Laos is Southeast Asia’s most overlooked country – an enigmatic nation shaped by powerful external forces, where brutalist communist monuments sit alongside ancient Buddhist temples, and snails and frogs’ legs are on the menu
WORDS: MARCEL THEROUX
PHOTOGRAPHS: SIMON URWIN
On a narrow terrace overlooking the wide, brown Mekong River, a dozen men are gathered in the shade of a bamboo thicket to play a game that is more French than garlic. Pétanque, provincial France’s version of bowls, is an obsession in Luang Prabang, the jungly second city of the tiny nation of Laos. The players – guides, teachers, tuk-tuk drivers – compete fiercely, launching the steel balls with an abrupt backhand throw that resembles a cobra strike. “Everyone plays,” explains Som Phon, one of the spectators. “You let go of all your stress, your suffering.”
Poor, weak and landlocked, Laos has had its history determined by powerful outside forces: France, Thailand, Vietnam, China – even Russia and the United States. Each of them has left some mark on this nation.
A few miles from the pétanque _court, 40-year-old Pon Panyatip is hard at work kneading risen dough and shaping it into baguettes. His upper body is toned from turning out 3,000 batons a day. As fast as he can make it, the dough is deposited in the wood-fired oven. Isn’t he fed up with the sight of baguettes by now? Pon shakes his head. “Sometimes I eat them in the morning and evening. I have them with butter, chilli, dried beef or shrimp paste.”
France governed Laos as a protectorate for more than half a century, until 1954. The customs, food and language here are subtly marked by the vanished French presence, but the country’s most distinctive Gallic inheritance is in its architecture. The heart of Luang Prabang is a finger-shaped promontory that sits at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and it is where the French supervised the construction of long leafy avenues of whitewashed, two-storey houses.
Vientiane deposed Luang Prabang as capital of Laos in 1563, but the latter is by far the more beautiful. It still has the somnolent green charm that originally attracted the French. It is bewitching and quiet; at dusk, the streets are empty of cars. The warm breeze carries the jasmine-like scent of teak flowers. The jungle envelops the city, and the Mekong flows south, bearing your troubles away.
Under the French, Luang Prabang was a backwater that attracted a certain kind of unambitious, pleasure-seeking official. The writer Norman Lewis, a visitor here, said they seemed like the outcome of successful lobotomy operations – “untroubled and mildly libidinous.” Some of the French couldn’t tear themselves away after Laos became independent. Yannick Upravan’s grandfather, Henri, was a French soldier who travelled from Marseilles to serve in the First Indochina War. “He came to fight and kill, but he fell in love. It happened a lot like this,” says Yannick, a youthful, green-eyed 40-something. Henri never went home.