Flying across Australia is vast, and mostly brown, save for that initial stretch along the coast with endless sandy beaches and a sea stretching to the horizon. The contrast to the tiny mountain kingdom of Laos could not be greater.
This is a land where green mountains rise to the sky, their impossibly steep sides covered with verdant jungle, their valleys hidden by mist. Small patches of cultivation bravely defy the encroaching forest. Rivers and lakes twinkle in the distance. Little wonder then, that in 1353 Fa Ngum returned to Luang Prabang from exile at the Khmer capital of Angkor to establish his kingdom Lan Xang Hom Khao – The Kingdom of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol.
A shout stopped me halfway along the street. Behind me, on his bike, was the concierge from the ryokan; he had pedalled after me, worried I would get lost.
With family in tow, I was following his suggestions for breakfast. Considering the language barrier, he’d given remarkably precise directions, complete with a hand-drawn map – yet still he worried we might lose our way, and kept weaving his way behind us until we reached the restaurant safely. Then, with a smile and wave, he rode away, if not quite into the sunset, at least to be swallowed by the crowds.
Along with the map, the concierge had also written some suggestions – in Japanese – which I handed to the waitress. With a bow she led the four of us over to the ubiquitous vending machine and pressed a selection of buttons. Out came not a meal, but brass-coloured tokens. The waitress ushered us to our chairs with another bow, then disappeared into the kitchen with the tokens. Soon the meals appeared, steaming bowls with variations of noodles and vegetables – and mine with a raw egg cracked on top. I always seemed to get the meal with the raw egg – but then, there is little I won’t eat, at least once.
Both St Francis and his horse had their heads bowed. The metal of the statue felt cool beneath my hand. In the square below tourists arrived by the busload outside the Basilica Of St Francis, and the Franciscan friars charged with guiding the tours struggled to keep their herds together.
The grass around me shivered. Although St Francis was hearing the voice of God telling him to leave the Saracen war and return home, the sculpture could easily reflect the saint’s thoughts on seeing the chaos below him, so far removed from the Franciscan ideal.
Every day I ventured down to a little supermarket on the Île St Louis. I never left empty-handed: a smoked chicken, some quail, or perhaps some cheese; yoghurt in its own ceramic pot, a bottle of red. Consisting of two aisles barely wide enough for two people to pass the place could hardly be classified as a supermarket, yet it was not a corner store, for in that small shop lay a wealth of offerings to put any supermarket to shame. The shop was simply the essence of the Île St Louis.
Paris is a city for walking. After visiting Notre Dame – and the delightful playground in the square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral – stroll over the Pont St-Louis to the Île St Louis. (First take a brief detour to see the love-locks decorating the Pont de l’Archevêché. They keep returning, no matter how often the council removes them.) Once a swamp, the Île St Louis is now Paris’ most desired address. Known by the rest of Paris as ‘Louisiens’, many of the inhabitants rarely leave the island, not even to shop or do their banking. More ancient than the rest of Paris, many believe the island to be haunted – plus it boasts Paris’ best sorbet.