THE CHRISTMAS BEFORE last, and almost at the last possible minute, I went to Laos. The Government had just changed the entry rules: previously, you had to send your passport to Bangkok, cross your fingers and hope it would eventually come back with a Lao People's Democratic Republic chop inside. Then, in the autumn of 1997, it became possible to pay US$50 (HK$387) on arrival. Which doesn't mean, of course, that immigration is now a trouble-free procedure. The people in front of me at Vientiane airport had only travellers' cheques, and the officials - a couple of lads with self-conscious grins - told them to visit the nearby bureau de change.
I went too. The charming man behind the counter looked thunderstruck when we said we'd like to change some money. With a sorrowful gesture, he pointed to the safe which resembled the type in old Western movies: it was gaping open, with theatrical abandonment, as if Jesse James had just whirled through town. The bureau de change had run out of change. So the first thing you should know about Laos is that it's a good idea to bring enough cash to get into the country.
And while we're on the subject of finance, the currency is called the kip (when people refer to Laos as one of the sleepier spots of Southeast Asia, this may be what's on their minds). The largest available denomination is the 1,000 kip note; a little more than a year ago, 1,000 kip was worth 48 US cents. One day, I went into a bank and changed US$250 to pay a hotel bill. When the cashier finally returned, clasping a brick of money with both hands, a murmur of amazement rose from the throats of all the locals standing behind me. For sheer embarrassment and capitalist self-loathing, that was the lowest point in an otherwise happy travelling career.
Apart from such minor blips, Laos is a wonderful country to visit. This is not going to be a carefully weighed-up travel piece - on the one hand this, but on the other hand that - because I feel if you haven't already been, you should try to book a flight first thing tomorrow morning. I'm presuming, of course, you are the kind of discerning reader who won't hand out money to the children, be condescending to the waiters or loud in your complaints about occasional travel glitches.
Tourism is so novel a concept in Laos that nobody has learned to be cynical - yet. But the cliche is that it's like Thailand was 40 years ago, which gives sad pause for thought. Tentative is the word which perhaps best describes the overall approach, and this state of mind was piquantly expressed in an advertisement I saw for a bar just about to open in Vientiane. It read: 'The music is so-so and so is the food. The service is undescribable [sic] but come anyway.' And I was at least three days in Luang Prabang before I realised the tuk-tuks and their drivers apologetically loitering on the street were plying their trade.
Luang Prabang is the old royal capital of Laos. It is set in a fold of mountains at the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Khan, and is a 40-minute flight from Vientiane. The approach is probably magnificent but, whatever the weather, you will always land in fog because Lao Aviation believes in pumping alarming quantities of dry ice into the cabin prior to arrival. I had to give up reading the Vientiane Times (sample headline: 'Finnish-Lao Friendship Association Visits Laos'; sample photo: Fidel Castro pinning a medal on the chest of President Khamtay Siphandone) when it became impossible to see the type.
There is no scrum of taxi-drivers, hawkers or beggars at the airport, although a man in a T-shirt, with 12 leaves and the question What is life without pleasure? printed on it, did sidle up to say hello. I peered at the leaves, and just as I was beginning to wonder, he cried, 'Yes! Pot! Joy! Funny!' I don't know whether he greets all passengers this way, but given that US military policy in the mid-1960s ensured that Laos became the most bombed country on earth, you do see some strange outfits. Later, I travelled up the Mekong, whose name resonates in recent American history, with a boatman clad in a jacket labelled Los Angeles County Sheriff; at one point a demure young woman on a motorbike sped past wearing a T-shirt which said Property of Kansas State Penitentiary Do Not Remove.
Be assured, Luang Prabang is safe to explore. In fact, it's remarkably like a small French town - shutters, baguettes, schoolchildren singing Frere Jacques in Lao, Christmas trees - which has a selection of about 30 Buddhist temples so beautiful and so well-preserved that UNESCO added the place to its World Heritage List in 1995. Its glittering glory, Wat Xieng Thong, built in the 16th century, is possibly the most exquisite temple in Asia, with a reclining Buddha of such loveliness that you have to hold your breath just to look at it. If you need only one reason to visit Laos, that is it. I kept wandering back to recharge my spiritual batteries, and apart from the occasional group of French tourists hardly anyone else put in an appearance, apart from the monks.
Having scrupulously read the Lonely Planet guide book's advice about monks in Laos (keep your head lower than theirs, never hand them anything if you're a woman, keep a respectful distance), it was disconcerting to discover it's almost impossible to stand still for two minutes in Luang Prabang without a young monk drifting over for a chat. As for taking photographs, perhaps there is a Lao theory that having your picture taken adds something to the soul, so keen are the monks to be snapped. That constant blur of orange you'll see when you get your films developed is a monk nonchalantly strolling into every frame.
Buddhist males in Laos are expected to spend some part of their lives as monks, so it's not necessarily a lifetime commitment, which might explain why they don't conform to the stern standards laid down by the Lonely Planet books. One hot afternoon I was contemplating another deserted temple of thrill-inducing beauty when a teenage monk came over, and after the usual pleasantries ('Where are you from, how old are you, why are you not married?'), he veered way off the predictable track by asking, 'Would you like to see my bedroom?' Because I'm just a hack who can't say no, we proceeded into a side-building which seemed to be the equivalent of a frat house, with startled monks in lunghis skidding into their dorms, gasping with hilarity, as we entered. My new friend's room contained a bed, a mosquito net, a huge clock, an even bigger calendar, a desk with a cassette player, several black umbrellas and an enormous wallchart covered in Lao script and English proverbs. The first saying that caught my eye was the assertion, 'All that glitters is gold', underneath the sentence, 'Mice away the cat plays'. Further down the list was the statement, 'Women is poison but they comfort when sadness'.
