Enjoy life on the other side at The Apsara Rive Droite, a chic little hotel that puts the ou (la la) back into boutique. The peaceful waterside setting, designer furnishings and delicious food act as an opiate. Join the in-crowd at this intimate, exclusive bolthole and leave the herd behind.
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Dinner for two at the Apsara Rive Droite restaurant, excluding drinks
Officially noon, but flexible depending on availability. Check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £121.58 ($130), including tax at 20 per cent.
Rates include breakfast and return airport transfers.
While everyone else is tuk-tuking around, guests at Rive Droite get to arrive in the centre of town on the hotel's own boat. Just hold those heels until you are on dry land though, Mrs Smith, as there are lots of stairs at either end of the crossing.
At the hotel
Free WiFi in public areas, bicycles, gardens. In rooms: minibar.
Our favourite rooms
Numbers 8 and 9 are poolside if all the little geckos are making you feel like a lounge lizard. Room 1 has expansive (but no more expensive) views over the river to town.
Because of the small number of rooms, there’s a real sense of privacy by the pool. Although located on the banks of the Nam Khan, bamboo and tropical foliage hide it away from river traffic.
Some stylish silks from Jim Thompson, Thailand’s home of haute couture. You don’t own any? Oh, darling, make sure you do some emergency shopping while passing through the airport in Bangkok.
A minimum two-night stay applies.
Children under 12 years can stay for free in their parents' room, or extra beds for older kids can be added for US$30 a night.
During the dry season, position yourself outside and under the stars. If the rains are putting a dampener on things, then choose a cosy corner in the small bar-restaurant area.
Floral silks and slick stripes to keep up with the Jim Thompson fabric designs on display.
Offering a small but effortlessly sophisticated menu, the kitchen at the Apsara Rive Droite takes its lead from mother hotel the Apsara just across the river. Sample tasty treats with a twist, including dried beef and lemongrass salad or spicy buffalo sausage.
The Rive Droite Bar is open from 8am–10pm and offers the pull of poolside cocktails as the day wears on. Try the lychee daiquiri to shake off (or turn up) the tropical torpor.
Dinner is served until 9pm, if you fancy a night in.
You’ll have to dress and hit the restaurant as there's no in-room menu. Feel smug afterwards that you've done some 'exercise'.
The Apsara Rive Droite is located in a small village across the Nam Khan River from historic Luang Prabang, directly opposite sister property the Apsara. The hotel operates a boat shuttle across for guests, and also provides free bicycles and minibus transfers.
Several airlines fly into Luang Prabang International Airport (www.luangprabangairport.com), about three kilometres from the hotel. Flights from capital Vientiane take about 40 minutes. Free airport transfers are included in accommodation costs.
Self-drive is not currently possible in Laos. Chartering a chauffeured car from Vientiane via scenic Vang Vieng is an option for Smiths who want to relive their former life as ‘travellers’, although this takes about 10 hours.
Slow boats connect border town Huay Xai in northern Thailand with Luang Prabang, stopping in Pak Beng (often overnight) along the way. Luang Say Mekong Cruises (www.luangsay.com) is the smartest outfit, but trips during March and April can be hazy due to slash-and-burn agriculture. Avoid doing the journey by speedboat – it’s uncomfortable and, more importantly, unsafe.
Worth getting out of bed for
Make the most of the hotel’s bicycles by taking a ride around the local area to see how the real Lao live, away from the gentrified centre of Luang Prabang. Then traverse the seasonal bamboo bridge to come out at the north-eastern tip of the historic temple district. Weave your way through a few wats to earn merit or at least earn the right to a delicious pastry or home-made ice-cream at one of the nearby cafés. Return via the motorbike bridge and swing back to Rive Droite. Two sides of the river, two ways of life. Or try a romantic picnic, Apsara style. Cruise by boat up the Mekong River to an abandoned wat swathed in history and atmosphere. Your private butler will serve up an elegant lunch of east meets west delights, best enjoyed with bubbles.
Directly across the river on Kingkitsarath Road, the Apsara (+856 (0)71 254 670; www.theapsara.com) is a delightful stop for dinner. Try the lemongrass and coriander fishcakes. Yen Sabai Lao is a no-frills Laotian restaurant within walking distance of the hotel that is considered a must by expats in the know and with a nose for aromas. Just ask the concierge for directions.
When you're yearning for French patisserie and good coffee, head to Le Café Ban Vat Sene (+856 71 252 482; Sakkarine Road), one of the city’s first Western-style establishments. Take a table on the footpath and watch Luang Prabang go by.
