A laid-back, sleepy Shangri-La

Laos has a violent past; more bombs have been dropped on it than on any other nation in the history of warfare. But today's travellers will find a peaceful haven, says Juliet Clough
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Sitting on the creaking balcony of the Hotel Villa Santi, I am drinking the first good coffee of the week. The boeuf on the menu may be buffalo but the polished teak floors and wide staircase of this French- colonial house in Luang Prabang belong to an era that has grown, in current memory, as flimsy as a sepia photograph.

Outside, the scene could not be anywhere but Laos. On the balcony opposite, an old man sews lead weights on to a fishing net held between his toes. His wife, framed in the doorway below, is combing a skein of bronze-coloured silk which hangs from the back of a chair; under her rhythmic strokes, the raw fibre blooms with the sheen of human hair. At the mouth of the alley that runs between their house and the next, down to the Mekong River, a small girl is being shown by her mother how to toss rice in a basket, every measured throw separating grit from grain.

Lulled by a thick afternoon warmth barely shifted by the ceiling fans, I recall the travelling colleague who warned that there was little to do in Laos; that it was, in tourist terms, so laid-back as to be almost horizontal, that Vientiane was the most boring capital city in the world. Strolling round Luang Prabang earlier, I have come to Wat Visoun, the 16th-century temple complex whose Melon Stupa was split either by lightning in 1910 or by the Ho Chinese in 1887; the guidebooks are divided, but I'm long past caring. Inside lay a priceless treasure, 16th-century gold and crystal Buddhas, jewellery and other temple regalia, much of it now on display in the Royal Palace. A ripe melon is, I realise idly, the perfect metaphor for Laos: lying sleepy in the sun, replete with promise, its pleasures sweet but undemanding. Boredom is not an appropriate reaction to a melon.

The image of secret riches prevails 25km up-river, at the holy caves of Pak Ou. Once my eyes grow accustomed, the darkness fills with faint points of light, reflected from the worn gilding of thousands more Buddhist statues. Some of them have been here for 400 years; propped on ledges thick with bat droppings, their topknots linked in a net of spider webs. Theft is not an issue. A night-time walk in Luang Prabang flickers with the same sudden colour, from carved temple shutters and open doorways where whole families sprawl in front of fitfully televised Thai soaps.

If Laos doesn't market itself as the new Shangri-La, with Luang Prabang as the next Kathmandu, this is only because it doesn't market itself as anything. Such inertia is dictated not only by lack of the most basic infrastructure - few hotels, hardly any surfaced roads, and airline schedules that bear little resemblance to any actual service - but by deliberate policy.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the explosive success of the industry in neighbouring Vietnam, tourism comes well down on the list of Laos's declared development goals. Despite its early embrace of a capitalist economy, the Communist government has looked across the border at Thailand's tourist industry and disliked what it has seen. "We are taking things very slowly," Vixay Indra, the tourism authority's chief of marketing, tells me. "We want to develop step by step, with the emphasis on eco-tourism."

But despite Mr Indra's insistence on the beneficial control and convenience of the official system, which issues visas only with a pre-booked package tour complete with guide, it is clear that this is being eroded. Such an arrangement may bring in desirable dollar-bearing types into one of the poorest countries in the world, but freer spirits are increasingly finding their way into Laos. Even the unsmiling Party chick at Inter-Lao Tourism admits visitors now face few obstacles in moving round the country, as long as they present their visas at each provincial immigration point. Though they are still negligible, official visitor figures almost trebled between 1994 and 1995. Now, as they say (or would if there were any brochures to trot out the cliches), is the time to see Laos before it all changes.

Vientiane, most people's first sighting, must certainly be one of the world's most somnolent capitals. It gives the general impression of being one street thick, colonial houses and concrete shops alike nudged from behind by papaya and banana greenery where washing hangs and muscular fowls forage in dubious ditches. Shops shut at 5pm; restaurants empty by 9.30pm. You'd be hard put to it to find a disco, and as for a night market: "What for?" asks our guide. At the currency exchange counter in Vientiane's Three Morning Market, my aptly named kip are counted out by a young man whose inch-long little-fingernail proclaims his life to be free from manual toil.

Expats hang out in desultory fashion at the Namphou Fountain where there is a French and an Italian eatery, even a Swedish bakery. When these dissipations pale, there is always sunset on the Mekong, in whose olive shallows boys fish and water buffaloes wallow. Laos's tiny population is concentrated in Vientiane, but traffic is minimal; the noise here is still predominantly birdsong, temple bells and the mosquito buzz of motorised rickshaws called tuk-tuks, an extraordinary contrast to most Far Eastern cities.