As the pedant in me couldn't bear the idea of him toiling away on such perversities, we found an exercise book - one of those French cahiers with pages of flimsy graph paper - and rewrote everything. Soon, a collection of grinning monks was sitting on the floor. Another, washing from a bucket outside, kept sticking his dripping head through the window, while all hoped to have their photographs taken. Although this sounds like the prelude to a tragic story on the foreign news page ('Poisonous Woman Spends Last Hours in Company of 12 Monks'), it degenerated into nothing more than an orgy of, well, picture-taking and grammar lessons. Ten minutes after I finally made my excuses and left, I found it difficult to believe such a curious interlude had ever happened.
That seemed typical. Luang Prabang inspires a certain dreaminess; it has, indeed, a kip-like quality. In its peaceful back lanes one morning I passed a little tea-house with a wobbly sign saying, 'Take A Break From The Rush'. Apart from the cheeping of chickens, the gobble of some seasonally lucky turkeys and the rustle of a child running past with a glowing river of tape from a broken cassette, there was silence. The only evidence of metropolitan life came with the speedboats to and from Vientiane, which go hurtling up and down the Mekong like frenzied lawnmowers (and, I'm told, are about as comfortable).
I took a slower boat one morning, courtesy of the LA County Sheriff, to the Pak Ou caves, two hours upriver and set into impressive cliffs. There are two caves; the lower contains 2,500 figures of Buddha and the upper has 1,500. I'm sorry to say those numbers may not be accurate because unscrupulous tourists keep stealing them. This, as well as being morally repugnant, indicates an unusual lack of awe (and certainly superstition) for an unworldly place. Having stood in that candle-flickering twilight and become gradually aware of serried ranks of bliss-eyed Buddhas smiling at me, I can tell you that only an unevolved dolt would interfere with such a strange, spiritual aura.
As we sailed back at sunset, the villages which had been hiding behind fronds of bamboo, looking uncannily like huge clumps of Prince of Wales feathers, spat their inhabitants into the river. A naked child staggered around in the water on stilts, yelling with laughter. The whole time I was in Laos, I saw only two shop-bought toys - an exceptionally grubby doll and a gun - and the children always improvised. They used beer-bottle tops for draughts, carved rickety spinning tops of the sort you see illustrating Victorian nursery rhymes, they tied bits of string together for skipping, and floated down the Khan in rubber tyres. Girls sliced silvery peanut packets into the finest confetti and sprinkled it on each other's hair; in the middle of the white-hot afternoons, when the children came out of school, some of their heads glittered like Wat Xieng Thong.
You could spend weeks in a happy trance in Luang Prabang, visiting the Kwang Xi waterfalls set in a Christmas glade of poinsettias, buying silk shawls at the weaving village of Ban Phanom, or even admiring the moon rock which Richard Nixon presented to the last king and queen in 1972, and which sits in the palace museum. But one morning, I dragged myself away and flew back, in a Lao Aviation fog, to Vientiane, a low-slung, dusty city around which Mr Khoun, a taxi driver at the airport, told me he'd spent the day driving an elderly American.
This was a genteel hint that if I wanted a similar service, Mr Khoun was ready to oblige. But I was curious about the American man whom, Mr Khoun said, was about 70. 'He was here before,' he explained, with a grin. 'As a pilot.' We exchanged glances. I said, 'You mean he was checking up on what he'd bombed?' Mr Khoun cried, 'Yes!' and began slapping his steering wheel with glee, tickled by history's terrific joke.
That wasn't the best joke in Vientiane, however. I laughed when I tried to send a telegram to Ireland and the man in the post office insisted, politely, that I meant Iran (he had never heard of Ireland). I laughed, in a different sort of way, when I paid a visit to the Sacre Coeur, the only Catholic Church in Vientiane, and a student priest told me that after the 1975 Revolution the city's other Catholic churches were converted to police stations. And Pha That Luang, rebuilt in the early part of this century, and Laos' national monument, looks like a gilded missile silo. That was worth a moment of wry reflection.
But the prize for absurdity is awarded to Buddha Park, 25 kilometres from Vientiane, just past the Friendship Bridge to Thailand, and a must for connoisseurs of kitsch. It was built in 1958 by a man called Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, who wanted to merge Hindu and Buddhist teachings. So he commissioned a set of cement sculptures embracing all deities which are, truly, a sight to behold. There are massive grotesqueries plonked all over the place, writhing and leering and smirking, rather like in our own Tiger Balm Gardens. My favourite was a huge statue bearing a prostrate, buxom female which resembled a cover of one of those faintly titillating science-fiction books (They Kidnapped Our Maidens!!!) popular - and this may not be a coincidence - in the 1950s.
That evening, it was New Year's Eve. Vientiane is not exactly a rip-roaring metropolis but a group of us went out to celebrate; the food in Laos, incidentally, is excellent, a combination of French- and Thai-style cuisines. Even with the best party spirit in the world, however, everyone had still turned in by 11 pm. At midnight, there was a faint crackling noise. I glanced out of the window and saw two fireworks light up the sky. They heralded the arrival of a new year. Then everything fell silent, and the city went back to sleep.