Want a decent glass of red in a nice spot? Pack Luck Wine Bar (+856 71 254 839; Sisavangvong Road) has a sassy selection of drops from around the world and is a favourite watering-hole for expats.
The tiny launch is bobbing furiously in the fast current of the Nam Khan River. Our destination, the Apsara Rive Droite, is up the hill on the other bank, but first we have to negotiate steps, a bamboo dock and the rocking boat. The river is low and the boatman has certainly done this a thousand times, but it all adds to the sense of adventure. This is, however, not the place for high heels.
There are four paths to the hotel, sister to the well-established and chic Apsara, which is on the busy Luang Prabang side of the river. You can catch the hotel’s own ferry – a journey that takes two minutes, walk across a narrow bamboo bridge a few metres upstream, cycle over an old railway bridge with a path two planks wide, or take a taxi that loops round to the new concrete and steel bridge and takes 15 minutes. During our stay, we try them all – cycling is the most fun – and each time we congratulate ourselves on staying in a hotel with a view of the town but with the ambience of a village guesthouse. A rather luxurious guesthouse, it has to be said, with a large pool, manicured gardens and an excellent restaurant.
The Apsara Rive Droite lobby references Indochina in a modern way, with huge swaying lampshades, a row of glass Buddhas in bubblegum hues and a cartoonish mural of an Apsara girl from Angkor. Apsaras are celestial dancing water nymphs and Mr Smith notes a number lying in a row by the pool as we check in, before I distract him with the promise of a gin and It in our ground-floor quarters. The huge, shady room is richly furnished in dark wood in a style best described as masculine glamour. The Lao silk bedspread and giant wall hanging are in muted tones of sand, black and garnet, large green wooden doors lead onto the veranda and a fan stirs the tropical air. The walls are decorated with black-and-white photos of indeterminate vintage and, alongside the grand desk under the shuttered window, trigger vague ambitions of a literary nature. These are soon squashed by the sybaritic enticement of the wicker day-bed on our terrace with its view of the pool, gardens and the rive gauche beyond.
After a swim we test the crisp white and grey bathroom – the shower is big enough for two with a showerhead the size of a dinner plate. A sliding mirrored wall above the basin turns out to be a window into the room, allowing you to chat with your best friend in the bed next door. It’s a quirky touch that proves to be surprisingly congenial. Another friendly feature is the minibar’s moderate pricing, which means we use it as we would the fridge at home.
The Rive Droite is laid-back, very spacious – there are only nine rooms across two floors – and, although it’s only been open a few months, it’s the sort of place you feel you’ve been coming to for years. Ivan, a laconically witty Englishman who owns both establishments, seems to be in the two places at once, a useful feat as he’s on hand to explain matters to tuk tuk and taxi drivers who invariably take us to the old Apsara. Memo to hotel: print the directions on your address cards in Lao as well as English. The manager is groovy, friendly, unflappable and totally efficient too, and the Lao staff members are fantastic, although the barman has an idiosyncratic touch with the gin and tonic, serving it in three separate glasses – one for spirits, one for ice and an empty third in which to introduce them both to the mixer.
When it comes to dinner we are on much firmer ground. The hotel’s big sister is famed for its fare and the smaller menu at the Rive Droite is equally stunning – definitely the best meal of our stay. Like the interiors, the food dabbles in a range of influences but isn’t a slave to any. A lip-smacking Lao version of baba ganoush is served alongside a papaya and beef salad, spicy noodles with pork and delicious crumbly sausages. I don’t know if there is a Lao word for piquant, but this would be the time to use it.
The hotel, in common with several other lodgings in Luang Prabang, offers guests the free use of bicycles – the glorious old-fashioned sort with baskets, dynamo lights and kickstands. The rutted village lanes around the Rive Droite give our buttocks a good work-out, but this is the best way to explore the vicinity, as well as get into town to experience the temples and architecture. Being on the undeveloped right bank of the Nam Khan also means we can discreetly watch the dawn alms-giving, a daily exchange between monks and village women that, across the river, has become something of a tourist jamboree.
If you want to see locals being tourists and having a good time, head to Tat Kuang Si, a magnificent series of waterfalls and limestone swimming holes. It can be a hair-raising climb to the top if it’s been raining but it’s worth it for the views and the highest pool, which can only be reached by scrambling through the falls. On the way down we dally by the sun bear and tiger enclosures, housing animals that have been rescued from poachers. The Rive Droite organised the trip at short notice and for the same price you’d pay a town tour operator. If we wanted one, offers Ivan, our new best friend, he could rustle up a picnic in 20 minutes. When we get back, tranquil, fresh and clear-eyed, Mr Smith and I both agree that we’ve lucked upon a sanctuary built for the discerning and seasoned traveller.