It may be the peak hour for traffic in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, but really the only hazards are the rusty bikes and motorcycles that come whizzing past and the large pit holes – a far cry and less murderous than the traffic which I left in nearby Bangkok, just one hour by plane.
This sleepy capital with a population of 386,000 within a country of only 6 million are known as “the smiling people, which they are. The slow pace, the lovely scenery, is a marked difference from the smog, huge population and kamikaze traffic in Thailand’s capital or for that matter their neighbors in Hong Kong. This is a small gem of a city in a forgotten country wedged between very large neighbors.
Off-the-beaten-path in south east Asian, Laos has opened its doors to tourism considering the economic help this industry could be for one of the poorest countries in this part of the world.. Up until now, the landlocked country seemed untouched by foreign influences unlike the adjoining Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam.
In a country that had been briefly occupied by the Japanese in 1945 and then three decades under the authority of the French, finally in 1953 Laos was granted independence. However, by 1975 the communist took control and that ended the monarchy. The French Indochina country, once the height of elegance and grace, was in such a state of deterioration after being nationalized that every infrastructure slowly began to deteriorate.
Seeing two flags fluttering next to each other is still a conundrum . One is that of the old communist regime with the sickle and hammer, the other the Laotian banner of red, blue with a white disc and red. In reality, it’s very Buddhist country, proof being that the stupas (monasteries/temples) are the most dominant architectural form and there are dozens. The most prominent and Vientiane’s most important site is the upturned sumptuous-shaped likened to a begging bowl of ‘That Luang’. Originally built in the 3rd century prior to the various plunders and restorations, today its simple glory is an impressive sight, especially from the top of the nearby hill. The sheer simplicity, lack of décor, is the antithesis of the ornate stupas of Thailand and Myanmar.
Since Laotian silk is one of the best in the world and an important industry, visiting a textile/dying silk establishment and watching the process is another educational activity a traveler should consider visiting. However on could be busy sightseeing stupas for days.
Although there are obvious changes taking place with a few new modern buildings, tradition persists for the time being as most women still wear the sarong style long and colorful silk Phaa Sin. However, it’s quite usual to see western clothing on men.
But authenticity still exists, seemingly untouched by western customs. I’ve just come off the maiden voyage of the Eastern & Orient Express train from Bangkok over the Friendship Bridge and the Mekong River. It’s been a long time since these countries shook hands. That in itself is historic and exciting but who would have thought that in this poor country, there would some fine French colonial buildings still standing and now being restored.
One exceptional renovation is the stately 29 room boutique Settha Palace Hotel, originally built in 1932. Located just on the outskirts of the city, for years before the communist takeover, it was managed by the Theodas family. Then this once lovely French colonial edifice was converted into government houses. With no care or upkeep, it eventually fell into total disrepair.
Revisiting Vientiane, after being in self exile in France for 17 years, the Theodas family came for a visit. , They saw the cracked and falling walls and the roof in a state of collapse. Heartbroken by the sight and shuttered seeing laundry hanging from the broken windows while pigs, chickens, hens rushed about the grounds and knowing six or seven families occupying what was once a single guest room, they made a decision. Billy Theodas, the son, a small boy at the time the family fled, purchased and succeeded in duplicating the former La Belle Époque character. And yes, the now not-so young Billy, had done well in France and invested over $3 million having the building restored to its once elegance and graceful former persona.
The opulent gardens surrounding the pool is lush, the ‘Belle Époque Restaurant’ serves a truly wonderfully fusion of French and Laotian food The refurbishing includes the original spiral staircase, the shiny marble lobby floor now graced with a grand chandelier and period furniture and there’s also a finely crafted wood bar where Ernest Hemingway wouldn’t look or feel out of place. And then there’s the always present, every ready, authentic London cab for guest, should they need or want a drive into the nearby city centre.
Although it’s a very hot day when I arrive, 34c (95f), there’s a waft of breeze coming from the French doors that lead to the lovely pool area where there have been a party the night before. A crew is dismantling the white tents. Happily there are many other guests at the hotel, but waiting for my arrival is the general manager, Thomas Pillai, a charming, unassuming man with gracious manners. Later we would have a true Laotian dinner where he would express his exuberance about the future of both the hotel and tourism in this city.
Everyone seems so relaxed it’s no wonder that Laotians are called “the least urgent people in the world”.
The young receptionist and porters, although not thoroughly bilingual, attend to my passport and luggage while another takes me to my room.
“Where’s the elevator,” I ask naively, without the grace to think perhaps there isn’t’ one. And there isn’t. It’s only a two storey building and my room is located overlooking the side green garden. The hotel’s trademark rosewood four poster bed is covered with a fine cloth bedspread, the ample sized bathroom, all in marble, makes this seem like any upscale hotel, anywhere.
The surprise to discover the Settha Palace Hotel, which really deserves the 4-5 star rating (always depending who is critiquing it) with its use of gleaming Laotian rosewood, polished floors and terrific service deserves the stamp of approval for the future in this slow paced, relaxed city.
In a short time I see Vientiane and Laos becoming big destinations, especially for the adventurous, travelers who have seen been there, done that and want something new and still somewhat untouched by tourism.