A gem of a find

An el­e­gant bou­tique ho­tel of­fers the lux­u­ries of re­fined ser­vice in a Unesco-listed town in Laos.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Travel - By PATSY KAM star2­travel@thes­tar.com.my

YOU know how some peo­ple call some places, sleepy hol­lows? Well, they weren’t kid­ding about Luang Pra­bang.

Imag­ine not hav­ing to fear cross­ing the road and get­ting mowed down by on­com­ing traf­fic. Ev­ery­thing moves at a mea­sured pace as no one is in a par­tic­u­lar hurry to get any­where.

It’s like time stood still here, yet I felt an ur­gency to get ac­quainted with the soul of this Lao­tian town be­fore change takes over, es­pe­cially with the in­tro­duc­tion of more di­rect flights into town.

Only a 15-minute drive from the air­port, the city cen­tre has all of four main roads. Just on the cusp of town sits Az­erai Luang Pra­bang, a cosy, el­e­gant bou­tique ho­tel of­fer­ing the lux­u­ries of re­fined, dis­creet and at­ten­tive ser­vice with­out any of the slick big city var­nish.

Hav­ing opened in March, Az­erai’s name was in­spired by founder Adrian Zecha’s ini­tials and the Per­sian word car­a­vanserai, which means “a rest­ing place with a cen­tral court­yard for trav­ellers”.

As renowned hote­lier Zecha’s first foray into Luang Pra­bang, the lodg­ings ex­ude quite a dif­fer­ent air of re­fine­ment from his usual su­per posh Aman re­sorts.

Rich but not too ex­trav­a­gant, classy yet not overtly grandiose, the two-level build­ing is a re­sult of a two-year re­con­struc­tion of the orig­i­nal foot­print of a unique site un­veiled over 100 years ago.

The ho­tel’s de­sign takes its cue from the ar­chi­tec­ture of the town, which boasts a re­mark­able fu­sion of 19th and 20th cen­tury French and Viet­namese el­e­ments, with sub­tle in­fer­ences to Chi­nese and Euro­pean aes­thet­ics.

In line with re­spon­si­ble tourism ac­cord­ing to Unesco guide­lines, the ho­tel was built to blend with the ar­chi­tec­ture of the sur­round­ing area. It can­not be above a cer­tain height; and the rooms must have large bal­conies.

Of­fer­ing cat­e­gory vari­a­tions of 35 sq m to 85 sq m, most of the 53 rooms en­cir­cle the swim­ming pool in the mid­dle, play­ing up the nat­u­ral aes­thet­ics of a 120-year banyan tree that has been in­ge­niously in­cluded in the ho­tel de­sign.

The sim­ple, clean lines of the in­te­rior of the prop­erty re­flect a thought­ful mar­riage be­tween cul­tural her­itage and con­tem­po­rary aes­thet­ics, and the lib­eral use of wood con­veys this un­der­ly­ing theme.

All the rooms are de­signed with a unique open plan con­fig­u­ra­tion with the bed tak­ing cen­tre stage.

Small touches such as twin van­i­ties, cof­fee- and tea-mak­ing fa­cil­i­ties, lo­cal snacks, mini-bars, wire­less In­ter­net and wall mounted flat screen tele­vi­sions add to the room ex­pe­ri­ence.

My room on the sec­ond floor over­looked the pool court­yard. What bet­ter way to start the day than to throw open the French-styled lou­vred doors that open out to the spa­cious bal­cony, and sip a freshly brewed cup of cof­fee!

I would have gladly hi­ber­nated in my com­fort­able room through­out my break, given the un­bear­ably hot tem­per­a­tures av­er­ag­ing 36°C at this time of the year; it felt much worse than Kuala Lumpur as it was a lot more hu­mid.

I kept imag­in­ing the beach was just be­yond the perime­ters of the ho­tel, but you get the pic­ture of the kind of vibe that’s per­va­sive here.

The mas­sage re­treat at Az­erai is lux­u­ri­ous and pam­per­ing. Prices are sur­pris­ingly af­ford­able with a num­ber of ther­a­peu­tic op­tions rang­ing from foot re­flex­ol­ogy to oil mas­sage avail­able.

Cu­ri­ous to know the dif­fer­ence, I tried a tra­di­tional Lao mas­sage. A gen­tler ver­sion of the Thai mas­sage, it must have been good as I fell asleep mid­way, so it was very re­lax­ing!

For some­thing more stren­u­ous, there’s a fully equipped gym, or you can do laps in the 25m pool. This is a rar­ity in Luang Pra­bang as (Unesco rules) ho­tels are not al­lowed to build swim­ming pools within a cer­tain ra­dius of the his­tor­i­cal cen­tre.

If you’re the book­ish sort, there’s an invit­ing Read­ing Lounge just above the Az­erai Bistro, where I had my break­fast and din­ner.

Bright and airy, the bistro of­fers clas­sic bistro, Lao and French-in­flu­enced dishes with both al fresco and in­door seat­ing. Lazy morn­ings are best spent here with a good book while en­joy­ing break­fast from the a la carte menu which of­fers Lao and Con­ti­nen­tal op­tions. Be forewarned as por­tions are gen­er­ous!

Din­ing at night takes on a dif­fer­ent mood as the bistro em­braces a more dreamy am­bi­ence. It also has a care­fully cho­sen se­lec­tion of both old and new world wines.

My favourite spot was the Bistro Bar, where guests can en­joy evening drinks on the veranda which looks out to the main street and main mar­ket.

Luang Pra­bang, which gets its name from the Pra­bang, a statue of Bud­dha of­fered by Cam­bo­dia, is home to some 30 Bud­dhist tem­ples (known as vat) and it has be­come a tourist at­trac­tion of sorts to catch the saf­fron-robed monks walk­ing along the streets col­lect­ing alms ev­ery morn­ing at sun­rise.

A few of the monks passed by the ho­tel, so the concierge kindly ar­ranged for a unique ex­pe­ri­ence whereby a bas­ket of glutin­u­ous rice was pre­pared for me to dis­trib­ute to them at 5am.

Lo­cated in a fan­tas­tic spot, lit­er­ally just out­side Az­erai is the night mar­ket and in the day, the same road of­fers plenty of other dis­trac­tions such as an­tique shop­ping, cook­ing classes, mu­se­ums, gal­leries, tem­ples, restau­rants of­fer­ing tra­di­tional Lao cui­sine as well as West­ern cafes with praise­wor­thy cof­fee and French pas­tries.

Ven­ture out and walk up Mount Phousi to en­joy the sun­set or take a river ride across the Mekong for ex­cur­sions to wa­ter­falls, caves, river vil­lages or the newly opened Botan­i­cal Gar­dens.

Az­erai Luang Pra­bang

Ban Hua Xieng, Sethathi­rath Road Dis­trict and Prov­ince of Luang Pra­bang

P.O. Box 1142 Laos

Tel No: +856 71 262333

Email: info.lu­ang­pra­bang@az­erai.com www.az­erai.com

A gen­eral view of the swim­ming pool and the rooms at Az­erai Luang Pra­bang, Laos. — Pho­tos: Az­erai Luang Pra­bang

Step­ping into the cozy lounge at Ho­tel Az­erai Luang Pra­bang, Laos, makes you feel right at home.

The spa­cious room looks through French-lou­vred win­dows to the large bal­cony and pool court­yard.

The saf­fron-robed monks are a com­mon sight in Luang Pra­bang, as they make their rounds in the morn­ing at sun­rise, col­lect­ing alms.

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