Amantaka resort, Luang Prabang
LAOS’ SLEEPY, UNESCO-PROTECTED FORMER CAPITAL IS SHAKING OFF ITS BACKPACKER IMAGE AND WAKING UP TO A NEW FORM OF LUXURY TOURISM.
The seat belt sign in the small prop plane of Bangkok Airways flight PG945 illuminates in recognition that we will in a few moments be arriving in Laos’ ancient royal heartland, Luang Prabang. Yet, looking out of the window, it’s hard to believe that a world-famous, UNESCO-listed city lies just moments ahead.
An expanse of pinched mountains stretches as far as we can see, the green leaves beaten by the unrelenting Southeast Asian sun into a warm gold. Through it all snakes the earthen brown water of the Mekong River, making its way across the region through a maze of untouched valleys. And then, as the flight begins to dip, a vast expanse of crisply manicured grass appears on the landscape like a shiny slick of oil on choppy open water. Other than a scattering of wooden houses, it’s the first sign of any human disturbance for the past half hour of flight.
This unnaturally perfect intrusion on the local scenery is the Luang Prabang Golf Club, open for business as of December 2010, and a strong symbol of how things in this sleepy part of the former Indochina are slowly changing. Once the seat of royalty and a French colonial stronghold before it succumbed to decades of communist rule and eventually wound up a small dot on the Southeast Asian backpacker circuit, Luang Prabang has now entered a new stage in its development. It is quickly becoming a must-visit destination on the global itineraries of luxury tourists, whose presence and spending power relies on more than a sleepy pace of life and some pretty buildings.
Within the past two years a pair of luxury resorts has opened inside the heritage zone that cater to this burgeoning market of moneyed travelers who want to experience the charms of a quaint community on the banks of the Mekong coupled with infinity-edge swimming pools, designer boutiques and the latest international spa treatments. These places are not the first time Luang Prabang has seen upscale accommodation, but they are the first to offer the complete five-star luxury resort experience on this level.
Alila Luang Prabang (of the famous Singaporean resort chain) and Amantaka (brainchild of luxury resort wunderkind Adrian Zecha) both occupy very similar old low-rise courtyard buildings in the heart of the town, but each does so in its own distinct unique way. The one, Alila, takes route in the old prison, which up until the 1990s still housed the country’s political prisoners. The guard towers that once looked over inmates now look out upon landscaped gardens and a shimmering swimming pool. The jailer’s bars at the entrance post are still in place, yet they are no longer the stark black of wrought iron; instead have been painted a soft slate gray and serve as the window to the reception area.
The design is the work of Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag, who—working under the strict heritage guidelines put in place by UNESCO—has created a contemporary environment that none the less pays homage to its historic surroundings. The wooden decking and sparkling purple-tiled infinity pool do nothing to detract from the destination’s serene and grounded atmosphere. Duangrit says he took influence from the simplicity of local agriculture and the small-hold farming communities of monks who till the land on the banks of the Mekong. The place has an earthy quality, its luxurious touches pacified by humble flower beds and gravel paths. The newness of the resort (which only opened in December 2010) is plain to see as you look around the garden, where young plants spring from the ground yet to climb up the trellises that await them. In contrast, Amantaka stands as a vision of colonial austerity, with little or no concessions made to contemporary design fads.
It occupies single-storey courtyard building which served as the community hospital before the five-star renovation took place (and if you ask around the staff you’ll hear stories from many who used to go there for treatment). In the reception stands a pair of photograph albums put together by local students who took before-and-after pictures of the building’s details. The change is palpable, as you see the crumbling old somber structures with their flaking paint transformed into the beautifully colonial resort that now stands: large French doors, immensely vaulted ceilings and teak four-poster beds.
But Amantaka’s real triumph lies in how it has managed, in the two-and-a-bit years since it opened, to blend itself into the community in a way that hotels the world over take generations to achieve. It would be fair to say that Amantaka has become for Luang Prabang what the Mandarin Oriental has for Bangkok, or the Peninsula for Hong Kong. It is now part of the fabric of the city.
