Tried Thailand? Already visited Vietnam? If you’re looking for somewhere new to explore in Asia, head over to Laos. The country’s ancient royal capital, Luang Prabang, celebrates 20 years of World Heritage listing this December, making it a great time to take in the charms of historic temples, traditional cuisine and handicrafts and natural wonders – or just relax and watch time go by. Here’s how to see the city in style.
Luang Prabang View Hotel: On a hilltop surrounded by rice fields and mountain ranges, the Luang Prabang View Hotel has hosted UNESCO delegates and international conferences, but it’s not just for business travellers. Its location overlooking the city makes it a retreat for those who appreciate peace and quiet, with bathtubs for in-room relaxation and a spa open until 10pm (we recommend a before-bed massage for a night of deep sleep). Watch the mist lift from the mountains over breakfast in the Som View Restaurant, and enjoy other meals and drinks in the Café Bar and Sky Lounge surrounded by frangipani trees and greenery – even the property’s roofs are planted with lush lawn. The hotel’s crowning glory is literally that: at the top of the property, the huge pool and its bar service is popular not only with guests but with locals too. For $10 non-guests get a free drink and can swim and enjoy snacks – and the stunning 360-degree view.
Maison Souvannaphoum: Formerly the Luang Prabang home of Prince Souvanna Phouma, the Maison Souvannaphoum retains its historical charm in the original building (think clawfoot bath and vast verandah in the former royal chambers) with contemporary but no less appealing styling in the 24 newer guest rooms. Its garden setting just a few minutes’ walk from the night market houses a lotus pond and adjoining yoga sala, a swimming pool, a newly planted organic vegetable garden set to supply the kitchen and a spa of considerable reputation (number one on Trip Advisor at the start of this year). But the jewel in this former regal residence’s crown is the Feast of the Prince. Served in the semi-outdoor Elephant Blanc restaurant by smiling staff, eight dishes of Lao delicacies are presented in a dragon-headed boat, giving you and a dining partner the chance to sample local fare such as catfish in red curry, fried riverweed with sesame seeds, larb and – if you still have room – a dessert plate including sticky rice with banana. Just as its name suggests, it’s a feast fit for royalty.
Maison Dalabua: At most top-name hotels, the swimming pool takes pride of place, but at the Maison Dalabua it’s tucked away to give focus to a more natural water feature – three vast ponds full of waterlilies. Protected by UNESCO, the palm tree-rimmed ponds and their floating flowers form the stunning centrepiece for the hotel, which has a variety of accommodation options in its 26 rooms. Accessed by timber boardwalks, three bungalows sit on prime pond-side real estate complete with balconies screened by reeds, while there are light, bright rooms next to the swimming pool and, in the original building, rooms that open to an internal courtyard. Lao textiles, white walls and dark timbers lend a traditional touch to guest accommodation and the on-site spa, while bathrooms are contemporary in polished concrete and metal. But the natural beauty of the ponds no doubt draws guests outdoors – with heritage-listed views of palm trees and waterlilies from the breakfast buffet or bar, who could stay inside?
Sofitel Luang Prabang: While accommodation is plentiful in Luang Prabang, the web of temples has prevented hotels in the city centre from making major structural changes or building swimming pools (bikini-clad tourists and Buddhism don’t mix!). So as a rule, contemporary luxury is located outside the main UNESCO zone of the inner city. A short walk from the central tourist district, Sofitel Luang Prabang illustrates this rule perfectly. Now painted a fresh, clean white, the one-time French governor’s mansion and correction facility is built around manicured gardens and an amethyst-tiled pool: definitely not features that prisoners enjoyed! Check-in includes a foot bath – and if that puts guests in the mood for a soak, the semi-alfresco baths in the vast, stylish suites await, along with pleasures such as the daybeds in the private gardens attached to every suite. There’s a library, a restaurant serving up local and international fare (think buffalo carpaccio and grilled Mekong fish) and a spa in a traditional Lao house on site. If this is what prison’s like, we’re ready to do time.
Belmond La Residence Phou Vao: Taking its name from the king’s love of flying kites in Luang Prabang’s outlying hills (phou=mountain, vao=kite), La Residence today offers plenty of options for similarly active guests. Archery lessons and poolside movies are just some of the free on-site activities available to guests, with guided morning runs around the city, a fitness centre and an infinity pool complete with awe-inspiring mountain views adding to the hotel’s already considerable appeal. Relaxation is covered too, with an extensive spa menu (we recommend the unique Mo Hom indigo healing massage), oversize baths and private balconies with daybeds in all guest rooms. The tranquil setting is made for romance: couples can book an intimate “500 candles” barbecue dinner in the UNESCO heritage garden. In a luxuriously private location just out of town, La Residence offers a complimentary shuttle service to the city centre, but with so much to enjoy within its grounds, you may not ever want to leave.
