Indulge in Laotian-style luxury with a French accent at BelmondLa Residence Phou Vao hotel, a tropical retreat overlooking lush jungle and shrine-studded hills outside Luang Prabang's historic centre. Optical illusions abound in this lush gardens, including a calming reflecting pool that seems to stretch from reception to the horizon and an infinity pool that appears to drop straight into the jungle. Spacious rooms are a mix of East and West, with rich rosewood finishes.
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability and at a cost of 50 per cent of the room rate. Check-in, 2pm, unless rooms are ready earlier.
Double rooms from $190.00, excluding tax at 21 per cent.
Rates include breakfast.
A traditional Baci ceremony offers an experience of Lao culture and poolside is the perfect place to have your wrists bound… in the best of local traditions of course. What did you think we meant?
At the hotel
Restaurant, bar, pool, spa, library, gardens, free WiFi throughout. In rooms: TV, balconies with day-beds, minibar, free bottled water, air-conditioning.
Our favourite rooms
Rooms 501 through 504 have spectacular vistas across the infinity pool and the lush valley beyond. For instant immersion in the swimming pool, rooms 101 and 102, just a leap away from the loungers, are the beds of choice. Large bathrooms boast tempting terrazzo tubs if you'd prefer to cool off in your bower.
The inviting 13-metre infinity pool overlooks the shimmering spires of the old town and the mist-shrouded mountains. Plus, it’s within a whisker of the bar/restaurant should waterside drinks be desired. There’s also a plunge pool in the soothing Mekong Spa complex.
In-house Mekong Spa offers pampering facials, body wraps, scrubs and massages, including couples' therapies, with treatments drawing on Lao herbal remedies and botanical ingredients from organic gardens and farms.
Stash the nattiest swimming costume you own in your Samsonite. A winter warmer may sound a tad OTT for the sub-tropics, but it won't look as silly as an acrylic pullover from the local market when the mountain air gets nippy.
All guests are welcomed with a drink in the Doc Champa Bar, but you'll find your gaze wandering to the infinity pool and those expansive, attention-demanding views. Smoking rooms can be requested.
Welcome. Baby cots are free, but extra beds for older kids will set you back US$60 a night. A babysitter is on tap for US$10 an hour.
Welcome. Baby cots are free, but extra beds for older kids will set you back US$60 a night. A babysitter is on tap for US$10 an hour.
Kids who don’t need a lot of flashy entertainment. This is a low-key destination.
All are quite spacious and can easily accommodate a baby cot or extra single bed.
This is a small city, so ask the concierge about getting your hands on some bikes to make the local wat-hopping a little more entertaining. Day trips involving elephant treks, rafting and hiking are a good distraction in the surrounding countryside.
Children are quite welcome at the infinity pool. There is no shallow end but a lifeguard is on duty from 8am–6pm.
The kitchen staff is more than happy to cater to junior tastes during restaurant hours, and can heat baby milk and food when necessary, or make up packed lunches. There are no high chairs.
Give the staff at least two hours’ notice and someone can look after the littlies for US$10 an hour.
Ask for a table as close to poolside as you can get without falling in. Wat Chom Si glistens on the horizon. Incurable romantics might consider booking the private Five Hundred Candle Dinner in the Spirit House garden.
Languid linens with a hint of mischief – and layers for when the night turns cool. Go on, get out your pashmina!
Phou Savanh Restaurant, open throughout the day, has a dramatic location perched above Luang Prabang. The Lao food is sumptuously presented and infused with secret spices, and the French dishes are beyond magnifique.
The Doc Champa Bar offers the teaser of poolside drinks if you are feeling lethargic in languid Laos. Try the Legend of Indochina, a rum-based concoction with a veritable fruit salad of infusions.
Dinner is served till 10pm; drinks at the bar till 11pm.
Room service is up for grabs from 6am-10pm during restaurant hours and covers everything on the menu, including Lao and western dishes and tapas bites from the bar.
La Résidence Phou Vao is perched atop Kite Hill, about two kilometres south east of Luang Prabang's historic centre.
