to go. Doubles from INR 14,047.
Sofitel Luang Prabang: The heritage hotel’s long groomed lawns, fountains, blinding-blue pool, gardened pool villas, spa in heritage wooden Lao houses, pop-up dinners, and in-house gambolling bunnies don’t betray this was a former prison. Doubles from INR 14,890.
La Folie Lodge: This accommodation is eco-elegant and boundlessly quirky, addictively so. Doubles from INR 14,047.
Trails of Indochina crafts bespoke itineraries in Laos. Six-day packages from INR 2,25,800 per person.