Just Back From Laos

Ignacio Maza

 

 

Landlocked, isolated and unspoiled, Laos has recently become one of the top destinations in Southeast Asia. This country, off the radar for decades, is experiencing a renaissance. Laos was a key battleground during the long war in Indochina, which ended in 1975. Once the war ended, the country sealed itself off from the outside world. Recently, the government has opened the doors to tourism, and backpackers and sophisticated travelers are flowing in.

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Why come to Laos? First, it is one of the most authentic corners of Southeast Asia and it is a privilege to see it now. Secondly, the country is beautiful and has much to offer—nature, culture, ancient monuments, shopping, and outdoor adventures. Third, the people are warm, welcoming and charming. Finally, the pace is unhurried and peaceful—a far cry from the teeming cities in the region. There are more people in metropolitan Bangkok than in all of Laos!

La Residence Phou Vao
La Residence Phou Vao is a serene haven on a hill overlooking the towns and the hills beyond.

Top Sites: The No.1 destination for travelers is Luang Prabang. This charming, sleepy town on the Mekong River is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city, the spiritual heart of Laos, is surrounded by hills and is notable for its atmosphere and its blend of French colonial architecture and Buddhist temples. Luang Prabang was the country’s capital until the 16th century, when it was moved to Vientiane. Some of the top sights and activities are: the National Museum, a former royal palace with beautiful interiors and the sacred Phabang statue; the Wat Xieng Thong temple; the climb to the top of mount Phou Si (with great views, especially at sunset); and participating in the early morning Tak Bat, or alms giving ceremony, where you offer food and rice to hundreds of barefoot monks who walk past you in silence with their begging bowls. Spend some time walking along the riverfront, explore charming shops and the night market, and drink in the atmosphere. Outside of Luang Prabang, I recommend the day trip to the Pak Ou caves, a Buddhist place of worship and pilgrimage reached by longboat, about two hours away. You may consider the ancient and uncrowded temples across the river from Luang Prabang, or perhaps a visit to the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls, if you are “templed out.”

Beyond Luang Prabang: Experience Muang La, a great mountain lodge north of town, to enjoy hikes, bike rides, and treks to remote hill towns; fly to Pakse in the south to see the stunning Wat Phu Champasak temple (Laos’ second World Heritage Site and a smaller version of Angkor temples), or visit Vientiane, Asia’s smallest capital.

Where to stay: At the moment, there are not many four- or five-star hotels in Laos. Although the country’s hotel portfolio is not on par with the high-end hotels in Thailand or Vietnam, there are a number of charming hotels that offer great experiences and deliver good service.

Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong is a Buddhist temple situated on the northern tip of the peninsula of Luang Prabang.

In Luang Prabang, I recommend La Residence Phou Vao, an Orient-Express hotel. The resort is a serene haven on a hill overlooking the towns and the hills beyond. The hotel is not in the city center, but there is a shuttle service that takes you to a central location in town. The resort feels very intimate, as it has only 32 rooms and two suites. Rooms are spacious and have an open bedroom-bathroom plan, with a terrace. My favorite rooms are the mountain view accommodations close to the pool (101 to 107), and the garden view rooms (301 to 305). There are also two suites which have a separate living area that can accommodate a third person. The hotel has a beautiful spa, a great restaurant, and a refreshing infinity pool. The service is exceptional. Four staff members per room make you feel as if you were the only guest. 

If you want to stay in town, the top choice is Amantaka, a former hospital, with 24 individual bungalows spread out across a vast grassy courtyard and pool. Two other good choices are Maison Souvannaphoum, the former royal residence, or Villa Santi—both small, charming, boutique hotels. 

Practical Advice

A good ground operator is a must—especially having a guide with a good command of English. I traveled with Trails of Indochina and they did a phenomenal job. I had superb, knowledgeable guides; excellent drivers with cars in mint condition; and fantastic support planning my itinerary. Trails of Indochina can also arrange special experiences in Laos, including a visit to an elephant conservation center, a walk through the town with an expert architect, and much more. For new inquiries, contact Vinh Lam at [email protected] Note: U.S. citizens need a visa, which can be obtained on arrival at the airport. Getting There: There are nonstop flights to Luang Prabang International Airport (LPQ) from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Vientiane. High season is November to March.

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