Fly into Luang Prabang International Airport. From there, pile into a taxi for US$6 (50,000 kip) for the four-kilometre drive east.
Self-drive is not currently possible. Organising a car and driver from capital Vientiane via Vang Vieng (a good stop for those who want to go rafting or exploring caves) is an affordable option, although it is a nine-hour trip.
Slow boats along the Mekong connect Luang Prabang with Huay Xai on the Thai border and Pak Beng. Luang Say Mekong Cruises (www.luangsay.com) is a sophisticated overnight option for adventurers. Speedboats also do the trip but are considered extremely dangerous.
Worth getting out of bed for
Join a cookery class, or take a tuk tuk into Luang Prabang and get lost between the city’s temples and markets.
Sign up for a Lao cooking class with the expert chefs from la Résidence’s kitchen. Little-known Lao cuisine is sure to be a hit at your next dinner party with a difference – when’s the last time you had pét làap (duck salad) at the Browns? It’s US$35 to learn how to prepare a three-course meal, US$51 including a market tour or US$91 if you fancy personal tuition from executive chef Nicolas Reynard, who can also experiment with French creations if you want to unleash your Gallic gastronome (surely better than releasing your Gallic gnome?).
Explore the temples and ancient architecture of Unesco World Heritage site Luang Prabang, which was once the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom. Active types can hike to the Kuang Si Waterfalls; the hotel can also help with arrangements for cycling trips and gourmet picnics to local sightseeing spots such as Pak Ou Caves. It’s also worth rising early one morning to watch (not participate in) the procession of saffron-robed monks take their morning alms. This being an incredibly important Buddhist tradition, visitors should be respectful, stay back and observe the etiquette of the ceremony (remain silent, don’t touch the monks, women should kneel throughout, no photos).
Dinner shows? The horror, the horror. Not this time, as Roots & Leaves(+856 71 254 870; Setthathilath Road) has a special setting amid lotus ponds, coconut palms and fruit orchards with traditional Lao music, dancing and food. Set in a 1960s colonial-esque building, L’Elephant(+856 71 252 482; Bua Vat Nong) serves family-style French cuisine alongside traditional Lao dishes, using fresh herbs from the restaurant’s organic garden.
Come on, seriously? La Résidence has the best view in Luang Prabang, and from 3pm–5.30pm the Doc Champa Bar is transformed into the home of the high tea with finger nibbles, French patisseries and the finest Lao coffee. Why leave your sanctuary? For those willing to wander, Café des Arts (+856 71 252 162; Sisavangvong Road) is, as the name suggests, French inspired, serving pasta, burgers, tarts, omelettes and crepes. Another French-flavoured favourite is Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene; swing by this spot for coffee and pastries.
Inspired by the wine list at Phou Savanh? Head to Pack Luck Wine Bar (+856 71 254839; Sisavangvong Road), a cosy little spot in the historic old town, popular with the resident French expat community for its grapes and others for its grain.
Gerbet are those multi-coloured macaroons that shout French chic. They also feature prominently at La Résidence Phou Vao. Our driver plies us with them when he picks us up from the airport and we find a clutch of them under a glass dome in our room. The hotel does bi-cultural well, playing on Laos’ heritage as a former French colony.
La Résidence does a lot of things well, in fact. Views are a speciality – the breathtaking sort that combine a distant hill with a gold stupa winking in the morning light across a jade infinity pool and a froth of frangipani and swaying palms. Between us and the temple is the ancient royal town of Luang Prabang, but you’d never know it.
Flawless luxury is another thing it does exceptionally well. Our Deluxe Garden View quarters are in one of the large colonial-with-a-touch-of-chalet villas dotting the emerald slopes, linked by paths and bridges winding through shady thickets. The large room has wooden floors and furniture as shiny as a beetle’s wing, muted Lao textiles on walls, a chaise longue and a vast bed swathed in acres of bridal veil. This, presumably, is protection against the Lao mosquito, a creature so somnolent and lacking in killer instinct that we pinch the life out of a dozen before we’ve downed the first gin and tonic. Not very Buddhist, but we can’t help ourselves. The bathroom, with its green stone tub, is as big as the bedroom, and the stoppers on the bottles of shampoo and lotions are all hand carved in the shape of lotus buds.
