Luang Prabang, a sophisticated small city in Laos. There’s even been several sightings of Mick Jagger

By Barbara Kingstone

La Residence Phou Vao La Residence Phou Vao

After disembarking the Eastern & Orient Express train on which I had taken the superlative maiden voyage over the Friendship Bridge and the Mekong River which had departed from Bangkok the 108 passengers arrived at the capital city of Laos, Vientiane, There was an obvious excitement to be at this auspicious occasion in this still untouched- by -tourism landlocked country. We were met by a huge crowd of Laotin dignitaries and locals where there was much applauding, hand shaking and smiles, the nation’s well known logo.

I had made arrangements, after the city day tour, to stay overnight at the stunning French Colonial styled,Settha Palace Hotel totally renovated after years of neglect. Next day, I flew from this relaxed, charming and slow paced city to a somewhat less laid back, more sopisticated UNESCO listed city, Luang Prabang, equally charming but with a bit more bustle and again I was in for a most positive surprise.

If I was surprised to see the stunning restored French Colonial Settha Palace Hotel in Vientiane, I was equally impressed and delighted to see a resort -styled hotel, 5 star La Residence Phou Vao on the edge of the city. La Residence Phou Vao, is a 32 room hotel, with some suites having their own private gardens and large balconies.

The open sided lobby filled with original styled floral arrangements, leads to an airy lobby which looks onto the open air bar, infinity pool, lush gardens and restaurant. Spread over four two storey buildings in garden surroundings, on the way to my second floor generic but spacious room and large bathroom with great amenities I had a grand vista of the property. Always on my way to the lobby I passed a small boutique, unfortunately not over stocked with any ‘must have’ objects. The real good stuff, e.g. Laotian silk accessories and ebony wood pieces ,were somewhat hidden between the restaurant and the library and were from one of the chic shops, Caruso, in the city centre.

I was obsessed with sitting at the outdoor restaurant in front of the infinity pool with the background of Mount Phour Si. The green mountains seem to encompass the perfect, gentle, quiet town filled with super architecture. Along with the rectangular traditional Lao house supported on stilts and two sided steep roofs, there are French Colonial fired brick and ceramic roof tiled houses, also hybrid of Lao/ French Colonial with a bit of tradition and grandiose French doorways. And now thrown into the Laotian building pot are contemporary houses and buildings which still respects traditional style but has incorporated brick or concrete walls and are somewhat more luxurious, almost westernized.

Each morning the Phou Vao Restaurant was my choice since it seemed so pleasant to be poolside, watch the brave swimmers in the slightly coolish early morning, there was always the astonishing sunrise and later the blazing sunset .

La Residence Phou Vao La Residence Phou Vao

Lunch, when I was on the property, was at the cozy Champa Bar which is the best place for ‘sightings’ of other guests as it opens onto the lobby, patio, large restaurant.

As a woman traveling on her own, I never had a moment of concern of fear or loneliness. The hotel’s general manager, Philippe Bissig, always made an attempt to speak with me and to offer not the well documented sightseeing suggestion. One was a high point in my trip, the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, a private museum located in an historic building dedicated to the culture of Laos. The Centre which opened in 2006, exhibits clothing, household objects, religious artifacts and other handicrafts.

La Residence Phou Vao has a newly opened spa with glorious pavilions decorated in Lao tradition. Down some steps in a small grassy area and certainly within viewing distance of the hotel the spa menu has a full range of treatment. Perhaps because it was still in its infant stage, I was not overwhelmed by the aestheticians who weren’t trained to the level of the hotel’s other super services. But in time I’m sure having met the enthusiastic spa manager, it will meet the necessary and desired standards.

Since there is a shuttle service which I used constantly to take me into the small but varied and versatile town, and since I was assured of the safety of the city, one evening I dined on a true Laotian meal at L’Elephant (pre reserved by the hotel’s concierge) which was filled with locals. The very sufficient meal was $10 and one of their specials which I couldn’t get enough of was their signature fried and spiced seaweed.

The night market, the high spot for most visitors after the day of visiting wats (temples/monasteries), fills the entire main street after dusk and was truly a treat. One expects to be pulled and tugged by touts but there were none just obliging , non pushy sales people showing their fine wares as they either sat on blankets or beside their small makeshift stalls. Among the sometimes kitschy stuff there was some splendid merchandise including splendid Laotian silk, handmade paper and wood crafts.

However, as I started to walk towards the area, I spotted an out of the ordinary, smart looking shop on the same street. It is considered the best shop in town for silk shawls, bedspreads, pillow cases, ebony vases and household accessories, far from the ordinary. Caruso,(mentioned above) seems to have an international following.

La Residence Phou Vao La Residence Phou Vao

Owned and managed by a 67 woman originally from Montreal, Canada, Sandra and I had a lot to talk about since that was the city where I grew up. And, of course, we knew so many of the same people. One obvious attention grabber was a large photo sitting on the window ledge of Sandra and her client, Mick Jagger. So I figured, if it’s good enough for Mick, it’s ok with me and of course couldn’t resist a silk shawl and ebony vase.

Back at La Residence, the general manager, Philippe Bissig, surprised me by discussing the hotel’s ‘green’ undertaking. The gardeners collect all the garbage daily separating the glass and the plastic. As for leftover food from the diners’ platters, it’s given to the pigs and waste water from the laundry goes through drainage and recycled for reuse to water the lush garden. As for the room amenities, the search is on for more “Green” soaps, lotions and potions.

Planting is taking place and they expect to have a great herb and vegetable garden in the near future. Of course, this is for their chef is keen to have organic food to include in his menus

One can’t be in Luang Prabang without going to the golden roofed wats. There seems to be a temple every few metres, some decorated with mosaics others skillfully painted. Wats include Pa Huak, Pa Phone Phao, Pak Khan, Ph Phai, That Luang, Xieng Muang and Xieng Thong, to name but a few. Other activities include cooking classes at the very popular city centre restaurants, Tamarind and Tamnak Lao. It seems everything is up to date in Luang Prabang and just waiting to greet tourists who hopefully will help improve the economy in one of south east Asia’s poorest countries. One thing you will be sure to learn, is to smile.