Laos 2010: Genteel & Calm — Nepal 2010: Chaotic & Intense

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Laos and Nepal



My first impression of Laos alighting from the plane was the hot, humid and heavy air that stuck to me until I got inside the terminal.  Thankfully, it was an air-conditioned, small modern building with the technology to process travelers quickly.  Laos welcomes visitors for short or long periods and provides visas at the terminal for their convenience.  It was just a 5km drive to my hotel through empty streets, it being a Sunday.  Vientiane looked a clean, small town with no high rises and lots of small stalls and shops, even along the main thoroughfares.  The number of Buddhist temples en route stood out, with their bright red roofs and gold paint.  The buildings were mostly plain vanilla modern, many with Thai roof accents, but remnants of French and Soviet influence popped up now and again.The city’s pace is slow and languid, like the Mekong that flows through it.  So unhurried, that a line of 6 cars at a traffic light is considered a traffic jam.  None of my appointments took more than 10 minutes to reach.  Vientiane, the French pronunciation of Viang Chan or Sandalwood City, has a population of only 300,000.  People are unfailingly polite and unnervingly calm.  They greet everyone with a namaste gesture and “sabai-dii”.  This demeanor is ascribed to their Buddhist belief in a “cool heart”.  I’m sure that followers of that religion are subject to the same emotions as other people, but for a visitor their public behavior is exemplary and it was a pleasure to be among them.   Yes, the Lao population follows Theravada Buddhism mixed with animism.  The most important national monument is Pha That Luang in Vientiane, built in 1566 and rebuilt several times since.  Legend has it that missionaries sent by Ashoka in the third century BCE erected the first structure to enclose a piece of Buddha’s breastbone.  There wasn’t much else of historical interest in Vientiane other than a few more temples and some striking Buddha statues in the museum.  Because of Buddhism, Sanskrit has fused into the Lao language, which is similar to Thai.  Tongue-tying names of people and streets were a little easier for me to remember.I stayed at the Green Park Boutique Hotel, which turned out to be a good choice.  It is a complex of buildings on an acre of land.  The inner courtyard has two pools, a shallow one with fountains and another for swimming.  Along the two pools are two-story barracks style buildings housing eight rooms each on two levels.  The spacious rooms have polished wood floors and a modern bathroom with an enclosed space outside with plants to give the impression of showering in nature.  At the other end is a deck looking out on the pools.  The buildings housing the common areas were surrounded by a moat decorated with plants and huge vessel-pots.  The hotel was excellently managed and provided transport to anywhere in town at any time.

I chose to eat only Lao food, which is similar to Thai, but less spicy.  At the beginning, I explored restaurants recommended by my guidebook and  They were good, but the clientele was entirely foreign, which made me suspicious of their authenticity.  The hotel manager suggested a few truly local places that were great.  Indeed, there are so many restaurants and take out stalls in Vientiane that I wondered if anyone cooked at home.  By the way, the many foreigners I noticed in Vientiane were not all tourists.  I confirmed from several sources that many live there permanently because of the congenial lifestyle.  I could happily spend a few months there.

At the weekend, I took a 40 minute flight to Luang Prabang, an old capital situated on a peninsula, bounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and surrounded by hills with lush-green vegetation.  The town, with only 26,000 people, enjoys the status of a World Heritage site to protect its many ancient temples and crumbling French villas.  Because of that, it is dominated by a tourist strip full of bars, restaurants, curio shops, tour companies and internet cafes.  Because my visit was during the off-season, there were just a few hardy tourists who were comfortable with heat and humidity.  The street comes to life in the evening when it is closed to traffic for the “night market” with dozens of stalls selling handicrafts and textiles and a side-street with food stalls.  I chose to stay at the Villa Santi resort about 5 km out of town. Architecturally, it was similar to Green Park, but on a much bigger scale.  Beyond the compound were ploughed and planted fields and hills in the distance.  Although the resort was not well-managed, it was comfortable and peaceful.

I followed my interest in local art and found many galleries offering a variety of traditional and modern art.  I ended up buying an unusual and colorful mixed-medium abstract painting and a finely carved opium pipe made of ox bone.

Laos is about the same size as the UK (250,000 sq km), but with only 6.6 million people.  The majority is lowland Lao, but there are 130 ethnic groups in all.  With a per capita income of about $500, Laos is poorer than its neighbors, but it is benefiting from their experience. Although culturally closer to Thailand, Laos’s economic management, “socialism with market characteristics”, follows the examples of Vietnam and China.  The economy is doing well, growing at a hot pace of 8 percent per annum.  The country is rich in resources, especially forests and hydropower, but also gold, phosphate and sapphire.

