The Remains of the Day
The Settha Palace Hotel is one of two legendary hotels in Vientiane, the other being the Lane Xang Hotel, built in the 1960s by the Russians, and famous for having played host to Beat author Hunter S. Thompson in the 70s when he fled Saigon in the aftermath of the Fall. The Settha Palace is the much older and grander hotel of the two, having been built in 1932 in the era of the Grand Tour and having somehow miraculously survived the tumultuous history of the region. The hotel is named after the street it sits on – Thanon Setthathirat – which in turn is named after Lao King Setthathirat, who reigned over the kingdom of Lane Xang at its capital, Luang Prabang from 1548 – 1571. Evoking a turn of the century country estate owned by members of the European gentry, the hotel has always been a family-owned institution, even today. Having fled the city during the Communist takeover in 1975, the family were welcomed back in the early 1990s when conditions had loosened up. After extensive conservation and renovations efforts, the Settha Palace reopened its doors in 1999 as a boutique hotel, looking not unlike its distant cousin, the Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh.
Being one of the least known of the grand hotels in one of the least known of Southeast Asia’s capital cities (bar Dili, in East Timor), the hotel was rather a challenge to get to. For starters, only one airline – the Lao national carrier – plied the Singapore-Vientiane route, and this route being sparsely plied, the price of the air ticket was rather exorbitant for the quality of service. Reserving a room at the Settha Palace was also inconvenient, with me having to fill in a reservation form that was hard to understand and required a long distance telephone conversation to clarify. Finally, when I got into Vientiane airport, my driver was nowhere to be seen, and I had to call the front desk again (on my Singapore mobile) and get them to persuade the driver that it was quite possibly time to hold up the placard with my name on it (twenty minutes after I arrived). Once he did show up, however, bundling me into the hotel’s vehicle – a rickety old London cab with barely functioning air conditioning and left-hand drive – all that inconvenience was forgiven and I gave myself over to the quirky and at times humorous period environment I was enveloped in.
As I had arrived past 11 p.m. at night, the hotel bar had already closed, and I had not sufficiently familiarized myself with the immediate environment to brave heading out alone to the bars that supposedly were in the vicinity. Instead, I spend the rest of the evening in my room – an exquisite Junior Suite on the second floor of the hotel, overlooking the front entrance. For the first time on my Grand Tour, I had a four poster bed, which was charming, old-school touch, even if posters were merely decorative elements today, serving to remind one of those days, barely fifty years ago, when there had been no air-conditioning, and mosquito nets (hanging from posters) were de rigueur.
This being my seventh hotel on the tour, I had to admit that everything within my hotel rooms were beginning to look rather same-y, revealing, to my mind, a significant degree of cross-referencing that must take place between these grand colonial hotels in the process of their refurbishment, most of which took place in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. As it was, my room in the Settha Palace reminded me most of all, of the décor in the Sarkies-signed Grand hotels in Asia – the E & O, the Majapahit and the Raffles, by virtue, in particular, of its art deco bathroom, with black and white marble tiles and mahogany wood paneling. That evening, I slipped into a soothing bath in the (too-shallow) bathtub, had a nightcap from the minibar and slipped into the exceedingly comfortable bed for an early night.
Far from the Madding Crowd
The next morning at breakfast, a scrumptious American-style buffet was laid out and I experienced first-hand, the hotel’s friendly but rather inadequate level of service, hampered in no small part, by language. The very young waiter at the restaurant was warm enough, in an awkward and gangly sort of way – which on its own was rather a quaint colonial touch – but he was unable to understand me when I made a simple request for a “hard-boiled egg,” even after I described in meticulous detail, how a “hard-boiled egg” was cooked. “You mean fried egg, sir?” he ventured, tentatively, having still not understood what it was I wanted, and I resigned myself, instead, to a fried egg, “sunny-side up” – pointing to the picture of an egg, sunny-side up, that sat on the table. The yolk, I have to add, was not in the least runny, as I had desired.
As I leisurely took in breakfast, I peered out the windows of the hotel restaurant to see what lay immediately across the street. It was an intriguingly mix of residential settlements – chiefly an entire block of 1960s four-storey art deco apartments, housing on the ground floor a couple of tailors, local food places and a local karaoke bar; and alongside it, a disused colonial warehouse compound that had been re-colonised by an informal settlement. As I sipped at my cup of coffee, I spied, just beyond the hotel’s outdoor seating area – which, incidentally, I never once saw anyone seated at – residents of the informal settlement firing up impromptu stoves and barbecue pits, setting up shop in what appeared to be a makeshift food market. I would walk by later in the day to see what it was exactly they were cooking up and I found it to be rather unappetizing bits of skewered meat and vegetables, and the ubiquitous Lao pho, which is their version of the Vietnamese staple. Dozens of locals would stop by on their motorcycles for snacks and bits of chatter, all the while completely ignoring the fact that a luxury hotel – and a whole different universe – sat just there, across the street from where they were blithely discoursing in almost-squalour.
Therein lay, for me, the central conundrum of luxury tourism in third world regions: how does the population of such regions, cognisant of the neo-colonial double standards in protection of economic and political rights, simply remain complicitly oblivious to symbols of this double standard – like the Settha Palace and all the other Grand Hotels I had been to? I found it mind-boggling that the populace didn’t simply storm the hotel, raping and pillaging hapless terrified guests, in some fantasy recreation of a scene from a post-colonial epic novel. Security at the hotel certainly didn’t seem very reassuring, and the hotel itself was completely permeable. These apocalyptic thoughts ran through my head as I lazed (hypocritically) on a deck chair by the side of the hotel’s pool – a beautiful free-form piece of resort architecture, totally restful, but completely, double-standardly, out of place. As I dozed off, I saw a last fleeting image of myself, floating face-down in the water, after having been raped and pillaged by the madding crowd.