Speak to local characters both expat and native and you hear pride in the way it has integrated itself with the town. Gilles Vautrin, a restaurateur and prominent figure within Luang Prabang’s visibly strong French community, says, “I very much like this kind of hotel for Luang Prabang. I feel it raises the standard of the city as well as the people who come here.”
He’s lived in Luang Prabang for over ten years, running L’Eléphant, Luang Prabang’s most well-regarded Western restaurant, as well as several other cafés and restaurants around town. “For me, I would like for Luang Prabang to become a city of culture; of art. I think this sort of tourism is good for establishing that.”
Given the city’s heritage, Gilles’ vision is quite fitting. During royal rule (which ended in 1975), life in Luang Prabang revolved around the court, and making beautiful fabrics, silverware and artwork for the royal household served as the town’s main industry. However, throughout communist rule Luang Prabang was left—in the words of one local man who’d prefer to remain nameless—“little more than a ghost town,” the youth of the city gone to find jobs elsewhere now that the court could no longer sustain them.”
But one man is on a mission to reinstall some of what was lost. At around noon most days, an unassuming figure with rich, sun-kissed skin and permanently blushing cheeks, takes a seat beside the large French windows in Amantaka’s library and immerses himself in one form or other of ancient Laotian art. This small, inconspicuous character is Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith (known as Nith), a direct descendent of Laos’ Royal House of Luang Prabang.
Nith moved back to his hometown from France, where he’d lived since the 1980s, several years ago, and now works for Amantaka as the resort’s artistic and cultural advisor, using it as a base for what he sees as his royal duty: to preserve traditional Laos handicraft techniques that are in danger of falling out of usage.
“The younger generation wants to learn about these things,” says Nith. “It’s important for me not to let culture die, and many young people here don’t know enough about our past. But when they’re shown they become interested, and want to know more. Right now there are three, maybe four different generations in Laos. There is the young generation of today who do not know; there is the generation above them who stopped using these things; and there is my generation—the people who have lived through the eras of royalty, then socialism and now exile. It’s my duty to keep the skills of our ancestors alive.”
There still today lies a small but significant quantity of glorious object d’art to be found around the town. Whether rifling through the treasure trove of old oxidized silverware in Pathana Boupha, learning the intricacies of traditional silkweaving at the fair-trade textiles factory and shop Ock Pop Tok, or browsing the beautifully hand-crafted wooden sculptures of Caruso Lao, the Luang Prabang luxury shopping experience is a uniquely edifying one.
Don’t expect to find big-name brands anywhere, but that doesn’t mean the fabrics and items on offer are not of couture quality. Sandra Yuck is owner and founder of one of Luang Prabang’s most famous shops, Caruso Lao. Her store has gained quite a cult reputation for itself, and while Sandra is unwilling to discuss her celebrity clientele, a framed photograph of her with Mick Jagger behind the counter belies that discretion. Explaining what brought her business to this sleepy part of Southeast Asia, she says, “In 1988 I was invited to discuss starting a garment factory in Vientienne while I was working in the fashion industry in Hong Kong. I was immediately taken with the feeling of being lost in time, far away from the real world that I was immersed in.”
It’s easy to see how one could feel that way. While officially a city, Luang Prabang’s heritage zone really is tiny, occupying a meander in the Mekong where it converges with the Mae Kok River. The town curves around the river bank in a U shape, meaning you get 180-degree views of the surrounding location. The opposing bank is completely undeveloped save for a few temples, small wooden structures and agricultural fields where monks till the riverbanks, their orange robes a visceral flash of color amid the pastoral surroundings. When you see photos of Luang Prabang that look miles from human civilization, chances are they were just taken from one of the many cafés that line the heritage zone’s perimeter.
Both Alila and Amantaka provide guests with bicycles for transportation, and it’s a more than adequate way to explore the back streets and paths with their blend of French colonial buildings, traditional Laotian wooden houses and other old structures that merge the two architectural styles. While one half of the town has been given over to guesthouses, the other side remains veritably upmarket. Its well-maintained buildings are now the homes of small hotels, picturesque garden restaurants and handicraft boutiques.
This is the traditional side of Luang Prabang luxury tourism, and of these properties, and it’s also where you’ll find the 3 Nagas hotel and restaurant. Originally opened in 2003 by Gilles Vautrin of L’Eléphant, it too is now under the management of Alila Hotels & Resorts, and a member of the prestigious Design Hotels group.