Luang Prabang’s food market and street vendors offer a feast for the eyes as much as the belly, and with prices for snacks as low as a few cents (a full dinner will only cost a few dollars) your budget is safe. But if you’re after a bit more style and some peace and quiet – and air con! – here are some places to try.
Khaiphaen: The newest in a series of training restaurants for marginalised youth across south-east Asia, Khaiphaen opened last year and has quickly gained acclaim for its creative take on local cuisine. Kick off a tapas-style meal with the restaurant’s namesake, khaiphaen (riverweed) with crispy tofu, choose from mains including duck miso soup and Beer Lao battered fish and chips, and satisfy sweet cravings with desserts such as cashew crusted banana fritters. You can also shop for books and cute handmade toys and bags here – proceeds go to funding programs for the less fortunate, so it doesn’t hurt to buy up big.
The 3 Nagas: Consistently praised by reviewers and part of a boutique hotel, The 3 Nagas serves up modern Lao fare in an old-style French Colonial setting (look for the 1950s Mercedes parked out the front!). Vegetarians are catered for via dishes such as the eggplant dip, while fusion fare including the buffalo marinated in coffee will appeal to meat lovers.
Luang Say Residence: To while away an afternoon in style, try tea at the Luang Say Residence. With its checkerboard floor in the foyer, plush lounge and Art Deco stylings throughout, the French Colonial style hotel is the embodiment of Indochine elegance. The daily selection of teatime treats on the balcony is part of guests’ privileges, but visitors are also welcome to take tea and drink in the old-world atmosphere and lush garden views.
Le Banneton: For casual café fare French-style, you can’t go past Le Banneton. Snack on a delicious pastry and get your caffeine fix, or fill up on something more substantial from the menu such as a goat cheese and salad platter or quiche. At the end of the tourist road towards the tip of the peninsula (46 Sakkarine Road, opposite Wat Sop), it’s a great spot to watch the world go by or catch up on fashion news from the café’s stack of international glossies.
Just like the food market, the handicraft market that sets up from about 4pm daily on the main tourist drag is a great spot for bargaining and finding gifts for a few dollars. But if you can’t wait to get shopping or if you’re after something a bit special, you might like to check out these places.
Caruso Lao: Elegance and natural beauty are the themes behind the collections at Caruso Lao, which stocks mainly home wares at its store opposite the primary school on Sakkarine Road, Luang Prabang’s main tourist thoroughfare. Here you’ll find simple but perfectly crafted items such as bowls and cutlery made from local timbers and bedspreads hand woven from silk, along with furniture and jewellery. All designed and made locally, the high quality of the work means prices are at the high end too, but it’s a must-visit if you’re looking for something special.
Ock Pop Tok: Known for its hand woven Lao textiles, this store has three branches, one of which shares a building with its sister brand Passa Paa. On the right side of Sakkarine Road just past The 3 Nagas when heading to the end of the peninsula, the shop entry is through a garden, with Passa Paa on the left and Ock Pop Tok on the right. Graphic screen printed cotton and silk is worked into scarves and leather-trimmed bags with a contemporary feel at Passa Paa, while Ock Pop Tok offers modern printed T-shirts and simple shift dresses along with its more traditionally inspired textile creations made by hill tribes.
TAEC: The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre museum is worth a visit if you’re into textiles and handicrafts. Set behind the Dara market, the museum itself is small, but there’s a shop attached selling handmade scarves, bags, and jewellery at reasonable prices. There are also unique “heirloom collection” pieces such as intricately woven silk wall hangings which showcase the skill of well respected Lao artisans and are priced accordingly. If you can’t get to the museum during opening hours, drop in to the TAEC Boutique opposite Villa Santi on the main tourist road.
Ma Te Sai: A member of Fair Trade Laos, Ma Te Sai brings together handmade goods from all over the country including woven bamboo purses and baskets, batik cushion covers and recycled paper tableware items. The various ethnic groups of Laos are well represented, with Hmong spirit dolls, TaiLeu woven goods and Oma embroidered bags just some of the products available. For a unique gift, pick up some herbal whiskey or artisan bath salts.
Couturing stayed courtesy of the hotels listed. Thanks also to Tiger Trails for their assistance.