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MAY 22, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 20

Laos Unplugged: Living Life in the Slow Lane


Illustration for TIME by Annie Lee.

Laos seems like a long shot to become Southeast Asia's next big thing. The food doesn't win any prizes, the roads are severely potholed by frequent flooding and locals regard the prospect of increased tourism with a sunny indifference that exceeds even Mediterranean proportions. The countryside remains ravaged by the hundreds of millions of bombs dropped during what its Vietnamese neighbors call "the American war." But while the big time is a long way off, the little things make Laos a great place to visit. It has a freshness--the first tourists didn't visit until 1989--and a devoutly Buddhist population that give the country a quiet feel unlike anywhere else in the region. There is no hard sell and few streetside entrepreneurs hustling handicrafts or guided tours. The sparse population also helps keep the noise down: only 5 million people fill a country the size of Britain--roughly 20 citizens per square kilometer.

Last year's "Visit Laos" promotion was the socialist government's first attempt to attract foreign tourists and investors. With a per-capita income of only $300--making it the poorest Asian nation--the country desperately needs money. Now tourists can receive visas on arrival for $30 at Vientiane's Wattay International airport and at the Mittaphab Friendship Bridge, which crosses the Mekong in northeastern Thailand. Infrastructure has improved dramatically. The bus from the capital of Vientiane to the temple-strewn town of Luang Prabang used to be a two-day, butt-busting ordeal on bandit-infested roads. Today the journey can be made in eight hours of air-conditioned splendor.

Laos Unplugged
While the big time is a long way off, the little things make Laos a great place to visit

Green Island is a sparkling paradise, a volcanic island where the sea is always blue and the weather sunny and warm

Web Crawling
A website of visitors' tales that offer a varied perspective on the local travel experience

Vientiane combines the faded colonial charm of cities like Hanoi and Havana with a dusty, frontier feel (leavened by the French patisseries). A peaceful riverside city with a few shops, banks and restaurants cut into the Mekong delta, it lacks the monuments and museums of most capitals. A solitary, though charming, illuminated fountain is its only focal point. Of the numerous lavishly decorated temples around the city, Pha That Luang (open Tuesday to Sunday, 8-11:30 a.m., 2-4:30 p.m.; admission 10) is the most elaborate. More than 500 kg of gold coat its four-sided tower. Known as the Great Sacred Stupa, this fine example of Khmer design was built in 1566 and plays host every November to the That Luang full-moon festival, when hundreds of orange-robed monks form a procession at dawn around the temple. Pha That Luang is located at the far end of Thanon That Luang, five minutes by tuk-tuk from the colorful Talaat Sao morning market, which remains open all day.

In the southern Sisattanak district is Wat Sok Pa Luang, a woodland temple famous less for its spiritual significance than for its superbly rustic herbal sauna. A small donation gains access to the sweaty inferno, usually followed by tea and a vigorous Thai-style massage. The monks advise you not to shower for 12 hours afterward in order to let the herbs do their work. The herbal treatment is said to purify body and soul.

A few days of temple-hopping and evening strolls along the banks of the Mekong usually exhausts Vientiane's humble offerings, so many visitors move on to explore the capital's environs. For a more rural experience, head to Lao Pako, an eco-resort on the banks of the Nam Ngum river that has been run since 1995 by an Austrian owner. The lodge was constructed completely from local materials and uses solar power to provide electricity to the bamboo huts. A variety of nature trails and river-rafting trips provide an outlet for those who feel the need to do something. But most visitors fall into step with Laos' rhythm and are satisfied to sit on the large veranda watching the sunset. Lao Pako is located 50 km from Vientiane. You can take one of three daily buses for 20, but your best bet is to catch a taxi ($4) to Som Sa Mai village, then hop on a motor launch ($4) for the languid 25-minute trip upriver to the resort. Visit the country now. Laos may not be Indochina's reclusive cousin for much longer.

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