Exploring Royal Laos and the Mystery of Its Last King
Wandering the corridors of the stately royal palace in Luang Prabang, I get a sense of deja vu as I peer into the bedroom of the last king of Laos.
Savang Vatthana lost his throne -- and later, in still-unexplained circumstances, his life -- after communists seized control of the former French colony in 1975.
His palace on the banks of the Mekong River is now a museum, and his possessions, including two Lincoln Continentals in the garage, are on public display, Bloomberg Pursuits magazine reports in its premiere issue.
It’s the royal boudoir that catches my attention. The bed looks like a copy of the canopied four-poster I’ve been sleeping in since arriving in this remote city of Buddhist temples and elegant European-style villas. “Just like my room at the resort,” I say sotto voce.
Overhearing this, my tour guide skeptically raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure?” she asks. “Actually, I heard that your resort is much better.”
She has a point. The monarchs of the kingdom once known as “Land of a Million Elephants” undoubtedly lived in splendor in the palace built for them by their French overlords. Guests at the nearby Amantaka resort, itself a restored French colonial-era treasure where room rates range from $700 to $1,500 a night, do enjoy certain additional comforts.
For a start, Amantaka’s 24 suites, with their terraces and louvered windows, are bigger than the royal bedrooms. And most have their own individual swimming pools measuring 9 meters by 5 meters (30 feet by 16 feet) in courtyards shaded by mango and tamarind trees.
If guests aren’t impressed by the private pools, they probably will be when the room attendant asks what temperature they would like the water adjusted to in readiness for their morning laps.
For aficionados of the Aman chain of resorts, the pools and other luxuries are only part of the attraction. Since 1987, Singapore-based Amanresorts International Pte has built 25 discreet hideaways for well-heeled guests who, its website says, have “a lust for faraway cultures.”
Starting with destinations such as Phuket, Thailand, and Bali, Indonesia, founder Adrian Zecha, an entrepreneur of Indonesian and Czech descent, later ventured into ever more exotic regions.
Eventually, that quest took Zecha, 78, to the misty, densely forested mountain ridges of northern Laos, not far from where the border meets Thailand and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) at one end of the once-notorious opium-producing Golden Triangle.
There, at the confluence of the Mekong and its tributary, the Nam Khan, nestles the sleepy former royal city of Luang Prabang.
With a population of 28,000, it no longer boasts large herds of elephants; fewer than 2,000 of the animals remain in all of Laos. Its role as capital was long ago surrendered to Vientiane.
Still, it does have 36 temples and some 700 saffron-robed monks, who, at dawn each morning, pad barefoot through the silent streets with their alms bowls to collect donations of sticky rice. And the laid-back citizens -- monks and laity alike -- remain as courteous and welcoming as when I first visited 18 years ago.
A former feudal city-state, Luang Prabang fell on hard times in the late 19th century. In 1893, after attacks by Chinese bandits, the king sought protection from the French, whose colonial administrators built their own grand, European-style buildings alongside the existing temples.
The result is a townscape of Asian and European architecture so unique that in 1995 it was included on the Unesco World Heritage List along with sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru and the Piazza del Duomo in Pisa, Italy.
Of the temples, 16th-century Wat Xieng Thong, with its sweeping, multitiered roofline, and the richly decorated Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham are the most splendid.
Among the French buildings, the palace, an intriguing fusion of French Beaux-Arts and Laotian styles, stands out.
Then there’s the magical Mekong. In the late afternoon, I take Amantaka’s wooden longboat upriver, past wiry fishermen and mahogany-skinned farmers tilling the rich alluvial soil.
Then the boatman turns around, cuts the engine and lets the vessel drift back downstream.
Reclining on cushions, Laotian-style, I sip hoppy Beerlao and nibble on Mekong riverweed -- a local delicacy -- as the sun sets behind an amphitheater of lush limestone peaks.
Amid this architectural and natural splendor, Amanresorts found a French-built former hospital with low-slung buildings. With the grounds transformed into a tropical garden estate, it opened in 2009 as Amantaka.
