Déjà vu magic in Laos 45 years on

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

s e rs. yebrows. arvel­lous. he s

s, he ps er m n the grow­ing num­bers of our pupils who went home to their vil­lages in the school hol­i­days and never came back, and the CIA sta­tion chief (not a very well-kept se­cret, that) with whom we played bad­minton. And yet it seemed ab­sent from the Bri­tish diplo­mats’ cocktail par­ties, and the am­bas­sador’s sil­ver-ser­vice din­ners, and the hotel dis­cos where we bopped the night away to San­tana’s Black Magic Wo­man with good­look­ing Amer­i­can Ful­bright schol­ars.

Far from be­ing fright­ened by find­ing our­selves in a war zone, my fel­low vol­un­teers and I were mostly thrilled. I was 21, and in­vin­ci­ble. My let­ters home air­ily de­scribed pic­nics with my pupils behind enemy lines and a visit to a Lao Army base, blithely noted that the com­mu­nist Pa­thet Lao were re­ported to be 25 miles (40km) from us, men­tioned en pas­sant that we could be evac­u­ated any day. But we sur­vived, came home and got on with life. From time to time I heard the faint echo of my prom­ise to re­turn, but there was al­ways an ex­cuse. And then I wa was re­tired, and a grand­mothe grand­mother, and the Chan­cel­lor was urg­ing me to spend my pen­sion – and I was out of ex­cuses an and on a plane, and step­ping o out at the smart new Wat­tay Inte In­ter­na­tional Air­port, Vi­en­tian Vi­en­tiane. In 1972 I had left the Royal King­dom of Laos; now I ente en­tered the com­mu­nist Lao P Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Rep Repub­lic, and I had no idea wh what to ex­pect. First im im­pres­sions of Vi­en­tiane w were dispir­it­ing. I r re­mem­bered fields and r red dirt roads, food s stalls, wooden build­ings, in­ter­mit­tent elec­tric­ity and the smell o of cook­ing fires. Now w we hur­tled into the city cen centre on a traf­fic- choked high­way lined with neon-lit high-rises. From the coach win­dows I recog­nised nothing, and when we pulled up, hot and ex­hausted, at a bland mod­ern hotel, I wanted to cry. I had an­tic­i­pated change, but where was my Laos?

Next morn­ing, I set out to look for it and there, up Lane Xang Av­enue on the left, just as I had left it, was the Ly­cée de Vi­en­tiane, where I taught English to the teenage chil­dren of the Lao elite, the build­ing un­changed al­though the clien­tele prob­a­bly had. And there was the Patuxai Mon­u­ment, of­fi­cially com­mem­o­rat­ing in­de­pen­dence from France, al­though in my day it was known as the ver­ti­cal run­way on ac­count of hav­ing been built with ce­ment do­nated by France and in­tended for the air­port. Then, it was a round­about with light traf­fic swirling around its base in clouds of dust (one day I ex­e­cuted a tight turn here on my Honda 70 and skid­ded off, frac­tur­ing my foot); now it sits in a man­i­cured park with foun­tains and hordes of tourists. The open-air mar­ket where we hag­gled for pineap­ples and pa­payas is now a shop­ping mall, but the glo­ri­ous That Luang and Wat Si Saket tem­ples are un­changed from my 1971 pho­tos. I was start­ing to re­mem­ber a few words of Lao, and to catch the scent of frangi­pani, and when we set off north by road for Luang Pra­bang, Laos just got bet­ter and bet­ter.

Once out of the city, we en­tered a world of dust-shrouded road­side shacks sell­ing tyres, snacks, plas­tic chairs, brooms, or­anges and sun­glasses. Satel­lite dishes aside, this was the Laos I loved, and when we saw Sally Baker trav­elled with Wendy Wu Tours (0800 902 0888; wendy­wu­tours.co.uk), which of­fers a 17-day Laos and Cam­bo­dia Un­veiled tour from £2,990 per per­son in­clud­ing in­ter­na­tional flights, all meals and ac­com­mo­da­tion, tour­ing with ex­pert guides and visa fees.

For back­ground read­ing, try any of the de­light­ful Dr Siri Pai­boun de­tec­tive nov­els by Colin Cot­ter­ill, set in Laos in the Sev­en­ties. our first water buf­falo in a paddy field I was at home. In 1971, the 211 miles (340km) be­tween Vi­en­tiane and Luang Pra­bang, the old royal cap­i­tal, was Pa­thet Lao ter­ri­tory. We VSOs could go only by air, and then only when we could hitch a ride in the back of an Amer­i­can bomber, so now I was seeing for the first time the classic land­scape of lime­stone karsts soar­ing sky­wards from forested valleys. Fam­i­lies worked their fields, buf­falo grazed, dogs scratched in the shade, women swept their yards, tod­dlers chased chick­ens, and chill­ies dried in bas­kets on the roofs. The road, mostly Tar­ma­cked, climbed and wound and climbed again. It was achingly beau­ti­ful.

Stop­ping to stretch our legs in a moun­tain vil­lage, we were in­vited into the pri­mary school. One class broke off from their sums to sing us a Lao song. In re­turn, we gave them The Hokey Cokey, and ev­ery­one seemed sat­is­fied by this cul­tural ex­change. It tran­spired that the state sup­plies the build­ings but no

Sally Baker in Laos in 1972, above, and to­day, be­low

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