A New Tem­ple in Town

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS -

A new per­spec­tive on Luang Pra­bang through the eyes of a gamechang­ing re­sort proves there's plenty to dis­cover be­yond the town's her­itage quar­ters.

From the bal­cony of her lux­ury tent above the forested hill­side at Rose­wood Luang Pra­bang, Eloise Ba­suki gets a new per­spec­tive on the for­mer cap­i­tal of Laos, and finds there's plenty to dis­cover be­yond the town's her­itage quar­ters.

IT’S STORM­ING WHEN I AR­RIVE at Wat Phanom at 5:30 a.m. to be­gin tak bat, the Bud­dhist tra­di­tion of giv­ing morn­ing alms. I join a hud­dle of lo­cals tak­ing refuge in the small tem­ple six kilo­me­ters from the cen­ter of Luang Pra­bang with my guide Som­may, a for­mer monk and now the ex­cur­sion man­ager of the city’s new Rose­wood ho­tel. He pushes a wo­ven bas­ket of hot sticky rice into my hands, and we kneel on the floor as a stream of saf­fron-robed monks shuf­fle through the pavil­ion. So be­gins the daily merit-mak­ing process, paw­ing out fist­fuls of the steam­ing rice to the pro­ces­sion of monks for their break­fast. I’m the only for­eigner here, but the con­gre­ga­tion hardly no­tices. In this well-trod tourist town it feels good to be in­vis­i­ble.

Driv­ing back to Rose­wood we pass the loud throngs of red-eyed tourists fin­ish­ing up tak bat on the town’s main drag—this alms-giv­ing spot now avoided by lo­cals, Som­may tells me— and I can’t help but feel a lit­tle smug. Though no In­sta­gram post marks my tak bat ex­pe­ri­ence, Som­may has of­fered me a mo­ment to slip into real-life Luang Pra­bang.

When un­esco crowned the for­mer royal Lao cap­i­tal a her­itage site in 1995, the very aim to pro­tect the city in­stead cat­alyzed its pop­u­lar­ity (tourist ar­rivals quadru­pled by the year 2000,

and grew 30-fold by 2017). It be­came a con­stant pil­lar on the back­packer trail, as tu­bers from Vang Vieng peaced out in the city of tem­ples. Lux­ury names have cropped up through­out the decade, but the last two years has seen a re­cent spate—be­sides Rose­wood, a Sof­i­tel, an Az­erai-turned-Avani, and a Pull­man have opened— and with new re­fined eat­ing and drink­ing lo­cales, Luang Pra­bang is go­ing through a re­brand of sorts. But it’s not just about high-end hos­pi­tal­ity—as the city ex­pands be­yond the pro­tected old quar­ter that re­stricts new de­vel­op­ment, we’re en­cour­aged to ex­plore a lit­tle fur­ther as well.

THE ROSE­WOOD IS A 10-MINUTE drive from town, but the dis­tance is a bless­ing, not a curse. The 23-room re­sort is set at the foot of a small wa­ter­fall in the Ban Nauea neigh­bor­hood, with no sight­lines to civ­i­liza­tion. The prop­erty has the magic touch of de­sign le­gend Bill Bens­ley, whose stu­dio de­vel­oped ev­ery­thing from the French-Lao hill-sta­tion con­cept and The Great House open din­ing hall to the col­or­ful in­te­ri­ors in ev­ery river­side or wa­ter­fall-view room, suite and villa.

My room is up in the clouds, in one of the six 75-square-me­ter hill­top tents perched above the prop­erty. It’s a sweaty 100-step stair­way to heaven, but its hardly a trek: but­ter­flies and birds flit along the paved walk through bam­boo groves, ba­nana palms and tamarind trees, and streams trickle be­low swing­ing sus­pen­sion bridges lead­ing to your tent.

Ev­ery room is in­spired by per­son­al­i­ties of the re­gion: the Alix Aymé river­side villa mim­ics a stu­dio of the French artist and friend of the Lao royal fam­ily; the botan­i­cal-themed Ernest Doudart de La­grée pool villa hon­ors the 19th cen­tury French-Mekong ex­pe­di­tion leader and en­to­mol­o­gist; hill­top tents are named af­ter the re­gion’s hill-tribes. Mine cel­e­brates the

Lisu, a Ti­beto-Bur­man high­land tribe known for their col­or­ful cloth­ing. Dresses dec­o­rate the room, tra­di­tional pat­terns are hand-painted on walls and a tas­seled head­piece stands above the bed, from which my tent win­dow looks out to an over­sized bal­cony and the green be­yond be­low. I have reached trav­eler’s nir­vana.

