Serene dream: Ruby Wax thinks big in Thailand and Laos
The landscape of Laos is glorious to behold – and its inhabitants radiate inner calm. Ruby Wax travelled there to discover her spiritual side, by way of northern Thailand, a disobedient elephant and a George Clooney lookalike
Saturday 19 July 2008
My dream was always to go to Laos before it got Starbucked to death by my people, before a great deluge of tourism washed over its enchantment. I was told to get there fast, before the crowds came. But you can't reach Laos directly from the UK, which was how I found myself in Chiang Mai – a city in northern Thailand that, I'd heard, was also fairly untouched. Wrong. Chiang Mai, whatever anyone tells you, is a nightmare: a beehive of dishevelled bamboo shacks on stilts filled with plastic, giant-headed cats and insanely grinning tin Buddhas, as well as over-lit restaurants that seat 800 people.
I would have gone straight back to the airport, but I was destined for the Four Seasons in the Mae Rim valley. You enter the pagoda-like lacquered gates, and behold: there is an infinity pool, and beyond that another infinity pool, and beyond that a genuine rice paddy with Chinese workers toiling in water sprinkled with water buffalo. This could be the latest in five-star decor: a yoga pavilion with views of happy peasants toiling over rice. It all blended beautifully. (Luckily, the water buffalo matched the cushions in the Italian restaurant, otherwise the creatures would be out of a job.)
The minute you enter the Four Seasons, you're no longer treated as a mere mortal: everyone bows to you. I developed a humpback from semi-bowing back. On arrival, you're handed an iced washcloth. This is a tradition that's been around for at least 10 minutes. Who started this ridiculous ritual of handing out a frozen or heated washcloth at every opportunity? No one ever knows what to do with it. After my washcloth was retrieved using traditional washcloth tongs, a buggy swept me to my room.
The Four Seasons sits in 20 acres of Tarzan-like gardens with two lily-ponded lakes, a thousand variations of flowers that look like obscene body parts, waterfalls and Thai deity statues which, to me, look like a pug dog with his face kicked in: fangs, horns, multiple arms, the body of fish and clawed lions' feet. Why?
Once the buggy drives you to your villa, your mae baan (housekeeper) opens the heavily sculptured door and you're hit with an air-conditioned cyclone. Our mae baan was called Pis. That's what her name tag read. Pis served me fruit that she sculpted into a rose, at a dining table set for 16. Later that day, she washed my underwear and returned it, also rose-shaped. I still miss her.
After three days of bowing, I left. After a four-hour drive, I stepped on to a motorised canoe for a trip along a tiny stream through a Heart of Darkness jungle. At a dock we were greeted by more washcloths, so I
knew we were at our destination. Sticking out of the side of a mountain was the Four Seasons Tented Elephant Camp, smack in the Golden Triangle. If you were doing a foxtrot and stepped forward you'd be in Burma, sideways you'd be in Laos and backwards you'd end up in Thailand. After you climb a vertical stairway, you arrive in a bamboo forest filled with birds the colour of tropical fish, which tweet at such a deafening decibel you think you're in some kind of bird lunatic asylum.
I was told why it's an elephant camp by the general manager, a dead ringer for George Clooney. I really wanted him to like me so I tried to look concerned. He told me that logging by elephants ended in 1989 by royal decree, so there was a glut of out-of-work elephants. Jobless, many had to go out and "walk the streets" in Bangkok. Some were even given alcohol and got drunk to entertain the crowds. I wanted to say "I've done that", but George would have gone right off me there and then. So what the Four Seasons did is set up a rescue service. Guests can support an individual elephant. Manolo Blahnik, the shoe designer, has created a women's shoe, the proceeds of which go to feed an elephant at the hotel called Melinda. I tried to see Melinda but she wouldn't come out of her villa.
Each morning, you mount one of these mammals and ride him or her for the day. I was given lessons on a girl elephant called Handful of Diamonds. "Map lung!" apparently means "lower your head", and sure enough, Handful of Diamonds' giant head bent down, so I clambered up her face. If you shouted "Bai" she went straight ahead; "Ben" meant turn. So there I was, shouting my instructions, and suddenly Handful of Diamonds decided to ignore me and head for the river, where she submerged like a submarine. When she came up I was spread-eagled on her behind.
Finally, at sunset, I dismounted with my legs in the splits position and withdrew to my suite, which was a white tent, fully air-conditioned and jutting out of the mountainside. Very five-star Indiana Jones. Like the Pis experience, I fell in love with my elephant and am heartbroken to know right now someone else is climbing up her forehead. Elephants are so fickle.
