After four months in Thailand spent with crowds of tourists, my girlfriend and I decided to escape to tiny, quiet Luang Prabang, a former royal city and French colonial hangout in rural Laos. You can reach the town by plane or bus, but we wanted to approach it as one might have a century ago -- on a boat floating down the brown waters of the Mekong River.
The experience was unforgettable, but after two days aboard the cramped vessel, we yearned for the comfort of a nice hotel room when we reached Luang Prabang.
We chose the Apsara, whose unassuming white facade soft-pedaled what lay within: a welcoming, open-air lobby and a classy restaurant with tasteful paper lanterns, a bar and an overflowing menu of Asian and French fare. (That was reason enough to check out -- and into -- the place, as we'd subsisted for 48 hours on soggy tuna sandwiches and half an orange soda.)
We were sold the instant we saw the rooms. Having been confined to that slow boat, I had trouble adjusting to a space with a ceiling that didn't tickle my cowlick every time I walked to the bathroom. The rooms were huge -- big enough to hold a large bed, a table and chairs, and a settee spaced at a distance bordering on absurd, an inch beyond decadence. The simple elegance and comfort of the dark wood furniture and bright, colorful fabrics accentuated the grandeur of the rooms and set the style of the hotel somewhere between hip and old school, mirroring Luang Prabang itself. The 18-foot-high white walls, which stretched from the dark teak floors to the woven rattan ceilings, were almost as striking as the room's price: $55 a night.
After a long nap in the firm bed, we parted the flowing linen curtains, flung open the French doors and stepped onto our second-floor balcony. Over the next few days, we enjoyed countless gin and tonics as we admired the sacred Nam Khan River below our window. But that's about as far as we got; we saw no need to leave the hotel.
Masterly restored from a post-colonial warehouse, the Apsara has been divided into 15 rooms, each outfitted with air-conditioning and a ceiling fan, perfect for Luang Prabang's mild, humid climate. During the high season, a healthy crowd of older European and American travelers keeps the Apsara booked. During our off-season stay, though, it was nearly empty.
The Apsara isn't the only boutique hotel in town, surprisingly enough. The unique boundaries set by UNESCO building restrictions, the diminutive size of the peninsula on which Luang Prabang sits, and the influx of tourist dollars brought by increasingly wealthier visitors have created a perfect storm for spawning amazing hotels.
Two of our other favorites cost less than $75 a night. Auberge les Trois Nagas, in the center of the peninsula, is surprisingly modern considering it's in a 107-year-old home whose residents once churned out ice cream for the royal family. Now guests are pampered with sleek four-post beds and satellite TV. Rooms on the second floor have huge verandas that overlook Sisavangvong Road, where a thousand monks in saffron robes line up every morning at dawn for their daily alms.
Sala Prabang, which sits on the Mekong, looks like the well-preserved former residence of a royal adviser. On the inside, though, guests are startled to discover rough stone walls, crooked wooden support posts and paint made, in part, from local soil. The offbeat design elements come together to create rooms that are both sophisticated and homey.
When we finally ventured out onto Luang Prabang's wide boulevards, we found a seamless fusion of pre-colonial wats, French colonial residences and hip boutiques and eateries. There are few sights in Luang Prabang, a town of 10,000 people 120 miles from the capital and basically everything else except dense jungle. The attraction is the city itself.
We whiled away the afternoons savoring fresh-baked croissants at Cafe Ban Vat Sene, peeking into the city's 32 temples and watching the Mekong languidly float by. At night, we sampled the town's inordinate number of quality restaurants and then strolled through the open-air night market at one end of the main street, where craftsmen from the hill tribes sell their wares.
The French used to say that the Lao people were relaxed enough to "listen to the rice grow." We felt like locals, with our daily routine and home at the Apsara.
By the end of our week, we were still happy that we'd taken the boat, a once-in-a-lifetime experience on a mythic river.
But next time we'll just skip it. I just don't think it's possible to make Luang Prabang better than it already is -- but we'll stay at the Apsara just in case.
-- Matthew R. Cordell
Rooms at the Apsara (Thanon Kingkitsarath, 011-856-71-212-420, www.theapsara.com) cost $55 to $65 a night. Rooms at Auberge les Trois Nagas (Thanon Sisavangvong, 011-856-71-253-888, www.3nagas.com) start at $72. Doubles at the Sala Prabang (102/6 Thanon Ounkhuam, 011-856-71- 252-460) are $50 to $60. Rates include breakfast.