“A charming little city which evocates landscapes around the Lakes of Como or Geneva. If this valley was not constantly under a strong shining sun in this torrid zone or if a gentle breeze could temper the oppressive heat that prevails during the day, I would call this place a small paradise“. The one who wrote this couple of lines was France born Henri Mouhot. And these words were reported after reaching Luang Prabang in July 1861, becoming the first European explorer in this remote corner of Southeast Asia, nestled along the Mekong River.
This description is surprisingly still valid today. Luang Prabang is certainly one of the best preserved historical cities in Southeast Asia and around the Mekong area. The small town -with its population of 25,000 inhabitants in its city centre- is considered by all Laotian as the spiritual heart of the country and the historical capital of the defunct Lao monarchy. When French arrived in Laos in 1893, they first confirmed the administrative capital of the new protectorate in Vientiane, half way between Northern and Southern Laos. But at the same time, Luang Prabang retained its function as a royal residence dominated by the slow spiritual life pace of its temples. Laos royal family continued to stay in the ancient peaceful capital until 1975, when the revolution brought to power the communist party – the Pathet Lao- with the Lao People’s Democratic Republic being consequently created.
Twenty years after the turmoil times generated by the Vietnam war, Luang Prabang became Laos first UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO explains that the Laotian royal city’s inception into the prestigious list is due to its exceptional urban architectural heritage. Luang Prabang is exceptional for both its rich architectural and artistic heritage that reflects the fusion of Lao traditional urban architecture with that of the colonial era.
The political and religious centre of Luang Prabang is the peninsula, with its royal and noble residences and religious foundations including some of Laos most beautiful temples and monasteries -such as Wat Xieng Thong, which dates from the 16th century. Most sightseeing are to be seen within the 1.4 hectare of the peninsula, the core of UNESCO heritage preservation zone. The harmony is still today perceptible all across the narrow streets of Luang Prabang historical heart and is a delight for tourists strolling around the old town.
According to Bounkhong Khoutthao, Deputy Director of Luang Prabang World Heritage Department, Luang Prabang has today some 660 structures being identified as heritage buildings. “From that number, some 400 are houses and the rest are monasteries and temples. We are at the office some 22 members to work on protecting this huge architectural heritage”, he explains.
Luang Prabang World Heritage Department has the task of preserving the untouched image of the peaceful town. “We work at educating local population and make them aware of their natural and cultural heritage. We also look after house owners or land developers to be sure that they respect the rules when building or transforming old structures such as using similar material and limiting height. We for example asked a Chinese hotel owner to buil his 300-room property in the style of small pavilions echoing traditional architecture. And we also have to manage tourism flows to be sure that this will not destroy Luang Prabang charm and local customs”, adds Mr. Khoutthao.
Tourism has brought wealth to Luang Prabang – they are some 400,000 foreign visitors a year but it has also turned vulnerable some of Luang Prabang fragile balance. Such as monks alms’ collection each morning. The lining of the monks getting their alms from locals is now Luang Prabang number one tourist attractions and is perceived by many as a disturbance. Another problem has been turning many old houses into hotels and guest houses. “We limit the ownership of foreigners in the old town to avoid to empty the city from its original inhabitants. Guest houses are allowed as local owners are still living within the house premises”, adds Bounkhong Khoutthao.
In the preserved urban atmosphere of the old town, one of the most charming experience for travellers into Luang Prabang is indeed to live and stay in a historical structure offering the charm of an ancient home. The city is not short of historical colonial structures or old-style Laotian houses which have been converted into accommodation. The beauty of Luang Prabang is that it offers such an experience to any type of traveller, to any type of budget. Colonial style living can take place in a five star luxury hotel, a boutique property or a guest house.
The diversity of historical hotels go from top luxury properties such as the Sofitel Luang Prabang (ex Hotel de la Paix), the 3 Nagas M Gallery Hotel, the Aman Resort or the Luang Say Residence.
Living in the former Governor’s Residence with Sofitel
*The Sofitel Luang Prabang is in fact outstanding and probably one of the most delightful properties in the historical city. A 20-minutes walk from the old town (5 to 10 minutes away by car or bicycle), the hotel used to be the previous residence of Laos first French governor Auguste Pavie. The impressive building with its elegant white washed mansions served also for a while as a detention centre. Anchoring this exclusive property with its 25 suites -all with a private garden and some with their own swimming pool- is a lush inner courtyard, filled with swaying palms, bushes of wildflowers and pink water lilies floating on a long reflection pond.
The spa or the Meeting Rooms are hidden in delightful Laotian style wooden houses. A serene retreat representing a graceful living art and exquisitely restored and reopened last year to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of Luang Prabang UNESCO inception.
Another grand deluxe property is the Amantaka Luang Prabang. The chic looking elegant property used to be Luang Prabang main hospital. All the pavilions are now converted into private suites surrounded by a huge garden.
Urban colonial experience
More urban is the 3 Nagas-M Gallery. Located in the historical centre of town, the hotel is in fact the merging of three colonial style houses. One used to be the favourite Ice Cream parlour of the former royal family. The restored historical houses retain modern and traditional Lao design with exotic-wood floors, traditional “torchis” walls and clay tile roofs. They are surrounded by charming lush gardens. They stretch over 500 m2 and are surrounding a UNESCO listed water pond, offering a surprising retreat in the midst of the old town. The hotel offers 15 rooms including three beautiful executive suites. All rooms are furnished in an elegant colonial style with a hint of contemporary architecture.
Another beautiful property -a few minutes drive by car from the city centre- is the Luang Say Residence. The beautiful property is a surprising collection of delightful French colonial style villas. Except that the hotel is 15 years old only and has been built from scratch. The pastiche is perfect although the residence hosts an original colonial 1861 bar.But who would care as the property seems to have been here for ever…
They are at least another dozen of colonial style hotels, from the four star Villa Santi to the Satri House; from the Belle Rive Hotel to the Mekong River View Hotel, they turn Luang Prabang as ASEAN capital city of historical hotels. A unique identity asset in the region!