It is almost impossible to feel stressed in this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage town. The blend of Franco-Asian history, culture and architecture, the glacial pace of life and calm of the Lao people create a retreat of an entire destination, rather than simply hotel or resort retreats. Escape for a long weekend and suddenly deadlines, pressures and plans seem blissfully far away.
It’s 6am and I’m sitting cross-legged on a cushion. I’m waiting, bamboo rice pot in front of me, to take part in tak bat, giving alms to Luang Prabang’s monks. It’s not yet fully light, the roads are empty, and the quiet, inside my sleepy mind and out in the street, is comforting. From the gloaming a dog trots into view, followed by saffron-clad monks and novices as they tread their barefoot way towards us. Curious, I want to search the faces and eyes of these men, learning calm, enlightenment, the Buddhist meaning of life, by visual osmosis. But alms etiquette demands I lower my gaze. So instead, a steady stream of alms bowls and swaying robes above bare feet pass slo-mo across my vision, and I focus on this privileged opportunity and the act of mindful giving.
I’m sitting at a pathway, set off Luang Prabang’s main street. We are the only people in sight giving alms to the groups of around 15 monks each from four nearby temples who pass by in their daily ritual. When the final string has passed we place rice on the hotel’s two pillars for the animal spirits, and then pour water on the trunk of a tree in their grounds to remember our ancestors. Giving alms brings good karma, and I head to breakfast feeling calm, content and compassionate, grateful to be in this spiritually alive town.
BELMOND LA RÉSIDENCE PHOU VAO
My first evening in Luang Prabang and I feel I’ve returned to a bygone age. The sun has dipped below the distant, hilly skyline only interrupted by the roof of the Phou Si Pagoda. The balmy air is still but for the faint breeze of the ceiling fans, and a barely audible tune from yesteryear plays. Candles flicker as staff glide by with sweating beers accompanied by cassava crisps. There’s an expectant waiting, that sundowner pause between day and dusk. The butterflies and dragonflies are retiring and geckos emerge from behind pictures and tiptoe along beams. I sink into an atmosphere of tropical peace, heavy and seductive. Dinner does nothing to break the spell, tables set up beside the pool, the menu a delicious combination of Lao and French dishes. And then I drift to sleep in my petal-strewn, majestically netted bed.
I wake the next morning and stroll around the gardens where red brick walls try to contain the lush vegetation, dark ponds sprout pink lotus flowers and soaring bamboo casts shade. In the dark turquoise pool I accompany the dragonflies dive-bombing the surface of the water, and after a few lazy laps head to breakfast poolside to eat Lao’s version of pho (noodle soup) and croissants.
The spa manager discusses the heritage of the dry Lao Traditional Massage with me, which he shares was developed by novice monks healing senior monks of their aches and pains. I head to the secluded Mekong Spa after a digestive pause, treatment villas and planter chairs overlooking the lotus pond and lap pool. I have a cup of bael tea beside the reception’s Buddha statue before being led to the treatment villa. My caring therapist’s massage echoes techniques I’ve experienced in Thailand but with less stretching and more gentleness, which releases surprising tears of pent-up fatigue and emotion. She checks at intervals to see if I’m all right, and by the end I feel as if a weight has lifted and I could sleep for a week. www.belmond.com
PREVIOUS PAGE: Tak
bat, giving alms t o
FROM LEFT: Amantaka
has transformed from a
French hospital to a luxury
abode; the secluded
Mekong Spa at Belmond
La Résidence Phou Vao;
enjoy tranquillity by the
central pool at Amantaka.
From the lofty, leafy Belmond I head (all of five minutes) downtown to Amantaka and the brand’s signature spacious perfection. The former French hospital has been beautifully cossetted into a luxury abode, its high-ceilinged buildings and breezy architecture converted into beautiful acre-sized suites with private pools, a restaurant and spa. The signature grey-green of the shutters, doors and furnishings is beautifully restful, complemented by the monochrome temple photography by local photographer Hans Georg Berger. The vast, central pool reflects the tranquillity, coming alive at night with the glow of hundreds of candles.
A river sunset cruise is a blissful way of witnessing the close of the day, and the Aman longboat putt-putts gently upstream. A glass of bubbles and plates of canapés to hand, we unobtrusively watch the panorama of life lived out on the banks of the Mekong. Lush, terraced gardens being tended in the cool of the evening, monks trace a steep meandering path for a refreshing dip, a waterside game of petanque emits distant cheers. Then the boat turns 180 degrees to drift back on the current and the sun speeds up its fall towards the horizon, fiery ripples of water underlining its trajectory. When we dock, the quiet of dusk is complete.
Back at Amantaka, my evening spa treatment takes place in a huge dimly lit room, where by day the bathside window radiates peace as it frames the fresh emerald radiance of the greenery outside. Wellness programmes will soon be launched, but for tonight’s massage my therapist intuitively uses medium pressure, taking me from a more resilient place, physically and emotionally, and adding energy that bodes well for tomorrow’s early morning alms-giving. www.aman.com
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Created by Aman’s exfounder, Azerai features clean lines, symmetry and space with a casual atmosphere; explore the neighbourhood by bike when you stay at Burasari Heritage Hotel Luang Prabang; Azerai offers a range of acitivies for guests to discover the local culture.
From one Adrian Zecha creation to the next, I bid a sad farewell to Taka and swap Aman’s ex-founder’s astounding luxury for his new affordable brand. Aman for the millennials, you could say. While the design unmistakably comes from the same man’s penchant for clean lines, symmetry and space, the cleverly designed rooms are bijou, the atmosphere casual and the location in the heart of downtown. Pool-facing rooms or the corner suites with mini gardens are the ones to request.
