You know how some people call some places, sleepy hollows? Well, they weren’t kidding about Luang Prabang.
Imagine not having to fear crossing the road and getting mowed down by oncoming traffic. Everything moves at a measured pace as no one is in a particular hurry to get anywhere.
It’s like time stood still here, yet I felt an urgency to get acquainted with the soul of this Laotian town before change takes over, especially with the introduction of more direct flights into town.
Only a 15-minute drive from the airport, the city centre has all of four main roads. Just on the cusp of town sits Azerai Luang Prabang, a cosy, elegant boutique hotel offering the luxuries of refined, discreet and attentive service without any of the slick big city varnish.
Having opened in March, Azerai’s name was inspired by founder Adrian Zecha’s initials and the Persian word caravanserai, which means “a resting place with a central courtyard for travellers”.
As renowned hotelier Zecha’s first foray into Luang Prabang, the lodgings exude quite a different air of refinement from his usual super posh Aman resorts.
Rich but not too extravagant, classy yet not overtly grandiose, the two-level building is a result of a two-year reconstruction of the original footprint of a unique site unveiled over 100 years ago.
The hotel’s design takes its cue from the architecture of the town, which boasts a remarkable fusion of 19th and 20th century French and Vietnamese elements, with subtle inferences to Chinese and European aesthetics.
In line with responsible tourism according to Unesco guidelines, the hotel was built to blend with the architecture of the surrounding area. It cannot be above a certain height; and the rooms must have large balconies.
Offering category variations of 35 sq m to 85 sq m, most of the 53 rooms encircle the swimming pool in the middle, playing up the natural aesthetics of a 120-year banyan tree that has been ingeniously included in the hotel design.
The simple, clean lines of the interior of the property reflect a thoughtful marriage between cultural heritage and contemporary aesthetics, and the liberal use of wood conveys this underlying theme.
All the rooms are designed with a unique open plan configuration with the bed taking centre stage.
Small touches such as twin vanities, coffee- and tea-making facilities, local snacks, mini-bars, wireless Internet and wall mounted flat screen televisions add to the room experience.
My room on the second floor overlooked the pool courtyard. What better way to start the day than to throw open the French-styled louvred doors that open out to the spacious balcony, and sip a freshly brewed cup of coffee!
I would have gladly hibernated in my comfortable room throughout my break, given the unbearably hot temperatures averaging 36°C at this time of the year; it felt much worse than Kuala Lumpur as it was a lot more humid.
I kept imagining the beach was just beyond the perimeters of the hotel, which was crazy as I was smack in the town centre, but you get the picture of the kind of vibe that’s pervasive here.
The massage retreat at Azerai is luxurious and pampering. Prices are surprisingly affordable with a number of therapeutic options ranging from foot reflexology to oil massage available.
Curious to know the difference, I tried a traditional Lao massage. A gentler version of the Thai massage, it must have been good as I fell asleep midway, so it was very relaxing!
For something more strenuous, there’s a fully equipped gym, or you can do laps in the 25m pool. This is a rarity in Luang Prabang as (Unesco rules) hotels are not allowed to build swimming pools within a certain radius of the historical centre.
If you’re the bookish sort, there’s an inviting Reading Lounge just above the Azerai Bistro, where I had my breakfast and dinner.
Bright and airy, the bistro offers classic bistro, Lao and French-influenced dishes with both al fresco and indoor seating. Lazy mornings are best spent here with a good book while enjoying breakfast from the a la carte menu which offers Lao and Continental options. Be forewarned as portions are generous!
Dining at night takes on a different mood as the bistro embraces a more dreamy ambience. It also has a carefully chosen selection of both old and new world wines.
My favourite spot was the Bistro Bar, where guests can enjoy evening drinks on the veranda which looks out to the main street and main market.
Luang Prabang, which gets its name from the Prabang, a statue of Buddha offered by Cambodia, is home to some 30 Buddhist temples (known as vat) and it has become a tourist attraction of sorts to catch the saffron-robed monks walking along the streets collecting alms every morning at sunrise.
A few of the monks passed by the hotel, so the concierge kindly arranged for a unique experience whereby a basket of glutinuous rice was prepared for me to distribute to them at 5am.
Located in a fantastic spot, literally just outside Azerai is the night market and in the day, the same road offers plenty of other distractions such as antique shopping, cooking classes, museums, galleries, temples, restaurants offering traditional Lao cuisine as well as Western cafes with praiseworthy coffee and French pastries.
Venture out and walk up Mount Phousi to enjoy the sunset or take a river ride across the Mekong for excursions to waterfalls, caves, river villages or the newly opened Botanical Gardens.
Azerai Luang Prabang
Ban Hua Xieng, Sethathirath Road District and Province of Luang Prabang
P.O. Box 1142 Laos
Tel No: +856 71 262333