A visit to Luang Prabang, the former Royal Capital of Laos, is a feast for the soul.
In Luang Prabang the day begins at around 5.30am with the morning alms giving to strings of saffron-clad monks walking barefoot along the street. There are more monks walking Sakkaline Road, but smaller streets retain a more spiritual atmosphere. Dropping a small ball of sticky rice into alms bowls, over and over again, brings good karma and leaves you feeling post-meditation calm.
Later in the day, Sakkaline Road takes you on a journey of coffee shops such as Dexter’s for iced mocha or Le Benneton for croissants, street-food stalls, temples and beautifully curated boutiques. Don’t miss the textiles and indigo at Le Pavilion de Jade, Ock Pop Tok and Passa Paa. Handicrafts get the Lao makeover at Caruso Lao and Celadon. The Blue House is your dream wardrobe of calm shades in silk and cotton, plus jewellery. Past 5.30pm and you’ll find the road has been taken over by the charming night market, where locals spread blankets on the ground and sit, cross-legged, waiting for you to haggle over their handicrafts, art, parasols, bags and more.
Day trips include a short boat trip down the Mekong River to the phenomenal Pha Tad Ke Botanic Gardens, where a wild and tamed collection of trees, herbs and flora come with fascinating cultural and medicinal explanations. Delicious food is served in the café, overlooking a lotus pond. A longer boat trip takes you to the Pak Ou Caves, a holy site filled with 4,000 Buddha icons, while swimming in the astoundingly blue natural pools at Kuang Si Waterfall is best done early before the crowds. Witnessing a temple’s evening chanting is the perfect bookend to alms giving in the morning.
“Luang Prabang is a place where you can sit and chill out and watch life go by, or go out and be active every day,” says Gary Tyson, the general manager of the recently-opened Azerai hotel. “It’s a subtle place. The beauty’s in the details; colourful flowers, a group of monks wandering down the street, some French colonial architecture catches your eye, you stop by a temple and see some afternoon prayers…”
In the evening, the temperature cools and eating alfresco or street-side is de rigueur. Orlam is a comforting stew of chicken with eggplant spiced with pepperwood and dill, or go for river fish and a side of green riverweed. For serene eating around a lotus pond try Manta de Laos, tiny, charming Café Toui offers local dishes cooked, served and cleared by friendly Chef Toui; and at Tamarind cooking school you can learn the secrets behind the recipes. Or return to the Bistro, where Chef Faker creates Antipodean or upscale Lao dishes using local ingredients and finely tuned flair.
Luang Prabang's luxury accommodation offerings are plenty, like Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao overlooking the town; the Sofitel with its secret garden, the retro Burasari Heritage, the calm, olive-hued Amantaka. The newest arrival is Aman founder Adrian Zecha’s inaugural hotel, the Azerai, welcoming guests with light, space and contemporary Zen design, capturing everything he loves about the city.
Architect Pascal Trahan transformed the 1914-built French Officers’ quarters turned into historic Phousi Hotel into open-plan rooms of pale wood and French louvered balcony doors overlooking the expansive courtyard of 25m pool and loungers presided over by an ancient banyan tree.
With rooms starting at around a third of the price of those at Aman, it seems the 84-year-old hotelier has created a beguilingly stylish hotel that cossets you while leaving you time for tasting the delicious local coffee and cuisine, shopping for textiles and antiques, and exciting action-packed day trips.
“It has become obvious to me that the notion of luxury is constantly gaining a wider audience, and also that luxury is not synonymous with expense,” says Zecha. “Thus the challenge is not simply to find more appreciation but also how to make it more affordable.”
Azerai wellness adds to the Zen-ometer. There are a few private spa rooms, but most fun is the communal room of foot massage loungers, privacy courtesy of white curtains. There’s also a yoga space and gym.
The Bistro’s beautifully tiled floors catch shafts of sunlight in the morning as smiley staff serve up generous dishes created by Australian executive chef Ben Faker. The coffee is seriously good and the second-floor’s balcony, with a calm panoramic view of main street Sakkaline Road, is the place to dispense with emails or do some people watching as the sun sinks low and the street scenes come alive.
It is clear, by the end of your stay, why Zecha has his own villa in Luang Prabang. His love of the destination is catching.