I decide on a massage and am handed into a Royal Dokmaideng Hotel cubicle by a fragile waif who looks in need of a square meal. Laotian massage turns out to belong to the pain-is-gain school; using her own feet, elbows and knees as fulcrums, the waif wades into my jaded frame with all the steel-fingered frailty of a JCB digger. By the end of an hour, I am reminded of the picture in Mike the Muckshufter of Miss Prim's School for Plain Girls after they have been run over by a steamroller. It's agony, it's wonderful. Goodbye to jet lag. I am ready for Laos.

But there is no hurry. Vientiane's wats or temple complexes all prove to be shut for the annual Party Conference. Monks and students doze in the shaded compounds, stretched out under carved and gilded eaves. In this 90 per cent Buddhist country, a monastic stint of several months is a form of national service, the saffron robes of the novices everywhere the country's most dominant colour note. We sit philosophically in the sun, drinking fresh fruit juice: mango and coconut, sapodilla and pineapple, bamboo shoots and pomelo; this is soon to become an addiction.

Every Eden has its inevitable serpent and Laos's is the legacy of the Secret War. Despite never officially declaring war on America, Laos paid the price of Communist support for the North Vietnamese and has the distinction of being the most bombed country in history. During the Vietnam War, an estimated 6-8 million bombs were dumped on Laos, mostly by US B52s returning to base from raids on Hanoi. Flying in to Phonsavanh, the main town of Xieng Khouang Province in the north, you look down on a landscape of golf- course green, bunkered with thousands of craters where nothing grows.

The true obscenity of this chapter becomes evident only when you drive into the Xieng Khouang countryside - on roads whose surfaces give the "Plain of Jars" a whole new meaning. In the village of Na Pa, grain stores balance on stilts made of rusted cluster-bomb units. Empty casings do duty as fence posts, pig troughs and flower boxes. In Tam Phiu Cave, twisted metal and one human skull, which someone has placed on a flower-strewn stone, are all that remain of the destruction by rocket of 365 people who took refuge there in March 1968.

Lurking bombs continue to kill and maim; there have been more than 1500 such deaths since the war ended in 1975, 50 more in the first four months of this year. People in this area do not bid each other goodnight, our guide says. "See you in the morning" is more auspicious. Villagers have mythologised the dangers, says the education officer attached to the British Mines Advisory Group, which arrived in the area in May 1994.

The team has already picked up more than 11,000 lethal pieces, two that morning from under the Na Pa schoolroom floor. Part of the job is to re- educate a generation that believes that to put salt and urine on a bomb is to neutralise it, and who like to unpick the contents to make saleable cigarette lighters and fishing weights.

On the Plain of Jars, tourists are told to keep strictly to the cleared paths and so far have avoided mishap. The mystery of the bathtub-sized jars themselves, which are strewn across a verdant 50km plateau, has so far defied cracking. Guidebooks (among which I unreservedly recommend the Trade & Travel Handbook) cannot even agree as to whether they are stone or pottery, wine casks or funerary urns. I like the local theory, that they are the empties left over from some cosmic megalithic party thrown by a victorious king from south China.

Village life has survived with resilient dignity. This to me is the special charm of Laos: the dovecotes and looms on wooden balconies; the parquet- patterning on woven straw walls; the fish traps in the river where a boy swims with a mare and her foal. Market stalls at Phonsavanh are piled high with hoes and woks made of recycled flare casings, real swords-into- ploughshares stuff. "Minority" skills heap market stalls with crude silver and gorgeous silks at a sixth of Bangkok prices.

But it will not belong before tourists can stop feeling like voyeurs here. The baguettes made in Vientiane may evoke the flavour of the colonial past, but a telling notice in English propped outside the shop proves like nothing else that the Nineties have arrived in this country: "Healthy & Fresh Bakery", it reads. "Formerly Known As Much 'n' More Bakery".

! Juliet Clough travelled to Laos with Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711), who also supply visas. Five days in Vientiane and Luang Prabang from pounds 405, excluding flights. Explore Worldwide (01252 319448), ACE Study Tours (01223 835055) and Silk Steps Limited (0117 9402800) also do Laos. Flights to Vientiane with Thai International from pounds 593 return, or Singapore Airlines, pounds 505.