When Lay Inthavong was growing up in the Lao capital Vientiane in the late 1970s and early 1980s she remembers a friend of the family who was so well off they had a bicycle. Life was quiet, cars were few and foreign tourists were unheard of.
Today Lay runs Thongbay, a successful guesthouse in Luang Prabang, with her Swiss husband Phillip. The guesthouse picks up Australian (and French and German) travellers like us from the airport in a minibus and runs them the short trip into town a few times a day. Lay greets and chats with guests in English, always smiling. The guesthouse even has a few bicycles of its own.
Thongbay Guesthouse started in the late 1990s when Lay’s older sister and her French husband, noticing the trickle of tourists starting to come to Laos, bought some land on the banks of the Nam Kha out of Luang Prabang and started building the first of what would eventually become 16 small Lao-style thatched bungalows. In 1999 Lay, another sister and Lay’s seven-year-old daughter Tik moved up to Luang Prabang – the longest journey they’d ever made – to help run Thongbay when it opened. Lay spoke no English and had no experience. When the first bungalows were finished and the place opened she remembers her first English words – “ten dollars”, to be told to anyone who came to enquire.
Things were slow for the first couple of years until a tour guide from Intrepid Travel heard about Thongbay and spent her night off there. She was impressed and suggested to her boss that Intrepid bring small groups to stay – which they have done twice a week since 2001.
Lay soon began to learn English from her visitors and took advice from Intrepid guides and travellers on how to improve Thongbay’s service, food and overall experience. It shows, as Thongbay is a wonderfully friendly, relaxed place to stay.
Around this time she also met Phillip who came as a guest and loved Thongbay and Luang Prabang, returning more regularly. Phillip and Lay hit it off and were married (after what sounds like several miles of Lao government red tape).In 2005 Phillip and Lay took over the guesthouse and Lay’s sisters moved on. Each year Phillip and Lay and young son Pascal spend some time in Switzerland and when they do this Lay’s uncle and aunt run the place in their absence.
There’s a small but wonderful group of employees who help run Thongbay. We stayed for six nights and felt sure that the staff – friendly and funny manager Thy, the elegant young ladies who brought us beautiful breakfasts, the fantastic minibus driver – were all Lay’s relatives. When I finally asked it turned out they’re not but it really feels like they’re all part of a family – many of the staff live at the guesthouse. (This warm friendly environment is one of the reasons Thongbay is such a great place to stay. When we left we were given gifts and everyone who works there came and waved us off – it was genuinely touching).
While Lay’s story is an illustration of the massive changes Laos has seen in the past 30 years, Thongbay Guesthouse’s shows the changes in Luang Prabang in the last decade.
When the guesthouse first opened there was nothing between it and the main town of Luang Prabang – now the road between is lined with shops and buildings. Along the river around Thongbay there are another 30 guesthouses being built across the river and upstream a large bar has been built which plays karaoke. The main part of Luang Prabang is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site which places strict limits on development but sprawling around this is a proliferation of more guesthouses in various stages of development and shops selling food, timber, building materials and motorbikes. A larger runway is under construction at Laung Prabang’s airport.
There are undoubted benefits to tourism in Luang Prabang and it would be ridiculous – not to mention hypocritical, after visiting as a tourist myself – to suggest this should stop. From my short time there it seems the challenge facing the town – like many others – is to share and celebrate its charms, to accommodate tourists but also to work to keep the unique, wonderful charm that attracts them there in first place by not going overboard and getting too big.
Thongbay Guesthouse, I think, is a great example of this balance. Lay and Phillip say they’ve been tempted to expand – buy up some surrounding land perhaps, or open a second guesthouse or a restaurant in town – but have decided to stick with, keep working on and appreciate their little oasis. I feel lucky to have shared this for a small time and hope to be able to do so again one day.