Luang Prabang, Laos is more luxurious than you'd think
Unexpected, uncrowded and uncompromisingly authentic, Luang Prabang is quietly becoming Laos’ most buzzed-about city for travelers seeking both serenity and luxury.
The last thing I expected in Laos—land of iconic Southeast Asian street food, centuries-old monasteries, saffron-robed monks and bustling night markets—was a bear sanctuary. But here I stood, at the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre outside of Luang Prabang, tossing buckets of fruits and gruel in a sprawling enclosure deep within the wilderness, hiding bananas in tire swings and slathering honey on tree trunks moments before the keepers let loose close to 23 towering moon bears. Safely on the other side of the fence, I watched as the bears roamed the perimeter and did exactly what they normally do on any given day: scavenge for food. Only here, they’re not being hunted (bear paws are used in soup and local rice wine), held in captivity as pets (shockingly prevalent), working as pawns in a circus freak show or drugged for photo opps. These bears wander in their simulated natural habitat, protected from poachers and living five to 10 years longer than bears out in the wild. Afterward, I hiked through the forest, following the faint sound of splashing water, and arrived at an immense, tiered waterfall tumbling into turquoise pools. I stripped to my shorts and launched off a tree branch into the shimmering water, as monks sat peacefully under the shade of trees along the bank. Delightful surprises like this perfectly explain why the far-flung city of Luang Prabang is an emerging travel destination.
Locals aren’t sure when the city’s allure began, though fingers point to 1995, when UNESCO named the ancient city a World Heritage site. There was no official movement to amp up the tourism infrastructure, and therein lies the beauty of Luang Prabang: It’s supremely authentic and defies expectations. The carefully preserved buildings—no higher than two floors—define a moment in time dating back to the 19th century; they’re remarkable examples of European-inspired architecture that also reflect Laos’ heritage and tradition of contrasts (Parisian-style outdoor cafes serving memorable Laotian food and photogenic alleyways chock-full of modest street vendors). Today, affluent travelers who seek something off the beaten path have begun flocking to the city, shacking up at five-star resorts and exploring attractions without hordes of other travelers, which, in itself, represents uncompromised luxury.
Most visitors get around by scooter or bicycle—plenty of shops rent them out by the hour or day—but the pedestrian-friendly streets make it easy to navigate on foot, which is highly recommended, considering the wealth of surprises you might miss at a faster pace. Some of my favorite moments were after sunset, sitting at a casual, alfresco restaurant along the Mekong River, watching junks ferry back and forth, and listening to the sizzle of fresh fish frying under a string of paper lanterns. Just as stimulating was the night market in the center of town. Local vendors line their artisanal goods—from handcarved, wooden animals to hand-sewn trinkets—on rows of blankets; haggling seems unwarranted when nothing costs more than a few dollars.
Immersing oneself in local culture requires a 5am wake-up call. Before sunlight breaks beyond the Phou Thao Mountains, villagers sit along the sidewalks offering alms to young monks who emerge from their monasteries in a fascinating procession, their bright orange robes vibrant in the early morning light. With the lack of mass tourism, the revered monks literally stand out, often considered Luang Prabang’s main attraction. So are the monasteries and temples, ubiquitous within the ancient city, built next to modern-day banks or perched high on hilltops. I clocked in a rigorous workout climbing the more than 300 steps of Phu Si, a hill that anchors the town and is crowned by a gilded stupa next to a shrine. From the top, the 360-degree views are breathtaking and impossible to capture with a digital camera, and the sunsets are legendary.
The panoramic vistas harbored at Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao (rooms from $400 to $575 per night), a five-star property just outside town, are equally special. The second-floor suites offer private terraces with views that unfurl for miles, while the lush grounds are fringed with tall palms and indigenous plants. The resort offers complimentary shuttle service into town, but I took advantage of the house bikes, riding through back streets I would have otherwise missed on the main road.
In town, Amantaka, by the storied Aman Resorts, is the crème de la crème of resorts (rooms from $900 to $1,700 per night). With only 24 suites and villas, many equipped with their own private courtyard pools, separate living areas and four-poster beds, it seems like a compound of private residences. The perfectly landscaped grounds with the central pool, fitness center, yoga studio, spa and colonial-inspired lounge bar feel worlds away, despite the fact the resort is a stone’s throw from the city’s main hub. Perks at Amantaka are endless: Guests are whisked through airport customs by an escort and treated like VIPs on arranged excursions (only Aman Resorts is able to secure actual bear feedings for visitors at the sanctuary).
Regardless of the hotel, one can feel like an A-lister in Laos simply by observing commanding views few eyes have seen, exploring off-the-beaten-path waterfalls few feet have trekked or experiencing the centuries-old tradition of the monk processions. The UNESCO-protected city still has its untainted exoticism, indispensable authenticity and deep soul.
THE ROAD TO LUANG PRABANG
Most international airlines fly to Bangkok, Thailand, the closest major international hub to Luang Prabang. From Atlanta, Korean Air has a layover in Seoul, South Korea; passengers in business class on the airline’s A380 can luxuriate on the entire upper deck, in spacious seats or a private lounge (round-trip flights to Bangkok typically run $4,800 for business class). It’s about a two-hour flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang (typical round-trip flights run about $300) on Lao Airlines or Bangkok Airways.
Private Guides While Luang Prabang is one of the safest cities in Southeast Asia, it’s recommended that you enlist a knowledgeable guide and driver (available for hire through hotels) for all excursions. There are no car rental companies, and a handful of attractions are a 30-minute to one-hour drive away. Guides can also translate interactions with non-English-speaking proprietors. You may build your trip completely through a tour operator such as Pique Travel Design, which specializes in the area and offers memorable journey packages.
Money Matters There are few ATMs in Luang Prabang, so most visitors turn U.S. dollars to Lao kip at banks or currency exchanges at their hotels. Note that many businesses accept the U.S. dollar, but very few street vendors do. Right now, the U.S. dollar is strongly in visitors’ favor, with an average rate of US$1 to 8,000 kip. Tipping is not common, although 10 percent of the bill is appreciated at tourist-friendly restaurants.
Food Laotian cuisine is exciting, interesting and not as exotic as you might imagine (sticky rice, laap and papaya salad originated in Laos, not Thailand). Typical dishes include salads and minced meat; mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaf); grilled chicken and pork; and spices and herbs like lemongrass, chilies and galangal. The best restaurants are along the Mekong (like Tamarind), but several cafes in town (Le Café Ban Vat Sene) serve great Laotian food. At night, street vendors typically sell fresh fruit smoothies, blended right before your eyes, for about $1.
This article was published in Modern Luxury, Men's Book on September 2, 2015.
Feature photo here is courtesy of the resorts.