Old-world charm meets modern-day convenience in the blissful surrounds of Amantaka, an elegantly remodelled colonial hotel with shady verandas. High ceilings and four-posters hark back to the grand old days of travel, while private pools, Bose sound systems and a state-of-the-art spa herald the here and now. Aman enthusiasts will rub their hands with glee as they discover this charming addition to the collection.
Twenty-four suites, including 16 with private pools, and two private villas.
Noon, but flexible; until 6pm you’ll be charged 50 per cent of the nightly rate (after that, an extra night's charge applies). Check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £977.31 ($1,217), including tax at 17 per cent.
Half-board rates includes breakfast, either lunch or dinner, non-alcoholic beverages, airport transfers, use of Amantaka bicycles, Tuk Tuk or car transportation within Luang Parabang, fresh cookies, local snacks and fruit.
Amantaka offers tempting Guest Experiences for immersion into the Luang Prabang scene, including exploring the old city on foot, making a temple offering, or visiting the Buddhist Archive, which showcases restored photos of monastic life dating back to the 19th century.
At the hotel
Free WiFi throughout, library with laptops, gym, yoga studio, boutique and art gallery, gardens, free laundry services (excluding dry cleaning). In rooms: Bose stereo, iPod dock, preloaded iPod in Mekong and Amantaka Suites, minibar, Lemongrass House toiletries.
Our favourite rooms
Ouch, tough choice with all those private pools on offer. Pool Suites 14 and 15 both offer views towards temple-topped, mist-swathed Mount Phousi. Khan Pool Suite 7 has an extensive garden hidden beneath tropical trees. The two Amantaka suites are simply enormous, but you might lose each other from time to time.
Lucky couples in a pool suite can live the celebrity lifestyle sprawled by their private pond. The main pool is spacious enough for serious swimmers and is nicely cushioned between the gym and spa, depending on your mood.
The Amantaka Spa boasts steam and sauna rooms and a double Jacuzzi. There are four treatment rooms, where therapists dole out herbal poultices, traditional, oil-free Lao massages, body wraps and exfoliations and beauty-boosting facials.
Pack an iPad to ensure the beautiful people assume you are a novelist or scriptwriter and even more beautiful (in social standing, of course) than them.
A four-night minimum stay applies from 20 December to 3 January. Smoking in outdoor areas only.
Kids are welcome at Amantaka. Cots and extra beds for under-12s are free. In a nice touch, an infant welcome basket is prepared with baby wash and talcum powder. Babysitting is free for the first three hours, then costs US$5 an hour.
Kids are welcome at Amantaka. Cots and extra beds for under 12s are free. In a nice touch, an infant welcome basket is prepared with baby wash and talcum powder. Babysitting is free for the first three hours, then costs US$5 an hour.
All ages. The Aman hospitality extends to Junior Smith.
All the rooms are incredibly spacious, but the pool suites will keep splashy younger Smiths amused.
Many of the Aman Experiences – tours of the local waterfalls and bear sanctuary, elephant trekking and attending dance performances – are great for kids, too. No doubt their eyes will light up on visits to the colourful, bustling local markets.
Children are welcome at the large swimming pool.
There is a special kids' menu available at any time.
With two hours’ notice, a nanny can be arranged. The service is free for the first three hours, and US$5 an hour after that. A breakout beckons…
No need to pack
Cots, high chairs and most other baby equipment can be provided by the hotel, although you will have to bring a buggy. Be sure to book cots and extra beds in advance of your arrival.
Gravitate to the poolside terrace on a balmy evening. Stars above, oil lamps below, this is why we love to travel. For a table that tops all others, request a romantic dinner in the courtyard of your suite, complete with a private butler, traditional Lao
Mod-colonial to suit the surrounds (it is set in a building resonating with old-world charm). By mod we mean modern: make sure Mr Smith doesn’t crack out his parka and start singing Jam anthems.
Sample some sensual Lao flavours with mok pa (steamed fish in banana leaf) in the colonial-style Dining Room, or play closer to home with a duck ragout. For a more casual lunch or dinner, stake out the airy Pool Terrace.
Combining black-and-white photos of Buddhist monks with elegant teak sofas, rattan armchairs and trad newspaper racks, the Lounge Bar is open on demand for all guests. Enjoy a Laojito: we won’t spoil the surprise.
The restaurant is officially open from 7am–10pm, but guests can order meals at any hour in keeping with Aman’s philosophy of ultimate hospitality.
Available 24 hours, room service spans a selection of Lao and Gallic-influenced dishes.
Amantaka is located in central Luang Prabang, in what was the hospital during French colonial times. The temple district and night market are just a short walk away.
Several regional airlines offer connections to Luang Prabang International Airport (www.luangprabangairport.com), about five kilometres from the hotel. Amantaka arranges transfers for guests (US$25 a person).
Self-drive is not currently possible in Laos. Luang Prabang is relatively remote so arriving by car is not recommended – capital Vientiane is 10 hours away.
If you're coming from Northern Thailand and the Golden Triangle, slow boats connect border town Huay Xai and stopover Pak Beng en route with Luang Prabang. Luang Say Mekong Cruises (www.luangsay.com) is the most comfortable operator, but it’s hardly Aman.
Worth getting out of bed for
Sign up for one of the many Aman Experiences beyond the sanctuary that is Taka. Visit the Buddhist Archive, a collection of restored photographs dating back to the 19th century that has been put together by enlightened monks. Well, we’re not sure they are fully ‘enlightened’ in the strictest sense of the word, but they were certainly forward thinking to start their collection in the 1880s. You might also like to spend an afternoon discovering Lao textiles and weaving, visiting Pak Ou caves, or taking an elephant ride through the forest. The concierge can tailor just about any trip or experience to suit.
Don’t be put off by cheesy images of 1980s castaways. Blue Lagoon(+856 71 253 698; Ban Choumkhong) is an elegant eatery serving up Lao spice and French fare. For authentic Lao cuisine, try casual, café-style Tamarind (+856 (0)20 777 0484) on Ban Wat Nong. Its cooking classes also come highly recommended. For colonial grandeur head to Villa Santi (+856 (0)71 252 157), on Royal Sakkarine Road, a former royal residence with a fab terrace for people-watching.
Come morning, look no further than Joma Bakery Cafe (+856 71 252 292; Th. Chao Fa Ngum Road; www.joma.biz), famed for its Lao coffee, home-made cakes and feel-good shakes.
For colonial grandeur head to Villa Santi (+856 (0)71 252 157), on Royal Sakkarine Road, a former royal residence with a fab terrace for people-watching.
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. Some areas in the hotel were once the part of 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.