There are plenty of places to stay in Luang Prabang. A good proportion of the restored colonial buildings -- even a former jail -- have been converted into hotels and guesthouses.
For a combination of pampering and intellectual stimulation, it’s hard to beat the Aman formula. Guests have the choice of Laotian and European dining, a spa offering papaya body scrubs, a well-stocked library and those private pools.
The location is excellent. Markets, palace and temples are a short walk away. It makes for a jarring patchwork of riches and poverty in a country with a gross domestic product per capita of only $1,204 as of 2011.
Luang Prabang’s Asia-Europe fusion also encompasses the cuisine.
The Laotian people, whose culture and language are similar to the neighboring Thai, eat sticky rice, curries and other dishes found in Thailand’s northern and northeastern provinces, plus local specialties such as flavorsome orlam, a dish featuring jungle ingredients, including pieces of aromatic wood.
The French also taught them well. Stop for breakfast in a market and you will find Parisian-quality baguettes, omelets and good Laotian coffee.
If Luang Prabang is so wonderful, how come so few people know about it?
That’s explained by Laos’s tragic recent past. A landlocked country with 6.7 million people, Laos adjoins Vietnam; it was dragged into the Indochina conflict and became the most-bombed nation per capita in history, according to the Manchester, U.K.- based Mines Advisory Group.
Almost a third of the 2 million tons of ordnance dropped on Laos failed to detonate immediately, leaving a lethal legacy that has since claimed an estimated 20,000 postwar casualties.
After the communists seized power, the king, queen and crown prince were consigned to remote Xam Neua near the Vietnamese border for re-education. They’re believed to have died there in the 1980s.
Under the new regime, Laos was about as welcoming to tourists as North Korea is. The stretch of the Mekong dividing it from U.S.-backed Thailand became the Iron Curtain of Asia.
More recently, Laos’s rulers, though still communist, have relaxed somewhat, partly because they can’t obliterate deep-seated Buddhist values.
“The government is strict, but the people are liberal,” a student who didn’t want to give his name says with a chuckle over coffee.
Visitors can now obtain visas on arrival at Luang Prabang airport. There are direct flights from Hanoi in Vietnam, Siem Reap in Cambodia, the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai and Bangkok. I chose the Chiang Mai option, a 55-minute hop on a French-built ATR-72 turboprop that costs about $300 round-trip.
The best time to visit is during the dry season from November to February, when days are balmy and the evenings cool. The world is discovering Luang Prabang. Go soon, before it becomes just another tourist destination.
A Long Weekend in Luang Prabang
Friday: Arrive at Luang Prabang airport (visa on arrival) via Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Vientiane or Siem Reap. Check into Amantaka resort. Take part in the traditional Lao Baci welcome ceremony led by Nithakhong Somsanith, Amantaka’s cultural adviser and a member of the former Laotian royal family. Explore the night market for handicrafts. Dinner alfresco at Coconut Garden Laotian restaurant.
Saturday morning: “Make merit” by kneeling at roadside to place sticky rice in the alms bowls of passing Buddhist monks. Take a walking tour of the morning market, the National Museum (the former royal palace) and temples. Lunch on Laotian baguette sandwiches and coffee at stalls. Evening: Sample Laotian set dinner at Amantaka resort. Have a nightcap listening to live music in front of an open fire at Lao Lao Garden restaurant.
Sunday: Sleep in, swim in your private pool, get massage at the Amantaka spa or visit the resort’s cooking school on an organic rice and vegetable farm 10 minutes outside town. Late afternoon: Cruise the Mekong at sunset. Dinner: Cross the Nam Khan River by bamboo footbridge or ferry for a traditional Lao hot pot at Dyen Sabai restaurant (dyensabai.com).
Monday: Make the 20-minute, 328-step climb up sacred Phousi Hill for final panoramic views. Fly back home to the 21st century.
Editors: Stryker McGuire, Jonathan Neumann