In the fading heat of the afternoon, we arrive at Satri House. A languid boules game is in progress opposite, and the rack of antique black bikes outside suggests the day’s exertions are largely over for the rest of the guests. From the street, the property is modest and unshowy. It’s a smart, daffodil-yellow colonial house that looks more civil service bridge club than mini royal palace, although we learn later that it was built somewhere at the beginning of the 20th century (no one really seems able to pinpoint a date) for a minor Laotian prince.
Once inside, a generous and more traditional complex opens up, with different buildings creating a series of courtyards and gardens, beautifully manicured and scattered unobtrusively with tables and chairs or sunloungers – several of which we trial over the course of our stay, books and lop-sidedly mixed G&Ts in tow. Our room, though – all creaky polished wood floors, ‘ethnic’ sepia photographs, billowing mozzie nets and signature silk soft furnishings – is at the front of the original house on the street. It’s not the biggest room in the hotel, but it has an intimate, deeply sexy charm. From the broad balcony I watch the boules game below. Is that money I see changing hands? There’s clearly a book running; it’s a distinctly Asian version of French post-colonialism, after all.
Dinner is equally Indochine. Old friends also in town join us at our candlelit table by the pool to share a wonderfully eclectic mix of bean-sprouty spring rolls, spicy fish curry and soft, I’d-swear-they’re-from-the-Rue-de-Buci baguettes.
Something happens in the balmy hill station air; we get to reminiscing and before we know it we’ve retired into the genteel deco drawing room and are swilling cognac in big glasses and taking up smoking again. Mr Smith looks so handsome with a cigarette. We are almost inspired to wire in a story on communist insurgents and return to our rooms to finish our novels to the smell of burning mosquito coils.
A leisurely two-wheeled excursion around town the next morning does little to shake our Graham Greene-ish torpor. There’s something about a wicker basket that makes you pedal slower, too. Desultory temple-touring ensues – they are strangely exquisite, low-eaved, jauntily painted things – with frequent stops on either side of the long, finger-like promontory that constitutes downtown Luang Prabang to gaze out over the two rivers that frame it. Both are dry and low, with the Mekong narrowed at points by sandbanks. But its grandeur is unmistakable – in full flood it must be both monumentally awe-inspiring and completely terrifying. Later, we catch a boat and follow a series of bamboo walkways to the other side and explore more temples, almost alone. At one temple, three children point to a fissure in the rocky hillside and lead us in pitch darkness down a hundred steps to a forlorn cave full of broken Buddhas. At another, a barefoot monk with an Elvis Presley hairdo strums an out-of-tune guitar. Everyone, including us, is on the verge of sleep, even the boy collecting a toll at one of the bridges. We tiptoe past guiltily.
Heartily pleased with ourselves after our day of high culture, we return to the petit palais for a nap of our own, first by the pool, then, after a cooling shower, in the four-poster privacy of our room. At this point, Mr Smith gets it into his head to check his email. Now, the internet has certainly made it to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, but only on its own terms. That extends to intermittent wireless broadcast to the front rooms of Satri House. A person in Armani-like silk trousers is summoned to no avail. The manager is called and there appears a short, athletic Frenchwoman with a severe haircut and more evidence of the faint echoes of Gallic imperialism. She is at a loss to explain the lack of a signal. ‘Well, it works for me,’ she offers, with that shrug that French children must be taught in Grade One.
Mr Smith is mildly outraged – he is prone to mounting the high horse of moral dudgeon – but I find it rather endearing. Don’t we require the French to be nonchalant? And who on earth needs broadband in heaven anyway?
So heaven is what we give ourselves over to – up at the crack of dawn the next morning to witness the famous alms-giving ceremony, into the jungle during the day to swim in cascading waterfalls, and back at night eating Luang Prabang sausage on the banks of the Mekong. This town weaves a special spell – laid-back backwater and place of pilgrimage, exotically foreign and strangely familiar, simple, sophisticated, rustic, refined – and there’s no better vantage point to enjoy it than from that balcony outside Room No. 1 at Satri House.
The boules game is still happening when it’s finally time to leave. I know I’ll be back and, if they’re still at it, I’ll wander over and put down my own stake on the little card table on the gravel – and then I’ll never go home again.