Everything you need to know about Laos’ luxury heaven Luang Prabang
August 28, 2019
If your soul is nostalgic but your shoes are chic, Luang Prabang is the tiny town in northern Laos that’s making heritage hip again. Poised along the banks of the mountain-ringed Mekong river, the UNESCO World Heritage site was once better known to backpackers as an affordable luxury, but today it beckons to a well-heeled mix of travellers on a sojourn of self-discovery. Oft lauded as the crown jewel of the Mekong, the city’s biggest bravado is its colonial-era buildings that today are home to opulent hotels, artisan boutiques and Michelin-calibre restaurants with menus that will make your heart skip a beat. If you’re really looking to unplug and unwind, you’ll find a secluded sanctuary of luxury villas and hillside hideouts nestled amid the surrounding mountains. The tranquil town has also pledged allegiance to all things sustainable, making it a model for conscious travelling – and idyllic beyond its postcard-pretty facades. Luang Prabang has made a case as a newfound luxury haven; here’s where to find the flashier aspects of this under-the-radar town.
Where to eat
If you’re seeking a culinary adventure in hyper-regional Michelin-calibre cuisine that appeals to your taste buds and your wallet, test your tongue out in a country that’s only recently edged its way onto Southeast Asia’s culinary map. The food is worth the trip alone. Laotian cuisine boasts more than 1,000 kinds of herbs and spices, and is finally getting the recognition it deserves with a new wave of ambitious eateries that are marrying old traditions with haute cuisine. While no establishment has picked up the coveted star yet, the arrival of restaurants like Thailand’s Paste are pushing the luxury envelope a little closer.
Nicknamed the “Michelin of the Mountains” after its Bangkok-based restaurant won chef-patron Bee Satongun and her crew a Michelin star, Paste took over the kitchen at The Apsara hotel in late 2018. On the menu, you’ll find some of Thailand’s most revered dishes reimagined for a Laotian palate alongside early-20th-century recipes noted down by royal chef Phia Sing. Tasting menus are the star attraction here and range from HK$344 to HK$413 (let that sink in for a minute) with a well-rounded wine list to pair. The sleek and ultra-elegant interior evokes feelings both classic and contemporary, making Paste a worthwhile place to don your finest dress.
Paste at The Apsara, Kingkitsarath Road, Ban Wat Sene, Luang Prabang, Laos; +856 71 254 251, pastelaos.com
Manda de Laos
Set amid an ancient UNESCO-classified lily pad pond fringed by coconut trees, dining at Manda de Laos isn’t far off from a fairytale-like experience. Paradisiacal and atmospheric, we could spend all day soul-searching from their oversized sofas and grazing on traditional fare inspired by family recipes. Extravagant degustation menus echo the aesthetic and are served to share, starting at HK$200 for lunch and HK$330 for dinner. Manda de Laos was made for lingering and a thoughtful drink list makes it easy (bring a book if you’re flying solo, you won’t want to rush this one). We’re torn on recommending it for lunch or dinner, as both experiences are equally epic in their own right – but we certainly wouldn’t hesitate to tell you to go twice.
Manda de Laos, 10 Norrassan Road, Luang Prabang, Laos; +856 71 253 923, mandadelaos.com
Where to sleep
Forget the famous hotel chains; Luang Prabang is brimming with bougie hotels from the city’s French colonial period that are restored with a Laotian touch, and Satri House is the chicest of them all. An oasis of calm just minutes from the Mekong, the one-time royal residence of Prince Souphanouvong feels like a holistic retreat that brings about a contented sense of well-being. The restored royal villa is the pièce de résistance of a charming property trimmed with white parasols and fragrant gardens. The interior, meanwhile, is Indochine to its core and reminiscent of an enchanting era gone by. As well as being adorned with fine art and handicrafts cherrypicked by the current owner, the rooms are lavishly outfitted with four-poster beds, silks and antiques. The wow factor, though, is its emerald-green pool flanked by tamarind trees – romance at its finest. And that’s exactly what guests keep coming back for.
Satri House, 057 Photisarath Road, Ban That Luang, Luang Prabang; +856 71 253 491, satrihouse.com
If the walls at Burasari Heritage could speak, we wonder what tales they would tell. Today, every nook and cranny of the 100-year-old house retains many of the historical quirks and idiosyncrasies of the original building, but it’s elevated by a contemporary look and feel. The rooms depict the pinnacle of heritage and are hauntingly beautiful while conjuring a heavy dose of nostalgia. Every suite reveals a trove of treasures such as vintage trunks, hand-carved woodwork, an old-time-inspired standalone rain shower and toiletries plucked straight from Burasari’s top-rated spa. Its Nam Khan river-facing terrace has an extra-long happy hour and is one of those places where you end up just sitting back and staying all day. But actually the pampering starts back at the airport, when you’re picked up in a late-1960s Mercedes-Benz and every head in the city looks your way. That said, the best way to get around town is by bicycle and Burasari offers them for free to guests – it makes getting around a snap.
Burasari Heritage, 44-47 Khiri Village, Kingitsarath Road, Old Town, Luang Prabang, Laos; +856 71 255 031, burasariheritage.com
Where to drink
525 Cocktails & Tapas
Once upon a time, it was true that Luang Prabang was a sleepy town with not much to do after dark other than sleep. But today, thanks to an influx of well-to-do millennials discovering this in-the-know Southeast Asian city, there are a couple of bars that are looking to disrupt the bedtime routine and give guests a good reason to stay out a little later. 525 is Luang Prabang’s first craft cocktail bar and even in low season, it’s the most populous establishment in town. Here you’ll find local-inspired libations like the Sabaidee Laos made with kaffir lime leaves, jungle honey and homemade pepperwood bitters, and an espresso martini with flavours built around coffee that’s been sustainably harvested in northern Laos. Catering to those in both high heels and high tops, this lone craft cocktail lounge in Luang Prabang is the closest thing you’ll find to nightlife in Laos.
