Laos is a lot of things. It’s one of the few remaining single party Communist countries in the world. It’s completely landlocked. It’s one of the 50 poorest countries in the world where the average person makes about $2 per day. It’s also one of the most underrated countries I’ve ever visited and is overflowing with hospitality and amazing natural beauty. The one thing I didn’t expect Laos to be though was luxurious.
I knew I wanted to include Luang Prabang on the agenda of our trip to Asia, but I also knew I didn’t want to stay in a hostel or guest house. It’s just not my style. My initial research was a little disappointing; none of my usual luxury hotel brands had a presence in the city. As I quickly discovered no one really has a presence in the city except for one forward looking hotel collection – Orient Express.
Everyone knows the name, Orient Express, thanks in large part to the best-selling novel of the same name by Agatha Christie. Fewer people know that it was indeed a real rail line and even fewer realize that some of the most exciting trips in the world have an Orient Express logo attached to them. But they also have an extensive collection of hotels that rank amongst the best and most unique in the world.
We stayed with them last year, albeit unknowingly, when we visited the Inn at Perry Cabin on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. That’s the thing you see, rather than emblazon cookie cutter hotels around the world with their logos, they instead acquire unique, unusual and always luxurious properties. This was definitely the case when we stayed with them at La Residence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang.
I reached out to the company in advance and we agreed to split the cost of a week at the hotel. In addition we paid out of pocket for the boat tour described below as well as a fantastic afternoon spa treatment. Regardless of who paid, them, or me my words are always the same – the truth.
There are only two or three hotels in Luang Prabang that I personally would classify as being ‘above average,’ and La Residence Phou Vao is without question the best in the city. The hotel itself sits on a hill overlooking the city; close but removed. I knew we were in good hand when the complimentary shuttle van picked us up at the airport with a plate of macarons for us to enjoy on the five-minute drive to the hotel. That’s a trend I fully support by the way, in case other hotels are reading this.
So what is it like to have a true luxury experience in Luang Prabang? Well, it is perhaps the most relaxing and enjoyable vacation you can imagine.
Walking into the completely open air hotel is like walking into a private, if not tropical, garden. The colonial era of Laos’ history is alive and well at La Residence through its décor and sensibilities, yet without being stuffy. It’s the little things like tables for afternoon tea set up on the lawn and hundreds of tea lights that illuminate the property at night that make it truly special.
The rooms are Southeast Asian bungalow style. The feeling is light and airy, with traditional shutters and doors separating the bedroom/living quarters from the bathroom and veranda. We had something like it when we stayed in Koh Samui and while the mosquito netting can be a chore at first, it just fades into the background by the second day.
The rooms were elegant, but missed a few steps. The Orient Express hasn’t owned the property very long, just a few years, so they’re still in the process of retrofitting everything but the one major issue was the shower. For the cost of the room and the reputation of the brand, I expected better than the shower/bath combo we found in Laos. Stepping in and out of the tub every morning to take a shower isn’t really up to the Orient-Express’s standards. It’s ultimately a small detail, but it’s one that adds to the total enjoyment of the stay. Luckily, everything else more than met our expectations.
Walking around La Residence Phou Vao is like meandering around a long lost colonial estate. Everything is immaculate and the staff are always on call to help in whatever way they can. My favorite place to spend some quiet time was at the pool; it is of the infinity variety and overlooks Luang Prabang and the surrounding countryside. Even though it was one of the hottest weeks of the year, lounging poolside was the most pampering I’ve received at any hotel. Every chair of course had towels, but also fans and a bell to ring for the attendant. Sure, I felt a little out of place at times with the bell, but it was also a very nice luxury to enjoy.
This is something I haven’t seen a lot of and I loved it. Not only does the hotel offer day trips, but they’re staffed with La Residence Phou Vao employees and aren’t just booked with a local tour company. As soon as I realized that I felt relief that I wouldn’t be taken advantage of and comfort that I was in good hands. The trip we chose was a day trip out to the Pak Ou caves, cruising along the Mekong and stopping at a couple of villages along the way. The price was very reasonable for what was a completely private tour, including lunch. And what a lunch! I expected a box meal and a soda, but what we got was white glove service on a private island with a view in the middle of the Mekong River. For once I was speechless and merely sat there admiring the soaring mountains and listening to the sound of life on the river. I loved this tour concept and really have to compliment the hotel for a fun and innovative adventure.
The spa is one of the hotel’s best features and is like finding your own secret garden. The facilities are separated from the rest of the hotel in a series of huts circling a small plunge pool. I was happy enough with the look and feel of the spa experience, but the actual treatment itself was one of the best I’ve ever enjoyed. It was a wonderful afternoon of just relaxing and not worrying about anything.
And ultimately, that’s what the hotel does best, enable the guest to do as little or as much as they like, but to always make sure they relax. Granted, this isn’t hard in a town as sleepy as Luang Prabang, but La Residence Phou Vao offers a respite from the chaos that can sometimes fill the ancient royal capital.
I realize that luxury accommodations in Laos may not be for everyone, but for many of us La Residence Phou Vao provides an opportunity to visit and explore a country we might never have seen otherwise.