Lux­ury comes in many forms at Rose­wood. Din­ner at The Great House is less fo­cused on white table­cloths and more on au­then­tic royal Lao, farm-to-table dishes. Ex­ec­u­tive chef Se­bastien Ru­bis is al­ways around to of­fer sug­ges­tions—for my din­ner he looks at the sky, con­tem­plates the hu­mid­ity, then se­lects a few sig­na­ture dishes to suit: oor lam gnoua,a braised wa­ter-buf­falo curry fla­vored with sakkhan root, and an off-menu but in-sea­son wild mush­room soup. Se­bas­tian, who has worked in kitchens across South­east Asia for the past 16 years, sticks to tra­di­tional Lao meth­ods, pound­ing all his pastes and sauces by hand, and fer­ment­ing lo­cal Mekong fish for the tra­di­tional lon som pink pork curry. “I don’t want to change Lao food—it’s not my cul­ture. I pre­fer to pro­tect tra­di­tion rather than cre­ate fu­sion,” he says. He’s also the man in the know for eat­ing-out tips: lo­tus-lake views at Manda de Laos; his for­mer work­place L’Ele­phant for French; Saf­fron for cof­fee; and up­scale drinks at 525, a fledg­ling cock­tail bar that is fi­nally re­fin­ing the way peo­ple drink in this town.

When I ar­rive at 525, a cloud has taken over the bar. Gen­eral man­ager James Cor­righan pours a fra­grant smoke made from pomelo- and or­ange-in­fused hick­ory wood into my chili­in­flected rum cock­tail, test­ing fla­vors for their new 525 Ex­pe­ri­ence menu. Since the bar opened in 2015, owner An­drew Sykes and James have been steadily el­e­vat­ing the orig­i­nal clas­s­ic­cock­tail menu to fea­ture more ex­per­i­men­tal drinks you’d find in big-city bars. James says the aim is to cre­ate a space where ev­ery­one feels wel­come—lo­cals, tourists, ex­pats—and it’s a world away from the Beer Lao and cheap rice­whiskey bars of the back­packer days.

AS A DE­VOUT BUD­DHIST AND FOR­MER monk for 8½ years, Som­may doesn’t join me for a drink, but opens up in other ways. “I’m not a guide that reads from a book, I just share my ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says on a tem­ple tour that ex­plores long-lost shrines across the Mekong. He talks frankly about the im­pend­ing Chi­nese high-speed rail­way that’s de­stroy­ing much of the nat­u­ral for­est, and the lone­li­ness of a re­cent six-month silent med­i­ta­tion. It was just af­ter this soli­tude stint that Rose­wood Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor Elias Pertoft ap­proached him for the

job; Som­may spent three months de­vel­op­ing the ho­tel’s core ac­tiv­i­ties, talk­ing to hill-tribe el­ders and vil­lage chiefs for ap­proval. “Som­may in­tro­duces guests to vil­lagers and shows their way of life,” Elias says. The goal is to make guests feel part of the cul­ture rather than just ob­serv­ing—or, in the case of the over­crowded city-cen­ter tak bat, de­struc­tively in­ter­fer­ing.

Tours that en­gage like this also help us bet­ter con­nect with take-home trea­sures. A pop­u­lar sou­venir stop in this city is at Ock Pop Tok, a fair-trade tex­tile en­ter­prise that sup­ports lo­cal women weavers of Laos and the tra­di­tional craft; Rose­wood’s tour adds an ex­clu­sive trip to the weav­ing vil­lage to meet the craftswomen, spin a silk-spool key ring and have a les­son on the loom.

On my last evening in Luang Pra­bang, Som­may takes me to Wat Choumkhong to ob­serve the monks’ evening chants. The vi­bra­tion of the hymns pulses through my chest, hyp­no­tiz­ing me into still­ness. Out­side the tem­ple, the golden Prah-bang Bud­dha stands tall with both palms fac­ing for­ward, a pal­la­dium of peace. Luang Pra­bang still em­bod­ies its name­sake statue, and now there are even more places to seek the seren­ity.

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY LEIGH GRIF­FITHS

Rose­wood Luang Pra­bang is set along­side its own pri­vate wa­ter­fall.

CLOCK­WISE FROMTOP LEFT: Morn­ing alms be­gin; a trip to Wat Phon­pao with Rose­wood guide Som­may; Kuang Si falls, an oa­sis in the jun­gle; a scarf is worn dur­ing tak bat as a sign of re­spect.

CLOCK­WISE FROMTOP: An­tique dé­cor and sig­na­ture Bill Bens­ley de­sign in Rose­wood's wa­ter­fall pool villa; hand­wo­ven scarves at Ock Pop Tok; noor tchou, a royal Lao bam­boo dip­ping sauce at The Great House.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: Rose­wood's Lisu hill­top tent at is dec­o­rated with trib­al­wear and Lao crafts; Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Pra­bang's best­known monastery; mix­ing creative drinks at 525; beds in hill­top tents look over the jun­gle.

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