Showering is given an alfresco feel by a wall of glass on to the balcony. There are blinds for the shy, although as Mr Smith points out, unless a peeping tom shinned up a coconut palm it is impossible to see in. At that moment a gardener with a machete starts climbing a tree across the lawn. It turns out they are up them every other minute, fixing lanterns, plucking fruit and collecting blossoms (bucket-loads of frangipani flowers are picked daily to be strewn over beds, tables and even down the loo).
Nature provides a helping hand a few minutes after our arrival when a five-star storm whips across the grounds, tearing off palm fronds, drenching and harvesting the festoons of waxy blooms and messing up the manicured lawns. We observe the show from our comfortable teak day-beds, and in 10 minutes it’s all over, leaving the place abuzz with staff, clearing, sweeping, righting umbrellas and, as the sun sinks, lighting hundreds of lanterns hidden high in the branches, lining the walkways and floating in the pool.
After so much excitement what is there to do but enjoy a massage at the Mekong Spa, billed as Luang Prabang’s finest? From the dozens of treatments on offer it is hard to choose between a traditional Mo Hom massage, promising the ancient healing art of the Hmong shamans, or the Sip Sen, a Lao therapy once exclusive to the royal family that guarantees to free the life force in a respectful manner. Recent history hasn’t been kind to the Lao monarchy so I plump for the Pherm Palang, an energising body-oil massage, which does the trick admirably.
As La Résidence styles itself as a resort, we decide to check out some of its services. The short Lao cookery course is fun (there’s a longer one involving market shopping), but better for children or complete wok novices. Our efforts with spring rolls, tiger prawns and pork stir-fry are later served to us by the pool with its floating tea lights. It’s a deeply romantic setting and the food – even the bits we haven’t cooked ourselves – is delicious, although for the culinary adventurer, perhaps a little safe. The French menu does look impressive, but we steer clear of it, picking our way through the local offerings instead. Later, in the narrow food alleys of the Night Market, we see an eye-popping array of fish, chicken, offal and sausages, lurid piles of vegetables and steaming vats of deep mystery. This is the genuine article, but one gets the impression that the typical guest at La Résidence hasn’t come for cultural immersion but small sips in a controlled, comfortable environment.
We decide to pass on the hotel’s other authentic cultural offering, the Baci, a traditional Lao welcome ceremony, but enjoy watching an unruly family of seven attempt union with the spirit realm while trying to video themselves doing so.
Our spiritual adventure is with Fhan, one of the hotel’s guides, an ex-monk with a gravely Yankie drawl and a deep knowledge of local history. He takes us on La Résidence’s wooden motor launch (for a rather pricey $US132) to Pak Ou caves, a complex of grottos with thousands of Buddha statues. It is just the two of us, Fhan, the captain and his missus, and an ice chest full of soft drinks, water and very good Beerlao. Sliding down the toffee-coloured Mekong, we pass dozens of locals in conical hats, squatting on the banks and islets and sieving the sand for gold.
It is a short trip, but an informative one: we never knew that teak was deciduous until we see stands of them stark and bare-leaved on the jungly banks. Nor could we have guessed that Lao whisky tastes better with a dead gecko in the jar, but we visit Ban Xang Hai, a village where they make the stuff. We also learn that even the captain of a teak motor launch can fall head first into the river (he comes up laughing, but that might be delirium) and that the Mekong can rise 50 metres in the rainy season.
As we climb the driveway back to the hotel we speculate whether the Hill of Kites, the hotel’s location, was named in memory of boys steering wind-tossed diamonds made from silk and paper, or eye-gouging raptors. We never do find out, but in the impossible comfort and relaxation of La Résidence Phou Vao it doesn’t seem to matter.
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