Wah, Laos

Luang Prabang’s laid-back aura is perfect for chilling out – just ask Mick Jagger

by Mayo Martin

SO THERE I was at a nightclub called Muang Swa. A live band was well into an all-Thai pop rock set. And the locals were, well, I had no idea what they were doing. It seemed to be a cross between some traditional folk dance and a barn dance.

Welcome to Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos.

As you may have guessed, it isn’t exactly Ibiza. It probably won’t be on anyone’s list as a party place for jetsetters. But that isn’t such a big deal because, actually, it’s where rock stars go to get a bit of R&R. (That’s rest and relaxation, and not rock n roll.)

For one, Rolling Stones dinosaur Mick Jagger has been to this sleepy town twice, and has reportedly even called it his “favourite place in the world”. Celebrity couple Jude Law and Sienna Miller have also spent some time here.

To outsiders, the Unesco World Heritage Site Luang Prabang has been touted by many as one of South-east Asia’s best kept secret destinations. Completely surrounded by mountains, lush rainforest and two rivers, and dotted with Buddhist temples, this former French colony has been compared to Thailand’s Chiang Mai or Bali’s Ubud without the crowds.

Alila Hotels and Resorts CEO Mark Edleson clearly remembers his first visit to Luang Prabang in the early ’70s. As a 20-something American Peace Corps backpacker, he found himself teaching English in the town just a couple of years before the royal family fell to the Communists in 1975. Nothing much had changed when he revisited the place five years ago.

“You could walk down the street … and still hear the monks chanting in the evening. That was always soothing. It’s not that big a town so you can go at a slow pace, either walking or cycling. And it still retains a lot of that charm of little colonial houses and Lao houses. I have a house in Ubud and this place reminds me of Ubud 30 years ago. But it’s less likely to change as fast.”

The world is catching up. Hip travel book publisher-cum-hotel booking company Mr & Mrs Smith (www.mrandmrssmith.com) have endorsed no less than six boutique hotels here, including Edleson’s Alila Luang Prabang. There are also plans to construct a bigger airport in two years’ time.

For now at least, it’s still uncharted territory for many travellers. Besides the smattering of dreadlocked hippie backpackers and the usual travel agencies touting packages, there’s none of the frenetic dog-eat-dog pace of tourism you’ll normally find in Thailand or Indonesia.

Cyril Boucher, the French manager of boutique hotel 3 Nagas, has lived in Laos for 10 years and the past five in Luang Prabang. While he admits a small amount of apprehension at the possibilities of a tourism boom a decade from now, the mix is just about right these days.

“You still have a good balance of tourist development and traditional culture. You can sleep well, eat good food – it’s good infrastructure for tourists and you still have real Lao people in front of you,” he said.

The cynical traveller in me would have to admit he’s right. Even the vendors at the night market were strangely … unaggressive.

If Mick, Jude and Sienna can hang out here without a care in the world, we’d gladly do the same in this place that time (thankfully) forgot.

How To Get There

There are no direct flights so you’ll have to make your way to Bangkok and book with the two airlines that fly regular flights to Luang Prabang: Bangkok Airways and Lao Airlines.

Things To See

Alms ceremony

Wake up before dawn to check out monks collecting alms of rice. Some hotels can assist you in preparing these.

Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (www.taeclaos.org)

A small, and charmingly run-down private museum that introduces you to Laos’ ethnic groups. There’s also a small café and a shop.

Ock Pop Tock (www.ockpoptok.com)

This textile store is as stylish as it gets. They’ve even got a mention somewhere in Oprah’s magazine. Focusing on Laos textiles and working closely with traditional weavers, it’s got a couple of shops in town and a craft centre on the banks of the Mekong river some two clicks south of Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang National Museum

It was the former royal palace until the Communists took over. These days, it’s a little run down – but do take note of the mosaic on the walls, some of which have some interestingly morbid turns – like heads being lopped off. Right across it is Phousi Hill, where you get a nice view of the town. After you’ve climbed to the temple at the top that is.

Vatxieng Thong

There are a lot of temples and monastaries to go to, but don’t miss out on one of the oldest – and arguably, most beautiful – in the area.

Big Brother Mouse (www.bigbrothermouse.com)

Feeling philanthropic? This organisation might be worth visiting. They promote literacy among teens, publish and distribute books. You can drop by and be an English teacher for a day or even help volunteer for other events.

Sleep

Alila Luang Prabang

One of the newest hotels in town, it used to be a former prison. It has transformed the colonial courtyard architecture into a luxurious space.

Amantaka

Another hotel that keeps to the colonial architecture, this one used to be a hospital – and where Jude Law and Sienna Miller were once spotted.

Satri House

Live like royalty here. Built at the turn of the last century, it used to be the residence of a Laotian prince.

Apsara Rive Doite

The smallest of the lot, it’s homely and right beside the river too.

Eat

Les 3 Nagas (www.alilahotels.com/3nagas)

The in-house restaurant of the smaller of the Alila hotels in Luang Prabang boasts a fine fusion of Western and Laotian cuisine.

L’Elephant (www.elephant-restau.com)

If you want to have that “colonial” feel, this French restaurant is touted as the best in town. It’s also listed in the Miele Guide.

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