It used to be that to get to Luang Prabang you’d have to endure a torturous 10-hour bus ride or brave a hair-raising 45-minute internal flight from Vientiane. Better infrastructure plus the town’s 1995 UNESCO World Heritage listing have changed that—and the kind of tourist that now arrives. The recent launch of direct flights by AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur means this includes intrepid Malaysians and the Malaysia-based.
Fortunately for Luang Prabang, like life in Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic, or Please Don’t Rush, if you’re being cheeky), that change has come at a slower pace. The presence of Chinese business interests in what was once a small area of family-run guesthouses has jacked up accommodation prices there, but it’s the much-touted Belt and Road initiative, expected to transport visitors from Southern China to Laos and back by 2021, that threatens to accelerate development. So, go now.
Luang Prabang has much to offer, most of it situated on the peninsula carved out by the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers and located within walking distance. Besides the obvious architectural attractions and the spiritual draw of its countless gilded wat, there are art galleries, photo exhibits, folk tale tellings, moonlight cinema screenings and small immaculately curated boutiques selling hand-woven textiles and jewellery upcycled from unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War.
Like Bali, the dining scene is sophisticated and stylish, and the country’s tangle with the French has cultivated a terrific café culture—you’ll find the best croissants and baguettes here. There’s even a smattering of jazz bars. Yet Luang Prabang is no party town. Establishments close before midnight and the local populace wakes early to offer daily alms to saffron- and scarlet-robed monks. Its heritage status has also made it relatively expensive compared to most Southeast Asian destinations, which makes visionary hotelier Adrian Zecha’s latest foray, the Azerai, simply ingenious. Zecha is of course the creative and commercial force behind hospitality superbrands like The Chedi and The Aman.
A portmanteau of his initials and the word “caravanserai”, a Persian term for “resting place for travellers”, Azerai is set to redefine affordable luxury stays, beginning with Luang Prabang. A small fishing village off Can Tho in Vietnam is earmarked for Azerai’s second outpost.
Certainly, nothing beats Azerai Luang Prabang for location. Ten minutes from the international airport, it’s nestled near the daily night market, and is a block from the Royal Palace Museum and the ancient town’s panoramic peak, Mount Phousi. It also lies just beyond the historic zone, which means it’s not subject to Unesco restrictions and modesty laws that bar it from having a pool. Azerai’s is 25m long, shaded by a 120-year-old Bodhi tree and responsible for numerous guest defections from nearby hotels.
The building was first used as French officers’ quarters in 1914 and later taken up by the Laos Government, and then converted into a hotel in 1961. But steadily diminishing returns saw that close its doors in 2014, paving the way for its stylish successor.
Having already transformed the old prison and hospital into the Sofitel and Amantaka, French-Canadian architect Pascal Trahan undertook Azerai’s construction, adopting a contemporary design aesthetic throughout the 53-room resort.
Esquire stayed in the courtyard room, which overlooks the pool. Each of the three room types has an enclosed washroom, shower, twin vanities and comes equipped with Wi-Fi, TV, coffeemaker, kettle and, best of all, a mini bar stocked with Lao Beer and some pretty addictive beer snacks.
Former Amantaka general manager Gary Tyson is the affable Australian and Luang Prabang insider. He brings a touch of Aman and a talent for connecting people, overseeing Azerai and its quietly effective staff, who are unobtrusive and helpful notwithstanding the occasional language barrier. Each time we returned to the resort, or to the comfort of the luxurious nine-seater van or golf buggy, a cold towel and a cool drink would materialise.
Tyson cut his teeth in F&B with the Aman brand, while Ben Faker, formerly of The Bridge Room, Sydney (run by Aman alumnus Ross Lusted) is head chef. So it’s no wonder Azerai Bistro pleasantly exceeds expectations. Its vibrant fusion of exquisitely plated, modern cuisine and use of local produce is revelatory and surprisingly inexpensive. Similarly impressive are the cocktails at the Bistro Bar upstairs.
Azerai has a fully equipped gym to work off these libations, but the way to ease into Luang Prabang’s unique way of life is to slow down. To this end, the resort’s spa offers sublimely restorative treatments. The ultimate rejection of FOMO and YOLO befitting the Theravada Buddhist capital of Laos would be a cruise along the Mekong River, pausing at the newly opened Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens. Or simply embrace the pace and coast slowly upriver beyond the Nam Khan, before the engines are cut and you drift back down past Indochinese villas, alfresco cafes, swimming children and women washing clothes, until the sun bursts into a deep orange hue and sinks behind the hills on the bank opposite.
Introductory rates apply until September 30 2017 and start from USD250++ after which rates start at USD300++. For more information, check out azerai.com.