Thursday, 4 July 2013

Travel Diaries: Laos

(Published in the NOW! Jakarta Magazine, July 2013)

The only statue in Vientiane of the pro-Western, Paris-educated King Sisavang Vattana (1907 – 1980 (?)).
The Russians had donated the statue, so it stayed.
Vientiane is a perfect bolt hole for tired old (and young)  expats in Indonesia in search of peace and quiet in a familiar environment, good food and cheap beer.
It's now relatively easy to get there — 3 times a week on Lao Airlines from Singapore, daily from K.L. on Air Asia — and once there your phone probably won’t work so you can really relax.
Of course Luang Prabang is the more famous elder sister of Vientiane — the old hill-station/capitol where the old Queen still lives, very quietly, with a daughter, and the heritage French-colonial architecture is protected by UNESCO — but Vientiane is well worth the detour.

Hindu goddess as counter-revolutionary.
Vientiane is supremely un-touristic: service-wise the town suffers from a Soviet Era hangover (airport Visa-on-arrival employs the three stop Nigerian system of passenger management, for example); you can't see the Mekong unless you climb up a terrace at a sports bar generally throbbing with Australian rugged-bugger miners; even the ‘traditional Laotian massage’ parlors feign indifference when you come in the door.
But, despite this it’s easy to have a good time, there are quite a few charming budget boutique hotels — I stayed at the Hotel Khamvongsa on Khun Bulom Road — and any number of technicolor temples to get lost in, and a whole raft of trendy eateries selling good French and Confusion Asian food. And the Laotians are particularly kind and gentle and lovely.
I was only there for a day so I had to pack it in. 
A student at the tourism academy.
On my first night I went to a cultural performance at the Tourism Academy and saw the sexiest collection of bondage slippers with matching Linda Lovelace socks I'd ever seen on  classical dancers.
The hall was packed with an enthusiastic audience plowing through Laotian tapis and Pepsi. Laotians seem to eat a lot. The dancing was a tad mediocre — after the wonders of Bali and Central Java in recent months — but back-stage was wild. The Paris Hilton pout and homey hand-gesticulations do not seem to have reached Vientiane yet so I got some poignant portraits of Nancy-boys in white satin and farm-girls in Laotian versions of Deana Durbin outfits (See photos).

Dancers at a culture night at the Tourism Academy which is assisted by the Luxemboug Government.
•         •        •
The next morning I was up at dawn to follow the exquisite file of amber-draped novice monks — on their way back from gathering alms — at Wat Inpeng Temple across the road. The temples all seem to have colonial era timber dormitory halls which sit handsomely amongst the well-tended, heavily-decorated gardens and ornamental Laotian temple architecture. Novices flutter about like rare butterflies.  I kept feeling echoes of Majapahit and Sriwijaya in the carvings and the color schemes.

Novices gather in the garden of Wat Inpeng after morning prayers.

A statue under the Bodhi tree at Wat Inpeng.
After the temple I went to the National Museum to visit my old chum Marion Ravenscroft who's doing important work digging up the old walls of the once citadel-like city.
The museum, housed in a grand old colonial-era building which was once the French Governor’s offices, has a good collection of Dong S'on drums (one almost as big as the legendary Moon of Pejeng, Bali kettle-drum) and a lively Lenin Room where one can marvel at a miniature model of the austere room in which he planned his gulags and other Soviet Era marvels. The textile section in the museum was underwhelming but not so the wondrous showroom of Carol Cassidy, “Lao Textiles” just around the corner — she is something of a Jim Thompson of Vientiane. Fans of ikat prepare to be amazed by the colors and virtuosity of Cassidy’s Laotian line. 

Dong S’on drum in the Lao National Museum, Vientiane.
After a superb riverside lunch at the popular Lao Garden Restaurant — where the excellent local beer is served with ice, just like the Philippines, and the food comes out chop-chop (Laotians love to eat) — we went to another temple as it was a new moon day and all the Buddhists were out in force, paying homage to monks and offering and making elaborate offerings to Buddha.

Late 19th Century photograph of a Vientiane temple.

Detail on the main gate at Wat Si Muang.

Monk at Wat Si Muang Vientiane.
One party of devotees had their own gold leaf splattered mortar shell with which they kept up a lively discourse during the prayer session. Exquisite textiles were for sale at both entrances to the temple as were a variety of local delicacies. One is never really more than ten metres from a plastic bag load of spicy pork sausage I observed.

Buddha statues at Wat Si Muang.
At night we repaired to a sports bar to watch the sun set over the Mekong and, shortly after, Serena Williams make mince meat of Maria Sharapova. A Western Australian barman served us meat pies to complete the atmosphere.
Leaving Vientiane was pleasant as the new airport is very uncongested — Dental hospital-like in fact — and the planes half-empty.
Go soon.