Vientiane - It’s been 60 years since Laos declared itself independent of France’s colonial rule, on October 22, 1953. Since then the history of this tiny state has hardly been serene, with civil war and horrific bombing during the Vietnam War eventually leading to the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy and the establishment of Laos as a communist country.
These days, though, there’s tranquillity to be found. The capital Vientiane is intimate and friendly – especially when compared with giants such as Jakarta or Ho Chi Minh City – and the centre is delightfully compact. It is soaked in craggy charm and atmosphere. You can almost sense the ghosts of Russian spies and CIA operatives based here during the Secret War, as Vietnam’s other theatre of war is often known. John le Carré set some of The Honourable Schoolboy here. On the other hand, Paul Theroux reported in The Great Railway Bazaar that “the brothels are cleaner than hotels… marijuana is cheaper than a cold glass of beer”.
Neither the brothels nor the marijuana are in evidence on my return to Vientiane; indeed, if you exclude the gaggle of kathoeys (ladyboys) lingering on street corners, Vientiane is anything but sleazy. It’s also amazing value if you want to live here in style for a few days, drinking Bloody Marys in refined restaurants and sleeping in Indochinese style.
I’ve come to Laos to balance adventure – specifically a motorcycle road-trip – with a smattering of affordable luxury and relaxation. Thanks to newly sealed roads through stunning scenery, available satellite navigation gadgetry and a number of new motorcycle rental offices dotted about the country, the Land Of A Million Elephants has become a great place for two-wheeled adventures. I intend to ride a road less travelled to the central region of the country – but not without a little relaxation first in languid Vientiane.
Having dumped my bags at the cosy Lao Heritage Hotel in a quiet bougainvillea-painted street, I head for breakfast at Le Banneton, the city’s best bakery. It’s staggeringly hot, the Mekong River gaspingly dry, the parched tamarind trees of Setthathirat Street yearning for the onset of the monsoon. Wandering through the old quarter, a mélange of Soviet, Thai, Lao and French architecture, I’m struck by how much the place has blossomed over the past couple of years, thanks to increased investment; there are old French villas tastefully restored as boutique hotels, and almost every conceivable kind of cuisine, from Japanese to contemporary Lao. Add to this the ubiquitous redolence of freshly baked baguettes (a holdover of French colonial rule) and you can begin to understand Vientiane’s easy charm.
To reach central Laos I hire a bike from Jules Classic Rental. If you’re short of time, for an extra fee you can now drop off one of their excellent motor-cross bikes at your destination so you don’t have to double back on yourself. You can also have your bags forwarded to your destination. Thanks to a man called Don Duvall – also known as The Midnight Mapper, who hires handheld GPS devices loaded with your route – there is also little chance of getting lost in the wilds of Laos.
I head south for the charming old French town of Tha Khaek. Three hours into my journey, passing through Khammouane Province, the jungle suddenly rears up in the east, its dragon-green canopy ruptured by gothic black rock formations. If Edgar Allan Poe did landscapes, they’d probably look something like these.
To get to riverside Tha Khaek from Vientiane is a day’s ride, and given that night falls at 6pm with the abruptness of a blackout curtain, you need to leave early; the possibility of colliding with an errant water buffalo is high, many Lao lack lights on their bikes and dogs tend to sleep in the centre of the road. An hour of playing nocturnal Russian roulette frays my nerves and I’m delighted to sink under a rain shower in the town’s only boutique accommodation, the Inthira Hotel. Here industrial-chic meets traditional Lao décor, an Asian fusion menu and beds as comfy as clouds.
I spend the following morning playing boules – another French colonial relic – with an old man in his garden, and wandering the cracked streets past shuttered villas and the dilapidated houses of old Chinese merchants. Tha Khaek is the developer’s dream they forgot to tell the developer about, which is half its charm. Within 10 minutes of its outskirts there are caves with swimmable turquoise pools, but the place that really grabs my attention is the forbidding Kong Lor cave. For the last few years this 7.5km-long void peopled by bats and bird-eating spiders (and through which you putter in total darkness by long-tail boat) has been gaining mythical status among travellers.
