Where to stay in Luang Prabang? A decade ago your options would have been limited to guesthouses, because for many years the UNESCO World Heritage-listed town was predominantly a backpacker destination with few choices for travellers looking for comfort, style, and something more. Things have changed, and while backpackers still outnumber other travellers, Luang Prabang is dotted with beautiful boutique hotels, including the Luang Say Residence and Amantaka.
LUANG SAY RESIDENCE
After a few sultry days cruising down the Mekong on the Luang Say boat, it was a delight to arrive at the elegant Luang Say Residence and a spacious suite with icy air-conditioning. It’s a grand affair – a majestic main building boasting wide verandas and five individual pavilions with private balconies, all two storeys high, white, with striking red-tiled roofs.
There’s a big, gorgeous, slate swimming pool, which sadly we didn’t have time to test out (sigh, we never do), and lush, tropical landscaped gardens of young palms, heliconia, poinciana, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and lantanas to attract butterflies, that will look even more wonderful when they mature.
There are spacious Pioneer Suites and even more roomy Explorator Suites, their colonial-style décor inspired by 19th century French explorers, illustrators, photographers, and botanists, like Henri Mouhot, the naturalist who rediscovered the Angkor ruins, Louis Delaporte, Francis Garnier, August Pavie, and Ernest Doudart de Lagrée, credited with ‘opening up’ Asia to the West. Imagine: polished wooden floorboards, antique ceiling fans, framed vintage postcards and photogravures, wicker tables and chairs on the verandas, and the rattan umbrellas once used to shade elephant-riding adventurers from the tropical sun, which serve as poolside sun-beds.
Despite their old-world ambiance – four-poster beds with mosquito nets (and lovely high thread-count linen), antique writing desks and rattan foldable chairs – all suites feature modcons like mini-bars, flat screen TVs with satellite channels, and complimentary Wi-Fi. The elegant bathrooms are big, bright and light, and there are thoughtful touches like a ‘bowl’ of fruit presented in a traditional rice basket, and fresh flowers.
Eating & Drinking
There’s an atmospheric bar-cum-library that could be straight out of an old classical Hollywood movie and a swish all-white restaurant that continues the colonial theme with ceiling fans, polished faux-antique furniture and white linen tablecloths. While we didn’t have a chance to dine in, breakfast (included in the rate) was scrumptious, with good coffee, fresh juice, fruit, pastries, and a choice of traditional hot Lao or European dishes.
Staff are lovely and eager to provide tips and help with tours. While the property is just 5 minutes to the centre of Luang Prabang by tuk-tuk, it’s a good 25 minutes to walk. Having said that, the hotel is close to busy Phousi Market and it’s a fascinating stroll into town that appeals to local travellers like us – through a living breathing neighbourhood, passing small bakeries operated out of people’s homes, and simple eateries like the spot we would learn is Luang Prabang’s best khao soi place. For many though, it’s probably a route you wouldn’t take more than once, especially during the hottest/wettest months of the year.
Service at breakfast was well meaning if a tad slow. We quickly learnt that if you’re going out on tours it’s best to alert waiting staff as soon as you sit down so the kitchen knows you’re in a hurry. It can also take a while to get a tuk-tuk, so ask for one well in advance of any appointments.
This is a splendid property and it’s super-luxurious – it’s a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, after all – but the location just out of the historic centre won’t suit those who want to be in the heart of colonial Luang Prabang. If that’s not an issue, then our advice is to ride pushbikes between the hotel and town during the day and take the tuk-tuk at night. Of course you can easily walk to the khao soi joint – a little over a block away…
Located in a complex of sprawling colonial-era buildings and surrounded by vast gardens of manicured lawns, the luxurious Amantaka manages to feel simultaneously enormous and intimate. The elegant old buildings appear low-rise from the exterior and yet their lofty ceilings, high doorframes, never-ending corridors, and breezy verandas, make the interiors feel spacious. There is a a monumental swimming pool at the centre of the property that looks spectacular when illuminated by candle-lit lanterns at night.
The Amantaka’s suites (just 24 of them) are colossal – anywhere else, they might be called villas; from 70 to 120 square metres in size – with separate entrance hallways, sitting rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, shower rooms, and toilets. Decorated in the quintessentially Aman style of understated elegance, they are essentially contemporary with their sparse look and clean lines, yet boast colonial touches, like four-poster beds with mosquito nets, cane and rattan furniture, and wooden shutters on the French doors.
All suites have courtyards with tables and chairs, but only sixteen suites have private swimming pools. Sadly – and this is the story of our lives – we had a Pool Suite, but unfortunately didn’t have time to test it out.
Eating & Drinking
Breakfast, served in the elegant airy dining room or on the breezy veranda that runs alongside it, was included and was delicious: good coffee, freshly squeezed juices, fruit, French pastries, and hot Lao and Western dishes, from noodle soups to Eggs Benedict. Freshly baked cookies are left for guests in the lounge area and there’s a complimentary afternoon tea served in the library
The dining room also offers lunch and dinner (Lao and French cuisine), though we didn’t see many people eating in. I suspect that’s also due to the Amantaka’s central location. It’s just a short stroll to myriad restaurants, cafés and bars, so why would you eat at the hotel unless you were jet-lagged or staying a while. Having said that, the food at the Amansara was some of the best food we ate in Siem Reap and we dined there twice, and it’s rare we do that.
Doing & Learning
The hotel is opposite Phousi Hill, a block from the night market, and from there another block to the Royal Palace, temples, and morning market. Monks walk right by the entrance each morning on their alms-giving procession and the Amantaka can arrange for you to participate.
The Amantaka offers a handful of guided excursions and experiential activities – including the market walk and cooking course on the organic farm in the Luang Prabang countryside that we did – that also tempt guests away from the stunning property. If I stayed again, I’d allow time to do more things. I’d also do everything I wanted, then schedule an additional day to hang out by that pool and have a spa treatment. (Sorry, can’t report on that either.)
As beautiful as the Aman resorts are, it’s the small touches that make them stand out from others. This is the place to say that these are expensive properties, but, if you can afford it, because of all the little extras (and that’s what makes a difference to a stay), they’re worth it. Things like bicycles for guests to use (or private tuk-tuk/vehicle on hand if you’re not up to pedalling), umbrellas at the entrance, the freshly baked cookies in the lounge, and ice replenished in your room in the evening without asking.
But it’s the staff (such as Anousith and Hack) who really make things special and they rarely miss a beat. Every time we returned to the hotel, perspiration dripping down our backs, the security guard would spot us and get on his walkie-talkie. Seconds later, staff would be at the entrance to greet us with ice-cold towels and thirst-quenching drinks.
The Internet access, while fast in the bedroom, didn’t work from the desk in our office-cum-sitting area. That wouldn’t bother most guests, who would probably prefer not to check email on holidays, but if you need to work, it can be a nuisance. Suggest you try the Internet in the room before settling in. Then again, all things considering, maybe it’s best not to…
There’s an Aman tradition we were introduced to at the Amansara in Siem Reap. When guests depart, as many staff as possible present themselves to say goodbye and they keep waving until guests are out of sight. The idea is to show they care, that you’re part of the Aman family now, and are leaving ‘home’. Who wouldn’t want to return after that? We will be.
Disclosure: we were in lovely Luang Prabang on a magazine assignment and were hosted by the Luang Say Residence and Aman Resorts for that reason. All opinions above are our own obviously, including any complaints.