Breakfast is a feast of eggs, Asian dishes and their GM’s recipe for French toast. The coffee is delicious and I head to the upstairs balcony post meal, my go-to for dispensing with the day’s emails, where the panoramic view of Sakkaline Street provides the perfect atmosphere. I mix in laps of the pool with pottering along the street’s boutiques and temples in the morning, finding a breezy cafe for lunch.
Azerai’s foot massage comes highly recommended and I’m curious to see if the experience lives up to the enthused review. I’m won over. My therapist’s hands are magic. After a foot wash, and with a hot cushion softening tired shoulder muscles, the massage on my feet and lower legs is part pleasure, part poetry, all therapy. I dip into the evening market on floating feet afterwards, before returning to share a delicious dinner of local fish and veggies, and sleep like a log. www.azerai.com
BURASARI HERITAGE HOTEL LUANG PRABANG
My final stay was at classic boutique Burasari, where the staff became my adopted family. First they ushered me into their ancient black Mercedes complete with time-cracked red interiors and walnut dashboard, for the trip to the hotel. Then they offered the welcome drink of subtly sweetened and carbonated butterfly pea tea – add local vodka to this in the evening, offered free, and you’ve found a worthy equal to the gin and tonic. Then I explored the interiors of my retro room, the restaurant and spa, which epitomise colonial travels, and are fitting for Luang Prabang.
Days start with the buffet breakfast, choosing local specialities and croissants brought in from nearby Luang Prabang institution Le Banneton Café. One morning we were guided to the food market and brought back unknown veggies that the chef turned into steamed dishes and a salad for lunch.
The Burasari Spa is consistently top of TripAdvisor’s best spas in Luang Prabang, and one afternoon I ducked out of the heat and into one of their beautiful spa rooms. I got more than I bargained for with the 90-minute Burasari Signature Massage. After the refreshing foot scrub and cleanse, I settled on the bed and singing bowls erased any lingering worries. The massage that followed not only mixed Swedish, Thai and Lomi Lomi techniques, it also included hot poultices for tired, knotted muscles. I emerged wondering just how much more relaxed it was possible to feel. www.burasariheritage.com
SOFITEL LUANG PRABANG
Another unconventional hotel, Sofitel Luang Prabang welcomes guests with billowing white curtains leading through the traditional 117-year-old houses that are now the lobby, spa and cooking school flanking a small courtyard. But the best is yet to come. Pass through a little dogleg of an alleyway and the space opens out into a secret garden of wild planted flora, walkways leading through the greenery to just 25 rooms, and a marquee for a restaurant. The long lap pool and lounge area adds to the feeling of chilled haven and the rooms mix modern day tiles with al fresco baths and comfy beds. The spa’s signatures include the yoghurt and honey body cleanse, a turmeric or coffee and coconut scrub, a cucumber facial mask and coconut oil massage. Dedicated to natural and mostly locally found ingredients, it’s a delightful way for the skin to soak up local and nourishing goodness. www.sofitel.com
BEST OF THE REST
Angsana Maison Souvannephoum Hotel is a royal residence turned hotel where the pool, decking, pool bar and restaurant are at the heart of the property, beautifully renovated, elegant and welcoming. Sister property the Grand Luang Prabang is being turned into a Banyan Tree, while still retaining the majesty and grounds of the previously royal country home. Villa Santi Hotel is a charming 19th-century boutique property that was once the home of King Sisavangvong’s wife. There is history in the 20 spacious and colonial rooms and restaurant, plus the contemporary, yet delightful elephant-designed plunge pool. The Belle Rive Boutique Hotel overlooks the Mekong with 13 rooms across three homes and a sun terrace of tamarind trees.
WHAT TO DO
While there are plenty of independent businesses offering day trips, ask your hotel to recommend the most culturally and environmentally sustainable. The Elephant Park gets good reviews, and an early morning trip, and dip in the lakes before other tourists arrive is the best way to see them.
Closer to home, the fascinating Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens teaches you about the flowers, trees, herbs and medicinal plants of Laos. The land, which used to be hunting ground for the previous prince across the river from his palace, now the Banyan Tree, is a safe haven for over 1,200 plants organised into different habitats. Workshops and rituals are offered at various times and there’s a cafe overlooking a lotus pond.
Luang Prabang’s boutique shops demand an afternoon or three of delightful browsing. There are plenty of gems you won’t see in other parts of Asia, like the batik by Passa Paa, the weaving at Pavilion de Jade and Ock Pop Tok and the silk clothes at Caruso Lao. The night market is an unmissable nightly festival of handicrafts, textiles including the beautiful indigo and art.
GOODBYE LUANG PRABANG
My trip to Laos ended with perhaps the most magical and impressionable experience of all. Thanks to the Burasari staff, we were invited to sit in at Phon Heuang temple’s evening chanting. We settled down as the monks started arriving, ages across the spectrum. After a short quiet, they began and the rich, practised sounds rose up to echo around the temple room. Another meditation, this time of sound. Eyes closed, mind open, heart filled, this was the perfect way to bid goodbye to this spiritually rich and accessible destination.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Sofitel Luang Prabang is a relaxing retreat housed in century-old traditional houses; explore Luang Prabang ’s bout ique shops to find gems you won’t see elsewhere; the Burasari Spa is considered one of the city’s top spas.