Déjà vu magic in Laos 45 years on
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