Trail of the unexpected: Coffee on the banks of the Mekong, in Vientiane

Laos's capital is steeped in a coffee culture introduced by the French

With a screech of its dirt-clogged brakes, the rust-red tuk tuk shuddered to a stop. I hauled my bag down from the roof and just then, as a saffron-robed holy man wobbled past on a pushbike, the smell hit me. Coffee.

Here, on the broad, frangipani-lined avenues that separate Vientiane's temples from the arabica-brown slosh of the Mekong river, a culture of coffee and croissants reigns supreme. But unlike Paris – a city that has left its mark here decades after French colonialists lost power – the Lao capital remains sedate and unpretentious. You can see it in the food carts that jostle for space along crumbling, bamboo-clad walls, and in the city's countless street-side brasseries, where tall glasses of coffee are sipped under the shade of huge striped parasols.

"The French came here, and now mostly they have gone," said my driver, Boun, who had promised to take me to a "real" Lao coffee house. "But we still have their coffee." At the beginning of the 20th century, the French wondered how they could make money out of this quiet backwater of Indo-China. They decided to plant coffee on the Bolaven Plateau, a cool, river-wrapped upland 300 miles south of Vientiane. Now, coffee is almost as popular among locals as Beerlao – a smooth-as-silk brew described as the Dom Pérignon of Asian beers.

I'd witnessed the power of Lao coffee earlier that morning. I'd arrived, tired-eyed, at the city's main bus station, Talat Sao – a dusty, ramshackle square pockmarked by the constant coming and going of diesel-fired buses. A wrong turn led me to the Talat Sao market, where sagging hessian bags full of sweaty coffee beans lay stacked alongside great bundles of crusty French bread. If there was a pong, the smell of coffee was doing a good job of masking it.

Next month, said an elderly market trader, coffee will serve a more conventional purpose. "Everyone will party," she said, "and Lao people love to enjoy a party. But you can't continue the party if you're tired, can you?" She laughed hard. "Come on, take them," she said, pushing a handful of oily coffee beans into my hand and waving away my offer of cash.

The event in question is a week-long festival to mark the 450th anniversary of Vientiane being declared the capital of Lan Xang, the kingdom that preceded modern-day Laos. There will be kaleidoscopic street dances and parades along the newly beautified bank of the Mekong, which is being transformed into the site of the city's first proper park.

The event coincides with Bun That Luang, a Theravada Buddhist festival that heralds the full moon of the 12th lunar month. At sunrise on the first day of the party, you'll see thousands of monks collecting alms and fragrant floral votives from local laypeople. Then, there'll be a jubilant parade through the city's streets, which winds up at That Luang, a towering golden stupa that doubles as the national symbol of Laos.

Boun dropped me at the approach to the stupa, telling me to walk slowly around it. But I became entranced by its gilded doors and tiny carved Buddha statues. The fading tropical sunlight bounced off its surface, while brown moths the size of cigarette boxes dangled off the brightest spots.

That night, on the short walk back to my hotel, the heavens opened. At this time of year, the downpours can last an hour or more. I darted into the same café where, that morning, I'd learnt about the history of Vientiane's coffee culture. "One coffee, please," I asked the waitress.

"Sorry, no coffee," she replied. "Today, we had too many people. We have to go to the market tomorrow." I almost ordered a Beerlao instead, when I felt the market trader's coffee beans still rattling around in my pocket. I pulled them out, handed them to the waitress, and within seconds, you could hear the wheels of the coffee grinder whirring into action.

Travel essentials: Laos

Getting there

* The author travelled with Bamboo Travel (020-7720 9285; bambootravel.co.uk), which organises tailor-made tours across Laos.

* A one-week stay in Vientiane, including a half-day city tour and stay at the Ansara Hotel (ansarahotel.com), based on two people sharing, costs from £1,099 per person.

* Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; thaiairways.co.uk) flies from London to Vientiane via Bangkok.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
voices
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried