The Lao Foot Massage

Shop front near Luang Prabang airport
This restaurant even helpfully tells you it is opposite the airport, in case you missed that big building to the left.

Today was a travel day, moving from Laos to Malaysia, on my way to Myanmar, so nothing much to tell you, except that exchange rates at Luang Prabang airport are excellent. I had 200,000 kip left, which is worth $24, and they happily gave me $23 there. Unusual. Brilliant. There are restaurants directly opposite the airport, but having walked there I was happy to pay slightly inflated prices inside to use up the other £3 worth of kip I had left.

Luang Prabang's new airport
Luang Prabang’s new airport.

Tuesday, then, my last full day in Laos, and I was reminded, as I walked past a place offering them, that one of my favourite things here is a massage. Foot and leg, please. I decided to walk a bit further, down to the main tourist strip, which has at least two massage shops next to each other, from which the cry of “Hello, massage?” rings out often enough that anyone called massage would feel very popular indeed. I’d shared a laugh about hello massage which a  passing Lao man on my first day in Luang Prabang, and that memory was enough to take me back there.

I arrived, and answered “hello, massage?” with a firm “yes!”, sending small Lao ladies scurrying, as if they couldn’t quite decide what to do now someone had said yes. Eventually they decided that downstairs was the right place for me, I sat down, and a young lady, braces on her teeth, washed my feet and got started on the foot and leg massage. Even that lower limb massage is quite an intimate thing, and I spent the first few minutes working out whether looking at her was rude or the very opposite. We did the ‘where you from?’ bit and I settled back, podcasts in my ear. A minute or two later she tickled both feet to get my attention, then seemed to be asking whether that was good or not, but I think she was actually checking whether I was going to squirm. No squirming here. I settled back again, and she got firm thumbs into the base of my feet. A little while later she gently slapped my leg to get my attention and gave me an ego boost.

“You handsome!”

Well, thank you very much. I had *just* washed my hair for the first time in days, and clearly that had had an effect. It is slightly awkward being paid a compliment like that when the giver could be your daughter, but never mind. Thanks!

About half way through, Sia told me her name and found out mine. One other gentleman had come down from upstairs but otherwise the place was empty – just me and the massage ladies, some outside keeping up the ‘hello, massage?’ siren song, others walking through to take selfies or plug their phones in. Now the owner, or at least the lady who takes the money, came and sat next to me. She paused for a minute, to let me concentrate, then said;

“You handsome!”

Again, thank you very much.

“You are… 30?”

Well, no. Or yes, but also add a decade or so. The other girl on the room, lying down on a couch, chimed in with

“40-handsome!” and rolled over to go to sleep, her bon mot for the day delivered.

As Viang (by now we’d swapped names) started her spiel, I remembered the words of my Lao neighbour in Vientiane, who had several times joked (I think) that I was not allowed to go to the night market on my own, because I would be stolen. She had taken us to a local ‘sauna’ (more like a torture house – plastic rollers up and down your back, as you lie under a heated blanket, then retire to the next room for even more heat), and there at one point 5 ladies had been stood round my bed. Nothing I said was quite able to put them off. “You not so fat!” was the high point of the praise, but compared to the other middle-aged men they see, that was indeed unusual. I mentioned my big nose, but that just led to “you give me big nose baby!”.

I was getting a distinct echo of that here as Viang asked if I had a girlfriend. It didn’t matter what I said, she pointed to the empty chairs either side of me to make the point that there was no girlfriend here.

“I’ll be your girlfriend” (with a lot of laughter). “Can I have your number?” I pulled the ‘no phone’ excuse. I couldn’t tell whether Sia was amused or put out by all this, but she carried on squeezing and priming my feet and calves, so all was good.

“After you finish, I massage you? With oil?” suggested Viang. “When you leave?” asked Sia, “come back tomorrow?”

I felt ever so popular. I paid, tipped, and left. I did not go back the next day.

Luang Prabang havens – Tamarind restaurant and Sa Sa Lao ecolodge

Wat Visounnarath, an ornate temple
Temple entrances are grand.

I had spent several days in Luang Prabang without ever feeling quite the sense of overwhelming beauty that people talk about. That changed yesterday, when I decided that my town centre hostel, despite its lovely atmosphere, could be bettered. – proving that the town itself is perfectly attractive, but coming back to, or sheltering from the heat in, a place without a comfortable social area wasn’t quite what I wanted. Town centre hostels seem to mostly have long tables in the front room as their social area, and that’s about it. They are adapted from town houses, which have the front room, open to the street all day, as the focus of life. That front room is pretty full, with a TV on a wall or otherwise central, hard-looking wooden chairs around the edge, motorbikes wheeled in at night and so on. It doesn’t make for the most comfy spot.