If you don’t fancy renting a motorbike in Vientiane and would rather hire a bike in Tha Khaek to get to the cave – a journey of three hours – you now can, thanks to the newly opened Mad Monkey Motorbike Rental (opposite The Inthira Hotel). And should you break down, the owner will even come and save you. After following a road stitched with surreal limestone cliffs and paddy fields, I finally arrive at Kong Lor village. It’s so hot that I head straight for the alien cool of the infamous cave, my stomach a stew of nerves, for even in daylight the cavern looks ominous – like a leering, ragged mouth. Lifejacket and torch in hand, I am spirited inside by my boatman to a long-tail moored in the darkness, and my beam picks out the vast space above me. The river is dangerously low, our hull occasionally scrapes rock, and the wheeze of our outboard tinny is pathetic in the abyss.
Just 15 minutes into my 40-minute journey to the other side of the cave I disembark at an awesome, illuminated stalactite wood. Wandering through millennia-old pillars I feel like a shade entering Hades. The other thing that strikes me – besides my fear of the dark – is the glacial chill; hunkered beneath millions of tons of limestone rock, the cave is a preternaturally cold experience. Back on the boat, a small green eye of daylight grows in the distance, the air salt-fresh the closer you come to the exit. But – horror of horrors – no sooner have you swallowed a lungful of sunlight than the boatman turns around and steers you back into the Gollumesque gloom.
Back in Vientiane, my face scored with sunburn and soul sufficiently aglow with adventure, I’m ready for a bit of that comfort. La Silapa, a new French restaurant, is the perfect spot to indulge yourself: a vision of sugar-white floors, raftered ceilings and typically Gallic dishes. Over a delicious casserole I hear that Vang Vieng has undergone a radical detox. Three hours north of the capital and in one of Laos’s prettiest locations, I remember it as a place where gap-year kids rode the Nam Song River on tractor inner tubes, partied on rave platforms and smoked enough dope to wake up Hendrix. On my last visit the place was flooded with drug busts and travellers wandering around half-naked like extras from The Beach. Detoxing? Impossible. However, it seems that Vang Vieng is settling into a healthy new skin since the fluorescent rave paint was forcibly exfoliated by a government clean-up last year.
As my bike pulls into town, the sawtooth cliffs towering beneath a swimming-pool blue sky, I do a double-take at how peaceful Vang Vieng has become. A Western child and his mum wander hand in hand down the street and a young Scandinavian family rides by on rental bikes. According to one climbing instructor, the footfalls in town might have dropped since the 24-hour party was banished, but visitors are now spending more time soaking up natural pursuits such as climbing, kayaking and mountain biking.
“Vang Vieng has come back to us again… it’s like it used to be,” he beams. I stay for a night at the romantic, lantern-festooned Ban Sabai Bungalows, whose plush rattan cabanas sit beside the Nam Song River and look out on to those serene cliffs. Bar the crickets it’s serenely quiet.
It’s time to return my motorised steed to its Vientiane stable. My last night in the capital sees me at the delectable Mandala Boutique Hotel. Built in the 1960s with clean art deco lines, the building has recently been updated with lacquered granite floors, minimalist chic and a natty Asian fusion restaurant set in the manicured garden.
I nurse a Beerlao on the redeveloped riverfront and watch my last sunset over the Mekong River, my blisters healed, my rump hardened by a week’s biking. A few things have changed since my last visit here. The traffic is thickening, the cars gradually replacing the bicycles. More happily, the city has also caught the style bug. But Vientiane is still intimate and friendly – and long may it remain so.
l Richard Waters has just published his Lao-set thriller Black Buddha on Kindle.
Waters travelled as a guest of Vietnam Airlines (vietnamairlines.com)
. – The Independent
If You Go...
l Mandala Boutique Hotel, Vientiane (mandalahotel.asia) doubles from $83 (R811) with breakfast.
l Lao Heritage Hotel, Vientiane (laoheritagehotel.com) doubles from $25 (R244).
l Ban Sabai Bungalows, Vang Vieng (inthira.com) doubles from $27 (R264) with breakfast.
l Inthira Hotel, Tha Khaek (inthira.com) doubles from $29 (R283) with breakfast.
La Silapa, Setthathirat St; Vientiane. Main course $19 (R186).
Jules Classic Rental, Vientiane (bike-rental-laos.com) $35 (R342) daily, one week minimum. Don Duvall, Vientiane (laosgpsmap.com) rents GPS devices for $10 (R98) a day. Mad Monkey Motorbike Rental, Tha Khaek $38 (R371) a day.