In all humility I offer my top-ten list for 2017 – the ten places outside the UK where I would most like to spend a month, given some control over the month in question. That is far longer than any holiday we normally take. So names on the list need to satisfy rather special criteria – “best bars”, “cool stupas” or “empty beaches” are not enough to keep body, mind and soul together for 30 days and 30 nights. There needs to be a variety of attractions, and they need to bear repeating.
After much soul-searching here is my list – in strict alphabetical order! Aix-en-Provence; Barcelona; Bodrum; Buenos Aires; Cape Town; Lecce; Luang Prabang; Sausalito; the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania; and Vancouver.
Some of them (Barcelona; Buenos Aires; Cape Town; and Vancouver) are vibrant cities that need little explanation, and Sausalito is sort of shorthand for San Francisco, across the bay. Aix, Bodrum and Lecce are each bases for exploring wider regions – Provence, Caria and Puglia, respectively – regions that have history oozing from every sod, vines growing on almost every street corner, and more than a month’s supply of half-decent restaurants.
So that leaves the Selous Game Reserve and Luang Prabang as the outsiders. Though short on vines and history, they have other attractions for the long-term visitor. Selous allows no permanent human habitation inside its 45,000 square kilometres. That gives the visitor a humbling sense of how absolutely fabulous our planet could have been without us.
Sadly, the reserve has suffered greatly in recent years from elephant poachers out to feed our insane love for the pachyderm’s tusks. One can hope that with tighter rules on the ivory trade, the rapid decline in the elephant population may now be reversed.
Luang Prabang is a gentle place, the second city of Laos, a country that claims to be “the most bombed in the world” (albeit per head of population, and it’s a small population). Nevertheless, from 1964 to 1973, during the Vietnam War, more than two million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos by the Americans – the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24-hours a day, for nine years. In the markets of Luang Prabang today, young girls from outlying villages sell cutlery and plates moulded from shells that were dropped on their homes more than a generation ago.
Yet the town has retained its oriental charm and modesty, with a hint of French sophistication. While Vietnam tore itself apart with its civil war; Cambodia with its traumatising self-genocide; and Thailand with its shabby worship of sex and mammon, Laos managed to remain a still point in the violently turning world around it.
I have already stayed in the hotel I shall return to if I do get to go back for a month. Satri House was built over a hundred years ago and became the residence of Prince Souphanouvong, a former president of Laos known as “the Red Prince”. He spoke eight languages and claimed to have learnt about communism while working on the docks in Le Havre. A leading figure in the communist Pathet Lao, the prince had exquisite taste. His house is a showpiece of fine Laotian craftsmanship – carved hardwoods, embroidered fabrics and stylish artefacts in every room.
There are some good restaurants in town. We tried the Tamarind, where I had a bony dish of spicy frogs’ legs, and the Coconut Garden where there was an elaborate show of local dancing. There are plenty of lovely places for lunch too, several of them overhanging the Mekong River which snakes its murky way along one side of town. (Check out how high it has risen on occasions – terrifying!)
I’m not a great fan of waterfalls. I haven’t seen Niagara or Victoria or the Angel Falls. So the prospect of a trip to the Kuang Si waterfall, outside Luang Prabang, did not get my pulse racing. Until I saw it (see photo above). It tumbles through the forest, a blue and white froth passing over limestone rocks, a bit like the better known Pamukkale (“cotton castle”) falls in western Turkey. But I have always thought Pamukkale looks in need of a good scrub. Not so Kuang Si. Its colours are un-improvable. Go there…