I awoke a couple of hours later to find myself safe and sound, and in time to freshen up and head to the bar for an aperitif. Dinner that night was at the hotel restaurant – La Belle Epoque – arguably the best restaurant in the city, and its only formal restaurant. Men had to be dressed in a long sleeve shirt, long pants and shoes; and for the first time on my trip, I found myself have to pack a slightly larger suitcase just so I could pack for the oppressively old-school dress code. At the adjoining Colonial Bar, I sunk into a divan and ordered myself the best indigenous liquor the Lao P.D.R. could offer: Beerlao. Having been multiply awarded internationally, Beerlao is the pride and joy of the Lao nation. Flavor-wise, I have to testify to a remarkably light and refreshing tanginess and zing, which, to a non-beer drinker like myself, made it somewhat akin to a very very dry spritzer. It also didn’t weigh as heavily on my head as beers do in general, and I found myself staying sufficiently alert to overhear conversations in my immediate vicinity.
To my left sat a couple of men in their ‘60s, looking not unlike Hunter S. Thompson would look if he hadn’t shot himself in the head at 48. They were spry, energetic, and very intellectual, debating the state of political affairs in Bangkok, where one of them – an American from New York – resided, and in London, where the other – visiting the region – was from. Again, fantasies ran through my mind of them having been spies in the Vietnam War era, based in Vientiane (together with Mr Thompson), and discharging secret correspondences with the CIA and British Intelligence. They certainly looked the part, one smoking a pipe, and the other dispensing with rapier-sharp comments on the lack of a credible winelist in the bar. Later on, I would find out in conversation with them that they had both been business consultants and had hopped over from Bangkok for the weekend just for a change in environment. But at that moment in time, before dinner at La Belle Epoque, and starved of conversation, I fancied myself on the brink of being swept off into an international saga of espionage and murder, one from which I would emerge, hardened and eager to recount my tale.
The Incredible Lightness of Being
What I found most memorable at the Settha Palace Hotel that weekend was the light, and the quality of the light that shone through the building. In the mornings, when I stepped out of my room, I would marvel at the sunlight streaming through the vertical panes of glass installed in the art deco-style stairway leading from the second to the first floor. To my right, just before I descended, would be a semi-dark corridor illuminated at the end, by a door that let out and down into the courtyard pool of the hotel. While dimly lit by the sun, the space within the hotel was never claustrophobic, but on the contrary, felt airy and expansive, contributing to a lightness of mood that myself, and I’m sure, other guests that weekend experienced. It was a pleasant feeling of floating along in a timeless and nameless space, alleviating all the pent-up emotions of a long week negotiating office politics and population congestion in Singapore.
This incredible lightness of being translated into other parts of the hotel, most notably the hotel lobby and the Colonial Bar, which, under the cover of night had seemed rather oppressive and funereal, but in broad daylight, completely opened up to become warm, convivial and welcoming spaces, even if they were, largely deserted in the day that weekend. The atmosphere within my room too, felt immensely more homely and comforting in the day, with the sheets endearingly tousled and my things strewn somewhat carelessly all over the living area. Sitting on the settee, looking through the shots I had taken all weekend, it took a leap of imagination for me to remember that I wasn’t a long-staying guest at this hotel; that I hadn’t already been here for six months and I was due, that very day, to take a return flight home to Singapore.
What? Leave all this for the daily grind? It was a heart-wrenching thought, and I tried to keep it at bay as long as possible by pottering around the room, making myself a pot of coffee, dashing off a letter to a friend at my study desk, and peering out through the windows to observe the day’s comings and goings. Again, it felt to me like this really was my home, for the time being, and I was merely play-acting at being somebody else in Singapore, just like I had been play-acting at revolution and espionage all weekend.
To console myself, I ordered a spot of in-room lunch from the excellent La Belle Epoque restaurant, which served French and Laotian specialties. I opted for the Larb Kai, a typical Laotian specialty consisting of minced chicken marinated and cooked with a variety of herbs, in particular, mint and basil. The chicken went with Khao Neow, or glutinous rice served in a rattan basket canister. The Larb was excellent – a dizzying mix of flavours and textures unique to Laos and nowhere else. The Khao Neow added to that complexity of flavours and textures, and it also being my favorite staple of all time, provided a fitting end to my short return-tip to Vientiane. I had first tried Khao Neow ten years ago on my first visit to Vientiane and I fell in love with it. If there was anything that would take me back to Vientiane again, it would be this delightfully sticky, simple yet satisfying part of the city’s heritage and everyday life.
* * * * *
Grant Evans, 2003. A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between. Allen & Unwin.
Martin Stuart Fox, 1997. A History of Laos. Cambridge University Press.
Hunter S. Thompson, 1990. “Checking into the Lane Xang,” from: Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream, Gonzo Papers III. Simon & Schuster.
 “Legendary” is relative of course, since Vientiane itself was hardly a must-do stopover on the Grand Tour.
 As the London Cab eased up along the parking gantry, my driver grumbled audibly, slid out of the left-hand drive car and trooped over to the other side of the cab to slip his parking ticket into the machine – because Vientiane, of course, being an ex-French colony, was on a right-hand drive system. I couldn’t stop laughing.