The Silkair airbus swoops close to the mist-shrouded Mount Phosi peak and smoothly glides into the tarmac from a four-hour trip from Singapore via Vientiane. And just like that we are in the mythical Land of the Lao people, whose practice of Buddhist Theravada is derivative of its animist and worship of ancestral spirits.
There are no high-rises in sight, no giant billboards selling expansive real estate, and the streets are mostly devoid of vehicles. We have arrived in Luang Prabang, the cultural heartland of land-locked Laos. Granted a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1995, this quaint town is a soft blend of crumbling colonial residences, gold temples, monasteries and extensive natural beauty from the nearby mountains and rivers.
EXPLORING THE OLD TOWN
There are four main roads in the old town making it easy to navigate by foot, by bicycle, or by tuk-tuk. There are also air-conditioned vans that can be hired at reasonable rates, as no taxis are available. Our first stop was the National Museum, the formal royal residence. Built in 1904 following the French Beaux Arts and traditional Lao motif, it now houses the country’s treasures — the crown jewels, various gold and silver accessories and royal gifts, including a moon rock given by then US President Richard Nixon to the king. Home to three generations of rulers, its majestic Throne Room is a huge red hall covered in Japanese glass mosaic depicting Buddhist veneration. The room was constructed in the 1950s to commemorate the Buddha’s 2,500th anniversary of ascension to Nirvana. Nearby, the king and queen’s reception area are all lavishly decorated. The family’s bedrooms are located behind the formal rooms, and are preserved in its original condition after they fled in 1975.
Laos has long ceased to be a monarchy. A provisionary government in 1975 replaced the king, but a lingering scent of royalty persists. On a tour through town, we passed a decrepit mansion, the residence of an aging princess, whose father was the crown prince. Farther down, facing the river, was a well-preserved estate, now a tony bed and breakfast that used to be the home of another sovereign. Around the corner, our guide pointed to the house of the former royal driver. Speaking of villas, there are plenty lining the main road, with shuttered windows and red tile roofs, transformed into cafes, hostels and shops. The French left a colonial stamp on the town’s architecture, that if not for the presence of the tuk-tuks on the road, it can fit easily at other French outposts in the Caribbean and Africa.
Around several corners, wats or walled compounds with their many temples and monk dormitories, can be found. Buddhist ceremonies are performed throughout the day, usually with temple drums heralding the start of prayers.
Dominating the life in Luan Prabang is the mighty Mekong River, whose winding waters flow from the Tibetan plateaus, down China, to Myanmar and Laos, skirting through the Thai border then to Cambodia, and finally Vietnam where it ends its journey at the South China Sea. It’s easy to imagine centuries of settlement feeding off the river, and these days, the Mekong embankments are central to the city’s booming tourist trade with numerous hostels, bars and restaurants all perched to face the mighty flow of the river.
A short drive away is the Elephant Village, a home for elephants that have worked in the logging industry and a Bear Sanctuary that houses the endangered Asian black bears.
Today’s Indochine, the previous protectorates of France composed of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, all boast of Aman properties, chosen mainly for its rich cultural heritage. In Luang Prabang, Amantaka is located on the grounds of a former French provincial hospital in the middle of town. A well-manicured driveway from the main road leads to the reception building elegantly upgraded to reflect the vestige of its colonial history. Guests are always greeted with cold towels and are led to the adjoining library for an afternoon tea served every 4pm. The resort is sprawled in low-slung buildings, around an expansive central courtyard of shady trees and a black-bottom pool. The left building houses Aman’s signature spa where expert technicians dole out the traditional oil-free Lao massage in between servings of a refreshing mildly scented cold Rosella tea. The treatment area maintains the cool elegance prevalent throughout the property. Across the pool is a modern gym and yoga room. Further along are the 16 suites with private pools and 8 regular suites all decorated in a restrained opulence on par with what one can expect from an aman property. Four poster beds and white phalaenopsis blooms in high ceilinged rooms are entered through green louvered doors, and one is swept inside a different era when travelers arrived with huge trunks and came with their own valets and lady’s maids.
At night, the center courtyard is transformed by tens of lighted paper lamps, and it is the perfect spot to enjoy an outdoor dinner while being serenaded by three Lao musicians wafting haunting tunes.
During the course of our three-night stay, we had conversations at various points of the day with the affable General Manager, Donald Wong, and his resident manager Zhatti, the Food and Beverage Manager Florian, and the chef Charlie. On our second day, the customary Buddhist Lunar New Year blessing was performed by monks for the staff of the hotel. With a broad smile, we were heartily welcomed by Paulet Custado, the resort’s Financial Comptroller who hails from Cebu. Paulet has been in Laos for eight years, and is one of the pioneers of Amantaka when it opened in 2009.
With more than 30 temples in this small town, Amantaka lists the tak bak or the alms giving at dawn, as a must-do. Locals, mostly ladies, set up outside their homes with big baskets of sticky rice or vegetables while a line or orange-clad monks arrive with their bowls, ready to received fistfuls of rice. This beautiful co-dependent system was set up centuries ago when Buddhism replaced animism as the main religion. Monks are at the mercy of a generous population, who become dependent on the blessings and goodwill that comes from such sharing. Outside the walls of Amantaka, we gave the monks from the closest temple fistfuls of red rice thoughtfully prepared by the kitchen of the resort.
Nearby, the day market vendors prepare early in the morning with their wares of fresh vegetables, herbs, various meats including croaking frogs and baby crabs, to be used for the day’s meals. Additional shopping is done at the night market, a long strip located on the main road, from 5pm to 11pm daily. The usual wares from this part of the world are silk and cotton fabrics sold as scarves or home accessories, some copper vases and of course, Buddhist beads and trinkets.
French influences remain strong in Laos. Peddlers sell crepes along the road, while baguettes and croissants are common staple. These are a good go-to for foreigners not accustomed to the spicy cuisine that locals eat. However, market delicacies are the tasty fishy variety caught in the Mekong River, among them are the tilapia and bream cooked as a local dish called mok pa, steamed in banana leaves and served with various jeow, the traditional dipping sauce. Florian, the resort’s F and B manager, relates that some of these fishes can grow to as much as tow meters in length where they breed in the depth of the river. An essential Lao meal is made of coconut milk, lemongrass and galangal seasoned with fermented fish sauce mixed with whatever meat is available and eaten with the compulsory sticky rice. Laos is a major producer of hops, the main ingredient for beer, and their Beerlao is a national pride highly regarded by locals and expats as the best beer in Asia. Not to be outdone are the prized coffee beans from the Boloven Plateau, the southern highlands of Laos. Noted to be outdone are the prized coffee beans from the Boloven plateau, the southern highlands of Laos. Noted for its cool climate and constant rain, this area grows the best Robusta and Arabica variety in Southeast Asia. Here, they drink cafe pakxong in glasses with condensed milk in the bottom, with croissant.
On our last day, we boarded Amantaka’s riverboat for a sunset cruise on the Mekong River. Armed with a picnic basket of chicken satays and crispy rice, a bottle of chardonnay in a bucket of ice, and some Beerlao, attended by a smiling valet, this was the best way to chill after a day of visiting the temples and silk weavers.
The riverboat took us upstream for about an hour. Just when the sun was about to set behind the forested mountains, our captains turned off the engine as we floated downstream on a golden watery surface. A soft breeze kept the heat away. It was the kind of episode that made it hard to say goodbye to Luang Prabang.