The absence of chaos at Wattay Airport is my first clue that Vientiane has changed in the past two years. Outside, the streets are just as dusty, and the sound of the tuk tuks, local three-wheeled taxis, still rattles my bones. But I'm startled to see the Morning Market - where Hmong traders and silk weavers hawk their wares - rouged up with escalators and renamed the Talatsao Shopping Mall. And there is now a bona fide boutique hotel at the quiet end of town.
But the most appealing change is a crop of stylish new spas, posh renditions of the storefront massage parlours that are so common here.
Massage has always been a good reflection of the Lao state of mind. In what may be Southeast Asia's most relaxed country, people like to joke that the initials PDR stand both for People's Democratic Republic and Please Don't Rush. Here, massage is a form of cultural immersion.
As ecolodges bloom in the countryside and the country's infrastructure improves, tourism has been rising all over Laos, bringing more short-term visitors to Vientiane. Today, well-decorated new spas with English menus and massage chairs draped in luminous fabrics appeal to foreign non-governmental workers and travellers.
And this season, Laos may see an increase in Western visitors. After thousands of tourists in Thailand were trapped for more than a week when protesters shut down the country's main airports, visitors may be seeking a calmer destination in the region. "Laos may see some benefit [from]visitors who are interested in Indochina and don't mind skipping Thailand," says Mahmood Poonja, owner of Bestway Tours & Safaris in Burnaby, B.C.
Lao massage was born in the countryside as a homespun antidote to the aches of mountainside farming, with techniques handed down from grandmother to granddaughter. Like the neighbouring Thais, Lao practitioners press the body's sen lines, linked to acupuncture, and stretch limbs into yoga-like positions.
But some practices are unique to Laos. "In the massage called jahp sen, which loosely translates as 'plucking tendons,' " says American expatriate Bill Tuffin, owner of the Boat Landing ecolodge in northern Luang Namtha province, "they pluck the muscles like guitar strings."
Long-time expat residents may be happy visiting bare-bones massage parlours, but newer visitors are drawn to opulent spas such as Champa Lao Spa, whose tapestried walls and statue-lined corridors evoke a royal residence.
Although it is more expensive than the simpler spots, its prices - at about $7.50 for an hour of back pummelling, scalp-kneading and limb-pulling - seem to be missing a zero when compared with even the least expensive places at home.Equally lavish is Adina Spa, in a graceful villa 10 minutes from the city centre. There, massive doors swing open onto a scene out of Lao myth. Gilded statues shimmer in the sun, surrounded by flower-scented treatment rooms and a tangle of gardens. It has high-tech Guinot TechniSPA equipment from Paris, and simple Lao treatments such as body scrubs with chocolate and seaweed.
Mandarina Spa is an unfussy alternative in Vientiane's most intriguing retail area, Samsenthai Street. A foot massage in a silk-draped chair is the ideal coda to a few hours poking through Hmong silver jewellery, vintage textiles and collections from under-the-radar local designers.
Even with dressy new establishments cropping up around town, the empress of Vientiane spas remains Papaya Spa, run by French expat Jean-Louis Couderc and his wife, Vinh. On a tree-lined road off the Mekong, in a colonial mansion where the melodies of French crooners waft through rooms filled with intricate Lao antiques, Papaya has the air of Old Indochine. From the riot of orange flowers, ilang ilang and mint at the gates, Vinh plucks leaves and blossoms for her facial potions and body scrubs. And, in a throwback to days when travellers arrived with steamer trunks, treatments can last four, five, sometimes six hours, punctuated by cups of aromatic tea, herbal steam and dips in flower-scented pools.
"Customers linger so long they become friends," Couderc says. Indeed, my first visit continued well after the massage ended, with an extended tour of his favourite French cafés and out-of-the-way temples.
To accommodate these newcomers, Jean-Louis and Vinh have also opened the modest Papaya Spa Lane Xang outside the Morning Market. On daybeds under bamboo lanterns, shoppers rejuvenate with versions of Papaya's Lao and foot massage at about half the price of the mansion location.
Yet the touchstone of the Lao spa experience is still the rustic steam sheds that dot the countryside, often nothing more than a few planks over a cauldron of boiling water infused with kaffir lime, camphor bark, lemon grass and eucalyptus. In this rural nation, the nearest one is an easy four-kilometre tuk tuk ride southeast of the capital at the forest temple Wat Sok Pa Luang. Here, a massage under the banana trees offers a spiritual detox that is hard to find anywhere, even in a tranquil city like Vientiane.
Pack your bags
Cathay Pacific and Vietnam
Airlines fly to Vientiane through Asian hubs.
CHAMPA HEALTH SPA Corner of Fangum and Pangkham Roads; 856 (21) 251926. ADINA SPA 158 Phonesaath Road; 856 (21) 414138.
L.V. CITY MASSAGE AND BEAUTY 149 T2 Rd., Sikhottabong District; 856 (30) 5256699.
MANDARINA SPA 101-3 Samsenthai Rd.; 856 (21) 223857.
PAPAYA SPA Facing Xieng Veh temple; 856 (21) 216550; http://www.papayaspa.com. .
WAT SOK PA LUANG Sokpaluang Road. 856 (21) 212248.
TOURISM ADMINISTRaTION http://www.tourismlaos.gov.la.