During colonial times, the French were bewitched by Indochine. Today, its component nations — Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos —continue to cast a powerful spell. Linked by the 2,700-mile-long Mekong River, the three countries are now at varying stages of development. Vietnam and Cambodia are being rapidly transformed, but Laos still offers the experience of a traditional Asian society.
En route to Luang Prabang, a lovely place of some 50,000 inhabitants in northcentral Laos, I couldn’t help but feel apprehensive. Within the last decade, the once- sleepy royal city has received extensive international publicity. So could its serene and languorous atmosphere, augmented by dozens of Buddhist temples, have survived the exponential increase in visitor numbers? As we waited for our luggage at the tiny airport — currently in the midst of a major expansion — a glossy advertisement for a new golf course caught my eye.
The most enduring memory of my previous trip was that of standing beside the road in the early dawn, holding small bundles of warm rice wrapped in banana leaves. A shaven-headed monk emerged from the mist, carrying a begging bowl. He proved to be the first of many, and saffron-robed figures continued to file past for almost 45 minutes. Having collected their alms, they returned to their temples for another day of study and meditation.
As a result of Luang Prabang’s newfound popularity, many old French colonial properties are being redeveloped as hotels. Surrounded by imposing whitewashed walls, the 23-suite Hotel de la Paix was once a governor’s residence and prison. Initially, the building struck us as rather forbidding, but stepping inside, we discovered that the ramparts now protect poolside sunbathers from the public eye. The renovation by Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag entailed a complete reconstruction of the colonial complex, which is centered on beautifully tended gardens and watercourses. To respect Luang Prabang’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, conspicuous efforts were made to save existing trees, as well as to preserve the original walls and roof tiles. A new wing, built in traditional Lao style, houses the restaurant, spa and cooking school.
Although polite, the young men at the front desk lacked a degree of professional polish, and our first impression of the property was that a more engaged general manager is needed to elevate the service to a higher plane. After check-in, a bellhop wordlessly escorted us to our spacious Pool Suite. This had glazed tile floors, a cathedral ceiling, a canvas-covered sofa and a four-poster bed draped with mosquito nets, which were decorative but too small to be practical. The bath was equipped with a single vanity, plus an open-air tub and shower. French doors led to a lovely terrace, a private garden and a 25- foot black-tiled plunge pool. Tired after the journey, we decided to take a restorative nap before dinner. Alas, we were rudely awakened by a phone call from reception to see whether we needed turndown service — it was only 6:30 p.m. — a query presumably provoked by the “Do Not Disturb” card we had hung on our door!
Dinner in the courtyard was memorable more for the setting than it was for the food, which, apart from a delicious Laotian fried-rice salad, was unremarkable. The wine list, however, was surprisingly good, with an excellent bottle of Viognier for $37 (all prices here are posted in both dollars and Lao kip, but are billed in dollars). Treatments at the Spa Indochine were professional and sensibly priced.
Many of our fellow guests seemed to have opted for Hotel de la Paix under the impression that it offered good value compared with the hefty rates at some of the city’s other resorts. Unfortunately, at breakfast on our final morning, the general manager could be heard loudly discussing the gulf between his rack rates and the special discounted ones. Judging by their expressions, several people had just learned that they’d paid far more than was necessary.
Hotel de la Paix 87 Garden Double Suite, from $310; Pool Double Suite, from $425.
Although I am a long-standing admirer of the Amanresorts properties, I have to admit that some are better than others. Amantaka, however, is a wonderful distillation of everything there is to love about Luang Prabang, especially the city’s delectable atmosphere of monastic calm. Created from a former French colonial hospital, the low-rise 24-suite complex is located close to the Mekong and the Royal Palace, and is fronted by an immaculate lawn dotted with flame trees.
Arriving early in the day, we were greeted by the amiable Australian general manager, Gary Tyson, and invited to have tea or coffee in the lounge while formalities were completed. Our Pool Suite was ready at 10 a.m., and we fell in love the moment we stepped through the door, the accommodations embodying all of the romance of colonial Indochine while providing the full gamut of modern comforts. A teak four-poster bed and woven-cane armchairs with raw-silk pillows were set on a taupe-colored tile floor; a spectacular vase was filled with huge white chrysanthemums; whitewashed walls were hung with black-and-white photographs of Buddhist monks; and windows with louvered shutters summoned up the ghosts of the colonial past. The enormous bath came with two vanities, plus a huge stall shower and a soaking tub that overlooked the plunge pool and garden.
After an afternoon of sightseeing, we returned to the hotel for chilled tamarind juice and freshly baked lemon tarts in the library. I then paid a visit to the spa, opting for the signature Amantaka treatment. Four contrasting massage oils were followed by a blissful body wrap, during which I was slathered with lemongrass and white clay and swathed in white cotton. It was perhaps the most enjoyable spa treatment I’ve ever had.
