Wed, Jan 17, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Laid-back Laos has a capital to match

Southeast Asian vacations can feel like a checklist of temples, beaches and waterfalls featured in 'Lonely Planet.' When it's time to take a break though, there's always Vientiane

By Daniel Altman  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Laotian women, wearing traditional ethnic clothes, dance in front of the That Luang stupa in Vientiane on Nov. 4, 2006. Thousands of buddhist monks and tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the region converge on the stupa for the annual That Luang festival.

PHOTOS: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The unmarked path twists off a dirt road and into the forest, and within a few seconds there is the surreal sight of pale white bodies swathed in colorful sarongs, milling around a wooden house on stilts. Up the stairs, a woman named Noi greets guests, sends them to a ramshackle changing room and then into a windowless cell where three benches are barely visible through the dense steam infused with eucalyptus, citrus, rosemary, lemongrass, basil and mint. She offers weak tea to sweat-drenched survivors, who are encouraged to take a fresh sarong and lie down on one of six beds for a slow but powerful massage in the open air.

This isn't a latter-day commune or the headquarters of a cult in the business of brainwashing backpackers. It's an herbal sauna on the grounds of the Wat Sok Pa Luang, a temple on the outskirts of Vientiane, in Laos. Lying there as the sun sets with only the trees, birds and an occasional mosquito around, you might just think about putting down your own roots.

It's easy to turn into a turbo-tourist in Southeast Asia. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Luang Prabang, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi — a vacation can start to feel like a mail route as you dutifully hit every beach and temple. When it's time to take a break, there's Vientiane.

Laos' relaxed capital is rich with pleasures, and its tranquility can be a tonic for those who have been hopscotching nonstop around the region. New hotels are adding to the city's appeal. Fancier bars and restaurants are opening up, too, mainly to serve the capital's several thousand foreign aid and government workers. Yet the fundamental allure of the city is centuries old: its location along a long stretch of the Mekong River, its pungent traditional foods and the low-key Buddhist culture that has sprinkled gracious temples and monuments throughout the city.

Most hotels are along the Mekong or within a stone's throw of the city center, and the rest of the city is eminently walkable. The Japanese government recently donated a road that will lead from the airport, through the city and then all the way to the Friendship Bridge that crosses the Mekong to Thailand.

"It's really good for tourism because the road is better and the transport is better," said Det Temmerath, who was helping out in his mother-in-law's shop while waiting to start a government job. He said he was especially grateful for the generosity of the Japanese, who have also given three-quarters of a billion yen (about US$6.2 million) in cultural grants since 1975 and are duly thanked on signs outside several local sights.

"It's a gift, not a loan," Det said. "When we get some loan from the Asian Development Bank, the country is still in debt." That's a thought to keep in mind as you pass the bank's spotless local office, surrounded by manicured lawns, on Lan Xang Avenue.

The new hot spots are often run by expatriate Europeans or Australians. Most retain some local flavor, though, whether it's the wicker-backed armchairs lining the bar at Jazzy Brick or the dark wood furniture that fills the suites at the Green Park Boutique Hotel.

Some colonial gems have also reached an international standard, like Kua Lao, a restaurant in an old mansion named by many residents as one of the capital's best places to eat local cuisine. Laotian food is a delicious, spicy crossroads of Thai, Vietnamese and southern Chinese cuisine with the addition of its own special flavors, from local chili paste to — for the more courageous — ant larvae.

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