Although Nepal and Laos have about the same per capita income, they are a complete contrast in many ways.  Nepal is a much smaller country of about 147,000 sq km that is two-thirds mountainous.  Nevertheless, its resident population is 30 million and several million Nepalis work abroad, mainly in India.  Although most people live in the fertile Terai bordering India, the Kathmandu Valley’s population has grown rapidly in the past decade to about 4 million.  Kathmandu is congested and frankly dirty with open sewers in many areas and filthy and malodorous canals full of refuse.  Many people walking the streets wear surgical masks.  It is an unplanned city with mostly narrow roads that cannot accommodate the burgeoning traffic.  I had to plan on at least half an hour in travel time to reach any appointment.  Accompanying the traffic was a haze caused by pollution that all but obscured the range of snow-capped mountains surrounding the valley.
Ladies at PujaNepal is a complicated country with sixty ethnic groups that speak about 100 languages or dialects.  Although they are comfortable practicing a blend of Hinduism and Buddhism, and tolerant of other religions, they have not reached the same accommodation politically.  The last decade has been particularly rocky with an extreme-leftist insurgency, regicide and the deposition of the successor king.  Even after a peace agreement with the insurgents, there is no consensus across the political spectrum which ranges from the left, far left and extreme left, leaving the country unstable.  Despite the socialist orientation, the economy is quite open and humming along at a growth rate of 5 percent, although mainly spurred by remittances sent by Nepalis working in other countries.

As I had visited Nepal several times, and seen most of the historical sites, my tourist adventures were restricted to filling gaps in my research on Ashoka.  For a persistent tourist, there is a lot to see, however.  Indeed, the whole Kathmandu Valley is a World Heritage area with seven distinctive sites.  On May 27, Buddha’s birthday, I visited the Swayambhunath stupa, high up on top of a hill.  Because of the celebration, it was mobbed so it was not possible to enjoy its architecture and serene setting.  What surprised me was the fusion of Hindu and Buddhist rituals, not that I know much about either.

Legend has it that Ashoka visited the Swayambhunath after his pilgrimage to Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace in the Terai. During his visit, Ashoka had four stupas built surrounding the town now known as Patan in the Kathmandu Valley Heritage area.  With some difficulty, I found them, more or less abandoned, a couple completely covered by grass and other vegetation.  Apparently, one of his daughters, Carumati, married a Nepali, Devapala, and remained in the valley.  I found the stupa built in her memory.
I stayed at the Dwarika Hotel, a complex of buildings constructed in the Newari style of the 15th Century with restored carved woodwork that surrounds windows and doors.  Also a boutique hotel with about 70 rooms, which had traditional furnishings from several Nepali ethnic groups, but the bathroom and other accessories were modern.  The service was gracious, if a bit bureaucratic, and not up to the Green Park’s standard.

For the first few days of my visit, I ate Nepali food from several regions, but I did not take to its simplicity and lack of taste.  I abandoned it in favor of Indian, which was pretty good, and American (mélange of western), which was edible.  Reluctantly, I visited Thamel, an old part of the city that is Kathmandu’s main tourist haunt.  It is a warren of alleys full of shops, restaurants and bars and small hotels catering to foreigners.  In the first 100 yards I saw at least a dozen stores selling only Thangka’s.  I asked a shopkeeper how he managed to survive with the stiff competition in such close proximity.  “With difficulty”, he answered.   I chanced upon an art gallery with a tiny entrance that led to a small room.  I showed interest in one or two pieces so I was taken up an equally tiny stairwell to rooms in two upper levels.  I ended up buying an intricate abstract mixed-medium piece that is now hanging on my wall.
After Kathmandu, I spent a week in the furnace that was Delhi with temperatures around 110F.  Aside from one day of work, I met several friends for lunch and dinner and had a full physical check-up that included blood work, x-ray, echocardiography, stress test, ecg, lung capacity test, ultrasound and eye and ear tests.  It cost only $125 and a lot of patience as the process was rather disorganized and took about four hours.  At that price, the hospital could easily attract medical tourists from Europe and the US.

I stopped in Bangkok on the way back to California for one day of work and two days of R&R, luxuriating in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, often voted the best in the world.  It has housed famous authors like Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Noel Coward.  The hotel’s original building is named the “Authors Wing” after them.  I sat and read in the lounge hoping to be inspired by osmosis to start my book.  Sadly, no ghost appeared to give me direction.  The hotel lived up to its reputation for outstanding service.  After a day, all room, lobby and restaurant staff addressed me by name.  Although the personal recognition is a nice touch, it felt like an invasion of my anonymity after a while.   Also, the many “sa-wàt dees” with a namaste gesture from room to exit became tiresome.  The sumptuous Thai lunch buffet that offered an unbelievable variety of Thai cuisine was as good as I remembered from previous visits.  Although I ventured out only to meet friends for meals, I couldn’t help noticing a station on the sky train station named Asoke, confirming his influence in Thailand.


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