Vientiane & Luang Prabang | Scandinavian Cinnamon Buns & Fine French Wines
Apart from the inside of a wine bar, I saw very little of Laos the week I was there. However, that shouldn’t be taken as a negative portrayal of this often over-looked and beautiful little country wedged in between Thailand, China and Vietnam. Fresh from four month non-stop travelling, I arrived in Vientiane early in the morning on the over night train from Bangkok, travel fatigued and in need of a good rest and an even better wash. Vientiane is a sleepy and pretty little town on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, and with hardly any traffic, slow pace and leafy alleyways, it’s the perfect place to recharge the batteries.
There is quite a number of Buddhist temples and monasteries as well, adding a serene calmness to the atmosphere, the oldest of which is Wat Si Saket. Its unpolished and unadorned look combined with thousands of Buddha statues, shines and stupas makes for an interesting visit, and perfect for a tranquil and low-key destination for a tired traveller to idly spend an hour or so. In contrast, just up the road you’ll find Patuxai or Victory Gate – a concrete monstrosity, modeled on Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but made slightly taller in defiance of the old colonial power, built using funds donated by the American government to build a new airport earning it its nickname the Vertical Runway. From the roof you get an uninterrupted view of Vientiane.
Having seen two sights in my state of tired mind, all I wanted was to sit in an air-conditioned café, with a cold drink, reading a book. To my delight, my prayers could not have been answered in a better way. Tucked away in a corner of a square downtown I randomly stumbled across a Scandinavian bakery. As I entered, I was over come with joy by the smell of freshly brewed coffee and newly baked bread, and the sight of Scandinavian style sandwiches and buns at the counter. Not having tasted a real cup of coffee in months, I sat down without hesitation (and checking the prices) and ordered myself a small feast, enjoying and savouring every single bite of my cinnamon buns. Lunch turned in to afternoon snack, which again turned in to dinner. By the time I came out of my Scandinavian home comfort trance, and cemented the carb coma with a beer, it was evening. I paid the (very costly) bill and quite contently strolled back to my hotel where I fell in to a deep sleep despite the screeching sound of the singing ladyboys that had set up camp just under my balcony.
The following morning I checked out of my room, placed my bags in storage and headed back to the bakery for an all day extended carb and coffee feast, before boarding the dreaded 12 hour sleeper bus to Luang Prabang. The small town of Luang Prabang features in all fables and highlights of travellers’ tales, and its reputation as one of the most beautiful and magical havens in South East Asia, the cultural capital of Laos, uncorrupted by commercialism, reaches you long before you even set foot in the region. My expectations were naturally high. However, as I was still not sufficiently rested up, I suffered the same fate in Luang Prabang as I did in Vientiane. In a spooky repeat of events, practically the first thing I stumbled upon was a branch of the very same Scandinavian bakery I had just left behind in the capital. Temptation naturally got the better of me and once again I sat on the balcony of a bakery, eating cinnamon buns, drinking copious amounts of coffee, observing life as it passed by on the main street. Later that evening, while strolling through one of the many cute back alleys, I discovered a much appreciated and sorely missed, French colonial legacy: wine. Real red wine is hard to come by in Asia, but here in remote Luang Prabang, I chanced upon a well stocked wine and jazz bar. Thus, my days in Luang Prabang unfolded. Mornings at the bakery, afternoons in a shady hammock reading books, and evenings sampling wines in the wine bar – where I oddly seemed to gain a reputation as a resident travel consultant – dispensing advice to the younger travellers from the comforts of a very large beanbag on the terrace, over sized, and always full wine glass in hand.
You cannot dispute the beauty of Luang Prabang. Old colonial architecture blends nicely with ornate and pretty temples, the pace is slow, hardly any traffic, the local markets are buzzing, and monks in bright orange robes walk the streets, still I was left with a feeling the town was a bit of a showroom for the tourist industry. This could have been because I was tired and needed a break from travelling and have a naturally cynic mind anyway, but all this magic I had read and been told about somehow seemed a bit too staged. Outside temples, monks charged tourists to have their picture taken (and tourists happily paid up), on Mount Phou Si, I was approach several times to buy hash, and at the night markets people from the surrounding villages would come and sell their ‘authentic’ Lao pottery and clothes. Travellers claiming they were ‘going native’ buy buying these clothes failed to recognize the irony that none of the locals actually wore these ‘authentic’ clothes themselves.
The morning I left, as I was packing up my bag, the silence was broken by the sound of steady drumming coming from the wats. As my tuk-tuk took me through town at dawn, I saw rows upon rows of young monks in their orange robes, silently walking single file collecting alms from the locals. My driver stopped and turned the engine off. All we could hear was the drums and the slow shuffling of feet as they walked along. It was a truly mesmerizing sight, until the undeniable sound of camera shutters followed by flashes broke the magic. Whispers of “come over here, get a close up” filled the air, tourists came running out of their hotels in their night clothes, cameras ready and getting disrespectfully close as they fight each other for the best angle and best bragging photo. The very prominent presence of an audience immediately triggered a contrived performance, and Luang Prabang was transformed back in to the showroom I at first had seen. I left Laos with mixed emotions. One the one hand I needed some time out, and as nice a time I actually did have I couldn’t help but feeling regretful I didn’t see more. On the other hand I was disappointed that I didn’t find (or saw through) the magic I had been ‘promised’, yet catching the first glimpses of the alms ceremony I realized this ‘magic’ was a way of thinking rather than real, and decided to one day come back to Laos – without travel fatigue.