The restaurant Les 3 Nagas, serves both Laotian and Western food, but it is most famous for its fragrant and beautifully presented local cuisine. While there are distinct similarities between Laotian and Thai food, the former distinguishes itself by its own unique herb blends that give it an altogether different flavor in dishes like Oua Sikhay (stuffed lemongrass stalks) and Mhok Paa (steamed fish in coconut mousse and kaffirlime). Even seemingly familiar dishes to Thai ears such as Phanaeng Kai (coconut curry with chicken) and Sai Oua Mhoo (pork sausage) have a distinct spicing of their own. The delicacy of the meal is completed by Les 3 Nagas’ beautiful atmosphere, with its two signature classic cars parked outside.
Sitting down with the general manager, Cyril Boucher, who has lived in Luang Prabang for 10 years, he explains how Luang Prabang has changed in that time. “To give you an idea; ten years ago when you wanted to eat after 8:30 in the evening it was really, really difficult to find anywhere. Now you’ve got bars that stay open until 11pm, but still this is very early. There’s a good balance here between the tourism industry and Laos’ traditional culture.”
There is however one sore point that tourism has brought on which everyone I speak to agrees: the monks’ almsgiving ceremony each morning. “The almsgiving was so traditional before, but now it’s really just a show for tourists,” says Cyril. “They don’t show enough respect for how this is meant to be carried out; they use flash, they disturb everything. It’s the worst example of the balance with tourism here. Now you have local people giving food in the temple directly, they don’t want to be out on the street for that.”
Gilles of L’Elephant concurs: “Many monks have moved to the other side of the river because the noise levels are not good for meditation. Even I’ve had to move out from above my restaurant because I cannot sleep. It gets too noisy when the tour leaders arrive at six in the morning.”
Things in town may appear sleepy on the surface, but they have changed exponentially over the past decade. The newest example of this comes in the aforementioned Luang Prabang Golf Club, a vast expanse of land outside the heritage zone that has been freshly plundered into the gleaming fairways that are hoping to entice a new wave of tourism, particularly from China and Korea. Unlike Luang Prabang’s temples, where visitors are expected to dress appropriately but not informed directly, a sign at the reception to the golf course makes explicitly clear that here, no sartorial concessions are made: “No T-shirts, No sandals”.
Taking a trip round the course via golf cart there is only one word to describe the views—magnificent. It’s on a relatively high piece of land, and all around the course mountains stretch upwards in the distance, and the vivid green fairways stand in stark contrast to the rugged dry season browns of the surrounding landscape.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” says Ruth Smith, mother of Joanna, one of the two founders of Ock Pop Tok. “I went there the other day and it was simply stunning.” Ruth doesn’t live in Luang Prabang, but spends a fair amount of time here at the equally impressive—but for very different reasons—silk handicrafts center her daughter established with business partner Veomanee Duangdala. For her, the golf course is an excellent addition to Luang Prabang. But there are murmurs of discontent as to what the future may bring. “It’s great for golfers. In fact I have heard it’s considered one of the best courses in Southeast Asia,” says Sandra of Caruso Lao. “It’s the 150-room hotel, 50 villas, 50 bungalows and the convention center planned on the same land that mystifies me.”
And here lies the greatest unanswered question as to what the future has in store for Luang Prabang. UNESCO’s reach of influence can only protect the small peninsula of buildings that form the heart of the city; what becomes of its outer-lying areas—the dramatic, virgin territory all around the town which adds to a vast amount of its appeal—is not so certain. “There’s little more room for development on the peninsula,” says Sandra, and so consequently people are now looking outside.
As the flight back to Bangkok takes off from the small stretch of tarmac that serves as Luang Prabang’s international airport, it’s clear that ‘room’ may have run out in the town, but there’s no shortage surrounding it. How much of this can be taken before the balance tips is going to be Luang Prabang’s challenge.
Luxury has arrived here in a sympathetic and considerate way. Now, in the words of Tiao Nithakhong Somsanith, “Luang Prabang has a choice of two ways: Disneyland or La Villa Médéci!”