Mekong Meanderings: Luang Prabang

It seems now that few places are untouched by tourism. Those along the Mekong River have certainly seen their share, for better or worse; fortunately, there are a few new luxury destinations that offer travel with a bit of sensitivity to the local culture. Here we present three, in a series to keep you dreaming over your holidays

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The first sight on descent into Luang Prabang is the range of hills in which it nestles. If you go in the wet season you’ll see the higher ones, lush with the summer rains, peeking through a fine mist. Welcome to the most forested country in Asia. The second sight is the mighty Mekong, the swollen expanse that feeds the city and defines its outline. The city itself, comparatively compact and blessedly quaint, flows by quickly on the way from the airport to the newest Rosewood property.

The colonial era has left an indelible imprint on the city, a UNESCO Heritage Site, and it was this that inspired lauded hospitality designer Bill Bensley’s work here. Cradled in the glen of the Nahm Dong River like a microcosm of this city on the Mekong, the series of buildings has been designed after the French-colonial style that dominates the town. And because of the site’s geography — suited to narrow pathways, not broad equipment-bearing roads — building was carried out not by heavy machinery, but manually over three years by 400 local craftspeople.

The result is Bensley at his chic-meets-quirky best. Period details faux and real abound, the latter including a land deed from 1560 written on pigskin. While the rooms and suites, situated in a building by the brook, are charming (this is The Rosewood, after all), it’s the Riverside and Waterfall Pool Villas and the Hilltop Tents that truly fulfill the potential of the location. Of these there are only a handful (and only 23 rooms in total), and each is unique. Every villa is named and styled after Bensley’s fancy of a historical Mekong expedition-era explorer, official or companion; you might find yourself in a soothing, blue-hued chamber or an almost-steampunk gentleman’s space; even architectural details such as doorways are unique to each, though gold-leaf stencil work on the walls, common in local temples, features throughout and is another way in which local artisans have made their mark. The soothing nearby waterfall, private plunge pools and poolside bars top off the experience.

As fun as the villas are — who doesn’t want to imagine themselves as a ground-breaking historical figure? — Bensley brings a more local flavour to the hotel’s premium offering, the stilted hilltop tents. The term ‘tent’ applies only to the roof structures; the remainder of the wrapper is solid, with generous roll-up windows and terraces that give the lofty perches spectacular views over the surrounding landscape with a minimal physical footprint thanks to the stilts. The decor of each is inspired by one of the 80 distinct local hill tribes, but retains the luxury and attention to detail of the remainder of the property. The hotel’s acclaimed Sense spa shares the same type of structure, and employs herbal poultices made from the same garden that supplies the restaurant.

The public spaces continue the period style. There’s the Great House, a pavilion that houses the hotel’s lounge and its restaurant, whose convivial culinary director Sebastien Rubis was awarded Asia Geographical Indication Ambassador for his work in preserving royal Laotian cuisine after its near-loss following the 1970s revolution. The Elephant Bridge Bar straddles the creek, and pays tribute to the country that was once ‘the land of a million elephants’; its tropical wood tones and outlook to the creek and pool make it an easy spot for a sundowner.

But here the design is a gateway to the experience that extends beyond the property. The able staff are on hand to arrange visits around the area to sites that retain their authenticity, from no-ride elephant sanctuaries to less-known villages for an experience with craft or other elements of the diverse Laotian culture.

Text / Philip Annetta

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