Author Sandra Howard went in Laos at the Wat Xieng Thong temple
I had been told that Laos was a gentle, placid country with beautiful French colonial architecture. But no one had mentioned the cooking.
From mok paa, the sublime, delicately perfumed fish in banana-leaf parcels we had while cruising down the Mekong, to the yellow curry chicken and wok-fried buffalo steak flambé with red sticky rice in Luang Prabang, the list goes on.
We had decided to explore Laos on the way home from a trip to neighbouring Burma. Laos was a new country to us, another undiscovered corner of South East Asia. Situated between Thailand, Vietnam and the vastness of China, it had a temptingly remote and unknown quantity feel about it.
We had just five days to unlock the secrets and heart of a country and its people, but we had a good stab at it and came away with some glorious memories.
In Burma, a cruise on the Irrawaddy had been pure luxury, but this time we went for the watery option simply as a way of getting from A to B. We would drive to the border, transit through Thailand (a small adventure in itself) and then sail down the Mekong as far as Luang Prabang.
There were few formalities at the Burmese border and, shepherded by our guide, we walked under a handsome arch and into Thailand. After a drive of a couple of hours we reached the town of Chiang Khong, where we spent the night before crossing into Laos.
Our instructions were to make contact with the guide for Luang Say Cruises by 7am. So we crawled out of bed at 5.30am and were at the Huay Xai Friendship Bridge border-control building, ready with our dollars to buy the visas, in good time.
However, when we arrived the place was deserted – the passport-checking booths and visa office were closed and there wasn’t a soul about. Then a small, fierce woman appeared and insisted that they opened at 8am, not 7am. Panic set in. Were we going to miss the boat?
Eastern promise: Howard said cruising down the Mekong was ‘magnificent, wide and long, and fast-flowing’
At 7.30am, a man ambled up, unlocked the office and saw to our visas. Miraculously, the passport booths opened up then too. Our adventure could begin.
The Mekong is magnificent, wide and long, and fast-flowing. We chugged downstream, chatting to other couples, sipping good strong coffee, digging into home-made cookies and banana chips, and gazing out at the jungle-covered hills.
They rise up steep and sheer on either side of the river, a tapestry of lush, vibrant greens; dark holly, and soft shades of jade. The majesty, the silence of those hills, broken only by an occasional putt-putting motorboat, was spectacularly atmospheric.
The jungle landscape was unchanging, yet there was much to see. A fishing boat gliding close to the bank, crops growing on small patches of hillside, peanuts, dry rice – the grains are shorter and fatter, marketable, but of a lesser quality. An occasional rickety roof peeks through the overgrowth. We passed a tourist elephant camp, and cows herded in line down to the water’s edge.
Howard and her husband stopped for the night at the small jungle town of Pakbeng and settled in at the Luang Say Lodge
We had a delicious lunch on board of chicken stew, fish parcels and local fruit after a morning stop to visit a hill tribe settlement. The villagers live in shacks on stilts (they had television dishes too) and grew hops and tobacco that we saw drying on flat roofs.
Small black pigs, chickens and children roamed free. The raggedy children eyed us solemnly. We also met their young schoolteacher who had returned from the city to her primitive village to care for them. Our guide explained about the spirits worshipped, the sacrificial pig and the eminence of the spirit doctor. He talked of the lowland and upland tribes, and his own remote mountain tribe, the Hmong, who lived without running water or electricity.
We stopped for the night at the small jungle town of Pakbeng and settled in at the Luang Say Lodge, which I loved. Sensitively built in keeping with the environment, the rooms had a colonial feel, but didn’t lack for creature comforts. We certainly welcomed the hot shower. The next day, after a pawpaw, mango and eggs-and-bacon breakfast we were off again for a second day on the Mekong.
Service with a smile: A member of staff at Luang Say Lodge
There was a visit to a village that processed the rice alcohol, Lao-Lao, and further downstream we climbed up from the riverbank to see the two Pak Ou caves that house thousands of gold-lacquered mini Buddha statues. In the upper cave, many steps up, there was a row of seated Buddhas that got progressively larger, a bit like Russian dolls in reverse – the smallest was no bigger than a finger, the largest the size of a man.
By teatime we had arrived in Luang Prabang, a town on the banks of the Mekong at its confluence with the Nam Khan. It was bursting with character. Traditional wooden houses jostled with old French colonial buildings; there was a market and the fishermen’s catch of the morning; a night market with souvenirs, sweets, chilli sauce and seaweed; and places to buy silks and silver.
