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Phespirit goes to Laos
Vientiane & Luang Prabang     April 2007

Laos has 2,130km of border in common with Vietnam, but precious little else. Its total area is around sixty percent that of its neighbour, but its population is little more than six million, which is about the same as Ho Chi Minh City. Thus, the most immediate difference that struck Phespirit when he arrived in Vientiane from Hanoi, having travelled from one capital to the other, was the comparative calm. Gone were the chaotic crowds, the teeming traffic, the honking horns and the motorcycles, motorcycles, motorcycles that pervade Vietnam's big cities. In Laos he found clear roads, open spaces and quiet corners. Room to live. Phespirit liked that.

On his first day in Vientiane the temperature reached a searing 38°C. Although the humidity was low, Phespirit still sweated profusely in the dry heat. He tried not to compound the problem with too much physical exercise, but couldn't resist a climb of over a hundred steps to the top of Patuxai Arch. This enormous monument on Lan Xang Avenue clearly takes its lead from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris yet it remains faithful to Lao architecture and decoration. It provides a platform for the best panoramic views in Vientiane. Elsewhere he visited temples: Wat Sisaket (oldest), Wat Haw Phra Kaew (now a museum), Wat Simuang (liveliest) and That Luang (most venerated).

Phespirit invariably encountered coachloads of fellow tourists wherever he went in Vietnam. By contrast, tourism in Vientiane is low-key and sedate. All the major monuments and temples remained mercifully coach-free. What few tourists there were simply ambled around softly in twos and threes, barely adding a ripple to the serenity. This may not be to everybody's taste, but Phespirit wanted more. First, however, he had a date in Luang Prabang.

Flight 6: Vientiane, Laos, to Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is the small but perfectly formed ancient capital of Laos. Its historic centre is built upon a small peninsula that juts out to the confluence of the rivers Mekong and Nam Khan. Just as with Vientiane, sightseeing demands visits to several Buddhist temples, all of which are living temples where young monks were busily preparing for the Lao new year. Celebrations take place between 15-17th April and seem primarily to involve people throwing water at each other. There is no triumphal arch in Luang Prabang, so for panoramic views it is necessary to climb Phou Si Hill, which is located conveniently in the centre of the peninsula. Luang Prabang is very much a backpackers paradise, with a laidback and youthful centre, and plenty to do beyond the city limits. Phespirit himself took a boat trip up the Mekong River to the village of Muong Kao, where the locals make foodstuffs from dried algae, tomato, garlic, tamarind and sesame seeds, and to the Pak Ou caves, which are filled with dusty old Buddha figures. All too soon came the time for Phespirit to leave Luang Prabang but, operational incompetence at the Villa Santi Resort & Spa notwithstanding, he could have happily stayed on for weeks.

Flight 7: Luang Prabang, Laos, to Vientiane, Laos

A sixty-seater twin-turboprop Xian MA60 had borne Phespirit away from Vientiane, and the same little Chinese-built aircraft brought him back. Upon returning he set about his unfinished business, starting off with a lap of the National Stadium. In recent years Phespirit has fallen into a habit of gravitating towards sports stadia in foreign lands. Like most habits, there's no excuse for it. This particular stadium was short on grandstands and appeared quite ramshackle with its ripped and scuffed athletics track, but at least it had a decent-looking football pitch in the middle. Phespirit moved on, first to the adjacent Lao National Museum, next to the dry fountain at Nam Phou Place, then around half a dozen wats, and finally down to the Mekong River. The right and proper way to end a day in Vientiane is to lounge on a rug with a meal or drink, watching the sun sink gracefully into the Mekong. Truly beautiful.

Flight 8: Vientiane, Laos, to Pakse, Laos

Long before sunrise the following morning, Phespirit had checked out of his hotel and was on his way to Vientiane airport for the 6:00am flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia. At least, that's where he thought he was going. Obviously in his sleep-deprived, delirious state he had failed to pay attention to all the flight details, because the aircraft first put down at the city of Pakse. For some passengers this was the end of the line. Phespirit joined them in getting off the plane, partly to double-check which country he was in, and partly to look around an airport he would almost certainly never see again. Having established that he was still in Laos, somewhere close to its southern tip, he reboarded the plane for a final hop across the border.

Flight 9: Pakse, Laos, to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Phespirit was sad to be leaving Laos. He appreciated the modest splendour of its natural landscapes, the gentle pace of urban life, and the freedom to move around without fear of harassment. It may be a naïve assessment but it remains an appealing one. And if Phespirit was leaving the country with a small measure of sorrow in his heart, he could take consolation from the knowledge that in Cambodia he would find new splendours on an epic scale.

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