I went wandering in the morning, aiming for a guesthouse with a view of the river. It was being rebuilt, so I went back to the hostel to pay up. In the end, Sa Sa Lao was recommended. I assumed I’d head towards the Mekong for the view and ambience I wanted, but this is the other way, back towards the airport, and overlooking the Nam Khan. I arrived and was sold immediately – a walk down a dirt side-road brings you to a tree-shaded set of buildings set amongst lush greenery. Bungalows are available for 220,000 kip (£20) – very reasonable, but not quite what my budget calls for. Might as well save while I can, and the dorm beds are 41,000 kip a night, and quite beautiful; large airy rooms, open to the air at the top. Probably more than a bit hot in peak temperatures, but there have been a couple of storms which have cooled everything down.

A dog stands looking over the river, which is a muddy brown
Panorama from the Nam Khan riverside at Sa Sa Lao

I only got a quick view of the waterfront spot when I looked and booked, before going back to get my stuff. A bit of a walk in the heat, from Thavisouk family home to here, but a shower waited at the other end. And then, the river. As well as the central area, which has a restaurant, reception and so on, there are a couple of groups of chairs in the garden, and two wooden-boarded areas looking down over the river.

 

Furniture by the roadside
Furniture shop next to Sa Sa Lao, big on the big items.

Perfect. My haven – even the sound of music and, as time went on, karaoke, drifting from the other side of the river, near the ‘new bridge’ off to the right, could spoil it. Not so much near here, and when I found a restaurant that looked open they were only serving barbecue, but I went with it and enjoyed barbecued duck with greens to dip with it. “Will you take a Beer Lao” asked the owner, and I figured I would. For a moment, as I agreed to take a seat with no further ordering needed, I wondered whether it would be expensive, but given that the barbecue was sold to me as “very Lao”, that was unlikely. Total cost – 40,000 kip.

On Saturday night, I’d met Evan and Katy for dinner. They’d been to a Lao dance evening, which had left them a little discombobulated. Walking away from the night market, outside the Royal Palace on whose campus the theatre sits, we had no clear idea where to go, but ended at a restaurant their guidebook had already recommended – Tamarind.

A hammock and several bamboo deck chairs overlooking the river
The other riverfront area. A little cooler than 5 metres closer to the road. Sunny day, so this wasn’t today!

A budget buster, with a 120,000kip set meal, but boy was it worth it. The company would have made any meal, as our conversation roamed from British to US commonplaces, through joy and fears of travelling and the meaning of ‘authenticity’ (and why it’s annoying when ‘authentic’ is used to mean ‘the experience I expect to have). The food was great, though, with each course explained by a series of staff all with excellent English. The place gives teaching courses too, which explains how that has come to be, though it is still impressive. They start you off with a flavoured rice whisky – which is fortunately not followed by several others, which has lost me a day on a previous visit. Bamboo soup to start, which is perhaps a Lao staple –

A dog sleeps under the chairs on the covered riverfront decking
Sa-Sa-Lao.

certainly I had it served me at Kham’s (friendly neighbour in Vientiane) house. Then a plate of appetisers, seaweed, Luang Prabang sausage and others, an aubergine (?) based-dish, chicken stuffed with lemongrass – pull the lemongrass aside to set free the chicken, all with sticky rice. And finally, our favourite, wrapped up in a bamboo pocket, fish, heavy on the dill; the waitress told us to be careful when opening it. “Oh,” we said, “why’s that?” as I thought perhaps it would expand. “The fish is sleeping” she said, and giggled.

Delicious. Dessert was sweet sticky rice and four fruits, only two of which I can name – Dragonfruit and Banana. The other two were interesting more for texture than taste. One seemed not to be a mixture of several fruits with a bit of ginger thrown in.

A fabulous meal with fabulous people, that set me up for a half marathon the next day.

Foliage hangs down and covers the far side of the river at dusk
A dull dusky picture over the Nam Khan.

Stayed: Sa Sa Lao (was Fan Dee, judging by some of the posters etc), booked in person (which may be cheaper – because the budget accommodation prices are so low, I suspect they put them up a little to allow for websites’ referral fees). Booking.com lets you see rough prices, though.

Plain of Jars

Plain of Jars, site 1
Plain of Jars, site 1.

A tourist day. Kong Kee’s guesthouse is recommended by reviews on booking.com and in

Runway, Phonsavan
At the peak of the bombing, an airfield in Laos (possibly the one in the ‘secret area’) was the second busiest airport in the world, after Chicago, with flights leaving every 4.5 mins.

Lonely Planet (the latter a nice bonus for me when I spotted it, having booked). The owner, Kong’s, tours are also recommended, and after getting up early to keep my options open, I decided to splurge the money (280,000 kip with three people, prices vary with the no. of takers) on a tour of all three sites, rather than rent Kong’s bike. That freed the bike up for a German girl, who later reported that she hadn’t been able to find any other bicycles to rent in town (so be decisive if you want one, though

Bombs and rusted arms
Bombs and rusted arms from cleared areas. The MAG (Mines Advisory Group) are working. At current rates, they’ll be done in 280 years (guide) or 100 (guidebook).

the town is growing so quickly that maybe it will not be an issue – currently 52,000 people, but it is a tourist hotspot and will be the site of the ‘Lao Olympics’).

