The languid lure of Luang Prabang

One of the temples at Wat Xienthong, a Buddhist temple complex built in 1850. — Picture by Mavis Teo
One of the temples at Wat Xienthong, a Buddhist temple complex built in 1850. — Picture by Mavis Teo

LUANG PRABANG (Laos), Sept 7 — Just what is the allure of Luang Prabang? The cultural city and former royal capital in the north of landlocked Laos does not have the attractions of its Indochinese neighbours, like the fine beaches and secret coves of Thailand.

Nor does it have bucket list attractions like the Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Food-wise, it does not leap at foodies as a destination, unlike Vietnam. Yet, it is experiencing a hotel boom – and it is a luxury one – no less.

Joining a scene that has been dominated by the Aman and Belmond hotel brands for the last few years, the Rosewood group’s tented luxury camp is scheduled to open on the outskirts of Luang Prabang’s Old Town later this year.

Accor has just opened the five star Sofitel Luang Prabang. Surely there must be something about Luang Prabang that draws hotel developers.

Since 1993, tourism numbers have grown from 102,946 to 4.23 million last year, according to figures from the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism. This year, visitorship is forecast to reach 4.98 million. More regional airlines debuted direct flights last year.

SilkAir also launched flights to the city via Vientiane on the outgoing flight, last October. And with the Laos-China Railway project (part of it will go through Luang Prabang) scheduled to be completed in three years, the local government’s optimism does not seem unrealistic.

What makes Luang Prabang so beguiling? I wonder as I wake up at 5.15am to ready myself to greet the saffron-robed monks. Young and old they shuffle barefoot on the streets during Tak Bat, the tradition of collecting alms.

At 5.45am, the main streets in the Unesco-recognised Old Town are stirring with life (which starts to slow down soon after and the streets are empty after lunchtime). Enveloped in the ochre tinge of the rising sun, the city with a population of less than 60,000 is reminiscent of a bygone era.

That morning I trekked up the 100m Mount Phousi which offers a bird’s eye view of the city from the glided stupa at its summit.

What greets me is a green panorama of misty mountain ranges and lush forests, with two main rivers — the famous Mekong and less well-known Nam Kham — running through the landscape.

Though the waters are a shade of Thai milk tea due to soil erosion during the rainy season between May to October, the quiet energy from the verdant vista before me is palpable.

Here, I can also see the characteristic swallow-tailed shaped rooftops of the over 30 temples with elaborate carvings dotting the city. Drop by Wat Xienthong, a Buddhist temple complex built in 1850.

I later spend many minutes staring in wonder at a wall lined with an elaborate Tree of Life glass mosaic at a temple.

The Royal Palace Museum, a symbol of French colonial architecture and the residence of the last Laotian king and his family before they were taken off to re-education camps by the Communists, is also worth a visit, at least for the garage of vintage cars that the family once owned.

At Pad Tad Ke Botanical Gardens, accessible only by means of a 15-minute ride on a motorised long boat on the Mekong, you will find an Eden of tropical plants. As the gardens just opened early this year, it is still off the tourist radar.

For those who have to buy something while on holiday, there is the night market which is packed with stalls selling handicrafts like fabric books, paper lamps or indigo-dyed textiles made by the Hmong Lao tribe in the region.

By day, walk down Savavong Road, the artery of the Old Town where there are fusion cafes, and stores selling handmade shawls and tribal-inspired jewellery.

Here I meet Fabric Munio, the French owner and designer of Naga Creations who has lived in the city for 17 years. I ask him what he thinks of the influx of luxury hotels. Munio believes a lot of it is government-influenced.

“They are getting investors to come in to support the railway project,” he said.

I persist, and ask him if he doesn’t think the Unesco-world charms of the city are big enough for the well-heeled traveller. He differs, saying that the real tourist tends to be middle-class and expects creature comforts and spot-on service without paying through the roof.

In a place where accommodation offerings seem to be in either cheap hostels or US$900 (RM3,808.35)/night luxury hotels, properties like Azerai seems to fill a gap.

At rack rates of US$250 (S$338) a night, Azerai — owned by Adrian Zecha, the founder of luxury hotel brand Aman — offers “affordable luxury”.

To build this vision, Mr Zecha engaged Thai-based architect Pascal Trahan who converted a French officers’ mess built in 1914 (which later became Hotel Phousi until 1964) into a 53-room hotel. The result is a fine balance of colonial and contemporary.

Inside the hotel, the design scheme is elegant and clean, with blonde wood and slate grey, accented by fabric furnishings with a local stamp — the distinctive hand dyed patterns of the Hmong tribe.

The centrepiece of the hotel is a 25m pool shaded by a 120-year-old Banyan tree, a reflection of what inspired the hotel’s name — Caravanserai, which in persian refers a pit stop with a central courtyard for tired travellers. And indeed, rest is encouraged here — whether through nursing a cocktail or enjoying Laotian and regional dishes using local ingredients.

Even though the hotel is centrally located — just next to the markets — peace permeates through the hotel, especially in the Massage Retreat where a therapist turns me into putty with gentle kneading.

The attractions in Luang Prabang are slow and lingering, such as walking among nature, or on the frangipani tree-lined street. Luang Prabang is a place many Singaporeans think of as another South-east Asian city that can be covered in three days, two nights.

Yet, if they were to give it only this much time, they could miss the whole point of Luang Prabang.

The city beguiles you to slow down to get to know it. It is a place you can cover in two days, experience it in three but take much longer to discover its best kept secrets.

Getting there: SilkAir flies thrice weekly to Luang Prabang.

For more information, visit; — TODAY

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