525 Cocktails & Tapas, 100 Noradeth Road, Ban That Luang, Luang Prabang, Laos; +856 20 5666 5046, 525cocktailsandtapas.com
Mande de Laos
Manda de Laos is evolving from just being known as an idyllic lily pond locale to being a go-to destination for the high society looking for imaginative post-sunset cocktails. The outdoor wonderland is oozing with whimsical luxury and is destined for rekindling the romance. Local flavours take centre stage on the menu and offer drinks built upon legacy, like the Laos Parinha made with Champa Kao vodka, cucumber and local ground rice. A hugely impressive wine list also offers an abundance of options.
Manda de Laos, 10 Norrassan Road, Luang Prabang, Laos; +856 71 253 923, mandadelaos.com
Where to swim
Luangprabang View Hotel
Luang Prabang is committed to preserving its heritage, so hotels aren’t allowed to excavate swimming pools within the immediate old town. But since temperatures often soar to a high hellish, finding an afternoon sip-and-dip is a must. Depending on the season, you might get lucky calling up the hotel nearest to you with a pool and blagging a swim, but we’ve found two you can count on. The Luangprabang View Hotel is perched atop a hill and its infinity-style pool offers sweeping 360-degree views of the terracotta-coloured town below. For 80,000kip (HK$72), you can contemplate life from this king-size pool all day with enough sun loungers and umbrellas for everyone. Chances are you’ll be soaking solo, too.
Luangprabang View Hotel, Phou Meo, Thai Lao Friendship Road, Luang Prabang, Laos; +856 71 260 560, luangprabangview.com
Grand Luang Prabang
If you’re after some serenity like something out of a period piece by Sofia Coppola, head to the Grand Luang Prabang. Nestled along the banks of the mighty Mekong, the hotel is seeping with some seriously rustic chic vibes. Sitting elegantly within the grounds of Xiengkeo Palace, the main house was the previous home of nationalist hero Prince Phetsarath and is the centrepiece of the estate. But what is arguably the hotel’s most understated splendour is its groundskeepers – a dozen water buffalo that trim the property for breakfast every morning. The swimming pool is tucked away on a remote corner of the property and is backdropped by hazy mountains, where the loudest sound you’ll hear is the meditative flow of pool water and the occasional cicada chirping. Bring a book, water and an insulated bottle full of wine because there is no bar in sight – it’s just you and the view. Best of all, entrance is free.
Grand Luang Prabang, Ban Xiengkeo, Khet Sangkalok, Luang Prabang, Laos; +856 71 253851, grandluangprabang.com
Where to caffeinate
The low-key best takeaway from northern Laos is its outstanding coffee (for bean addicts, anyway). Most of the cafes in Luang Prabang actually double as social enterprises and Saffron is a shining example of that. The profit-for-purpose cafe sources its beans from Laotian hill tribe farmers, and are shade-grown, hand-picked, processed and hand-sorted. In fact, Saffron buys all its coffee from ethnic minorities to provide them with an income and they bag four different kinds for customers to take home. Its Mekong-facing location also helps with its popularity and makes it a sublime spot for sunset.
Saffron, Khem Khong Road, Ban Wat Nong, Luang Prabang, Laos; +856 71 212 915, saffroncoffee.com
Cafe de Laos
If you find yourself perusing the boutiques on Sisavangvong Road, Cafe de Laos is an aesthetically pleasing coffee shop in the heart of it all. And if you’ve never tried siphoned coffee before – a luxurious slow brew done mostly by hand that requires precise temperature, attention and skill – the trend has made its way to Luang Prabang and its elegance echoes the atmosphere inside. The balcony at Cafe de Laos is prime real estate for people-watching and also makes a fantastic backdrop for photos, especially if you happen to catch a young monk scurrying by en route to neighbouring Vat Sensoukharam.
Cafe de Laos, 93 Unit 03, Phonheuang Village, Luang Prabang, Laos; +856 71 253 553, cafedelaos-burasari.com
What to do
Rise with the sun (and the fog) and take part in a humbling alms-giving ceremony, in which hundreds of saffron-robed monks traverse the streets of Luang Prabang. The harmony that exists between the monks and the alms-givers, who nourish them with their daily meal, is a centuries-old practice that lives on openly in Laos. Guests to the city are invited to take part in the sacred experience, but we’re inclined to suggest that you think twice before throwing on an Instagram outfit just to cop a shot – a moment which might be better suited for sunset.
Sunset River Cruise
Board a riverboat just before the sun starts to set and explore unspoiled vistas of riverbanks lined with cascading micro-gardens, bamboo groves and banana trees as the sun drops behind the misty mountain tops. River cruises along the majestic Mekong are plenty and popular, so choose wisely. We recommend spending a little extra on luxury; otherwise, you’ll end up with an audience. Mekong Kingdoms departs from the Avani Hotel and is a fine choice for those looking to share a luxury riverboat. Or you can hire a boat for yourself with a private chef on board through hotels like the Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao.
This piece was written by guest contributor Olivia Wycech