One of the consistent pleasures of Amanresorts properties is the quality of their cultural programs. Our stay at Amantaka included a night with a full moon, and we were advised to attend a traditional puppetry performance staged on the grounds of the Wat Pak Khan, a small temple situated at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers. Dramas performed with handmade rod-puppets known as ipok were part of the traditional ceremony of the Laotian royal court. Although not well-versed in Laotian folklore, I found the experience completely magical. Connoisseurs in the crowd were excited to see rare performances of the Nang Keo and Demon dances and the Thao Phutthasaen folktale, but for me, just being with the endlessly hospitable Laotians was sufficient pleasure.
After the performance, we enjoyed an agreeable dinner at the hotel. Overall, we found the food at Amantaka to be somewhat unimaginative and overpriced, and in general, the resort is extremely expensive, with the loftiest rates in Luang Prabang. But ultimately, it is worth the extravagance.
Amantaka 94 Suite, $800; Pool Suite, $1,000; Mekong Pool Suite, $1,500.
Those in search of a more reasonably priced alternative should consider La Residence Phou Vao, an Orient- Express property of some distinction. Located a five- minute drive from the Old Town, the tranquil 34-room resort is surrounded by three acres of tropical gardens on a hillside overlooking an idyllic landscape of wooded hills. The spacious, air-conditioned lodgings are decorated with simple elegance in a traditional style and come with private terraces or balconies. Large baths provide double sinks and free-form terrazzo tubs. The fine Phou Savanh restaurant serves inventive French dishes with Laotian accents, while other amenities include a glorious infinity pool, plus a spa with traditional pavilions, as well as open-air treatment areas.
La Residence Phou Vao 91 Mountain View Junior Suite, $350; Phou Vao Garden Suite, $440.
At the end of a blissful week, we concluded that despite recent developments, Luang Prabang remains fundamentally unspoiled — at least for now. The soothing atmosphere of Buddhist contemplation has survived intact, as has the languorous aura of old French Indochine.
Compared with clamorous bangkok, where a dozen skyscrapers seem to mushroom from the ground every night, Vientiane is a step back in time. Though the Laotian capital’s airport is modern and efficient, treetops still define its skyline. The city was first recommended to me by a retired CIA officer during a cooking class at the Hotel Metropole in Hanoi. While chopping lemongrass and splashing fish sauce into our woks, I mentioned that I regretted how quickly Saigon had changed during the previous 20 years. “You must try Vientiane,” he told me. “It’s one of the few Asian cities that hasn’t gone all American Sun Belt modern. It’s still a small French colonial place, with broad avenues, baguettes and some terrific restaurants.”
Until recently, it wasn’t especially easy to add Vientiane to an Asian itinerary, but in the end, I contrived a visit and found myself captivated by this slow-paced city with its relaxing atmosphere of tropical torpor. The principal sights merit a stay of two or three days. You’ll find your own way to all of the wonderful wats (Buddhist temples), but one place you might overlook is the Lao National Museum. Faded though it may be, this is well worth a visit, both for the magnificent archaeological finds on display and the time-capsule quality of its Marxist presentation of Laotian history. (Exhibits include the socks worn by Politburo members when they escaped from prison, as well as a photo display of the comrades of the 7th Plenary Session of the Laos People’s Congress inspecting fertilizer production facilities.) If you do a little exploring on foot, Vientiane is full of intriguing surprises. For example, wandering down a side street one day, I noticed women working on looms in the garden of a colonial villa. Stopping by, I admired the beautiful handwoven silks on sale and soon fell into conversation with the delightful Carol Cassidy, a native of Woodbury, Connecticut, who has passions for silk, hand-weaving and helping needy Laotian women to earn a living. Though Cassidy was much too modest to have mentioned it, I subsequently discovered that fabrics made by her company, Lao Textiles, feature in the décors of renowned interior designers such as Peter Marino, who styles many of the Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Armani boutiques.
My favorite place to stay in Vientiane remains the Settha Palace, a 1932 French colonial villa converted into a 26-room hotel, which sits amid lush gardens planted with coconut palms and rubber trees. The property is conveniently located just 10 minutes’ walk from the principal shopping and restaurant district. The real trump card of the hotel, however, is its delightful pool, a shady spot in which to cool off after sightseeing. My Executive Suite came with a four-poster bed, ceiling fans, teak floors covered with Oriental carpets and a plump sofa. Satellite television and Wi-Fi are standard in all room categories. The gracious La Belle Epoque restaurant serves both classical French and seasonal Laotian cuisine.
Though the Settha Palace is a hospitable and relaxing hotel, the service could use a little fine-tuning.
Settha Palace 90 Junior Suite, $380; Executive Suite, $480.
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