LAOS: As is the hallmark of Belmond Orient Express hotels around the world, the difference at La Residence Phou Vao, is in the details. Jane Hodges found it the perfect base for exploring the enchanting World Heritage city of Luang Prabang.
Perching serenely on Phou Vao, ‘the hill of kites’, overlooking the golden temple-crowned Phousi Mountain and Luang Prabang, the erstwhile ancient capital of Laos, La residence Phou Vao by Orient Express is my version of heaven on earth.
It’s the ideal base from which to explore the natural and well-preserved historic attractions of Luang Prabang – a beguiling finger of land at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it dates from the 143h century and was awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1995 for its intact and harmonious juxtaposition of ancient temples with traditional Lao wooden houses and French colonial architecture of the late 1800s.
At La Residence you’ll find great care is extended to ensure unfaltering service and a warm welcome. Genuine friendliness that doesn’t encroach on privacy, food that stars the local ingredients and pushes Lao cuisine to a new level, a wonderful in-house spa and a range of tour experiences enhance your stay and offer a real slice of local life.
Small-scale luxury is my favourite kind. On arrival I’m greeted by name and it feels very much like I’m staying with friends.
There’s an understated elegance to the furnishings that’s in keeping with the Orient Express brand – they are neither garish nor uber designer, but feature hand-crafted timber and exquisite locally sourced fabrics and artworks to create a cocoon where you feel immediately at home.
Here there are only 34 rooms. The larger Garden Suites (65m2) have mountain views and offer a bedroom and separate living area while the Junior Suites (55m2) command stunning garden, infinity pool and mountain views. All rooms are fitted out in rosewood cabinetry, a king bed or two twin beds, an enormous bathroom with terrazzo bath, an espresso coffee machine, a docking system for your phone and music, satellite television and a spacious private outdoor terrace with sun lounges.
The in-house restaurant Phou Savanh (the best I sampled in Luang Prabang) offers a fusion of French and traditional Laotian flavours. At dusk the pool terrace tables overlooking Mount Phousi are set with lanterns and a heady bouquet of frangipanis fills the air. A very special experience is the 500 Candle Dinner cooked and served alfresco by your personal chef in a private nook of the lush gardens. General Manager John Dopere assured me, “yes we really do light 500 candles. I have had guests count them! (Book this in advance, as there is only one per night.)
It’s a place made for relaxing and recharging. You may not care to do much else but loll around the pool or make a day of it sampling traditional Lao massage at the Mekong Spa. If you are so inclined, you can be tutored one-on-one in the finer points of archery by John, who draws on skills he honed in his early career as a wild boar hunter in Belgium.
Concierge can sort you out a visit to the local village food market and a cooking class with the chef; a dawn visit to see the Monks’ alms gathering ceremony (a real must); a half-day self-guided bike ride and picnic lunch; a half-day town or waterfall tour; or you can take the hotel’s own private luxurious long boat on a sunset cruise or a day excursion on the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Buddha caves, which includes village visits to see pottery, weaving and distilling of the notorious local (and lethal) lao lao whisky.
There are complimentary transfers into town (five minutes drive) so you can explore temples, cafes and bars along the Mekong, fantastic shopping for jewellery and locally woven textiles and the colourful night markets whenever you wish.
Concierge are particularly keen to engage and skilled in finding experiences that suit your needs. On hearing of my interest in Buddhist culture, one young fellow suggested I volunteer to teach at Big Brother Mouse, a locally-run independent organisation linking travellers with Lao locals (mostly monks, kids and tour guides) who want to learn English. For three hours I sat with four novice monks, helping them with their homework, laughing a lot, learning about their lives and answering questions about mine. It was something that money couldn’t buy.
Visa: obtain a 30-day visa from a Lao embassy before you visit, www.laosembassy.net <http://www.laosembassy.net> or a 15-day tourist visa upon arrival at Luang Prabang airport.
When to go: Laos is warm year-round. If tropical rains and humidity aren’t your thing, visit from November to March. Highly recommended is Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year), a water festival of epic proportions, 14-16th April.
To book contact La Residence Phou Vao by Orient Express www.residencephouvao.com <http://www.residencephouvao.com> email: firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>
or call 1800 217 568
Laos Tourism: http://www.tourismlaos.org