Immediately it felt like a good decision, with Kong’s initial warmth and good humour setting the tone, albeit qualified early on by the gravity of what he told us about the secret war. The war was secret in the sense that no one really acknowledged it was happening; even now information boards will tell you that US airplanes flew out of Thailand to bomb Vietnam, dropping bombs on Laos only when they couldn’t drop them on Vietnam, because returning with a full load was dangerous. In reality, though, some areas were clearly targeted. For a start, Vietnam only took c.20% of the munitions dropped, which seems low if they were always the target. Near Phonsavan, 60odd people were killed in a cave, by a rocket strike (not a simple bomb dump, that). Plus friendly soldiers were told that to stay safe they should avoid temples, and avoid livestock. That’s because those were targets, the logic being that people would be nearby.

Sweet apple
Sweet apple, scrumped for us by Kong. Local knowledge wins! Tasted a little grapefruit, a little apple.

We headed straight for the tourist information centre (which is not in the centre of town, so fairly quiet, at least at this time of year) for war info and a sight of the munitions. Kong pointed out the secret area, between Phonsavan and Vientiane, which is still closed to tourists, and showed how tourist travel routes have to go round it. He wouldn’t tell us what was in the area till we were out of the info centre, showing that it is still sensitive, even in English. All that’s there is whatever the US left – it is said that people are still fighting, but Kong has been many times and not found them. More likely that as part of the deal done at the end of the war, it was agreed to not allow foreigners too near the area – military secrets, or proof of involvement, hidden.

With the scene set, we headed for Site 1. There are many many sites with Jars on;

Flowers at site 1
Flowers greet you at site 1. Every year it’s likely to look totally different.

Kong explained that the numbering is just done by proximity to the town (and some sites are as yet uncleared of ‘UXO’, unexploded ordnance, possibly they are being cleared in order, too). My cousin came here some years ago and so won’t have seen the new visitors’ centre (opened in 2013) and possibly the site has been further developed. The flowers look well maintained, at least. Kong’s tour covered the entry fee, but it is just 10,000 kip to each site (<£1).

Site 1 cave
Cave and AA/tank emplacement position, site 1.

The largest jar, 10 tonnes or so, is on site 1. All are big and heavy, though, so moving them from the mountain at which they were carved is in itself an impressive feat. The original thought was that people were cremated in the central cave, then their ashes spread, then that bodies were placed into the jars to decompose, then the bones buried next to the jars. That would account for the bones found by the jars, when excavated, at most sites (site 52 is an exception – maybe it was for storage). Really, the truth is not known, though it seems most likely that people were buried first, then a jar erected by the body as soon as the family could afford/move one. But work is ongoing in Australia to identify and age the bones, and to prove bones can be found next to jars at sites other than the mysterious area… er, site, 52. Kong’s parting shot was that the ancient Lao people must have wondered ‘how will we get Falang people here in 3,000 years time’ and worked on a long-term tourism project, which is a good gag to end on.

Site 2, in the trees
Site 2, in the trees.

We moved on to sites 2 and 3, which are not as large, but both different. Although all the sites are called ‘plains’, they are always on a hill of some kind, even if not the highest around, probably to spare them from flooding. Site 2 is mystical feeling, at least with the peace and quiet we had, midweek, out of season, while Site 3 is a brief walk through rice paddies. The infrastructure is changing rapidly, though.

Site 3
Site 3, different again, through the rice paddies.

Ignore the signs that say there is a waterfall between 2 and 3, as that doesn’t exist any more. And if your guidebook says it’s a 2km trek to site 3, don’t worry – right now, it’s 500m or so and who knows, maybe it will be even shorter by the time you get here. If your day is punctuated by explosions, don’t worry – that’s the MAG teams working to remove UXO.

We headed back, avoiding cows who are just as happy walking across the ro

Rice drying
Rice drying. It needs 3 days of dry weather, then is gathered.

ad as standing in the middle of it, though mostly they were heading home at 4pm, as conscious of the time as the MAG groups who head away around then, so you might see their vans parked by the houses they’ve rented in the area, assuming they haven’t cleared it by then.

For one final bit of sightseeing, I walked out the back of Kong Kee to the Wet Market. I wasn’t shopping (though I did get some flip-flops for $2.5), just curious to see it – it is on the site of the old airbase, until 1997 a civilian airport, but during the war, a US one. Plenty of space to grow, but I found it heartening to see a

Cows in road
Cows in the road.

thriving market, Garden hotel and, at the end of the runway, a golf driving range, bouncy playpark, bars and a restaurant – repurpose the infrastructure of war for entertainment. Which, incidentally, is what Kong has done, with a fire lit each night in an old bomb casing in the covered social area.

For more about the Secret War, see legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/, and there are documentaries on Youtube.

Stayed: Kong Kee guesthouse. Saw: bombs, guns, stone jars, saddening and happy info.

End of runway, old airbase
End of runway, old airbase.

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