We drove back to Chiang Mai and an hour's plane ride later I finally arrived in Laos. It was once known as "Lan Xang", which means "a million elephants". I didn't see one when I got there. Maybe they've opened their own Four Seasons and adopt people. From the moment I landed I thought: this is the hippie dream of paradise I've always had and couldn't find.
Luang Prabang is Neverland for grown-ups: it's perfect and perfectly untouched. It came under French colonial control in the late 19th century and in 1975 the Communists took over and preserved it in time, so you have a real sense of being in an Asian backwater. Luang Prabang is where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet; sitting on the riverside in perfect little French cafés, you can watch the villagers tossing out their fishing nets.
The town itself is only about three streets, where palms, banana and coconut trees grow over the guesthouses and restaurants. After decades of war and revolution, the town has 26,000 residents, all of whom seem ecstatic to be living in such a town, where everything is cheap but of great quality. How rare is that in this part of the world?
Luang Prabang is all orange, turquoise and blue colonnaded buildings – like Provence on the Mekong – interspersed with frangipanis and golden temple roofs. Hopefully, this will never change, because since 1995 Unesco has had it on the World Heritage Site list. This means that not a stone can be removed, not a surface retouched, no facelifts, ever. To protect its purity, at midnight there's a curfew that silences the place.
At rush hour you might see a few tuk-tuks and bicycles driving in slow motion, but they're so laid-back that you couldn't get hit even if you tried. The sidewalks are raised like they're in a cowboy town, the roofs are made of tin and every building has distressed shutters and balconies. People spend fortunes trying to get this old provincial look, but here every building has it, not to mention food that makes you throw your head back in an oral orgasm. You can get the most delicious French food ever, but it costs only a few pounds. The restaurant interiors are your fantasy of a French bistro: wooden floors, ceiling fans, great paintings on the tobacco-yellowed walls – and the waiters don't give you attitude. They're friendly and want you to be happy, not stab you in the heart like they do in France.
Best of all was Restaurant Brasserie L'Eléphant, which could out-chic anything in Paris. Also up there is Tamarind, with its Mod-Lao cuisine: whole fish marinated in herbs, stuffed with lemongrass and barbecued in banana leaves. There are bakeries every few feet with smells that make you dizzy: the Scandinavian bakery, JoMa bakery, CT bakery, Morning Glory Café and more, all competing for the best croissants in the world, banana muffins to make an American bend in shame, and coffee so delicious you realise you've been drinking mud all your life.
Beautiful, dark-haired women carrying tiny babies in scarves sit in the street selling shawls that they've hand-woven. It takes a day to make four inches. Their attitude is: if you buy, you buy; if you don't, it's no big deal. I have never seen so many people smiling; even the dogs looked like they were having fun. There seems to be absolutely no stress here at all. Apparently, strong emotions are a taboo in Lao society. There's an expression: the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow. They believe that too much work is bad for your brain. That's evidently why it took two days for me to get a towel at my hotel. Aren't I obnoxiously demanding, in a Western kind of way?
Total strangers ask you to come into their houses and have dinner. I was taken by the hand to someone's home where a Baci ceremony was taking place. Baci ceremonies celebrate all auspicious occasions – marriage, birth, the end of a journey – and in this case, a special guest: me. Why, I do not know, but nevertheless I sat before a cluster of old women who sang me a welcome song. I tried to sing back but didn't know the lyrics so just sat like an idiot, smiling. An elderly man recited prayers in Pali, giving me bananas and grapes that symbolise fertility, something I can't really use right now. Suddenly, one by one, the women came over to tie cotton threads around my wrists. Many thick threads; I looked like a mummy, or like I'd just slashed my wrists.
Dancers entered and I was informed that the dance told a story; what it was I have no idea, but someone was dressed as a green monkey who scratched himself continuously and then a prince came out and shot him with a bow and arrow. The climax was six magnificent girls dancing for me alone (again, I don't know why) in pagoda hats and tight silk wraparound outfits. They did that back-bend thing they do with their tiny, delicate hands while their teeny feet moved in circles like they were dancing on eggshells. I left, bemused but charmed, in my bandages which I was told I couldn't remove until they fell off. I'm still wearing them.
I stayed at La Résidence Phou Vao, a hotel in a Zen trance. Everything was modern yet calm, set in lush gardens rich with bougainvillea, palms, fruit trees, frangipani, sunken bathtubs, a spa set on an island surrounded by a pool and low beds everywhere to lie on when you faint from the views. The inside is mostly dark wood and cushions. The hotel sits on top of the Hill of Kites, overlooking the temple on top of a clouded mountain that makes it seem as if it's floating on air. At night the whole place is lit up like a fairyland.