We toured the royal palace, which became a museum after the last king of Laos was sent into exile in 1975. It is set out as a circuit of the king’s rather spartan private living quarters – a little like a scaled-down version of Queen Victoria’s family rooms at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
It was interesting, if stark, while Wat Mai, the 18th Century chapel in the palace grounds, is sumptuous. Once the residence of the Sangkhalat, the highest dignitary of Lao Buddhism, and awash with red and gold, it has decorated door panels telling the story of the penultimate Buddha’s reincarnation.
Luang Prabang is popular with backpackers and there’s no shortage of low-cost guesthouses and eating places. We were five-starring it, though, and stayed at the Luang Say Residence, a beautiful colonial-style hotel. It has exotic gardens, and is home to a couple of lolloping black and white pet rabbits.
Having revelled in overnight luxury, we set forth to see the sights in high spirits, despite the unseasonal rain.
We loved Wat Xieng Thong, the oldest temple in Laos, built in 1560 by King Setthathirath, and enjoyed a snack sitting on a wet bench in the market where stall-holders sell sandwiches and smoothies. They waggle their laminated menu cards, vying for passing trade, making earnest eye contact.
What’s cooking: Howard said she loved the food in Laos, from mok paa, perfumed fish in banana-leaf parcels, to the yellow curry chicken and wok-fried buffalo steak flambé with red sticky rice in Luang Prabang
I’m ashamed to admit that we didn’t get up at dawn to watch the monks and novices in their scarlet robes pass by to collect alms. Described by our hotel as a must, it is a moving, colourful spectacle, by all accounts.
We were invited to dinner in Luang Prabang, at the Manda de Laos, a glamorous bar and restaurant with slatted wood balconies and three lotus ponds. The decor, the scrumptious food and nightclub lighting made it so atmospheric. The prices looked high, the drinks, too, but the signature cocktail, the Laos Parinha, made with local Champa Kao vodka, cucumber, lime and coriander, and rimmed with ground rice, packed a punch. ‘As good as a class caipirinha,’ said my husband Michael.
We were flying home from the country’s capital Vientiane, so we spent a night and day there before departing for the UK.
The central, cafe-packed roundabout, Nam Phou square, was hardly Piccadilly, but buzzy. It was our starting point. A short stroll from the Colonial Presidential Palace – vast, white and overbearing – we slipped into the Wat Si Saket temple opposite, just as the gates were closing.
It had a soothing beauty and a peaceful courtyard where the walls were studded with niches, each housing a tiny sculpture. Since it is in the Siamese architectural style, it was saved from destruction when the Siamese attacked in 1828.
Tucked away and quiet, the Settha Palace felt as remote from the hub of a capital city as a bluebell wood
A group of novice monks were playing cards (or so it looked like) outside their living quarters. They asked questions and loved to practise their English.
The city is compact, and with its tree-lined boulevards it hasn’t lost a laid-back, uniquely Lao feel. Even the tuk-tuk drivers don’t overcharge you.
Few French colonial buildings remain and no one seems to speak the language. We walked everywhere, past many craft shops and a mall, and had to ask a surly soldier the way to Pha That Luang, the great sacred national monument that symbolises the coming together of all Lao people.
The Settha Palace, the colonial hotel where we stayed, was early 20th Century with scenic palms and very central. It had an azure swimming pool, and after exploring the city in tropical warmth, it was where we lazed away our last couple of hours before flying home. Tucked away and quiet, it felt as remote from the hub of a capital city as a bluebell wood.
Although we adored our visit, we left Laos feeling a little short-changed. I’d longed to visit the mysterious Plain of Jars, the immense, prehistoric stone vessels, masses of them each weighing many tons. There are more than 90 sites covering miles of rolling landscape, and people visiting report a feeling as eerie as at Easter Island or Stonehenge.
And at Champasak, in the far south, the ruins of the greatest Khmer temple outside Cambodia are said to rival Angkor Wat. So much of Laos was unseen. I’d love to go back.
Sandra Howard’s latest novel, The Consequence Of Love, is published by Simon & Schuster.
Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk, 020 7666 1244) offers a nine-day tour covering Burma, Northern Thailand and Laos from £2,050pp.
It includes a two-day Luang Say cruise along the Mekong to Luang Prabang, eight nights’ accommodation, a Burma And Golden Triangle Tour and the services of a guide.
Vietnam Airlines (vietnamairlines.com) offers return flights from about £800.