Travel Notes: Luang Prabang

By Douglas Clayton | January 2010

We have journeyed to the Land of a Million Elephants, also known as Laos, to visit the old royal town of Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is one of those places where even before the plane lands you already know you’re going to like it. The scenery as you descend is dramatic, with rugged, forested mountain ridges studded with gold and white pagodas, bisected below by winding mud-brown rivers. The airport turns out to be delightfully miniature and antiquated, and the immigration officers seem overwhelmed with the task of processing a small planeload of arrivals. Slow down folks, you’re in Laos.

A short drive to town brings you into the Southeast Asia of yesteryear; an architectural time capsule radiating with ambiance. The sprawling collection of colonial-era buildings led UNESCO to declare Luang Prabang a World Heritage Town in 1995. The New York Times named Luang Prabang the world’s top place to visit in 2008, and tourism dutifully spiked to 600,000 arrivals

“People come here to do nothing, because there’s nothing to do here”, our local friend explained. My only disappointment was the discovery that my Blackberry didn’t work, but soon I understood that that was the whole point. Luang Prabang forces you to decelerate and contemplate less stressful lifestyles over a cup of strong Lao coffee and an incredibly tasty pastry. My wife: “I’m ready to retire here; I’ll plant a vegetable garden like the one over on that riverbank.” Me: “Maybe I could start a coffee shop and learn to make pastries like this…”

So what’s the town’s magic formula? A blend of things. Cool, clean air. So few cars that you can walk to dinner down the middle of the road. Friendly, soft spoken people; the women still wearing traditional sarongs. No seedy nightlife, fast food, or tour busses. Period architecture uniquely mixing French and Laotian touches. An encircling panorama of layers of mountains and rivers. Buddhist monks in vivid orange robes emerging at dawn from ancient wooden temples with curving, overlapping roofs. The list goes on

We are encouraged to make side excursions to visit caves and waterfalls. But sadly we have come here to work, specifically to investigate the hotel market, which dominates Luang Prabang’s modest economy. For market research we visit every decent hotel and guesthouse in town, asking if they have any rooms left and what they charge. We get turned away repeatedly, and confirm by day’s end that local hotels are enjoying occupancy rates and room rates that would shock and awe their Cambodian counterparts. Demand has doubled over the past few years, while downtown supply has been constrained by the strict building preservation rules set by UNESCO (note to Cambodian officials: please come study Luang Prabang!) The upshot is that Luang Prabang is shifting up-market, with much of the new room supply catering to the super-premium segment.

All the hotels here are small boutique properties, and most are conversions. Imagination has been required, and has been delivered. Aman Resorts has transformed the former local hospital into the 20 room Amantaka, with rooms priced from $600-1,400 (in other words, for a bed for the night you can spend one or two years of per capita national income.) Another developer is turning the local prison into a similar quality luxury resort. We visit the site, and joke whether the new hotel will retain the former prison staff, or offer discounts to ex-convicts. But there are 400 workers toiling away on the site and it clearly will be a magnificent property.

Some of the hotels are former residences of Luang Prabang’s royalty, who lost their status and properties in the 1975 Revolution, to the future benefit of enterprising hoteliers. These include Maison Souvannaphoum, operated by Banyan Tree’s Angsana chain, the riverside Grand Hotel, and Villa Santi. All are done up nicely, but our personal favourite is La Residence Phou Vao, a hillside hotel run by Orient Express, which combines lovely views, spacious gardens, and tasteful designs throughout. If only we could afford the $230-580 room rates

An ample variety of restaurants and coffee shops have opened, and a few other tourism amenities are appearing, from a simple bowling alley to a high-end dinner theatre offering nightly cultural shows. The lengthy downtown night market ranks among Asia’s most pleasant. Luang Prabang’s first golf course is under construction, and the airport runway is being lengthened to accommodate jets instead of turbo-props. All this will only draw more numbers of tourists and add further upward pressure on hotel room rates.

It seems that Luang Prabang’s secret is out now, and its challenge will be to retain its appealing cultural identity in the midst of rapid demand growth. There is a risk of it becoming the victim of its own success, as high quality tourists don’t want to come this far only to see mobs of other tourists. Maybe like Bhutan, the government should impose an entry tax to keep the numbers down and the backwater charm intact. In the meantime we expect the hoteliers will quietly make a lot of money.

Timeless Luang Prabang

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