What hasn’t changed are the temples. Temples so magnificently frescoed and bejewelled, they should merit pages in guidebooks but here they are barely identified, that’s how many abound.
It is the sort of romantic splendour-in-the-tropical-grasses that captures the imagination of many Chinese travellers. In places such as Shanghai, where I was living during the time I visited Laos, the handful of well-kept religious sites are so overcrowded , you risk your life passing the mob’s flailing sticks of burning incense.
Here, however, you can still board an empty longboat for a late-afternoon cruise to an obscure hillside village. Or sneak away to the Kouangxi Falls, a 20-minutes drive southwest of town, for a glacial dip in stepped turquoise pools before lunch (after noon, any concierge will warn you, hordes of touring students arrive to cannonball off the cliffs in their underwear). And you might be one of only a handful of visitors on any given day at Shangri-Lao, an elephant sanctuary in the misty northern wilderness, where trekkers can lunch poolside by a posh safari tent; we had the pool to ourselves that afternoon and, consequently, a front-row view to a lone elephant and its rider climbing out of a stream.
This was not the same “shangri-la” feeling we first encountered in Vientiane, as we emerged from our humid B&B into a diesel-clogged intersection south of the consular district. But Vientiane’s charms came into focus as we approached the old centre, one of the last bastions of Graham Greene’s Indochina – light on the tourist front but for a few travellers scribbling into notebooks over iced coffees.
We wheeled our stroller through crumbling colonial villas (housing the odd handicraft atelier) into overgrown parkettes with more temples. We played with local children along a riverfront promenade recently revitalized to compete with the more prosperous Thai villages across the Mekong. And we negotiated around the effervescent night market into more tranquil streets hosting newfangled restaurants with names such as Tamarind, stopping in at stylish Makphet, which rehabilitates street kids by training them to perfect colourful curries, dips and sweets.
In Vientiane it’s still possible to enjoy a day by the pool at the Settha Palace, an Old World hotel that is the city’s most luxurious, for a few dollars apiece without renting a room. So we did, leaving a trail of sweat past the tearoom after a morning exploring Pha That Luang, a solid-gold Buddhist shrine in Patuxay Park. We shared an acre of tropical gardens with one French-Lao couple from Paris for several hours, then left for a café, where we snacked on deep-fried crickets while the kids snoozed in their stroller.
It was all spectacularly low-fi. For two weeks, we felt as if Southeast Asia was ours. But what will it be like next time? Laos will never have a sea, and the sex shows may forever remain in the jurisdiction of Bangkok’s Khao San Road, but changes tend to come when a country is engraved onto the tourist map.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Mekong Riverview Hotel has a prime location next to Luang Prabang’s Xieng Thong temple, overlooking the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. Doubles from $160; mekongriverview.com
Jetwing’s new Xieng Thong Palace, on the opposite side of the temple, has one of the few pools in Luang Prabang and luxury rooms featuring carved-wood antiques. Doubles from $150; xiengthongpalace.com
If you can’t swing the grand Settha Palace in Vientiane, go for the quietly luxurious Green Park, a quick tuk-tuk ride from the din of the city centre. Doubles from $195; greenparkvientiane.com
Where to eat
Luang Prabang’s Dyen Sabai (dyensabai.com), across the Nam Khan River (access is by a rickety bamboo bridge), is the bohemian choice for sweet Lao curries and home-cooked breads and dips.
Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any of Luang Prabang’s highly rated restaurants, but Tamarind (tamarindlaos.com) has a pretty shaded terrace and delightful dishes of grilled eggplant and peanut chicken with sticky rice.
Makphet, behind Wat Ong Teu in a colonial villa near Vientiane’s night market, doubles as a non-profit, educating Lao street kids to cook traditional specialties. The dishes, though geared to Western tastes, are worth writing home about.
What to see
Just east of Luang Prabang, Shangri-Lao (shangri-lao.com) is a modern version of a colonial expedition camp, offering elephant safaris, boat tours and overnight stays in luxury tents with baths, bars and a swimming pool. From Luang Prabang, charter a slowboat down the Mekong to outlying villages, where children bathe at dusk and pilgrims visit temples deep in the jungle. Shompoo Cruise (shompoocruise.com) offers charters for groups, but many boat-owners on the Mekong in central Luang Prabang will take you out for a competitive rate.