Celebrity spotting has never really been my strong suit. Once, at Nell’s in New York, I spent a whole evening sitting next to Al Pacino thinking he was an over-tanned, gold-bechained banker rather than one of the most successful actors of his generation. ‘What does Al do?’ I asked my friend, who was obscurely related to him, later in the taxi. ‘What do you mean, what does Al do?’ he replied.
But in the sharply air-conditioned oasis of the Amantaka library in Luang Prabang, it is Mr Smith who fails to clock the boyish Hollywood megastar being discreetly ushered to his room by the GM. Distinctly un-Dunhillish in dressed-down trackie pants, and with what I can’t help thinking is a rather bogan bottle-blond job, he does look more backpacker than Cool Britannia pin-up. But that’s Jude Law alright. I’d recognise Sienna Miller anywhere.
Our frisson with fame is fleeting. Luang Prabang is too much of a star attraction herself to allow for lengthy distraction. It’s day two of our stay and our retreat back to the hotel – OK, and the scrumptious afternoon tea, complete with pandan leaf–covered delicacies – is short and sweet. It’s time to climb the mountain and see this charming Laotian backwater from above.
Mount Phousi is a modest, fin-like hill at one end of the little isthmus running between the great Mekong River and its tributary, the Nam, that essentially defines the heart of Luang Prabang, and, by default, the spiritual ground zero of Laotian Buddhism. At night, spot-lit in the smoky agricultural haze that pervades the town in spring, its graceful golden stupa seems to float above the town like a benign religious UFO. After a sweaty ascent – we’re too hot to count the steps – we also realise it attracts 99 per cent of the local insect and gecko population; the white walls of the temple look like an Agnès B shop display in the pulsating late afternoon sunlight. Below us, the town stretches out lazily towards the river, and glints of gold cross the hilly countryside. It’s all so transfixing we stay too long and have to take the long way down at dusk, mosquito swarms following us like thought bubbles. The back path releases us at one of the town’s countless temples. The courtyard is deserted save for a mangy dog or two, while the boy monks say their evening prayers inside.
These days, Luang Prabang is (understandably) the hottest destination in Asia. It’s enjoyed a privileged Unesco World Heritage status since 1995, and is now considered to be the best preserved and most authentic small town in the whole of former Indochina. Development in Luang Prabang is small-scale and low-rise and, out of respect for its living Buddhist culture, none of the central hotels have a swimming pool. Traffic is light and slow, and you are as likely to be overtaking one of the rickety local vintage cars, as they are you. This place is a genuine boutique bolthole.
We’re guiltily glad, though, that Amantaka sits just outside the rectangular central grid. Not only does it have a grand swimming pool – we do desultory laps each morning – but our suite also has its own terrace and smaller pool. It’s a perfect example of heritage restoration. Once the Catholic hospital, its clay-tiled and generously veranda’d dormitories stand sentry around an elongated, grassy central compound and it’s hard to spot the one modern addition to the pack. An air of genteel and restorative calm is established within its walls; you can almost sense the wimpled nuns gliding about with tiffins while poor consumptive locals lie wanly on the beds inside.
The suite itself is a model of understated elegance. Mr Smith thinks it verges on the antiseptic, but I love it. High ceilings accommodate the mosquito-netted four-poster bed with ease; pistachio-coloured shutters throw shadows on the white walls; the bathroom sports a jaunty art deco look with its black and white tiles and retro fan. All that’s missing are our linen suits, sun hats and a scratchy gramophone record for sundown. The common areas are very Foreign Correspondents Club too – convivial, ceiling-fanned rooms neither cavernous nor cramped. We take dinner in the dining room on our first night – a fiery four-course Laotian feast complete with the region’s ubiquitous speciality sausage – and think ourselves very The Year of Living Dangerously.
Luang Prabang has that kind of effect. Chronology recedes, timelessness exudes, and the power of place levels locals, monks, travellers and even celebrities. On our last cycle through town – an old-fashioned upright bike with basket is the de rigueur vehicle – we overtake our friends from the library and share a languid hello. Mr Smith recognises them this time, but nobody bats an eyelid all the same.