Across a bridge and into town, Saskia Walker writes of Modern Traveller’s journey to this peaceful paradise upon the Mekong.
Whittled and wedged together by hand to straddle the river for six months of each year, the bamboo bridge creaks and groans with every step.
The alternative is a rusted red iron structure, the overpass of choice for motorcycles. A lone traveller shudders across on a rickety two-wheeler, amused traffic building up behind her.
With each unsteady venture from one side to the other, the visitor leaves the ordinary world to enter one where time stands still. Here, faded, golden lettering adorns swinging wooden signs set above expansive verandas: idyllic spots to contemplate life over a cold Beerlao.
Pagodas rise from the hillside, golden turrets against an azure sky. Worn stone steps wind up and up, human figures growing still smaller in the distance; a promise that, if nothing else, the summit might just be worth the view.
Clambering, hot and bothered, swathed in layers of respect, MT twists past golden statues wreathed in overgrown vines and tiny, twittering, bamboo-caged birds — to be set free for a dollar and a wish — to the small hilltop temple. Here, the extraordinary panorama of Phu Si is revealed.
In town, motorbikes jostle with tuktuks, and bicycles weave between ambling pedestrians and red-roofed handicraft stalls. Life is a little more peaceful here, in a little less of a hurry than in the megalithic cities of Laos’ Southeast Asian neighbours.
The indigo-dyed batik skirts of the ‘Hmong are made, as they always have been, by female artisans dripping beeswax onto rough hemp in intricate patterns. It is almost impossible to leave empty-handed: a tamarind-dyed scarf, an embroidered silk wall-hanging, a blue-and-white fabric elephant – memories of a city which, in this haze of heat, seems nothing but a dream.
A cycle to the glorious Wat Xieng Thong reveals structures clad in iridescent mosaics, myths reborn in glass: from the enormous Tree of Life to tiny figures stepping into boats, galloping horses and palm-shaded villages entirely immune to the clutches of time.
Evenings unfold laughing and scribbling with the city’s youth, who drop in to Big Brother Mouse publishing house for an hour or two of English practice, chatting to native speakers — travellers, expats and teachers — to ponder the difference between “chance“ and “opportunity”, to discuss the merits of education, of local customs and of rapidly encroaching modernity.
For the youth of Laos, English may be essential to opportunity. For the wide-eyed traveller, deep in conversation with a young man in his third year studying to be a teacher, twelve hours’ ride from his family’s rubber and rice farm, this is a chance unlike any other: to gain some glimmer of insight into this shimmering, shifting land and its people before change, swift and irrevocable, comes to remake Laos.
WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER // IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS