HID­DEN GEM

Silkair’s thrice-weekly flights to the for­mer Lao­tian cap­i­tal and UNESCO World Her­itage Site of Luang Pra­bang of­fers di­rect ac­cess to the her­mit king­dom.

Robb Report (Malaysia) - - Global Luxury - By AARON DE SILVA Photo PAUL SPIERENBURG

“ On the 25th of July I reached Louang Pra­bang, a de­light­ful lit­tle town ... con­tain­ing a pop­u­la­tion, not, as Mgr Pal­le­goix says in his work on Siam, of 80,000, but 7,000 or 8,000 only. The sit­u­a­tion is very pleas­ant ... Were it not for the con­stant blaze of a trop­i­cal sun, or if the mid-day heat were tem­pered by a gen­tle breeze, the place would be a lit­tle par­adise.”

So wrote the French ex­plorer Henri Mouhot in his di­ary, Trav­els in Siam, Cam­bo­dia and Laos, 1859–1862. Mouhot is best r ememb er e d for pop­u­lar­is­ing Angkor Wat in the West. If he had paid a visit to the town dur­ing the cool sea­son (Novem­ber to Fe­bru­ary) as I did, his opin­ion of its par­a­disi­a­cal sta­tus might have been some­what dif­fer­ent. Perched at the con­flu­ence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and sur­rounded by ridges shaped like dragon backs, the town wakes to cool, crisp morn­ings and is lulled to sleep by a pleas­ant chill.

The pop­u­la­tion might have swelled to 56,000 now, but the sit­u­a­tion, as Mouhot wrote, is no less pleas­ant: the touris­tic hordes have yet to dis­cover the charms of this In­dochi­nese gem. In any case, Luang Pra­bang’s UNESCO World Her­itage Site sta­tus, con­ferred in 1995, serves to reg­u­late the pace of devel­op­ment. So for now at least, the vibe is lux­u­ri­ously laid-back, the per­fect an­ti­dote to ur­ban hus­tle.

I’m a g uest of S ilkair ( www. silkair.com) – which be­gan its thrice­weekly flight to Luang Pra­bang in late Oc­to­ber – and of Aman­taka ( www. ama n . com), the town’s premier digs with 24 suites set in a se­ries of low- slung French colo­nial

The town wakes to cool, crisp morn­ings and is lulled to sleep by a pleas­ant chill.

build­ings. “It’s fan­tas­tic that Silkair is fly­ing here,” says Don­ald Wong, the prop­erty’s gen­eral man­ager. “It’s open­ing up to new mar­kets, be­cause (pre­vi­ously) it was dif­fi­cult to get to Luang Pra­bang. And with Sin­ga­pore be­ing a hub, it’s eas­ier for peo­ple from Europe or Amer­ica to come here di­rectly.”

The lux­ury mar­ket in Luang Pra­bang is tiny, with only a hand­ful of big-name op­er­a­tors ( Aman, Bel­mond and Sof­i­tel) and small bou­tique ho­tels cater­ing to the well-heeled.

But there is so much on of­fer for the in­trepid lux­ury trav­eller: cul­ture in spades; ex­clu­siv­ity and pri­vacy (Aman­taka does not list its ad­dress; Google Maps will in­di­cate an in­cor­rect lo­ca­tion, a de­lib­er­ate ruse to thwart pry­ing eyes); a re­fined cui­sine that bor­rows el­e­ments from the Thai and Viet­namese culi­nary vo­cab­u­lary; and a vi­brant artis­tic scene cen­tred on tex­tile weav­ing.

Aman­taka, though seven years old, feels like it has been there for­ever. And therein lies the beauty.

The Aman brand is known for mesh­ing un­ob­tru­sively into the ver­nac­u­lar; per­haps nowhere else is this syn­ergy more har­mo­nious than here.

Lao­tian cul­ture is all about un­der­state­ment: its Buddhist tem­ples, though im­pres­sive in their own right, lack the pomp and cir­cum­stance of their Thai coun­ter­parts, or the sheer age and patina of their Cam­bo­dian and Burmese neigh­bours. In this re­spect, the Aman ethos of sim­plic­ity and re­strained el­e­gance makes for a per­fect fit.

The re­sort is the only Aman to boast of a per­ma­nent cul­tural ad­viser on staff: no less

“With Sin­ga­pore be­ing a hub, it’s eas­ier for peo­ple from Europe or Amer­ica to come here di­rectly.”

than Nithakhong Som­sanith, a de­scen­dant of the Lao royal fam­ily and a UNESCO World Her­itage Com­mit­tee mem­ber.

Nit, as he is af­fec­tion­ately known, acts as my guide for my four days in Luang Pra­bang. Nit is a ver­i­ta­ble font of in­for­ma­tion, a walk­ing Wikipedia of Lao cul­ture. He guides me through the Baci bless­ing cer­e­mony, a calm­ing rit­ual meant to ac­cli­ma­tise one’s ar­rival or de­par­ture to a new en­vi­ron­ment. He ac­com­pa­nies me to a morn­ing alms of­fer­ing, ex­plain­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of the prac­tice where lo­cal towns­folk of­fer sticky rice and other ed­i­bles to pass­ing con­tin­gents of monks and novices. It is, for many trav­ellers, a high­light of the Luang Pra­bang ex­pe­ri­ence, and cer­tainly one of mine.

Fi­nally, he takes me to Wat That Luang – the Monastery of the Royal Stupa, a sanc­tu­ary as­so­ci­ated with the roy­alty of Luang Pra­bang – where I ob­serve an evening ses­sion of chant­ing and med­i­ta­tion.

It is a calm­ing, spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence that is sought af­ter by many Aman guests – Nit re­veals that three years ago, he ac­com­pa­nied An­to­nio Ban­deras on a morn­ing chant, af­ter which the ac­tor helped to clean the tem­ple grounds.

The French have a say­ing: ‘ The more things change, the more they stay the same’.

For hun­dreds of years, the same Buddhist chants have re­ver­ber­ated across the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. I sus­pect that if Mouhot were alive to­day, he would find fa­mil­iar com­fort in Luang Pra­bang. •

If Mouhot were alive to­day, he would find fa­mil­iar com­fort in Luang Pra­bang.

Aman­taka lies at the heart of the Luang Pra­bang penin­sula, tucked be­tween the banks of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. Fac­ing page: Wat Ho Siang.

The 150m-tall Mount Phousi of­fers sweep­ing views of Luang Pra­bang and sur­rounds. Fac­ing page: the Mekong River is the lifeblood of Laos.

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