You can get a longboat to take you down the Mekong, past sheer limestone cliffs and banks of palm and bamboo trees. Children somersault into the river in complete joy, considering they have nothing, while the adults stand by trying to catch fish with their hands. Fifteen miles up the river you hit the Pak Ou caves. These are two deep, dark, spooky caves filled with roughly 4,000 Buddhas of all shapes and sizes: some only inches high, others life-sized. Most of the gold and silver statues were stolen and sold to antique dealers. Now all that's left are statues made of plaster, wood and stone. They're just too trusting, these people.
In the 16th century, villagers would live in these caverns, crawling into crevices to sleep. They believed spirits of the rivers and cave dwelled there and wanted to be near them. These are small, steep caves, so where these people all slept is a mystery. Later, when Buddhism took over, monks lived in the caves and the king came and visited every New Year; now crowds of people come to worship among the tourists who float upriver to gawp.
On the way to the caves I stopped at Xang Hai, a village where the locals sell glutinous rice that's been fermented in giant vats and yeast to make lao-lao, a moonshine whisky sold illegally in Luang Prabang. I drank some, but it burnt out all my organs and my tongue fell out. Otherwise, they try to sell you bottles filled with fermenting cobras and enormous tarantulas dotted with tiny frogs to make them look more appetising. They guarantee that if you drink this reptilian cocktail you'll be cured of everything from an aching back to broken limbs. In my opinion, it may well cure you but you'll be dead within seconds.
In Luang Prabang there are about 30 temples, all golden with tiled or painted depictions of Buddha's life. Inside are hundreds of gold Buddhas where prayers take place twice a day. Each temple has living quarters for the men who are studying, as every man in Laos has to be a khuubaa monk after he finishes school and before he starts a career. They can remain a monk anywhere from three days to their whole life, but during their monktime they aren't allowed alcohol, to play football, to dance, to touch a woman, or to play music – and they can't eat a thing later than noon. They're just given a robe and bowl: that's it.
Considering they aren't allowed to exercise, they all had the most incredibly pumped pecs. Maybe all that chanting makes you buff. Each morning at 6am they line the streets and the townsfolk give them sticky rice, chocolate bars or whatever they've got. The monks pass silently, making no eye contact; they open their bowls and you drop in your offering. You feed them, and they make the town safe from evil spirits. The inhabitants believe that hungry ghosts roam the country and must be appeased, so they leave food for spirits on buildings and window frames.
Basically, this whole town is bathed in Buddhism, which means if the people are very, very good, they won't get kicked in the ass by karma and have to come back as a cockroach. Everywhere you go you pass well-built, claret-robbed, saffron-topped, totally bald monks, but it's their eyes that get you. They are hypnotically calm. They radiate a kind of Being There aura like they've fought a battle with their inner demons and won. This calm is catching. By the time I left, I swear to whatever God there is that I was a really delightful person to be around. You can't toss your usual rage or frustration on someone full of "nice juice". So you're standing there with your gun drawn and nowhere to fire it. Eventually, you put it away and are left standing there, just a decent human being.
And why wouldn't you be? You've found paradise. But don't tell your friends, don't go there, just pretend I never mentioned it.
The writer travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2214; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), which offers similar 10-night strips in Thailand and Laos from £3,995 per person. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to Bangkok, internal flights and transfers, two nights at the Oriental hotel in Bangkok, three nights at the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, two nights at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Chiang Rai, two nights at La Résidence Phou Vao Luang Prabang, one night at the Settha Palace Vientiane, all breakfasts, sightseeing and some meals.
There are no direct flights between the UK and Laos. The most convenient gateway is Bangkok, which is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; www.thaiairways.co.uk), Qantas (08457 747767; www.qantas.co.uk) and Eva Air (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com), all from Heathrow. Flights from other UK airports are available with Qatar (0870 770 4215; www.qatarairways.com) via Doha and Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) via Dubai.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
La Résidence Phou Vao, Luang Prabang, Laos (00 856 71 212 194; www.residencephouvao.com).
Four Seasons Chiang Mai, Mae Rim, Thailand (00 66 53 298 181; www.fourseasons.com/chiangmai ).
Four Seasons Tented Camp, Golden Triangle, Chiang Rai, Thailand (00 66 53 910 200; www.fourseasons.com/goldentriangle).
Eating & drinking there
Restaurant Brasserie L'Eléphant, Luang Prabang (00 856 71 252 482; www.elephant-restau.com).
Tourism Authority of Thailand: 0870 900 2007; www.tourismthailand.co.uk.
Laos National Tourism Administration: 00 856 21 212 248; www.tourismlaos.gov.la
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