Exploring Royal Laos
Seeing the late king’s palatial bedroom, I say Sotto voce, ‘Just like my room at the resort.’
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.
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 Mil- lion Elephants” undoubtedly lived in splendor in the palace built for them by their French overlords. Guests at the nearby Amantaka resort, itself a re- stored 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 bed- rooms. 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 Me- kong and its tributary, the Nam Khan, nestles the sleepy former royal city of Luang Prabang. With a population of
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 pro- tection from the French, whose colonial administrators built their own grand, European-style buildings along- side 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,
Amid this architectural and natural splendor, Amanresorts found a French- built former hospital with low-slung buildings. With the grounds trans- formed 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 patch- work of riches and poverty in a country with a per capita gross domestic product of only $1,000 as of 2010.
Luang Prabang ’s Asia-Europe fusion also encompasses the cuisine. The Laotian people, whose culture and lan- guage 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, in- cluding 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 na- tion 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 con- signed to remote Xam Neua near the Viet- namese 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 di- viding it from U.S.-backed Thailand be- came the Iron Curtain of Asia.
More recently, Laos’s rulers, though still communist, have relaxed some- what, 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 Viet- nam, 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.